oldest 'classical' music

I put ‘classical’ in quotes because I suspect it’s technically incorrect (Baroque, Romantic, Renaissance, etc).
I was listening to the “Greatest Hits of 1720” and wondered how far back does currently played symphony music go.

I know it is a bit grey, but if I were to listen to many symphonies throughout the US, I’m sure I’d hear a lot of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or whoever.
What is the oldest commonly played pieces and how old are they? We don’t hear music from 1000ad, but we hear music from 1720. Do we normally hear european style music written in the 1500’s? whats the furthest back that we normally go?

Bonus question, what’s the limiting reason(s) why we don’t go back further?

What I learned in Music Appreciation is that the Baroque period is the beginning of what we think of as classical music. Before that there was stuff like Gregorian chant. From what I understand, chords weren’t invented until the Baroque period (or something like that) and before that they just had counterpoint and so music wasn’t as complex.

I look forward to having my no doubt many inaccuracies corrected. :slight_smile:

Polyphony, at least in western music, goes back at least to the medieval period, but large-scale instrumental works that would be played by a symphony orchestra weren’t really popular until the 1700s or so. Most polyphony before then would be in the context of vocal music. If you want to hear the earlier stuff, look for chamber choruses and other small vocal ensembles, like madrigal groups. (The earliest written piece that I can personally remember performing is Sumer is icumen in, from about 1260.)

The oldest commonly played orchestral pieces date from the Baroque period as that is when orchestral music began to be developed. The idea of symphonic music began to appear during that period as well, and words with that meaning began to appear in published music, e.g. symphonia, symphoniae, sinfonie, etc.

Music before that wasn’t “symphonic” in the sense of a relatively sizable orchestra, and was composed largely for voice. Instrumental music was written for smaller ensembles of instruments.

Renaissance period music is usually preformed in a church setting. I think the major limiting factor in its performance is its lower popularity as compared to music from the later periods.

Renaissance music is also remarkably rich in dance tunes, many of which were preserved by an abbot, Thoinot Arbeau, to whom I, personally, am deeply indebted.

An argument could be made that some music from the 1600s is “classical.” Jean-Baptiste Lully composed ballets, theater music, and operas. Marc-Antoine Charpentier was a contemporary.

Very strictly speaking, “classical” music is from after the Baroque and before the Romantic periods, and some sources limit it by date from 1750 to 1820. That seems a bit too procrustean (or do I mean jurassic?)

Nah. “Classical” has two meanings. The musicological meaning is music produced in the period you mentioned, and exemplified by Haydn and Mozart.

The second meaning is a colloquial meaning, which is generally “instrumental music from before around 1930” (since many Modern (as a musicological term) pieces are included in the “classical” category (Bartok, Stravinsky, etc)).

Also, if we’re talking about music that is recognized as “classical” in the sense of “old but deserving of revival and preservation”, that arguably started with the annual “Concerts of Antient Music” in London beginning in 1776, in which the program had to consist of pieces composed at least twenty years previously. Much of the “Antient Concerts” repertoire in the early years was Handel.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten, among others, composed what would be generally regarded as ‘classical’ music in the broader definition well after 1930.

I love Charpentier. The prelude to his “Te Deum” has been played as a processional at weddings.

Hell, there’s still “classical” music being written today. I’m seeing an opera this Sunday that premiered last Saturday.

(Incidentally, I generally use “classical” to refer to the general style, and “Classical” to refer to the period between 1750 and 1825.)

I’d say what you’re describing is big-C Classical music (i.e. music from the Classical period), as opposed to small-c classical.

The “symphony” as a specific form was pretty much a development of the Classical period—that is, that’s when people started writing works that they called “symphonies,” where the word meant essentially the same thing it means today.

Depends on what you mean by “normally.” The earliest small-c classical music that’s really common and popular today dates from the Late Baroque (or High Baroque): the period (1680-1730) of J.S. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. But if you look, it’s not hard to find recordings or performances of instrumental/orchestral music from earlier in the Baroque or the Renaissance.

I suspect it’s partly because of the advances in “hardware” and “software” (musical instruments and compositional techniques) that came along in the Baroque and Classical eras that helped make music more sophisticated and satisfying.

One issue that was a factor was architecture.

Music before baroque was primarily commissioned by the church (it’s the same with art). Churches rich enough to commission a piece of music were made of stone. They had very echoing acoustics. That’s why chant was the main form of “high class” music. The slow chord changes made things to that the echoes didn’t interfere with the music.

(Note that there was folk music played or sung all along. Dante once found a worker in the street singing the worlds to The Divine Comedy and beat him for using his words that way. That would put it in the 14th century).

With the rise of the merchant class, there were people other than the church who would commission work, and the newer churches learned to cut down on the echo, allowing for musicians to play more rapidly and to use instruments.

The oldest composer I can think of who’s still recognisable by name would be Thomas Tallis (16th century). But (as referenced above) he wrote choral, not orchestral pieces - so perhaps he doesn’t count for purposes of the thread? But the fact that a very talented composer of the 16th century would easily make his career out of choral church pieces is in itself telling - that style of music fits in very well with the rather grand and formal Catholic Church style and would have been disdained as fripperies by a lot of Protestant reformers, pushing composers out into more secular spheres.

Also, most modern orchestral instruments were still being developed in the 1500-1800 period. The older you go, the more instruments you have to either swap out for more authentic ones, rewrite the arrangement for, or deal with the fact that they just sound different. I’m sure this would be something of a bar to modern orchestras playing very old pieces. Choirs, on the other hand, don’t necessarily have to care about that.


I know the OP is asking about symphonies, but I’m thinking opera. Specifically, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607).

I’m guessing that Monteverdi is probably the earliest composer that your average schmoe would recognize as “classical” in the most colloquial sense, and he sits right on the transition from Renaissance to Baroque. His works are also still pretty widely performed.

(Monteverdi also happens to be pretty awesome, BTW, even to average schmoes like me. I’ll just chuck in a link to this bit from L’incoronazione di Poppea.)

I’ll buy that. But would Renaissance music be included?

I’m of mixed minds regarding Carl Orff: he’s half classical and half modernist!

“Architecture, said Hegel, is frozen music; and Donald Swann’s music has often been compared with defrosted architecture.” Michael Flanders, of Flanders & Swann.

Ness ness COOL! Thank you for that link! That was remarkably nice!

. . . and continuing through, at least, 2016.

It was indeed, thanks. (I admit I don’t have as much familiarity with Monteverdi and other early composers as I “should.”)

But the instrumental accompaniment was fairly sparse (at least, I don’t think it would have suffered all that much if you left it out and just listened to the vocals). Which maybe just goes to show that it matters whether you’re talking about vocal or instrumental music. The former seems to have reached “maturity” earlier.

More on the bonus question: what is the limiting factor?

  1. The Baroque period is when the modern language of tonality was established. The farther back you go from then, music sounds increasingly less and less like the music we’re accustomed to hearing from Bach onwards

  2. The strong majority of music prior to the Baroque was vocal church music, and so that may be of less interest to people. (Even during the Baroque church music was huge. The majority of JS Bach’s music was cantatas and Passions. The “hits” that a modern concert goer may be more familiar with was a sideline.)