An Introduction to Classical Music with Sandy Burnett

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Join broadcaster Sandy Burnett on a trip through the world of classical music from the medieval era to the present day.

The six-part course covers a thousand years of classical music, taking us from the Medieval and Renaissance periods through Baroque, Classical, Romantic and the twentieth-century, right up to what’s happening in classical music today.

Sandy explains the nuts and bolts of classical music – notation, form, and tonality – and discusses how composers went about the process of shaping their works.

This course will give you a clear understanding of the essential elements of music in each era, and will enable you to listen to classical music with greater understanding. A glossary of key terms is provided plus detailed notes and playlists.

Also included is the link to a nine and a half hour Spotify playlist illustrating each era of the course. You will be able to listen to this at any time.

Lesson one: Medieval and Renaissance. Two important events kickstart our journey: music started to be written down rather than passed on by ear and single-line melodies gave way to music for many voices at once, or polyphony. Today’s playlist includes the medieval sounds of Hildegarde of Bingen and Guillaume de Machaut, the glassy perfection of Palestrina, the earthy delights of the madrigal, and the sonorous blend of the viol consort.

Lesson two: The Baroque Period. The period starts with the flamboyant opening of Monteverdi’s 1607 opera Orfeo, and ends in 1759 with the death of that great adopted Englishman George Friderick Handel. The Baroque era produces music of great virtuosity and emotional depth, both characteristics exemplified in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer of that, and possibly any, age.

Lesson three: The Classical Period. Next comes an emphasis on order, balance, clarity and beauty – four key Enlightenment values which underpin the Classical era. It reaches its high point in the music of two Viennese masters: Haydn, the father of the string quartet, and Mozart, whose music managed to be both graceful and profound.

Lesson four: The Romantic Period. This is the class in which the expressive floodgates burst open, and we brace ourselves for the iconoclasm of Beethoven, the bare-all symphonic autobiographies of Berlioz and Mahler, and the massive music dramas of Wagner – not just composers, but true artists in the Romantic sense, for whom music was meant to embrace everything about the human condition.

Lesson five: The Early Twentieth Century. This session examines how four composers respond to both the opportunities and challenges of the times: Bartok’s reworking of Middle-European folk song; Shostakovitch’s perilous relationship with the Soviet authorities; Copland, who single-handedly creates the sound of New-Deal America, and the iconoclastic Igor Stravinsky, one of those rare composers whose music succeeded in starting a riot.

Lesson six: Late Twentieth Century up to the Present Day. This concluding session takes in the serialism of Schoenberg and the breathtaking imagination of Stockhausen; the captivating scores of American minimalists such as Reich, Adams and others; celebrates the great Benjamin Britten, born a century ago; and asks: Where next for classical music?

Bonus lesson: Meet the Tutor.  Recorded Q&A session with Sandy Burnett.

About the tutor

Sandy Burnett is one of the most authoritative broadcasters in the field of classical music. After working as music director for the RSC, National Theatre and in London’s West End, Sandy spent a decade as one of the core team of presenters on BBC Radio 3. He has written The Idler Guide to Classical Music and presented our online course An Introduction to Classical Music.