Classical Music: a history according to YouTube

An educational and eclectic tour of music from the middle ages to today illustrated with clips from YouTube.

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The advent of the Internet has allowed users to "see a world in a grain of sand" and "hold infinity in the palm of your hand", even if only for five minutes’ surfing over a morning coffee before the day's tasks begin.

Music, in particular, can be disseminated as never before, and for classical aficionados there is always more to discover in this seemingly infinite realm of resources. Even as the Berlin Philharmonic uploads the latest high-definition concert footage, some rare archival gem is lying in wait, freed from the physical confines of a library and unearthed at the click of a mouse. Want to see Callas singing at the height of her powers? Type in "Callas": chances are you’ll find just what you were looking for, alongside something you never knew existed.

Of course, with millions of YouTube clips dedicated to classical music there’s plenty of filler to sift through. Limelight has strung together just 40 of the most informative, representative and entertaining videos we could find to present a selective, chronological history of western classical music from the twelfth century to the modern age. Concert, recording and documentary footage has been assembled to illustrate the most epoch-making moments and innovations in the field. We searched for the highest visual and audio quality as well as the most compelling way to tell the story. We can't possibly cover everything and there are countless composers and clips that deserved to make the cut, so feel free to jump in and suggest inclusions of your own! 

Page 1 The Middle Ages
Page 2 The Renaissance
Page 3 The Baroque
Page 4 The Classical era
Page 5 The Romantics
Page 6 The Birth of Modernism
Page 7 Post-WWII innovators


The Middle Ages

Chant – Hildegard von Bingen 

Some of the earliest notated music is of the liturgical chant melodies and sung Latin texts that developed from Byzantine and Celtic traditions. Named for Pope Gregory I, the repertory of Gregorian chant (plainsong) of the eleventh and twelfth centuries has been preserved for hundreds of years, lately finding a new mainstream audience on “chillout” and mediation compilation albums.

We begin our journey with an antiphon by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), a German Benedictine abbess, Christian mystic, philosopher, and the first acknowledged female composer.


Ars antiqua – Léonin

Gregorian chant consisted of a single, melismatic vocal line over a drone. Léonin (1150s – c1201) is the first known composer to extend sacred music into the realm of polyphony, with multiple interweaving melodies based on the original chants. He lived and worked in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where he composed and compiled his great legacy: the Magnus Liber (“great book”) of polyphonic organum. 


Pérotin was Léonin’s successor in the late 12th and early 13th century, further developing the music of the Notre Dame school of polyphony. He pioneered increasingly complex organum triplum and quadruplum: three- and four-part polyphony.


Ars Subtilior

Baude Cordier (c1380 – before 1440) was a French composer whose secular love songs are in the intricate late 14th-century style of ars subtilior. He wrote music in canons, rondeaux and other forms, but is most famous for his elaborate notation, as in the beautiful heart-shaped manuscript of Belle, Bonne, Sage (Beautiful, Good, Wise) shown here.


Troubadours and Minstrels

Alongside the developments in church music emerged the poet-musicians of the 12th and 13th centuries: singer-songwriters and raconteurs of the era. Troubadours were based in the South of France, writing in Provençal, while trouvères worked in the North singing in the old French language. Minnesingers were German poets – often of aristocratic birth – who sang of courtly love in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. The song in this clip is by Neidhart von Reuental (d c1250), performed by Sydney’s Renaissance Players.


Stay with us for our YouTube tour through the Renaissance, which begins on the next page.


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Classical Music: a history according to YouTube
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