A Taxonomy of Stylistic Developments

All composers develop their musical language over the course of their careers — it’s inevitable. Some composers’ outputs, it seems to me, can be rather neatly divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods. With others, the situation is slipperier. 

This kind of thing is navel-gazing in its purest form, but since there’s nothing else to do right now…


Beethoven’s output is not only neatly divisible, but it established a paradigm: during the Early period, the composer masters the common style of the era, infusing it with their own particular genius (1st symphony, Pathétique); in the Middle period, the composer breaks out in bold new directions (the Eroica symphony, zum beispiel); in the late period, the composer condenses what they’ve learned into a more austere, introspective language, wrestling with the ghosts of their predecessors as they contemplate the end of their own life (the late quartets).

The early stuff literally nobody listens to (aside from subscribers to the Sarasota Opera) — Giovanna d’arco, per esempio. Then there’s the essential three operas from the early 1850s, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, and La Traviata, which sparked his middle period (lasting as long as, say, Aïda). Then the output becomes sparser, finally arriving at the late glories of Otello and Falstaff (with Don Carlo and Bocanegra pointing the way there).

The early style, many are surprised to find, is Mahlerian and tonal (Gurrelieder, Pélleas, Verklärte Nacht). Gradually he pushes past tonality until we get the mid-period free atonality of Pierrot Lunaire and the Fünf Orchesterstücke. Round about 1925, he invents a new, more stringent set of compositional rules for himself, giving us the blockbuster Moses und Aron, the violin and piano concertos, Survivor from Warsaw, etc. 

Now that makes for three periods clearly enough, but they’re not of the Beethovenian paradigm wherein the Late style is a reckoning with the early style. But, Schoenberg did have a brief and sporadic dalliance with tonal music once again at the end of his life, so do with that what you will.

Early: the “Russian” style — Firebird through Les Noces
Middle: the neoclassical pieces (Octet, Dumbarton Oaks, The Rake’s Progress)
Late: the dodecaphonic works (Agon, Septet)

Once again, Stravinsky breaks the mold in that the Late style isn’t a look back to earlier days.

The early style is primarily influenced by Bartók and Kodály (no surprise). Then he defects to the West and encounters Stockhausen, Berio, and Kagel, sparking the Middle period, his own very particular brand of modernism: Atmosphères, Lontano, Apparitions and the like. Then he takes a decade to compose Le grand macabre, which turns out to be both a capstone and a transitional piece. After that, there’s a clear condensation of his style (gone are the ginormous pages of micropolyphony) and we get my personal favorites: the Violin Concerto, the Hamburg Concerto, the Nonsense Madrigals, the Viola Sonata, and Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel.

Ma boyyyy. Probably the composer whose output most clearly hews to the Beethoven model. Early Schnittke is beholden to the Soviet modernists, particularly Shostakovich (who would always remain an influence, but whose influence on Schnittke is, I think, overrated). This includes the Symphony No. 0 (“Nagasaki”), and a few pieces of a more modernist bent such as the first string quartet and the first violin concerto. Then there’s the great polystylistic breakthrough in the early 70s: the first symphony and the first Concerto Grosso, most notably. Then in 1985, he dies for the first time, comes back to life, and thence embarks upon his late, STARK style. For us serious Schnittkephiles, this is the best stuff. The language still nods to his roots, but the polystylism has been dialed way down, and now exists as shadows. Pieces from this era include the late symphonies (especially no. 8), the 2nd cello concerto, Faust, and Peer Gynt.

Easley Blackwood
I know this won’t mean much to many people, but he was my teacher, so I know a lot about him. His early music from the 1950’s was very much in the style of Shostakovich, Schoenberg, and Messiaen and even veered into higher modernism. Then he got involved into mathematical research surrounding various tuning systems, both historic ones and newfangled equal temperaments. This led to his studies of tonal music in tuning systems in octave divisions of 13-24 notes, after which he decided the one system he hadn’t engaged with was 12 notes. For the last 30-some-odd years, he’s written tonal music in the style of Franck and Saint-Saëns.

Other Neat Periodizations

All the operas are Early Rossini, then yada yada yada, 25 years later we get Late Rossini! There is no Middle Rossini, since he was just chillin.

Robert Schumann
With Robert Schumann, his stylistic development is much more attached to genre, since he would devote entire years (or more) to, say, writing songs, or symphonies, or chamber pieces. There is, perhaps, an organic change of style over his career, but it’s harder (for me) to pick up on.

The first and second piano sonatas are Early Brahms. Everything else is Late Brahms.

All Janáček is Late Janáček.

A Less Distinctive Blurring

So many experiments (third orchestral suite, Manfred), yet constantly on the verge of neoclassicism (fourth orchestral suite). Did his style ever actually change, or did he just get better at it?

His music definitely got colder and bonier as it went on, but when did it happen? It’s such a large output, and I’m no specialist. And if he had continued to compose during the last 30 years of his life, would there be a clearly-demarcated Late style? We’ll never know.

His opus 1 string quartet sometimes gets assigned into an “early period” of its own, but I think there are many reminiscences of the quartet in Pélleas et Melisande, to the point where you’d have to group (at least) those two together. I guess you could argue that there’s an early period from the quartet through Pélleas, and then a middle period starting with La Mer, but just as much of Pélleas sounds like La Mer. There are the three late sonatas which are kind of doing their own thing, but the piano music and chansons suggest a continual working-through of similar ideas over the course of his career. It’s all very blurry.

There’s clearly a development; you can’t say that Une barque sur l’océan sounds much like the G major piano concerto. You could maybe make a bipartite division into Early (impressionist / neoclassical) and Late (jazzy / neoclassical), but that doesn’t sit right somehow. It’s a slow development where you can see some interesting signposts along the way, but I think his style incorporates changes very conservatively and always excellently. The experiments are always successful, and he stays true to form.

Ended Pretty Much Where They Started

J. S. Bach
I mean, I actually have no idea, but it seems like it was all equally exquisite, experimental, and perfect all the way through?

Richard Strauss
With the exception of a mid-career genre change from tone poem to opera, and perhaps a slight mellowing of his musical language after Elektra, I don’t see much to suggest that he really changed styles.


People get all bent out of shape talking about Schubert’s “Late Style”. The guy was 31. Give him a break!

See above. I’d say a case could be made that Mozart was moving into a distinctive Middle Period, but we’ll never know!

Lili Boulanger
The greatest tragedy in 20th century music. Even though she was developing rapidly, sadly, all Boulanger is Early Boulanger.

And as for me? 

As for me… I think I’m probably one of those smooth operators who experiment and gradually change, but that’s really for the musicologists to figure out. I hear they’ve got four more detectives working on the case down at the crime lab. All I really hope is that I never have a “late style” because honestly, I really don’t want to have to pretend to care about fugues.