Music of the Classical Period

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Masterclass by sabiansoldier

Music of the Classical Period: A History

Brief history of important aspects of the Classical Period.


Though it is the shortest period in musical history (roughly 1750 to 1810), the Classical period is arguably the period in which most of the parameters which govern music today were fully established. Three composers of this period, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, became perhaps the most influential and important composers ever to have lived, since they made immense developments in a large number of musical genres and stylistically influenced most composers who came after them.


Background and style

Historically, this was a period of great growth. The Industrial Revolution began, allowing for increased production, advances in science and great wealth for a number of countries (in Europe particularly). Both art and politics were influenced by new thinking and philosophies which became known as the Enlightenment, where emphasis was placed on the right and ability of mankind to influence its own environment. Revolutions in countries like France resulted in a shift to republican methods of government and a feeling of disrespect towards the previously influential ruling classes. This, of course, meant that patronage as composers had previously known it began to dwindle, though some composers (like Haydn) still managed to remain under aristocratic patronage for almost all their careers.

Another feature of Enlightenment thinking was the relationship of mankind with nature, which in turn influenced musical composition. Form and order was seen as important in both nature (the concept of landscaped gardens, for example, became popular at this time) and in music, where the balance and symmetry of classical Greek and Roman architecture was transferred into musical structures (hence the name 'Classical'). Simplicity, balance and human emotion were considered 'natural', the decoration and showiness of the Baroque were considered 'unnatural'.

Stylistically, the music of the Classical period can be seen to have any or all of the following characteristics:

  • 'Melody and accompaniment' texture - simple, homophonic, with an emphasis on balanced, lyrical melody. Contrapuntal textures were used only for effect.
  • Balanced phrases - melodies commonly had two- or four-bar 'question' and 'answer' phrases.
  • Functional harmony - harmonic progressions which were closely allied to a balanced tonal structure.
  • Balanced forms - ternary and sonata form became popular.
  • Instrumental music became more common than vocal music, though much vocal music was written in this period (particularly operas). The piano became an extremely important solo instrument; string and wind instruments were also common and the orchestra finally took its recognized shape.


By the end of the Baroque period, the centers of music in Europe were established in Italy, in Austro-Germany (particularly Vienna and Mannheim) and in France ( Paris). Theaters employed orchestras of string and wind players and would stage operas, as well as symphonies and concertos of the three- movement form recognizable to us today (see the pages on symphony, concerto, sonata form, the orchestra and others for more information). Composers such as Gluck (see opera) and C.P.E. and J.C. Bach contributed greatly to the foundations of the new Classical style at this time. Examples of a Sonata by C.P.E. Bach* (probably written for the forte-piano) and a Sinfonia by J.C. Bach are included on the lists of suggested listening.

In the early Classical period, it was Haydn who took these foundations and developed the forms and genres which characterised the period. He became known as 'the father' of both the symphony and the string quartet - and perhaps of sonata form, since it was he who applied the concept of tension and dramatic contrast ( Sturm und Drang) to instrumental genres. The concept of Sturm und Drang was - even at this time - a foresight of the Romantic style of the nineteenth century.

Haydn's patron was the wealthy Esterházy family, who had at their palace an elite group of 25 or so musicians, thus giving the composer many varied resources for composing. Thus he contributed to most established genres, and since he was able to tour Europe in later life, he also became extremely famous. Haydn's early symphonies owed much to the style of C.P.E. and J.C. Bach; his later music shows how far his style - and the style of the Classical period - had evolved during his lifetime. (His Symphony No. 77* is described below.) Haydn knew Mozart well and played in a string quartet with him; he was also Beethoven's teacher for a short time.

Mozart's contribution to the period, and to music in general, is immeasurable. In the early part of his career he wrote a number of operas and concertos (he was a talented performer as well as a composer), as well as composing numerous works for solo instruments and small groups. He studied the music of Haydn and the fugues of Baroque composers such as J.S. Bach, and was also influenced by the Italian Baroque penchant for lyrical melody and virtuosity. This combination of Italian showiness and German formality, infused with Mozart's genius for capturing the spirit of the age, cemented the Classical style and laid the foundations for many generations of composers after him.

In the mid-Classical period there was much conflict in Europe, and many of the theatres disbanded their 'house' orchestras, resulting in more compositions being written for solo instruments and small ensembles - chamber music. Chamber music has its own page so little reference is made to it here.

Mozart moved to Vienna and rid himself of his ties to patrons in his native Salzburg; in the 1780s he wrote his most seminal works - operas such as The Marriage of Figaro*, his later symphonies (such as the 'Paris' Symphony ) and his piano concertos. His earlier Concerto for Flute and Harp* is included, since in many ways it sums up much of what the Classical style encapsulated.

In the late Classical period - the 1790s and first ten or so years of the nineteenth century, with Mozart having died young, the foundations laid by him for the style of the Romantic age were built upon by Beethoven. Haydn continued to compose up to 1803 and produced his famous ' London' Symphonies and his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons. Other composers who were well known at the time included Clementi, who was a contemporary of Mozart and composed a number of popular piano sonatas*, and Cherubini, who influenced Beethoven greatly and was famous in France, where he composed popular operas such as Der Wasserträger (The Water Carrier)*. Society after the French Revolution was changing too; the taste now was for accessible music for the middle classes to play themselves, favouring music for piano solo or piano with ensemble. Virtuosi dazzled audiences with their breathtaking performances: Beethoven, Clementi and others were established performers as well as composers.

Beethoven's career is often seen as falling into three periods. His early period saw him basing his style on that of Haydn and Mozart and gradually beginning to develop from this point; his early symphonies and concertos and piano sonatas such as the 'Pathétique' belong to this period. His middle period saw him struggling with his impending deafness, and composing a number of significant larger works such as his Symphonies Nos 3, 5 and 6, his opera 'Fidelio' and his 'Appassionata' Piano Sonata, as well as his only violin concerto. The last fifteen years or so of his life saw his late period, and his music from this period was particularly influential on composers such as Brahms and Wagner. His monumental Ninth Symphony ('Choral'), his late string quartets and the Missa Solemnis are all works from this period. Works by Beethoven on the playlist focus on his 'Classical' rather than 'Romantic' style; his Symphony No. 3 'Eroica'*, which was originally dedicated to Napoleon (the dedication was subsequently torn up), and his Sonata in A for Violin and Piano.

Much more information about the Classical style can be found in other pages on the wiki, such as information on the symphony, chamber music, opera, the orchestra, the concerto and so on, along with musical examples of each genre.

Suggested listening

  • C.P.E. BACH: Sonata in G major, Wq. 65/22 (H.56)
  • HAYDN: Symphony No. 77 in B flat major, Hob. I:77
  • MOZART: Concerto for Flute and Harp in C major, K. 299
  • MOZART: The Marriage of Figaro (highlights)
  • CLEMENTI: Sonata in D major, Op. 40 No. 3
  • CHERUBINI: Der Wasserträger (excerpts)
  • BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 'Eroica'

Case Studies

Haydn: Symphony No. 77 in B-flat Major, Hob. I:77

This symphony is one of three written for performance in London in 1782, when Haydn was unable to honour an invitation to tour there, probably because of his duties at the Esterházy Palace. It is a great example of the elegant, tuneful, well proportioned but sophisticated style of Haydn's music of this time, and contains many of the characteristics of Classical music outlined above. See the page on sonata form if you need any reminders of how this form works.

The symphony is scored for strings, flute, and two oboes, bassoons and horns. It is in four movements - this was becoming the norm by now - and begins with a Vivace following the expected sonata form model. The opening first subject is lively and balanced with the first violin taking the melody in typical classical fashion, driven forward by underlying semiquaver figures. There is a contrasting lyrical second subject (in the dominant key of F) for three part strings and bassoon (0:50) which is a good example of a balanced 'question and answer' Classical melody. The exposition repeats at 1:29.

The development section starts at 2:57 and develops the first subject, taking it through various keys in a long sequence which winds up briefly back in the tonic at 3:15, continuing in a long passage of imitation between the orchestral sections using just the two-note initial falling figure of the theme. After a pause the second subject (3:34) appears in the remote key of G major and a short bridge section (with more imitation and some cleverly written counterpoint) brings the music back to B flat for the recapitulation at 3:56. This starts off as a fairly straightforward repeat of the exposition (without the initial quieter statement of the first subject), until we reach the second subject, which begins, as one would expect, in the tonic (4:36). After this Haydn unexpectedly develops the idea further and briefly lets the music wander, before bringing in a lively coda in the tonic key at 5:19.

The second movement, a lyrical andante sostenuto, is a combination of rondo and theme and variations. It begins with a well proportioned and discreetly ornamented theme, with strings taking the lead and woodwind doubling, creating some lovely contrasts of orchestral colour. There is a wonderful passage midway through this movement (2:40 onwards), where the main theme is developed through a number of imitations between strings and wind. There is a brief moment of clever harmonic colour as well, at 3:21, where the remote key of D flat is alluded to before a return to F major, the tonic key of this movement.

The third movement is a fast minuet (not a particularly elegant one!) with much comedy and excitement - a German dance with a trio like an Austrian Ländler (0:58) with a bouncy accompaniment and a folk-like melody. There are plenty of off-beat accents to upset the minuet feel, and the movement could almost be a scherzo.

The fourth movement is in sonata form. The second subject (1:00) and all the material in the development are all derived from the opening idea. The exposition is repeated at 1:25, and the development begins at 2:47 with some exciting contrapuntal treatment of the theme, once again using the idea of imitating short parts of the theme. This development is extremely short, and we are back in B flat for the rather sudden recapitulation at 3:13. Haydn surprises us one more time by presenting the theme on horns and woodwind in the coda (4:02).

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

Mozart wrote operas in Italian and German, and the three Italian works for which he is best known were all to librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte: Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790).

The Marriage of Figaro is a comedy, but it differs from earlier Italian comic operas in that the characters are more developed and the text contains more social and political comment. This suited Mozart, who was a master of musical characterisation, and the opening tracks on this highlights collection include some excellent examples of this in arias, duets and larger ensembles.

The overture is an exciting, high-speed opening to the opera, setting the mood, while not actually including any of the opera's themes (it is often performed as a self-contained work). Its presto tempo warns us of the opera's heady pace, perhaps reminding us of the subtitle La folle journée (The Day of Madness).

The instruction attacca at the end of this overture suggests that the conductor should not wait for applause, but head straight into the first number - a duettino for Figaro and his fiancée Susanna, both servants in the house of Count Almaviva. Figaro is measuring the space for a bed (0:36), Susanna sings an insistent phrase asking him to admire her new hat (0:56), and Mozart cleverly intertwines the two musical ideas (1:07) until Susanna's wins over and Figaro is eventually distracted from his measuring and finds himself singing Susanna's theme (1:32). In this way, the simple, loving relationship that these two characters have is clearly conveyed, as well as the tongue-in-cheek observation that the woman usually gets her way!

'Se vuol ballare' (If you wish to dance) is very much a summary of Figaro's feelings at this time in the opera. It is set out as a genteel minuet, but is infused with a sense of determination in the music, reflecting Figaro's true mood.

Having effectively announced hostility towards the count, Figaro is the subject of the same treatment in 'La vendetta' - a resolute, allegro aria sung by Dr Bartolo, an ex-guardian of the Countess Rosina. Bartolo is determined to get his own back on Figaro for helping the Count steal Rosina away from him some time ago (which story is told in Rossini's The Barber of Seville). Bartolo's anger gets the better of him in this aria and he begins to stutter (1:18) before pulling himself together and ending in more a refined way (2:12), declaring that 'all Seville knows Dr Bartolo'. Mozart characterises Bartolo cleverly in this aria, giving him pompous and rather comic music.

The character Cherubino is a young page who is infatuated with the Countess, and he is always played by a soprano in performances of this opera. His aria 'Non so più cosa son' sums up his personality, a boy who knows little about the meaning of his adolescent feelings, restless and eager to throw himself into all situations. Mozart's music for him includes excited violins (1:12), and there is a wonderful moment towards the end (2:34) where the tempo slows as he reflects that there is no one to listen to his love talk, and then speeds up again as he exclaims 'I will talk of love to myself' (3:18).

Supplementary suggested listening

  • J.C. BACH: Sinfonia in G major, Op. 3 No. 6
  • HAYDN: Symphony No. 104 in D major, Hob. I:104 'London'
  • MOZART: Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 297 'Paris'
  • MOZART: Die Zauberflöte, K. 620
  • BEETHOVEN: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 6 in A major, Op. 30/1