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Classical Music 101: All About Formats

Steven Pisano
Janine Jansen playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lincoln Center

Classical music can feel daunting to dig into if you’ve not had a lot of exposure to the genre or didn’t grow up playing an instrument. There are lots of terms, styles, composers, and performers, and if you are unfamiliar, it can feel tough to break in. Since schools adjourned due to the pandemic, we’ve been working to create resourcesfor learners of all ages. This summer, we’re going to dig into classical music for the non-classical listener. 

Here are ten common formats of classical works and well known examples of each.


Ballet - The Nutcracker Op. 71, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky  

Ballets are large scale performances with instrumental accompaniment and are focused on dancing. The dance is precisely choreographed and used to portray anything from a story or a specific emotion without the use of voices or libretto (lyrical text). Ballets are seen in all kinds of sizes and can range from big opera-like productions with costumes and staging like The Nutcracker, to a single dancer  with single instrument accompaniment. 


Cantata - Carmina Burana, Carl Orff  

Cantata is an Italian word that translates in English to “sung” or in this case, “a piece that is sung.” Cantatas are very similar to oratorios, but they more loosely defined and don’t have to be religious in nature. They are typically performed on a much smaller scale by a small ensemble in a church setting or something similar. Carmina Burana is a larger scale, secular (non-religious) piece that has shown up in many instances of popular culture and is most recognized by its opening movement “O Fortuna.”


Chamber Music - String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96 - Antonin Dvorak  

Chamber pieces are usually performed by small ensembles such as duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and so on. They only have one instrument to a part and are usually not heard in a concert hall, but at an event like a house concert or a lobby performance. One of the more common ensembles is the string quartet made up of violin I, violin II, viola, and cello. String Quartet No. 12 from Antonin Dvorak is a wonderful example and was actually written in Spillville.


Concerto - Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 18 in C Minor, Sergei Rachmoninoff

A concerto is an ensemble piece that features a single soloist throughout and usually consists of three movements. Concertos typically have a large scale accompaniment like an orchestra, but they many have been written or rearranged to be just piano or something of a smaller scale. Though not strictly a concerto feature, concertos often have longer solo sections known as cadenzas. Cadenzas are typically written by the composer, but they are very fluid and can be improvised or even replaced by a different composer’s cadenza. Rachmoninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor is a great example, and this piece has a cadenza in its beautiful second movement.


Mass - Requiem in D Minor K. 626, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A mass is a format of music originally sung at church services, and a mass normally contains five parts known as the "Kyrie," "Gloria," "Credo," "Sanctus," and "Agnus Dei." A Mass is usually quite long, but it isn’t uncommon to perform one of these parts in church today. Within the last two centuries many composers wrote Masses as long form concert pieces instead of writing them for church services. Requiem in D Minor is a funeral Mass and the last piece Mozart composed. While writing it he began to believe it was for himself and passed away leaving it unfinished.


Opera - The Barber of Seville, Gioachino Rossini  

Operas are large scale performances made up of two to five acts. They feature an orchestra, a large group of singers that perform in lyrical solos(known as an Aria), and vocal ensembles. Operas are character focused stories that have full staging and costumes and are very expensive to produce. The Barber of Seville by Rossini is one of the most popular, and its overture has been featured in many pop culture instances, including a famous Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd short.

Oratorio - The Messiah, George Frideric Handel  

Oratorios sit somewhere between an opera and a cantata. They are larger than cantatas and closer to an opera in style, but they focus on religious stories. Handel’s Messiah is probably the best known oratorio, particularly the piece towards the end, “Hallelujah Chorus.”


Sonata - Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Flat minor Op. 35, Frederic Chopin

If Cantata is “a piece that is sung” the opposite would be a Sonata, or “a piece that is played.” Sonatas are small scale works that typically have a soloist, and sometimes a piano accompaniment. They have several movements, but at least one of those movements (typically the first, last, or both) have to be in sonata form. Sonata form has three parts to establish key relationships: the exposition, development, and recapitulation. Symphonies and concertos typically also have movements in sonata form. Chopin wrote a lot of piano sonatas, and the second movement of his Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor is an extremely well known funeral march.


Suite - Cello Suite No. 1 in G, Johann Sebastian Bach

A suite is a set of connecting pieces that are typically dances and are occasionally preceded by a prelude. Unlike a ballet, these dances are not choreographed but set a beat for people to dance to at a party setting. Bach wrote a large number of these including Cello Suite No. 1 In G whose prelude is heard all over modern pop culture.


Symphony - Symphony No. 5 Op. 67, Ludwig Van Beethoven  

Symphonies are large scale classical works featuring a full symphony orchestra. They typically have four movements, one of which is in sonata form. Symphonies make up some of the most famous classical pieces. One of the best known is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It opens with one of the most well known themes in all of music history, and has been featured in pop culture countless times.

These examples only scratches the surface, and there are lots of other genres and even subgenres within these examples to explore. Next week, we'll learn about a few well known composers.