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“Classical” Music and Society (17th-20th century) – an Introduction


Admission requirements



Music is more than just pleasant sounds; it reflects societies and their organisation and belief systems of which we may not be aware. A well-known example is Mendelssohn, whose music was much beloved until 1933, when it was decredited in Germany as second rate because Mendelssohn was “Jewish”, and as being second rate after 1945 without any reason. Why and how music was composed is not only determined by an inherently musical stylistic progress. Its very structures can indicate mentalities which they also helped shape. We will study European “Classical” music (17th-20st century). The emergence of tonality – the backbone of this music – has been linked to the centralisation of political power, the strict rules regulating Baroque music to the hierarchical society, the freedom from these traditional constraints can be heard in the constant structural and stylistic changes in Mozart, the urgency in some symphonies of Beethoven express a new concept of time and progress, Schubert’s melancholy is now thought to react to the oppression in Metternich’s police state, Bruckner’s grandiose historicism is linked to the architecture of Vienna’s Ringstrasse and its political symbolism, and the erosion of tonality coincides with the collapse of the Habsburg empire, when the horrors of WW I shattered the harmony and beauty of music and the arts for much of the 20st century.
Selected reading assignments providing the socio-political background will be discussed, and the musical structures relating to it will be illustrated by musical examples. The listening process will be guided by graphs (no need to read musical notation).

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student can:

  • 1) organise and use relatively large amounts of information

  • 2) reflect critically on knowledge and understanding as presented in academic literature

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  • 3) The student has knowledge of a specialisation, more specifically; in the specialisation General History the place of European history from 1500 in a worldwide perspective; with a focus on the development and role of political institutions

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific lecture course

The student can:

  • 4) research data bases, find and discuss literature relevant to the topic

  • 5) explore the relation between politics, society and the arts by amplifying implicit knowledge about musical structures

  • 6) enhance aural sensitivity and music appreciation


The timetable is available on the BA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Lecture

  • self-study

Course Load

Total course load 5 EC x 28 hours= 140 hours

  • Lectures: 30 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 60 hours

  • Assignment(s): 20

  • Preparation exam: 20

  • Exam(s): 5 hours

  • Other components: 5

Assessment method

Resit will consist of the same parts as the first opportunity. The student takes the resit for the insufficient parts.


The course will be assessed through two subtests, covering all course objectives:

  • Midterm examination: Written exam with short open questions.

  • Final examination: Take home examination: a given text will have to be discussed.


  • Midterm examination: 30

  • Final examination: 70

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average.


The resit exam will take place in one single resit, at which both subtests are offered. For this resit three hours will be reserved, so that students will be able to retake both subtests, if necessary.

Rules regarding the admission to resits can be found in Article 4.1 of the BA Course and Examination Regulations

Exam review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • literature (within copyright laws)

  • text and powerpoint files for reviewing lectures

Reading list

Prescribed book:

  • Nicholas Cook: Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000 (Paperback, e-book).
    Suggested reading:

  • Jan Swafford: Language of the Spirit. An Introduction to Classical Music. New York, Basic Books, 2017.

  • Carl E. Schorske: Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Politics and Culture. New York, Toronto, Random House, Vintage Books Edition, 1981.

These books were chosen because they talk about music or the arts in society for readers who are not professional musicians. Feel free to skip over any technical details you might not be familiar with.
Students who have some knowledge about music might be interested in looking at selected chapters of Richard Taruskin: The Oxford History of Western Music. There are two versions, one of which is for students.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte
Registration Contractonderwijs


Marie-Agnes Dittrich