Music of the Classical Period (Lewis)

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The Classical era within "classical music" begins in perhaps 1735 and ends around 1825, encompassing some overlap with the surrounding periods of Baroque and Romantic. What does the word "Classical mean here? The music has little to do with the Classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. The key to understanding the early development of Classicism in music lies with the appearance of a new style in the early eighteenth century, one that attracted the term galant and other adjectives. This approach emphasized elegance and clarity of melody over the rugged counterpoint favored in the Baroque. Mozart and other Classical-era composers seem now to embody the height of elegance—but in their own day they were part of a movement that prized naturalness and simplicity over intellect and elaboration. And, just as they did when they were adopted by the 1960s counterculture, ideals of naturalness and simplicity carried political overtones.

Thanks to its mighty Viennese triad of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, listeners tend of think of Classical-era music as Austrian in essence. But its origins were Italian. The beginnings of true classical style around 1730 may be traced to Bologna, where teacher and composer Francesco Durante began to impart to his students an aesthetic of radical simplification. One of Durante's pupils, Giovanni Pergolesi, arrived at a clear-cut and then highly controversial style that stripped away practically all the expected counterpoint (music with several independent lines, like a round) in favor of thin textures and sprightly melodies. Pergolesi's Stabat Mater of 1736 replaced the version written in 1710 by Domenico Scarlatti in Bologna Cathedral; and while Pergolesi's Stabat Mater sounded naked in comparison to Scarlatti's setting, its simplicity and emotional impact marked something wholly new.

Soon Italian composers and the Germans who closely observed them devised a new form that allowed them to expand their ideas: the symphony. Originally conceived as a brief prelude to a vocal cantata or opera, the symphony began to take on a life of its own as a type of concert entertainment played by a court orchestra. Although Giovanni Battista Sammartini is generally credited as the first composer to write true symphonies, the Viennese composer Georg Matthais Monn may have beaten him by a couple of years.

Reflected even in the work of older composers such as Georg Philipp Telemann, who adapted to it late in life, the new Classical style finally moved to center stage in European music around 1750. Several of its most celebrated early practitioners were sons of the king of Baroque composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach spent many years working for the music-loving King of Prussia, Frederick the Great. C.P.E. Bach, as he is known, seems to have assimilated the Italian innovation very early on, at least by 1738. He inherited a certain bent toward drama and complexity from his father, and when these qualities encountered the new styles, highly unusual combinations resulted. C.P.E. Bach associated with writers such as Friedrich Klopstock, who developed the overheated literary style known as Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), and he created a musical style to match: the empfindsamer Stil, or expressive style, exerted a strong influence over Franz Joseph Haydn.

Haydn, a student of the Italian Nicolo Porpora, joined the service of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Eszterházy family in 1759. Polite and industrious, Haydn worked hard for three decades, creating, rehearsing, and performing high-quality music for his patrons. As he turned out symphony after symphony (108 in all), Haydn developed procedures that coalesced into what became known sonata form. Put simply, this meant that a movement often consisted of a series of large sections—marked off by harmonic shifts. Haydn revolutionized the symphony by applying the sonata-allegro principle to it, setting the number of movements at four, and making individual movements longer and more complex. Haydn is also credited with standardizing the string quartet: two violins, a viola, and a cello. Isolated at the Eszterházy estate for much of his career, Haydn hardly realized what a celebrity he was: his works were played everywhere and were eagerly studied by other composers—perhaps most eagerly of all by Mozart.

Why did Classical-era music take the shape it did? Perhaps it was attractive to the landed aristocracy of Europe, with their liking for the predictable and their disdain for jarring effects. But it also found favor with intellectuals, such as Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire, who tied music to the ancient Classical notion of order and balance in all the arts and believed that that access to higher forms of learning for all citizens would usher in an Age of Reason, eliminating ignorance and creating worldwide peace and democracy. The landed gentry would ave to go—but they would not go easy.

The European courts would survive to witness the greatest exponent of melody ever to seek work at their doors, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart began as a child prodigy, tutored in composition athis father's knee. Strongly affected early on by the work of the Bolognese teacher Padre Martini's most brilliant student, Johann Cristian Bach, Mozart combined several talents into a popular and moving style that was musically so sound it had the much-prized quality of seeming effortlessness. Perhaps Mozart's greatest contributions came in opera; he also made lasting contributions to the symphony, chamber music, keyboard music, and choral music. Mozart's reputation does not rest on formal innovations of the kind that Haydn introduced; rather it is the mastery, effectiveness, and sheer beauty of his work that was widely noted, observed and mourned—and it stirred speculation that musical change was in the wind.

Indeed, Ludwig van Beethoven was coming of age as the horrors of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror challenged the notion that the quest for democracy would lead to a halcyon the Age of Reason. In 1792 Beethoven moved to Vienna from Bonn and son established himself as the natural heir to Mozart and the aging Haydn. By the end of the decade, however, Beethoven was steamrollering the neat boundaries of Classical forms. Broadly speaking, Beethoven united Classical ideals of abstract form and balance with the concerns that would dominate the Romantic century to come: human nature and experience, the social contract, the power of the natural world. When Beethoven's 50-minute "Eroica" Symphony was premiered in 1803, critics and composers alike thought that he had lost his mind. Long or short, his works took on a scope and intensity that seemed at odds with Classical style even as they maintained its logic. Beethoven redefined the piano sonata as a powerful form of individual expression, wrote string quartets of unparalleled complexity, and turned the concerto into a virtuoso essay on the theme of the individual versus the crowd. With the group of songs called An die ferne Geliebte, he created the song cycle, a genre that was the very essence of emotional subjectivity.

By the end of the 1810s, younger composers such as Franz Schubert and Franz Berwald began to take the hint that Beethoven was on the right track. In 1824, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, more than an hour in length, became the new modal of what a symphony could be, embracing a chorus, vocal soloists, and a vision of a new world. The following year, an audience member at a Paris performance of Rousseau's 1752 opera Le devin du village tossed a powered wig onto the stage. The point was made; only magistrates were wearing powdered wigs anymore, and the opera, once a symbol of the revolutionary spirit, was withdrawn from the repertory as too old-fashioned. This simple event may be viewed as a death knell for the Classical style.

Classical Instruments and Genres

During the Classical era, composers began to exert a new influence over how the music they wrote was performed. Haydn suggested at the start of the published score of his "Oxford" symphony that if the work were given even one rehearsal, it would be better served than if it were read cold at the concert. No composer had made such a specification before. Gradually, expression marks and specified tempos in both written and published scores grew more prominent. Percussion and certain wind parts, previously indicated sketchily if present at all, now were written out. The clarinet, the bassoon, and eventually the trombone emerged as important instruments during the Classical era.

The symphony, the string quartet, and the solo concerto came to full maturity, while the multiple-instrument concertos of the Baroque and the early Classical periods declined in importance. Johann Sebastien Bach had arranged his keyboard concertos from violin works, and Vivaldi never wrote any keyboard concertos at all. In comparison, by 1765 Bach's sons Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach had each already written dozens of them. The pianoforte (or piano) was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1729, was refined, and became readily available by about 1770. Soon the harpsichord would seem a quaint relic.

One defining feature of Classical music was the rise of comic opera—and opera would have been central to an eighteenth century music enthusiast's concertgoing experiences. Giovanni Pergolesi's intermezzo La serva padrona (1733) was the pioneering work in this style, and its central story of a servant outwitting a master would set a dangerous precedent for works to come—most importantly Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Early comic operas portrayed realistic charaters in familiar situation and did away with the old Greco-Roman pantheon of mythic figures (Baroque composers actually turned to the Greek and Roman classics more often than Classical composers did!).

Serious opera continued to use mythological and antique settings, but change came to that genre as well. The music of Christoph Willibald Gluck's 1761 opera Orfeo ed Euridice was simple and clear-textured, and for the first time arias and recitatives were married into one harmonious unit. The libretto was structured for dramatic effect, avoiding heavy metaphorical allusions and references to obscure mythic figures having nothing to do with the story at hend. Gluck's "reforms" were not to everyone's taste, but in time they took hold. Mozart's operas were prime examples of the new directness the reforms made possible; Don Giovanni, his tale of Don Juan's carousing ways and grim finale,, would have been unthinkable at the dawn of the Classical era.

Major Composers and the Wider Scene

Very few operas from the Classical period beyond those of Gluck and Mozart are now performed, and in general the modern view of Classical-era music suffers from too strong a focus on too few composers. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven are cited as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of Classical style. Such a view unnecessarily limits the understanding of this crucial phase of Western music. Detailed scholarly investigation of Classicism beyond this trio mostly got underway only toward the end of the twentieth century, and much Classical-era music has never been performed, recorded, or published.

True, getting a grip on even the basic works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven probably provides more than enough listening for any one lifetime. And some of the "second rank," such as Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf or Georg Matthias Monn, may not set your soul on fire. But if you explore a little deeper, you find composers from all over Europe who were touched by the new currents and made something distinctive from them: Juan Arriaga and Carlos Baguer from Spain; the Franco-German Franz Ignaz Beck; the keyboard virtuosos Muzio Clementi (from Italy) and Jan Ladislav Dussek (a well-traveled Czech), both of whom heavily influenced Beethoven; the German-born Swede Joseph Martin Kraus; the Czech symphonist Jan Vanhal; the operatic and church composers Luigi Cherubini (Beethoven's own favorite among his contemporaries); the composers of the Mannheim School; early North American and Spanish-American composers; and countless others. All these composers belong to the Classical era, all are interesting and enjoyable on their own terms, and all are unique in approach.

Indeed, an understanding of the big picture of the Classical can deepen one's appreciation of its leading lights. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven did not create their works in a vacuum. Rather, they lived in a time of rapid, fundamental changes—contributing, at some level, to those changes but also swimming in currents stirred by others. The discovery of the many treasures that wait to be heard and enjoyed from this era is at the same time a journey of inquiry into a fascinating period of history that underlies many of the most basic assumptions of contemporary societies.

—Uncle Dave Lewis, an essay from the All Music Guide to Classical Music (ISBN 0-87930-865-6)