Six Seminal Compositions

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Throughout musical history there have been compositions written that changed the face of music making. These seminal pieces allowed subsequent composers to break new ground and explore different ways of communicating with their audience. This series delves into 6 of these pieces and looks at the impact they made on both composers and audiences.


  • Machaut – Messe de nostra dame (Mass of Our Lady) c1365. This Mass composed by French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut is considered a masterpiece of both medieval music and of all religious music. It is thought to be the earliest complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass written by a single composer.
  • Monteverdi – L’Orfeo 1607. Although actually the third opera ever written L’Orfeo is usually considered the first ‘real’ opera. With the librettist Stringgio, Monteverdi’s musical drama is as awe inspiring today as it was 400 years ago.
  • Mozart – Sinfonia Concertante in Eb for Violin and Viola 1779. Though we know nothing about the origins of this work and Mozart never mentions it, we do know it is the greatest music he wrote while in Salzburg. It is considered the most successful combination of both the symphony and the concerto.
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3.1803/4. The Eroica, as it its known, marks the beginning of Beethoven’s creative middle period. This historically significant landmark piece is the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras.
  • Debussy – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun 1894. This symphonic poem is regarded as a turning point in the history of music with the score being seen as the beginning of modern music. Although often referred to as an impressionistic work, Debussy was actually inspired by another movement; the symbolists.
  • Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring 1913. This Ballet written for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris with original choreography by Nijinsky caused a near riot when first performed. It boldly rejected the harmonies and rhythms of traditional compositions and led the way for many other movements throughout the 20th century.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Identify specific events which influenced each composition.
  2. Explain the rationale behind each of these compositions.
  3. Discuss various different musical genres of each composition.