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10 milestones in the history of western music

From Monteverdi's "ravishingly sensuous" opera to Leona Lewis's triumph in the multi-media extravaganza The X Factor, Tim Blanning chooses 10 moments in music history that have struck a chord with western ears

George Frederick Handel married opera's passion with the respectability of biblical texts, says Tim Blanning. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Published: January 1, 2013 at 12:00 am
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This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine


Drama and spectacle

Claudio Monteverdi bows out with The Coronation of Poppaea, 1642

First performed during the 1642–43 season in Venice, this was Monteverdi’s last opera and probably his last work too. Its ravishingly sensuous music perfectly complements Busenello’s libretto (text), recounting the beautiful but amoral Poppaea’s successful campaign to ensnare the Emperor Nero – at his wife, Octavia’s, expense.

Better known to contemporaries as ‘dramma per musica’, the new genre we call ‘opera’ was to have a long life. Because it combined music, drama and spectacle, it was very expensive and accessible only to those with a classical education As such, it gave patrons an opportunity to advertise their wealth, taste and refinement that was simply too good to be missed.


Music for the masses

Handel’s Messiah wins the people’s hearts, 1742

Arriving in London in 1710 at the age of 25, German-born George Frederick Handel first made his name as a composer of grand opera in the Italian style. When that began to go out of fashion in the 1730s, he turned to oratorios, which deftly combined the passion of opera with the respectability of biblical texts.

First performed in Dublin in 1742, Messiah was an immediate success, hailed as “the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard”. By the time Handel died in 1759, it had been given 56 performances, all but 12 of them in secular venues.

Messiah helped to make Handel the most popular musician of his age. It also revealed the growing importance of the anonymous public as a consumer of music – and thus as an influence on composition and performance.


“Aux Armes!”

A nation rallies behind La Marseillaise, 1792

On 25 April 1792, news reached Strasbourg on France’s eastern frontier that the National Assembly in Paris had declared war on Austria. Responding to a complaint that the revolutionary armies lacked an inspiring battle-hymn, Claude-Joseph Rouget de l’Isle, a captain of engineers, took it upon himself to fill the gap. In a single night he composed both music and words. The opening summons – “Allons enfants de la patrie” – was powerfully reinforced by the equally emotive first line of the chorus – “Aux armes citoyens!”

Never before or since has a piece of music found such an immediate resonance among so many people. Spreading like wildfire across France, it was taken up with special enthusiasm by the Jacobins of Marseille as they marched to the capital to help destroy the monarchy. It was also credited with inspiring the revolutionary armies to achieve military victories.


Beethoven breaks the mould

Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major (Op 55) announces a genius, 1804

Ludwig van Beethoven was the archetypal romantic, establishing the model of the composer as the tortured genius, standing above ordinary mortals and with a direct line to the Almighty.

Completed in 1804, Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 ... – popularly known as ‘Eroica’ – was his first great mould-breaking work. Twice as long as any symphony by Haydn or Mozart and sounding utterly different, it was recognised at once by friend and foe alike as an undoubted work of genius. It marked the turn in music to an aesthetic in which the expression of the artist’s feelings was paramount.

Beethoven had intended to call the work ‘Bonaparte’ in honour of the man he thought was his political equivalent. But when he learned that his hero had proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon I, he scratched out the offending title with such characteristic vehemence that his pen went through the paper.


A call to arms

Smetana’s Ma Vlast speaks to a nation, 1874–79

The 19th century was the era when music as a form of nationalism truly came of age. Although brought up as a German-speaker, Bedˇrich Smetana was a fervent Czech patriot. In the six tone-poems that make up Ma Vlast (My Homeland), he pressed three powerful semiotic buttons – nature, myth and history. By including a quotation from a Hussite hymn and reminding his listeners of the legend of the sleeping knights of St Wenceslas, he also issued a musical call to arms against the Catholic German-speaking Habsburg empire.

Another of Smetana’s patriotic works, the pageant-cum-opera Libuše, was chosen to mark the opening of the Czech National Theatre at Prague in 1881. The building, the music and the lavish ceremonial that accompanied the opening night all proclaimed the sacralisation of the nation.


The gramophone goes global

Caruso’s 1902 recordings make a mint

After Thomas Edison’s invention of sound recording in 1877 and Emil Berliner’s first gramophone of 1888, progress for the new medium was slow, thanks to technological limitations and high prices. A breakthrough arrived in 1902 when the enterprising Fred Gaisberg of the Gramophone Company coaxed the famous tenor Enrico Caruso out of retirement. His voice proved to be perfect for the gramophone, turning its defects into assets – “the answer to a recording man’s dream,” was Gaisberg’s verdict.

The discs were an instant success, paving the way for other singers. It was a mutually beneficial relationship – by 1914 Caruso was earning £20,000 a year from world sales of his records, a colossal sum in the currency of the day, which may even have increased tenfold after 1918.


A symbol of suffering

Shostakovich dedicates his Symphony No 7 to Leningrad, 1941

The siege of Leningrad by the German army began on 8 September 1941. It was to last 872 days and become one of the most terrible episodes in a terrible war. Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony in C Major, Op 60 was begun there and completed before the end of the year. Dedicated to the city, it quickly became a musical symbol of the inhabitants’ indomitable courage in the face of appalling suffering.

Despite Stalin’s hostility to anything smacking of spontaneous enthusiasm, the regime was quick to spot its value as propaganda, not least in Great Britain and the USA, where it was soon performed – and recorded.

Yet it is likely that Shostakovich had begun the symphony before the Germans invaded the USSR and that it was as much directed against Stalin’s reign of terror as the Nazis’. Derided at the time for its alleged bombast, it remains one of Shostakovich’s most popular works.


Rough, raw, raunchy

Bill Haley unleashes ‘Rock Around the Clock’, 1955

In March 1955 the film Blackboard Jungle went on general release. As the opening credits rolled, the sound track was provided by Bill Haley and his Comets singing ‘Rock Around the Clock’ at maximum volume. Written in 1952 and first recorded by Haley in 1954, the song’s belated but colossal success epitomised the mutually beneficial relationship between music and visual media. By the end of 1955 it had sold over 6m copies.

Plump and balding, Bill Haley was an unlikely rock ‘n’ roll hero, but he paved the way for more charismatic successors, notably Elvis Presley. Rough, raw and raunchy, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ announced that in popular culture the age of romance was over: the sexual revolution had begun.


“The greatest gross ever”

The Beatles smash records at Shea Stadium, 1965

The climax of the Beatles’ second American tour, this was the first real stadium concert. The capacity crowd of 55,000 paid more than $300,000 to watch the Fab Four, “the greatest gross ever in the history of show business,” as the promoter claimed. Such was the volume of screaming that virtually none of the music could be heard. It was not until amplification technology caught up, in the 1970s, that open-air concerts could come to dominate the music scene.

While the Beatles simply used the stadium’s public address system, by the end of the century the equipment required to put on open-air shows had become immensely powerful and sophisticated. For their ‘Forty Licks Tour’ of 2002–03, the Rolling Stones employed 300 specialists, including accountants, an immigration lawyer and a pastry chef. Over a hundred were needed simply to transport the equipment, using 38 trucks. Yet the Stones were hardly out of pocket: between 1989 and 2002 they earned over £650m from touring.


A winning formula

Leona Lewis triumphs in The X Factor, 2006

Leona Lewis’s victory in the final of The X Factor in December 2006 exemplified the happy alliance between music, television and digital technology. The X Factor combined pop concert with talent show, allowing the viewers to determine the outcome. It was a formula first tried in Pop Idol in 2001, and it could not have been more successful.

From Albania to Bolivia, Afghanistan to Serbia, hundreds of thousands of aspiring singers of all ages, shapes and sizes queued for hours just to audition for similar talent shows. Millions more paid to phone, text or email their votes. More than 500m votes were cast in the various heats for 2006’s American Idol – the final alone attracted 63m. To put that in perspective, the most votes ever garnered by a US president was 69m, when Barack Obama won the 2008 election.

Within five years of winning The X Factor, Leona Lewis had sold more than 20m records worldwide and was reported to have been paid £1m for a single appearance.


Tim Blanning is a retired professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge. His books include The Triumph of Music (Penguin, 2009)


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