When I was a young high-school and college music student, I rarely spent time thinking about these things. It was my goal to "get-by" with just learning most of the notes and rhythms and trying to pass my juries and perform my recitals without making too many mistakes. I felt like a trained monkey with little to offer in terms of emotion or style. I just wanted to survive without the dreaded violent shaking and blackouts that often plagued my performances..
Well, I'm here to tell you that this is a very sad existence. Music is so much more than playing everything "perfectly" and I guarantee you will glean much more excitement and satisfaction from your musical pursuits if you can enter into the lives and purposes of those who composed the pieces you are learning. Becoming familiar with the social norms and events that were occurring in these time periods adds a whole new layer of understanding and connection your audience (or jury panel) is sure to appreciate.
To explore the historical context of the piece you are learning, here's a handy guide:
1. Research the composer and the musical period in which the piece was written. These times are approximate--there is much debate over the actual dates of each period.
- Middle Ages: 1150-1400
- Renaissance: 1400-1600
- Romantic:1830-1920 (WW1)
- 20th Century/Modern: 1920-Present
2. Find out the purpose of the music.
- Did it have a specific function in society like for a particular dance, societal tradition, or courtly ritual?
- Is it sacred or secular?
- Was it intended to be programmatic (telling a story)?
- Did the composer intend it for intellectual pondering?
- Is it nationalistic in nature?
- Is it social commentary or satire?
- Was it intended purely for an artistic experience?
3. How does the historical context relate to the performance practice of the piece?
- Does the musical period call for terraced dynamics and very little vibrato?
- How should the trills be approached?
- Should you use your own ornamentation?
- What style of articulation is appropriate?
- Should you incorporate high emotional peaks or keep it stable and even?
- Is there room for tempo liberties?
4. If possible, look for recordings from the time period the piece was written, or a modern recording that uses period instruments and styles. As you are listening, make notes about the performer's interpretation.
As you explore the historical context of your piece, here are some handy online resources:
Oxford Music Encyclopedia
Famous Composers by Musical Period
Learn Listening Online
If you are really interested in learning more, go to your local university's music library and start exploring! Most music librarians are very eager to point you in the direction of your research--make good use of their expertise!
I hope this guide is helpful for you in your study--leave me a note in the comments to let me know how your music preparation is going!