European Music

In our sixth article following our armchair travels, we will scan through the vast geographical and cultural area of Europe.  Europe and in particular, ancient Greece and Rome are considered to be the birthplace of Western civilisation. In Greek mythology, Europa was a beautiful Phoenician princess who was kidnapped by Zeus (who had transformed himself into a bull) and this is one possible origin of the word Europe.

In this article, we will very briefly consider the long history of the music of Europe past, the music of Europe in the present day and we will focus on 3 European pianists who are combining their cultural roots with music to reach global audiences.

Music of Europe Past

Greek Empire (8th century BCE – 146 AD)

The ancient Greeks believed that music was a gift from the gods and they incorporated music in all parts of society including weddings, funerals, theatre, folk music and epic poetry. They believed that musical instruments were the inventions of the gods: Hermes created the lyre, Athena created the flute, Pan created the panpipes and Apollo was celebrated as the god of music. Pythagoras (the famous mathematician and astronomer) believed that music was a mathematical expression and both Plato and Aristotle believed that music disciplined the mind.

Ancient Greece

Roman Empire (27 BCE – 476 AD)

To the Romans, music was a natural part of private and public ceremonies, education and entertainment. Boethius, a Roman philosopher who published ‘The Principles of Music’ wrote that music could be characterised into:

  1. ‘Music of the Universe’ – the music of the planets and stars, which could not be heard by the human ear.
  2. ‘Music of the Human Being’ – the music played by the body e.g. voice or clapping.
  3. ‘Instrumental Music’ – the music played with instruments such as the harp or lyre.
Ancient Rome

Medieval Gothic Music: (5th century – 15th century AD)

The Roman Catholic Church unified music and served as a focal point during this time. The only music to survive is the Gregorian Chants. Most chants were anonymously composed between the times of Pope Gregory and Charlemagne (768 – 814 AD). During this time several musical instruments such as the violin were adopted from the medieval Islamic world.

This era also saw wandering troubadours who composed and performed songs of chivalry and courtly love.

Medieval Gothic Church

Renaissance Music (15th century - 17th century AD)

Renaissance music did not begin in Italy - rather it began in the regions of Northern France, the Netherlands and Belgium. These compositions could be adapted to sacred events such as Mass or secular events such as the madrigal.

The Renaissance period also saw the incorporation of brass instruments for the first time.

The invention of the printing press in 1440 had an enormous influence in spreading written compositions and by the end of the 16th century, most parts of Europe had well-differentiated musical traditions. For example, in Italy, composers like Vincenzo Galilei (son of the great astronomer Galileo Galilei) saw and despised the ‘musical depravity’ of the day and began to write a new form of composition – the opera.

Palestrina is the most famous composer of this time. He composed sacred music for the Catholic Church Mass. Most of his compositions contain the 4 recognisable voice parts:  soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

The Barber of Seville - Opera

Baroque Music (circa 1600-1750 AD)

The term ‘baroque’ comes from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning ‘misshapen pearl’. The term was coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was a musician and composer as well as a philosopher.

Baroque music had strict forms and very complex details. It was a maths-based artistic style with a very clear structure, for example:

  • Minuet: a French social dance that was danced with small steps to a simple 3/4 time.
  • Gavotte: a French folk dance played at a moderate pace.
  • Gigue: a quick, social dance that originated from the British jig.

Johann Sebastian Bach is the most famous Baroque composer. He wrote over 1,000 pieces of music for various instruments. Bach believed that musical phrases were very important and that they were like sentences in a paragraph. “I believe that phrases should be long and pauses should be short”. Some of his most famous works are Toccata and Fugue in D minor and the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat, or Heart and Mouth and Deed. One section of this cantata, called Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring in English, is especially famous.

Other famous Baroque composers include:

  • Antonio Vivaldi (e.g. The Four Seasons).
  • George Frideric Handel (e.g. Messiah of which the Hallelujah chorus is the most famous).
JS Bach

Classical Music (circa 1750 – 1820 AD)

Classical music was lighter, clearer and simpler than Baroque music. During this time, the piano replaced the harpsichord as the main keyboard instrument and the musician was now able to play louder (crescendo) or softer (decrescendo) for the first time.

The most famous composer during this time was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He learned to play the keyboard when he was 3 and composed his first piece at the age of 5. At the age of 14, he published his first opera The Magic Flute. He composed music for all types of instruments and in several genres. Some of his most famous operas are The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Jupiter Symphony. He even composed Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

Other famous composers during the Classical era include:

  • Franz Joseph Haydn (e.g. Symphony no.94)
  • Johann Stamitz (e.g. Flute Concerto in G, Op.29)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Romantic Music (circa 1800 – 1910 AD)

The vast array Romantic composers aimed to compose music that was individualistic, emotional and dramatic. They explored the ideas of surrender to nature and a longing for the mystical or spiritual experience and this was reflected in the broader trends of Romantic literature, poetry, art and philosophy of the time.

The most famous composer of this time was Ludwig van Beethoven. He was a pupil of Haydn and while his first compositions were quite classical, elegant and gentle, he began to write more emotional pieces. He stated that “Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. Music should reflect emotions. It is alive and full of passion”.

One of the most important changes that Beethoven made was to expand the size of the orchestra and in some pieces he even extended the choir. Two of his most famous works are:

  • Eroica (Op.55) means Heroic in Italian. This piece was originally dedicated to Napoleon, but when Napoleon announced himself as the new emperor of France, Beethoven crossed out his dedication and in anger, tore out the page from the composition.
  • Ode to Joy was a choral piece that Beethoven composed based on a German poem. Sadly, Beethoven was almost completely deaf by the time he completed this piece.

Towards the end of his life, he struggled with illness and this is reflected in his sad compositions e.g. Op.131 String Quartet No.14.

Other Romantic composers who looked to nature to describe their emotions were:

  • Franz Schubert (e.g. the Trout Quintet).
  • Polish composer Frederic Chopin who created elaborate piano pieces that required rapid finger movement (e.g. Fantasie Impromptu, Op.66)

Impressionism (1875 – 1925 AD)

Impressionist music, like Impressionist art, originated in France and focused on the mood or atmosphere that the music created. Often the composition was based on a story, experience or an impression of an event.

The most famous Impressionist composer was Claude Debussy. His Little Shepherd from Children’s Corner (Suite) was incredibly peaceful and solitary as it described the experience of a little shepherd boy, all alone, tending his sheep and playing his flute.


Music of Europe Present

The 20th century saw music evolve with the invention of the radio and then the television. The visual part of the performance became increasingly important and this led to a wide range of genres being celebrated from classical to 80s, folk music to electronic and world music to pop.

Opera and classical concerts continued to be enjoyed across Europe and orchestras expanded to include new instruments such as the saxophone. The inventions of amplification and electronic instruments, especially the synthesizer accelerated new experimentation with different styles.

In the 1960s British music exploded onto the world stage spearheaded by The Beatles, who are often regarded as the most influential band of all time. The UK now has one of the largest ‘world music’ industries and is also home to the largest number of musical genres, including Indie Rock (also called Independent Rock), Grime and Drum & Bass.

The Beatles

Disco music came from the French word ‘discotheque’ and Swedish band ABBA could be described at Euro-Disco. ABBA is considered to be the most successful Eurovision Song Contest winner and they have continued to enjoy unbelievable success, despite splitting up in 1974. France also promotes A-Cappella, French House and the Nouvelle Scène Française, and in Germany Trance, Dance and Glitch Pop are enjoyed. Germany is also considered to be the place for the best nightlife in Europe.

Pianists from Europe

Europe boasts a wealth of prestigious music conservatories and many outstanding classical and jazz pianists have trod these hallowed halls. In order to choose just 3 pianists, I have attempted to find musicians with unusual and/or inspiring stories. In the jazz category, I have chosen a pianist who can celebrate the melody and where the music could be described as ‘easy listening’ for the ear.

From the classical world, there are some fantastic pianists including:

  • Alfred Brendel (Germany)
  • Jan Lisiecki (Polish-Canadian)
  • Olga Schepa (German-Russian)
  • Krystian Zimerman (Poland)
  • Radu Lupu (Romania)
  • Maria João Pires (Portuguese-Swiss)
  • Daumants Liepins (Latvia)
  • Isata Kanneh-Mason (UK)
  • Arthur Rubenstein (Poland)
  • Daniel Barenboim (Germany).
Classical Piano

And from the world of jazz:

  • Alexander Hawkins (UK)
  • Eve Risser (France)
  • Elias Stemeseder (Austria)
  • Joachim Kühn, (Germany)
  • Enrico Pieranunzi (Italy)
  • Jacky Terrasson (Germany)
  • Vladan Mijatovic (Serbia)
  • Adam Makowicz (Poland)
  • Leszek Mozdzer (Poland)
  • Marco Marconi (Italy)

… to name but a few.

Jazz Pianist

However, for this article, I have chosen to peek into the lives of Hélène Grimaud, Alice Sara Ott and Sunna Gunnlaugs.

Hélène Grimaud

Hélène Grimaud was born in 1969, in Aix-en-Provence, France. As a child she “was often agitated” but at the age of 7, she discovered a love for the piano. At the age of 13, she was offered a place at the Paris Conservatory and at 16 she won 1st prize for her recording of Rachmaninoff at a piano competition there. When she plays she experiences an altered state of consciousness call synesthesia where one physical sense blends into another. In Grimaud’s case, she sees music as colour.

In 1987 she launched her professional career with a debut recital in Tokyo and during the same year, she was invited to perform with the Orchestra de Paris under famous conductor Daniel Barenboim.

At the age of 21 (1991), she moved to Florida to be near a boyfriend and a chance encounter with a wolf led her to open The Wolf Conservation Centre in Upper New York State. She says that “to be involved in direct conservation and being able to put animals back where they belong, there’s just nothing more fulfilling.”

Since then she has performed in countless concerts, both as a soloist and as a recitalist at prestigious events and festivals worldwide. She is also a member of the organisation Musicians for Human Rights, which is a worldwide network of musicians and people who work in the field of music to promote a culture of human rights and social change.

In addition to her musical performances, Grimaud has written and published 3 books, the later 2 books, Leçons Particulières (2005) and Retour à Salem (2013), being semi-autobiographical.

In 2015 her prodigious contribution to the world of classical music was recognised by the French government and she was admitted into the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (France’s highest decoration) at the rank of Chevalier (Knight).

Alice Sara Ott

Alice Sara Ott was born in 1988 to German-Japanese parents. At the age of 3, she was taken to a classical music concert and it was then that she decided to be a pianist. She realised that "music was the language that goes much beyond any words". She began lessons at the age of 4, and a year later she reached the final stage of a youth competition in Munich.

When she was 7 she won the Jugend Musiziert competition in Germany and in 2002 she was the youngest finalist at the Hamamatsu International Piano Academy Competition in Japan, where she won the Most Promising Artist award. In 2004 she won first prize at the Pianello Val Tidone Competition in Italy.

Ott’s playing has continued from strength to strength and she has performed with some of the world’s leading orchestras. She is also artist-in-residence at China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts.

In February 2019, she announced on Instagram that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating condition where the sheath around the nerves cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged. She stated that “…sharing this with everybody was not an easy decision, but I believe it is the right one. MS is a very misunderstood disease in our society and by being open about it I hope I can encourage others… to do the same. An acknowledgement is not a weakness, but a way to protect and gain strength, both for oneself and for those around us…”

Sunna Gunnlaugs

Sunna Gunnlaugs is an Icelandic Jazz pianist and the release of her album ‘Mindful’ in 2000 was chosen as one of the Top Ten albums of the year by The Washington Post.

Gunnlaugs was born in 1970 and grew up near Reykjavik. She began learning the organ after being encouraged by her mother. "The idea of playing the piano didn't appeal to me as a kid. I associated it with classical pianists who seemed to have no fun. But on the organ you could play anything, the Beatles, polkas, Strauss and that seemed like more fun." Then as a teenager, she was given a Bill Evans trio record called You’re Gonna Hear From Me and her love of jazz was born.

In 1993 she moved the USA to study and develop her improvising and composing skills. After graduating in 1996 she moved to Brooklyn, New York and recorded her debut album Far, Far Away with her trio. Over the next few years, she expanded to a quartet and released a 2 further albums: Mindful, and Songs from Iceland.

In 2005 she and her husband relocated to Iceland to start a family although she continued to record and tour across the world performing both in concerts and at jazz festivals.

In 2010 Gunnlaug’s album The Dream was released and jumped straight to #2 on the Canadian jazz charts. The title referred to “the wonder of being able to maintain a family with 2 daughters and a career in music”.

In 2016 her band won Performer of the Year at the Icelandic Music Awards and she was invited to write music for Icelandic Television. During this time she became aware of the lack of opportunities for female jazz pianists in Iceland and this led to the creation of "Freyjujazz", a concert for female performers. Gunnlaug is also a board member for the European Jazz Network and she has been a frequent panellist regarding gender balance in jazz.

And so in our armchair travels across the vast time and space of Europe, we have followed the evolution and development of music in the past. We have seen the diversification of music into the present day and taken a snapshot of the lives of 3 pianists who are using their music as a platform to better their worlds in unique and different ways.