The Late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance
"Goodbye to those good wines of Lannoy" This is one of the very first songs written that really expresses personal emotion. You might think of Guillaume Dufay as the beginning of a long road that leads to John Lennon.
"Flow my Tears" was one of the most popular songs of the day. They loved the emotion of melancholy in Elizabethan England. One of the best-sellers was The Anatomy of Melancholy. Like a self-help book if you titled it "You're OK, I'm Really, Really Sad".
Musicians in the 17th century had a lovely tradition. When one of their circle died, they wrote a very special sort of allemande to commemorate it called a "tombeau" or "tomb". M. Blancrocher, the subject of this tombeau, must have had a lot of friends because three other composers wrote tombeaux on his death. Part of the tradition was if the notes go up at the end, he went to heaven, but if they go down...
Rameau is one of the biggies. He wrote the first good book on harmony (yeah, he "wrote the book"!) and some great music for harpsichord (not to mention dozens of operas).
There are few really funny composers: Haydn, Debussy, Shostakovich and, uh, gimme a minute... This is the last movement of a quartet that has the nickname "The Joke". I am NOT going to give the joke away, but just mention that some people are really afraid of clapping in the wrong place...
You've been very patient so far, so you deserve something really nice: this is one of the most transcendental things ever written--the music just keeps spiraling up into the infinite heavens...
The Romantic Era
Arthur Rubenstein plays Chopin. That's really all you need to know. I saw him play a concert in Spain in the early 1970s and it was ... magical.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the least gloomy opera by Richard Wagner and this is one of the loveliest songs in the whole opera--heck, in any opera. The singer is Lauritz Melchior, recorded 1939.
Early 20th Century
We sometimes think of 20th century music as being either painful or dreary, but Debussy always wrote beautiful music, if not always serious music. This is "Golliwog's Cakewalk" from the Children's Corner suite for piano. Played here by Julian Bream and John Williams in their transcription for two guitars. Debussy interrupts himself to quote the opening of Wagner's Tristan--just for fun.
If this were any more Russian, it would be illegal. The Allegro molto from Shostakovich's 8th string quartet. If you listen closely you will hear over and over, at different speeds, the same four notes: D E flat, C, B natural, which, in German, spells DSCH or Dmitri Shostakovich.
Music by Osvaldo Golijov, a young composer of today, from a film. He later expanded it into "Lullaby, Doina and Gallop" for chamber ensemble.
And then came the Beatles... I will have to do a post on this song sometime. Just notice one thing: there is a wonderful guitar solo just after the 3 minute mark consisting of a mere nine notes altogether. Take that Jimi Hendrix!
Thanks for listening to this magical mystery tour of the last six hundred years in music.