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Nothing New Under The Sun – Modern Music from the Past

Updated: Jan 1

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)

Rebel's music was largely overlooked since his death in 1747. However, due its modernest and relevance to modern music compositions, interest in his works resurfaced during the 20th century. The Dutch early music ensemble, Rebel Baroque, named themselves in honor of Jean-Féry Rebel. The Elements is now performed on program where it accompanies 20th or 21st century works, fitting into the program seamlessly.

Franz Joseph Haydn's Die Vorstellung des Chaos (The Representation of Chaos) from The Creation (1798)

A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun, is a 1766 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby
Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1766)

[During the baroque and classical eras, coincided with the Scientific Revolution (16th and 17th centuries) and the Age of Enlightenment (18th century) when scientists and philosophers were making great strides, discovering and observing phenomena in the natural world without depending on superstition. In the image above, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, also known as A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun or simple The Orrey, painter Joseph Wright of Derby depicts a lecturer giving a demonstration of an orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system, to a group of young people.]

 Haydn wax sculpture by Franz Thaler, c. 1800
Haydn wax sculpture by Franz Thaler, c. 1800

(Franz) Joseph Haydn (March 31, 1732 – May 31, 1809), affectionately known as "Papa Haydn" by the musicians who worked for him, was one of the highest regarded composers of his time and is still remembered as one of the masters of the classical period. During his nearly 70 year career, he composed over 106 symphonies and 68 string quartets and numerous other chamber, opera, and sacred works.

Haydn was born in the small town of Rohrau, Austria. His father built huge wooden carts and wagon wheels, and his mother was a cook. At the age of 8, Joseph went to Vienna to attend school and sing in the St. Stephen's Cathedral choir. His younger brother, who also became composer, Michael, joined him a short time later. Jospeh had a difficult time behaving in school and this lead his teachers to be believe Michael, not Joseph, would be the more successful musician.

Esterházy family Baryton Viol
Esterházy family Baryton Viol

After Haydn's schooling, he started work as a violinist and and teaching music. Until he became the kapellmeister for the Esterházy family. He remained in their employ for nearly 30 years, where it was his job to teach music to and compose pieces for the Esterházy princes and conduct the court orchestra. During this time, Haydn composed symphonies, operas, string quartets, and other musical works for performance at the Esterhazy court. He wrote that during this employment where he was isolated from other musicians and composers he was "forced to become original." During this time, he also taught students including Ludwig van Beethoven.

Through his published music, Haydn became famous all over Europe. After he retired from the Esterházy family, he made two very successful trips to England, where British society and audiences lauded him. In 1795, he returned to Vienna to his position with the Esterházys. Since he had become a public figure in Vienna, when he wasn't at home composing, he would make public appearances. He continued to compose until his death in 1809 at the age of 77.

In 1997 - 1798, Haydn composed his oratorio, Die Schöpfung, Hob. XXI:2. (The Creation). It is considered to be one of his greatest works. The oratorio depicts and celebrates the creation of the world as described in the Bible. It begins telling the creation story in the same way Rebel introduces The Elements, by depicting musically primordial chaos. While an oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists, Die Vorstellung des Chaos (The Representation of Chaos) (0:11 – 5:46) is the instrumental introduction. He creates the "sound of nothingness" with a bold unison C, a perfect consonance as opposed to Rebel's tone cluster. He creates nothingness but offering no rhythm, no harmony, no melody, simple one pitch. This technique evokes the drone music (also called "dream music" by 20th century composers, La Monte Young (b. Oct. 14, 1935), the philosopher-composer John Cage (Sept. 5, 1912 – Aug. 12, 1992), and ambient composer Brian Eno (b. May 15, 1948). It also may remind the modern listener of Eastern musical traditions, such as the Indian drone instrument the tambura. of which Haydn was probably unaware but Cage, Young, and Eno were/are.

Haydn – The Creation (1798)

Eno – If a bell became a drone (2001)

After the initial unison, Haydn goes on to wander through various scales and harmonies failing to land in a precise tonality, an unusual practice for the beginning of a 19th century work which establishing tonality was the composer's foremost job.

Ludwig van Beethoven's Große Fuge (also spelled Grosse Fugue, "Great Fugue") (1825)

William Blake, The Lovers Whirlwind (1824 - 1827)
William Blake, The Lovers Whirlwind (c. 1824 - 1827)

[The image above, The Lovers Whirlwind, by American poet, philosopher, mystic, and artist William Blake was meant to be an illustration to Dante's Inferno. This watercolor was painted at about the same time as the Große Fuge was being composed. Like Beethoven, Blake as a man before his time. Many of his pieces look similar to 20th century surrealism. The swirling image is almost like a visual representation of the swirling counterpoint of the Große Fuge.]

Beethoven at 13 (1783)
Beethoven at 13 (1783)

Ludwig van Beethoven (c. Dec. 17, 1770 – March 26, 1827) was born in Bonn, Germany into a musical family. He had been a child prodigy and was a third generation professional musician. His family life was more than less-than-ideal, in fact, it was abusive. His father drank heavily and physically abused him. Additionally, Johann can Beethoven, lying about Ludwig's age, exploited his son's talents and arranged performing tours for the young musician.

In his early twenties, Beethoven left Germany and moved to Vienna, where he remained for the rest of his life. While most composers in Beethoven's age were either employed by the church or a member of the nobility, Beethoven made a career without either of these sources of support. He took pride in his self-sufficiently, though he did have private patrons who supported him. Beethoven began loosing his hearing as a young adult writing in 1802 about his worsening deafness:

"I was ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been in a hopeless case, made worse by ignorant doctors, yearly betrayed in the hope of getting better, finally forced to face the prospect of a permanent malady whose cure will take years or even prove impossible."

Beethoven, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
Beethoven, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Beethoven is most famous for his nine symphonies and is revered for his 17 works for string quartet. His other music includes chamber music, choral music, piano works, and an opera, Fidelio. He is noted for being the composer that bridged the music of the 18th century classical era to that of the 19th century romantic era, and he was forward thinking for his time. His Große Fuge, Op. 33 (Great Fugue) (1825), also spelled Grosse Fuge, was so revolutionary that his contemporaries found it "indecipherable" or "incomprehensible" as Beethoven's harmonic language was approaching that of the 20th century composers like Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schönberg. Stravinsky himself wrote that the Grosse Fuge "was absolutely contemporary and would stay contemporary forever." After listening to the Große Fuge, listen to Schönberg's String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, which was composed before Schönberg and listen to how both men created complex musical textures and harmonies eighty years apart. Beethoven's work sounds at home with Schönberg's, and Schönberg was forward-thinking for his time. Beethoven was the vanguard to the vanguard, ushering in unlimited musical possibilities.

For more on Beethoven's life and music, see my series celebrating his 250th Birthday

Beethoven – Große Fuge, Op. 33 (Great Fugue) (1825)

Schönberg – String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 7 (1904 - 1905)

These are only a few modern sounding pieces of music composed before the modern era. They demonstrate how composers have always sought to push boundaries and use sound in ways that go beyond what is "typical." It shows that learning music theory, history, and composition does not prevent someone from expressing themselves musically. It's not about following or learning a set of unbreakable "rules," studying music theory, history, and composition is about learning fluency in many musical dialects and languages—and even imagining our own.


Further Reading

Valentini: (Accessed 24 March 2021).

Rebel: (Accessed 24 March 2021).


(Accessed 24 March 2021).




Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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