WAM has developed and changed significantly in the past three hundred years, both in its presentation and its function. Roughly speaking, Western Art Music has transitioned from a patronage system where composers such as Handel, Bach, Haydn, and Tchaikovsky wrote functional music for wealthy patrons to a more entrepreneurial system where composers sought to express their individuality and appeal to the public.
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For example, here is an excerpt from Bach's Mass in B minor - completed in 1749 and dedicated to the sovereign Augustus III, a Catholic, after the death of Augustus II. It is a piece of music that serves the specific function of accompanying a church service, follows a strict form, and earned Bach the title of "Electoral Saxon Court Composer".
Towards the turn of the 19th century composers such as Mozart and Beethoven sought more creative freedom and independence from commissions and functional music. The rise of the middle class in European cities meant that greater numbers of people had disposable income and leisure time to make music at home as well as attend public concerts (a relatively new phenomenon at the time). Composers could write chamber music or works for small ensembles to perform at home, and therefore earn a modest income selling such works to publishing houses.
Composers that could appeal to the public and pack a concert hall for an evening performance would earn a portion of the ticket sales or secure commissions from prominent orchestras or performance groups. This lead to increasing experimentation, composers' expressive freedom, and often bigger, louder, more dramatic and impressive productions.
Some composers sought to appeal to the public by writing music to express or depict a story, poem, or other text - a genre referred to as "Program Music". One of the best examples of program music is the "Symphonie Fantastique" by Hector Berlioz which you can listen to on the left and read the storyline here. Another one of my personal favourites is Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, commonly referred to as "Death and the Maiden" for being inspired by a poem of the same name by Matthias Claudius.
Some composers, like Johannes Brahms, responded by asserting that music should be written for its own sake, not for the purpose of entertaining or depicting a story. He responded to "program music" by writing "absolute music" such as the Cello Sonata in E minor (on the left). I cannot resist including the Elgar Cello Concerto on this list, especially as Edward Elgar was highly influenced by Brahms. This concerto is an example of "absolute music" that draws upon big, dramatic, and virtuosic elements that has wowed audiences for generations.