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Classical Music and Beyond: A Glimpse into an Enchanting Musical Soundworld

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Written by Gabrielle Adkins, Posted by admin team

Twitter: @gabyadkins

My name’s Gaby, I’m 37 and currently undertaking my ST3 anaesthetics year in SE London. Within the past few years, there have been two stressful situations that I have had to navigate my way through…in 2015 I was diagnosed with

stage 2 breast cancer, and faced a long journey of chemotherapy, surgery and further treatment (immunotherapy and hormonal therapy). And the second is of course COVID-19, where I worked on the ICU at Croydon University Hospital during the ‘first wave’. The camaraderie with my fellow colleagues as well as support from seniors was second to none, and yet like many others, we all found ourselves working in one of the many ‘worst hit’ hospitals within the UK. Add into this the effects and consequences of lockdown and reduced opportunities with which to socialise out of work and do many of the activities we usually do, it became paramount to consider what coping mechanisms are indeed available, but above all helpful, comforting, energising or relaxing.

And so I thought I’d explain what has worked for me…music. I began learning to play the piano at the age of 4, and though later picked up the violin and cello, the piano was always my passion. At 11 I was lucky enough to be awarded a music scholarship to my secondary school, and leapt

at the opportunity to fill my lunchbreaks and after-school time with all manner of musical activities…choirs, ensembles, orchestras. From this early stage, I worked out that this is what ‘made me tick’, music was my companion first thing in the morning, and also last thing at night. I worked hard, and was even more lucky to then read Music at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, where again I immersed myself in a musical soundworld ranging from medieval music to that of the present day. In and out of my studies, I developed hugely eclectic tastes, enjoying listening to anything from plainchant to Pete Tong! But my exuberance was not just about a degree, syllabus, and essay preparation; above all, filling my days with beautiful sounds and a glimpse of the musical sonority and colourful history of times gone by which gave me a huge amount of joy and purpose in life. From then onwards, despite my life having turned subsequently towards medicine and an entirely different direction, it is music I still fall back on, to lift me up in times of sadness, and to express joy in times of exhilaration. For every single emotion that we feel, there is a musical style that can emulate this. Music can also be fundamentally powerful…how many times do you hear a song being played and for it to bring back memories of events, feelings and circumstances?

Whilst everyone naturally has their own musical likes and dislikes, I thought I’d start off by describing a musical journey through from the beginnings of music to the present day. In this first part, we’ll discover music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods, with Part 2 exploring the Classical, Romantic and 20th Century eras. Take a seat, put some headphones on, dip in and out as you please, and above all enjoy stepping back into history, and away from the stresses and strains of today…

Medieval music

To begin with, let’s go way, way back to the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, and delve into the revolutionary beginnings of counterpoint and polyphony (the style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonising with each other)…sit back, light some candles if you wish, and sample the work of Perotin the Great, a composer from around the late 12th century, who is believed to have introduced polyphony in 4 parts into Western music, whilst also making innovations in rhythm, together with his predecessor Leonin. Although I have Perotin and Leonin to blame for various essay deadlines at university, there is no doubting that this was truly groundbreaking, with music up until this point consisting of mainly of the same melody being sung in parallel/’note-against-note’ (e.g. plainchant or organum), with a variable degree of individuality between them (described by the early 11th century theorist Guido of Arezzo). From the 12th century, music developed in this magical way, and we have indeed never looked back

Perotin le Grand – Viderunt Omnes

The Early Music Consort of London, David Munrow

Listen to the various voice parts, and you’ll notice that there emerges a hierarchy between them…an emphasis on the lower ‘chant’ voice with its prolonged notes, with rhythmic contrasts between the

different upper voice parts. These rhythmic ‘modes’ increased in complexity throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, and developed into a musical form called the motet, where each voice part (usually 3) was written in a different rhythmic mode. By the late 14th century, the most complex musical counterpoint in history had evolved.

Renaissance Music

Now we come to possibly my favourite era in musical history, the Renaissance period and the so-called ‘golden age of counterpoint’ (late 15th to 16th centuries). Whereas in medieval times, the

main emphasis was on developing rhythm, Renaissance composers took this one giant leap further, and developed the melodic relationships between the voice parts. A key part of this was the use of musical imitation – a melody in one voice part imitating another. This created a new unity between the voices…and the result was stunningly beautiful. In England, the key composers of this time were Tallis, Tye, Byrd and Mundy, while Allegri and Palestrina came to the forefont in Italy, and Victoria in Spain (amongst many others). By the late 16th century, this style had flourished beyond sacred choral music, and into secular songs (e.g. the Italian madrigal), and instrumental music.

Here is a selection of my favourite pieces…you may recognise the magnificent 40-part motet ‘Spem in alium’ (composed c. 1570) from the film ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’! Tallis in all his glory…

Thomas Tallis - Spem in Alium

Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips

Gregorio Allegri – Miserere mei, Deus

Choir of New College Oxford, Edward Higginbotton

This is a very moving piece, written by Allegri probably during the 1630s for the exclusive use of the Sistine Chapel during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week. It is written for 2 choirs singing alternately, joining together to sing the ending in 9-part polyphony.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Magnificat Primi Toni


I recently discovered the recordings of the VOCES8 group online. Interestingly, Palestrina did not intend this piece to be published, despite its elegance and beauty. Unlike the 2 spatially separated choirs of Allegri’s piece, some sections in this work combine voices from across the 2 choirs.

If you enjoyed this latter piece, it is worth looking at the other VOCES8 recordings on Youtube (a different point in time entirely, but take a listen also to their version of ‘May it Be’ from Lord of the Rings!).

The Baroque Period

During the 17th and early 18th centuries, there began to be a freer treatment of ‘dissonant’ harmonies with a richer colour of tone and deeper musical expression. Melodic lines were made more prominent through developments in scoring and instrumentation. 2 key compositional styles were ‘figured bass’ pieces, where a keyboard improvised the harmonies over a given bass melody, and concerto-like scoring, where a soloist or group of instruments is contrasted with the rest of the orchestra. Combining these styles was Monteverdi’s ‘Lament of the Nymph’ from his collection of ‘Madrigals of War and Love’, where an operatic soprano contrasts against 3 male voices, which in turn contrasts against a figured-bass instrumental background.

Claudio Monteverdi - Lamento della Ninfa (Part II) (1638)

Interestingly, this piece was adapted into English using a folk music style, this recording from 2011

Ane Brun recording of Monteverdi’s Lamento Della Ninfa / Oh Love (Live on 2 Meter Sessions, Dutch TV, 2011).

By the late Baroque era, dramatic contrasts and the concerto form were explored in purely instrumental settings by composers such as Corelli, Vivaldi and J.S. Bach. Take a look at this

recording of the wonderful violinist Julia Fischer performing Vivaldi’s four seasons with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, within the background of the National Botanical Gardens of Wales:

Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons

Julia Fischer and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields

During COVID lockdown, I discovered Max Richter’s post-minimalist take of the Four Seasons, performed at the Barbican in 2012, which Richter described as “throwing molecules of the original Vivaldi into a test tube with a bunch of other things, and waiting for an explosion”. See what you think…

Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons (2012)

And lastly, a glimpse through the Baroque era would not be complete without the Fugue, which is perhaps where artistic flair and mathematics meet. The most notable proponent of this technique was J.S. Bach, e.g. the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art of the Fugue. And so we again have the imitation and counterpoint that we have previously discovered, but this time the melodies and harmonies are taken to a brand new level:

J.S. Bach: Das VohlNr 15 BWV 884 G-Dur II Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Teil II

Andras Schiff (played at the Royal Albert Hall, London)

Other favourites from Bach:

J.S. Bach - Concerto for two violins in D minor BWV 1043 - Sato and Deans | Netherlands Bach Society

And lastly, a moment of serenity:

BBC Proms 2010 - Bach Day 8 - Air On The G String

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (arrangement by Malcolm Sargent; conducted by Andrew Litton)

And so we come to the end of Part 1…our discovery of music through the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque ages. And how far we have come!

Join me for Part 2 where we will encounter the masterpieces of the Classical, Romantic and 20th Century eras. In later blogs, I can touch on music for concentration/sleep/meditation, film music, and for the physics geeks amongst us, the science of acoustics. Any suggestions as to subject areas, composers or instruments to cover would be gratefully appreciated!

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