CLASSICAL ERA (1750-1820)

CLASSICAL ERA (1750-1820)

The dates of the Classical Period in Western music are generally accepted as being between 1750 to1820. However, the term classical music is used colloquially to describe a variety of Western musical styles from the ninth century to the present, and especially from the sixteenth or seventeenth to the nineteenth. This article is about the specific period from 1750 to 1820. As implied by the term 'classical', the music of this period looked to the art and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome - to the ideals of balance, proportion and disciplined expression Composers of the Classical era deviated from the evolution of their predecessors - their music had a considerably simpler texture.

Classical music has a lighter, clearer texture than Baroque music and is less complex. It is mainly homophonic — melody above chordal accompaniment. Variety and contrast within a piece became more pronounced than before. Variety of keys, melodies, rhythms and dynamics (using crescendo, diminuendo and sforzando), along with frequent changes of mood and timbre were more commonplace in the Classical period than they had been in the Baroque. Melodies tended to be shorter than those of Baroque music, with clear-cut phrases and clearly marked cadences. The Orchestra increased in size and range; the harpsichord continuo fell out of use, and the woodwind became a self-contained section. As a solo instrument, the harpsichord was replaced by the piano (or fortepiano). Early piano music was light in texture, often with Alberti bass accompaniment, but it later became richer, more sonorous and more powerful.

One of the most important "evolutionary steps" made in the Classical period was the development of public concerts. Although the aristocracy would still play a significant sponsoring role in musical life, it was now possible for composers to survive without being the permanent employee of some noble or his family. It also meant that concerts weren't limited to the salons and celebrations of aristocratic palaces. The increasing popularity of public concerts led to a growth in the popularity of the orchestra as well, to the enlargement in the number of musicians and the number of orchestras overall. Although chamber music was still performed, the expansion of orchestral concerts necessitated large public spaces. As a result of all these processes, symphonic music (including opera and oratorio) became more extroverted in character.

Important Composers of this period include

Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach

1714 - 1788

Christoph Willibald Gluck

1714 - 1787

Johann Christian (J.C.) Bach

1735 - 1782

Franz Joseph Haydn

1732 - 1809

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

1756 - 1791

Ludwig van Beethoven

1770 - 1827


Other notable names include Luigi Boccherini, Muzio Clementi, Antonio Soler, Antonio Salieri, François Joseph Gossec, Johann Stamitz, Carl Friedrich Abel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Christoph Willibald Gluck. Ludwig van Beethoven is also sometimes regarded either as a Romantic composer or a composer who was part of the transition to the Romantic. The period is sometimes referred to as the era of Viennese Classic or Classicism (German: Wiener Klassik), since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven all worked at some time in Vienna, and Franz Schubert was born there.

Importance was given to instrumental music — the main kinds were sonata, trio, string quartet, symphony, concerto, serenade and divertimento. Sonata form developed and became the most important form. It was used to build up the first movement of most large-scale works, but also other movements and single pieces (such as overtures).

Joseph Haydn was the first composer to use this style. In the late 1750s he began composing symphonies, and by 1761 he had composed a triptych (Morning, Noon, and Evening) solidly in the "contemporary" mode. As a vice-Kapellmeister and later Kapellmeister, his output expanded: he composed over forty symphonies in the 1760s alone. And while his fame grew, as his orchestra was expanded and his compositions were copied and disseminated, his voice was only one among many. While some suggest that he was overshadowed by Mozart and Beethoven, it would be difficult to overstate Haydn's centrality to the new style, and therefore to the future of Western art music as a whole. At the time, before the pre-eminence of Mozart or Beethoven, and with Johann Sebastian Bach known primarily to connoisseurs of keyboard music, Haydn reached a place in music that set him above all other composers except perhaps George Friedrich Handel. He took existing ideas, and radically altered how they functioned — earning him the titles "father of the symphony," and "father of the string quartet."

The Farewell Symphony, No. 45 in F♯ Minor, exemplifies Haydn's integration of the differing demands of the new style, with surprising sharp turns and a long adagio to end the work. In 1772, Haydn completed his Opus 20 set of six string quartets, in which he deployed the polyphonic techniques he had gathered from the previous era to provide structural coherence capable of holding together his melodic ideas. For some this marks the beginning of the "mature" Classical style, where the period of reaction against the complexity of the late Baroque began to be replaced with a period of integration of elements of both Baroque and Classical styles.

However, a younger contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, brought his genius to Haydn's ideas and applied them to two of the major genres of the day: opera, and the virtuoso concerto. Whereas Haydn spent much of his working life as a court composer, Mozart wanted public success in the concert life of cities. This meant opera, and it meant performing as a virtuoso. Haydn was not a virtuoso at the international touring level; nor was he seeking to create operatic works that could play for many nights in front of a large audience. Mozart wanted both. Moreover, Mozart also had a taste for more chromatic chords (and greater contrasts in harmonic language generally), a greater love for creating a welter of melodies in a single work, and a more Italianate sensibility in music as a whole. He found, in Haydn's music and later in his study of the polyphony of Bach, the means to discipline and enrich his gifts. Mozart rapidly came to the attention of Haydn, who hailed the new composer, studied his works, and considered the younger man his only true peer in music. In Mozart, Haydn found a greater range of instrumentation, dramatic effect and melodic resource; the learning relationship moved in two directions.

It was during this decade that public taste began, increasingly, to recognize that Haydn and Mozart had reached a higher standard of composition. By the time Mozart arrived at age 25, in 1781, the dominant styles of Vienna were recognizably connected to the emergence in the 1750s of the early Classical style. By the end of the 1780s, changes in performance practice, the relative standing of instrumental and vocal music, technical demands on musicians, and stylistic unity had become established in the composers who imitated Mozart and Haydn. During this decade Mozart composed his most famous operas, his six late symphonies which helped to redefine the genre, and a string of piano concerti which still stand at the pinnacle of these forms.

The most fateful of the new generation was Ludwig van Beethoven, who launched his numbered works in 1794 with a set of three piano trios, which remain in the repertoire. Somewhat younger than the others, though equally accomplished because of his youthful study under Mozart and his native virtuosity, was Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Hummel studied under Haydn as well; he was a friend to Beethoven and Schubert and a teacher to Franz Liszt. Taken together, these composers can be seen as the vanguard of a broad change in style and the centre of music. They studied one another's works, copied one another's gestures in music, and on occasion behaved like quarrelsome rivals.

Musical eras seldom disappear at once; instead, features are replaced over time, until the old is simply felt as "old-fashioned". The Classical style did not "die" so much as transform under the weight of changes. However, the forces destined to end the hold of the Classical style gathered strength in the works of each of these composers. The most commonly cited one is harmonic innovation. However, also important is the increasing focus on having a continuous and rhythmically uniform accompanying figuration: Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata was the model for hundreds of later pieces — where the shifting movement of a rhythmic figure provides much of the drama and interest of the work, while a melody drifts above it. Greater knowledge of works, greater instrumental expertise, increasing variety of instruments, the growth of concert societies, and the unstoppable domination of the piano —which created a huge audience for sophisticated music— all contributed to the shift to the "Romantic" style. Renewed interest in the formal balance and restraint of 18th century classical music led in the early 20th century to the development of so-called Neoclassical style.


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