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Nothing New Under The Sun – Modern Music from the Past

Updated: May 4, 2021

Five Pieces of "Old" Music that Sound "New"

Where Old Meets New
Where Old Meets New
"What has been is what will be, what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."

– Ecclesiastes 1:9

With recent technological innovations like high-speed rail or electric cars and smartphones or drones, we may think we live in a very different world than those who lived in earlier centuries. We may think that we invent and understand ideas in a different way than those of the past. However, may creative ideas that we consider "modern" or "contemporary" were thought about and experimented with by composers in the past. The era that we consider "modern" in music may have begun around 1900 with musical experiments by composers like Impressionists like Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937),

Satie, Moulin de la Galette ("The Bohemian"), Ramon Casas, (1891)
Satie (1891) by Ramon Casas

Claude Debussy (Aug. 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918), and Erik Satie (May 17, 1866 – July 1, 1925) [pictured as the model of the modern "bohemian"artist in the painting to the right, Satie, Moulin de la Galette ("The Bohemian") (1891) by Spanish Modernist Ramon Casas (Jan. 4, 1866 – Feb. 29, 1932] or atonal pioneer Arnold Schönberg (Sept. 13, 1874 – July 13, 1951) and his students Alban Berg (Feb. 9, 1885 – Dec. 24, 1935) and Anton Webern (Dec. 3, 1883 – Sept.15, 1945).

We consider the time before 1900 going back to the Baroque, the common-practice period (1650 – 1900) in music. This is when what we consider standard Music Theory became dominant in Western music. The ideas of major and minor scales and triadic chords were "discovered" and mastered during this period. However, composers hundreds of years before them we taking creative leaps and making musical risks. Before the common practice period composers were busy experimenting with meter and scales. Even creating polyphony having singers simply before more than one song at the same time. (I discuss this a bit in the article, The Four Types of Texture in Music.)

In this post, we will explore five works of music written well-before 1900 that still sound "modern" to us today.

Giovanni Valentini's Sonata a5 in G minor (1609)

Gerard van Honthorst, The Concert, 1623, National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
Gerard van Honthorst, The Concert, 1623, National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)

[The above painting, The Concert, by Gerard van Honthorst (November 4, 1592 – April 27, 1656) shows musicians engaged in an informal music performance. Notice the realism of their faces. The instruments they are playing include lutes and viols which were typical instruments of the baroque period.]

Giovanni Valentini (c. 1582 – April 29, 1649) was an Italian Baroque composer, poet, teacher, and virtuoso keyboard player. Not much is known about his life today, but he was held in high-esteem during his lifetime, and he is noted for his use of asymmetric meters, a technique that modern composers such as Igor Stravinsky (June 17, 1882 – April 6, 1971), Benjamin Britten (Nov. 22, 1913 – Dec. 4, 1976), and Arvo Pärt (b. Sept. 11, 1935).

Hanns Haydens Geigen-clavicymbel
Hanns Haydens Geigen-clavicymbel

Although scholars don't know for sure, it is believed that Valentini was born in Venice and studied music under Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554 – Aug. 12, 1612), the most influential composer and musician of the time. Around1604, he was appointed as the organist of the Polish court chapel and published his first works in 1609 and 1611, while serving at this post. In 1614, Valentini was appointed to the Graz court music chapel in Austria to serve Ferdinand II . Accounts from the time recognize his ability on the clavicymbalum, an early keyboard instrument while in Graz. In 1619, Ferdinand was elected the Holy Roman Emperor and moved to Vienna and moved the musicians of the Graz chapel with him. Valentini served as imperial court organist in Vienna for many years, then became the court Kapellmeister (chapel master) in 1626, one of the highest honors for a musician of his time.

Valentini's collected works largely consists of of vocal music: madrigals, masses, motets and sacred concertos. He even composed works for seven choirs in his Messa, Magnificat et Jubilate Deo of 1621. It is also a very early example of scored trumpet parts. His other works include keyboard works and works for instrument ensemble. He continued to publish music until 1626 when he ceased for an unknown reason. He most likely continued to teach music after this and was involved in the earliest Viennese opera productions. Besides, composing music Valentini also published several collections of poetry starting in 1626.


Valentini's Sonatas feature adventurous harmonic progressions, chromaticism, and metric "eccentricities." As Dr. Silke Leopold of the University of Heidelberg wrote in her article Giovanni Valentini: Kapellmeister am Wiener Kaiserhof:

"What an unexpected modernity of the musical conceptions in the large form as well as in the compositional detail. In the great musical laboratory that represents the 17th century for the transition from modality to harmonic tonality, from linear to cyclical forms, from text-generated to purely musically invented motifs, Valentini is one of the masterminds."

Listen to Sonata a5 in G minor performed by ACRONYM in the video below and follow along with the score if you can. Notice the chromaticism and the bars of unusual meter.

Heinrich von Biber's Die liederliche gesellschaft von allerley Humor (“The lusty society of all types of humor”) from Battalia à 10 (1673)

Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1495–1505)  Museo del Prado in Madrid
Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1495–1505) Museo del Prado in Madrid

[The above image, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch features the kind of attention to detail that composers such as Valentini, Biber, Rebel, Haydn and Beethoven used to evoke emotions and illustrate stories with musical techniques and details.]

Heinrich von Biber (c. Aug. 12, 1644 – May 3, 1704) was a Bohemian virtuoso violinist and composer. He was born in a small Bohemian town of Wartenberg, now Stráž pod Ralskem, Czech Republic. Although not much is known of his early life or education, it is believed he studied in Vienna with the eminent German violinist Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623 – March 20, 1680).

Viola da Gamba
Viola da Gamba

Biber began his career playing violin and viola da gamba, a fretted and bowed stringed instrument that was commonplace in the Baroque era. in the aristocratic courts of Moravia (now in the Czech Republic). He assumed a post in the band belonging to Count Karl of Liechtenstein-Castelcorno at Kromeriz. In 1670, he abandoned this position illegally and joined the Kapelle in Salzburg. A risk that was worth taking because he became its Kapellmeister in 1684. Biber was one of the most renowned string soloists in Europe and in 1690, Emperor Leopold I added the aristocratic prefix "von" to his name. He spent the last 24 years of his life at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg, where he died at age 59.

His notable compositions include: 15 Rosary Sonatas for violin and basso continuo (with an unaccompanied violin Passacaglia) and his Battalia à 10 for string orchestra. In his several of his works including his sonatas as well as in his Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa for small ensemble, he makes considerable use of scordatura, retuning the strings of an instrument, in this case a violin to create auditory effects and makes figurations that would be impossible in standard tuning possible. Alternate tunings have remained common-practice for guitarists with many folk traditions, such as traditional American Folk and Celtic Folk players. Additionally, many contemporary popular songwriters and performers, such as legendary Blues guitarist-singer Robert Johnson (May 8, 1911 – Aug. 16, 1938), Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page (b. Jan. 9, 1944), singer-songwriter-poet-artist Joni Mitchell (b. Nov. 7, 1943) and guitarist-composer Kaki King (b. Aug. 24, 1979) frequently play in alternate tunings.

Battle of Grunwald. Jan Matejko based his depiction of the Battle of Grunwald on the account of Jan Długosz. Matejko has shown the final stage of the battle - retreat of Teutonic Knights and the death of Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen.  Provided by National Museum of Warsaw. PD
Jan Matejko, Battle of Grunwald in 1410 (1878) National Museum of Warsaw

In Battalia à 10 for string orchestra, Biber calls for a musical ensemble of strings accompanied continuo, a baroque technique in which a keyboard instrument or lute adds harmonic support. The work is in a style of music known as battaglia or "battle music" that was popular in the renaissance and baroque eras. In this style, music is composed as to evoke the sounds of the battlefield. In Battalia, Biber does this with a number of unusual instrumental techniques. One of these is col legno, in which the players use the wood of their bows to beat the strings of their instruments (listen 0:32). Another is having multiple ethnic folk songs playing at the same time to represent the Czech, Slovak, and German soldiers (1:45). He also included a percussive pizzicato in Die Schlacht (“The Battle”) to imitate the sound of cannons (9:57). In Der Mars (Mars, the god of war), he includes instructions that the bass player to place a piece of paper to buzz on the strings to imitate the rattle of a snare drum while a solo violin imitates the sounds of a military fife (3:20). All of these effects make the music feel alive and help the listen to envision the battle as they listen. These types of techniques Biber used to portray the sounds of the battlefield are reminiscent of the extended techniques used in the modern composer, such as the quartet for electric strings Black Angels by American composer George Crumb (b. Oct. 24, 1929).

Biber - Battalia à 10 (1673)

Crumb – Black Angels (1970)

Jean-Féry Rebel's Le Cahos (Chaos) from Les élémens (The Elements) (1737)

[The images above are by Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1526 – July 11, 1593) who was best known for creating imaginative portrait heads made entirely of objects such as plants, fruits, vegetables, flowers, animals, fish, birds, books, etc. These images depict the elements, Air (1566), Fire (1566), Water (1566), and Earth (1566), respectively. Like Rebel, although Arciboldo lived long before the modern era, his art seems modern to us. It would be right at home hanging in a 21st century gallery. Click to expand each image.]

Jean-Féry Rebel (pronounced re-BELL) (c. April 18, 1666 –  Jan. 2, 1747) lived up to the name "rebel." He composed music that pushed the ideas of harmony and meter of his day. He was from a multi-generational musical family. His father, Jean, became a tenor in Louis XIV's private chapel in 1661; his uncle Robert was also on the court music staff, and one of his sisters, Anne-Renée, was a noted singer and her husband was composer Michel-Richard de Lalande (Dec. 15,r 1657 – June 18, 1726). Jean-Féry's son, François (June 19, 1701 – Nov 7, 1775), followed his father's footsteps and became a composer as well.

Rebel's talents were discovered young, and he began studying violin and composition with well-known composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (Nov. 28, 1632 – March 22, 1687) in 1674 at the age of eight. He began his professional career while still a child, and in 1699, he was appointed first violin at the Opéra. By 1705, he had become a member of the Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi (The King's 24 Violins) . From 1718 to 1727, he shared the post of Chamber composer with his brother-in law de Lalande, and in 1720, Rebel assumed the post of batteur de mesure (beater of measure or conductor) at the Royal Academy of Music.

The Medieval Elements
The Medieval Elements

As a trendsetter in Baroque chamber composition, he was one the first French composers to write instrumental sonatas. However, most of his most notable compositions were for the ballet, including a number of “choreographed symphonies,” including Les caractères de la danse (1715), Fantaisie (1729), Les plaisirs champêtres (1734), and his remarkably innovative final work, Les Élémens (1737–38) (The Elements).

During Rebel's life, scientific discoveries were revealing many of the secrets of the universe. However, many people still held a world view that the forces of the universe were controlled by four elements–Earth, Water, Air, and Fire—that emerged from"Chaos." Rebel sought to describe these primordal forces musically in The Elements. The work starts with one of the most unconventional works of the Baroque repertoire—Chaos (spelled as "Cahos" on the original score). Rebel knew that his work would be startling to listeners and added an Avertissement to the printed score (dedicated to the Prince de Carignan) that explained in his compositional philosophy and his inspiration. He wrote:

The introduction to this Symphony was drawn from nature: it was Chaos itself, that confusion which reigned among the Elements before the moment when, subject to immutable laws, they assumed their prescribed places within the natural order.... This initial idea led me further. I have dared to link the idea of the confusion of the Elements with that of confusion in Harmony. I have risked opening with all the notes sounding together, or rather, all the notes in an octave played as a single sound.

Jean-Féry Rebel, ca. 1710?, drawing by Antoine Watteau, Musée Magnin, Dijon (France)
Jean-Féry Rebel, c. 1710, by Antoine Watteau, Musée Magnin, Dijon

The work begins with a bold tone cluster, a musical chord comprising at least three adjacent tones in a scale, a break from the common-practice use of triadic or chord-based harmony. Tone clusters did not become commonplace in Western art music until the 20th century with the innovations of composers like Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897 – Dec. 10, 1965), Elliott Carter (Dec. 11, 1908 – Nov. 5, 2012), Leonard Bernstein (Aug. 25, 1918 – Oct. 14, 1990 ), and Krzysztof Penderecki (Nov. 23, 1933 – March 29, 2020). Chaos grows and diminishes through the movement, concluding with a perfect consonance—an octave. Listen to Cahos or Chaos in the video below. It goes from 0:00 to 6:58.

Rebel – The Elements (1737 – 1738)

Penderecki - Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1959 – 1961)