The Genres of Classical Music
In classical music, “genre” does not primarily refer to different schools or styles. It is less a classification of what a piece will sound like, as of what shape it is.
There’s an endless number of genres, but I thought it would be helpful for non-fans to break it down a little and mention some of the most important genres (particularly because, in classical music, the genre is often part of the title).
A musical setting of the Christian Mass. This genre goes back about 700 years, although settings of parts of the mass go back another 700 at least. During the Classical Period, the link between music and religion weakened, particularly in the realm of the Requiem, the mass for the dead, and by the Romantic era requiems were being written that were intended primarily as concert pieces rather than religious ceremonies – Cherubini’s now-overlooked but then-influential requiem signaled the way with a huge gong, an instrument considered unsuitable for a solemn church. As traditional religion has declines, requiems (and sometimes other masses) have continued to be written, increasingly with non-standard texts: Brahms’ “German Requiem” sets religious texts but of the author’s choosing (and hence is not liturgically a ‘mass’, though it should probably be considered one musically), while Britten’s 20th century “War Requiem” interleaves the Latin mass text with poems by Wilfrid Owen.
The genre continues to prove fruitful – one of the 21st century’s most popular classical pieces is Jenkin’s “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.”
Opera originated in Italy around the turn of the 17th century, and has been popular ever since. Experts draw a line between real opera and... other stuff. Real opera in this definition is when every word, or almost every word, is sung, with extensive use of ‘recitative’ (words sung with a more natural rhythm and melody, rather than a specific tune), and no (or virtually no) use of speech. The other form is when much of the performance is sung, but there is less (or no) recitative, and the bits between the arias (pretty songs with tunes) are filled with talking instead. The second form has variously been called “comic opera” (opéra comique, etc), “opera buffa”, “light opera”, “Singspiel”, “zarzuela”, “Savoy opera”, “operetta”, and most recently “musical” – all of these tend (to varying degrees) to suggest a lighter or more comic content than the heavier true opera. These terms may have some genre content (it’s often said that a musical has more acting than an operetta, for instance), but they don’t really hold up strictly in each individual case, and they’re really more a matter of time and place of origin, I think (a Singspiel written by a Spaniard would be called an unusual zarzuela, not a Spanish Singspiel). Similarly, even the distinction between opera proper and operetta (etc) isn’t always clear, and is often ignored when inconvenient – Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” is commonly called an “opera”, for instance, even though structurally it’s actually a Singspiel (likewise, Bizet’s “Carmen” is an opéra comique with spoken dialogue). So... it’s all opera, really.
Some other terms that might be helpful in talking about opera: “Grand Opera” is a genre of really heavy, really long 19th century operas, typically from France, with massive staging requirements, often all sorts of pyrotechnics and trickery, ridiculous plots, and a ballet stuck in the middle of them. They’re like... peak opera. Raw concentrated Opera, in a very formulaic structure. They’re not very popular these days – partly because few of them are all that good, musically speaking, and partly because the damn things cost a fortune to stage, and a great deal of patience to sit through.
“Gesamtkunstwerk”, or Total Art Work, is what Wagner insisted people call his operas (he was in charge of everything from the words to the music to the costumes to the set designs to the architecture of the opera house). I wouldn’t bother if I were you.
Operas are divided into, essentially, three sorts of parts: recitative (natural and dull bits that move the plot along), aria (tuneful bits but that don’t really move the plot very quickly) and sometimes arioso (a recitative that’s sort of a bit like an aria). There can also be miniature ballets (dancing bits), and there is commonly a musical introduction bit, most commonly called an “overture” (though early ones are sometimes called “sinfonias” or “symphonies”. Overtures sometimes showcase tunes that will feature in the opera, but they don’t have to – and early overtures were often used with more than one opera. They were basically bits of music the orchestra played to get people in the mood while everyone was getting settled before the show started.
Opera has always stood a little to one side of other music, and (other than at the beginning) has generally been relatively conservative.
An oratorio is an opera in which there is no, or only little, attempt to depict the dramatic action through acting and scenary – it is ‘unstaged’, and just has the soloists standing in front of the orchestra (although sometimes attempts are made to introduce a small element of staging – having the soloists look at each other to convey dialogue, having them walk around a little or make hand gestures, etc). The lyric content is traditionally religious in character, and because the words are sacred more effort is made to make them clear, with less flamboyant virtuosity than in many operas. There tends to be much more work for the choir than in an opera.
A religious work for choir and orchestra, and usually soloists (often alternative solo and choral sections). A cantata is similar to an oratorio but much shorter – and indeed, Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” is simply a collection of three of his cantatas.
An attempt to tell a story through dance and music, but no words at all. Mostly a Romantic genre – and Romantic ballets could be very, very long.
Music that is played while a film shows. There is often quite striking music at the beginning and end, when no action is really occuring on-screen, and there are sometimes important melodic bits, often at climactic moments, or there may even be songs, but most of the score is in the form of “underscoring” – music that helps frame the mood of the onscreen action, but does not demand the watcher’s attention.
Other narrative forms...
Over the years there have been various less important genres than the above. “Incidental music”, for instance, is written to accompany a play, and may include some minimal underscoring as well as appropriate songs, dances, music to fill the intervals between acts, etc. The Baroque also enjoyed the “Masque”, sort of like a play/opera where the audience (very rich people) are the actors and singers (and hence not much is demanded of them). Neither masques nor incidental music are ever really performed entire these days, but occasional bits of music are encountered that began life in these genres.
But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping
as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh
I'se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!