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Classical Era

by Mara Parker

A style period of Western art music that covers the years c. 1760/70 - c. 1800. The musical sound is characterized by clarity, symmetry, and balance. The best-known composers of the Classical Era are Joseph Haydn [heid'-&n] (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [moh'-tsaart] (1756-1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven [bay'-toh"-f&n] (1770-1827).

In Western culture, the second half of the eighteenth century coincided with the last part of the Age of Enlightenment. This movement, humanitarian and secular in nature, emphasized reason, logic, and knowledge. Those who relied on religion, superstition, and the supernatural to maintain their positions of power found their authority questioned and eventually reduced. A belief in human rights and brotherhood replaced the divine right of kings, so long considered undeniable. Both the American and French revolutions were fought during this half-century. Viewing this period as a great turning point in history, philosophers and writers promoted reason rather than custom or tradition, as the best guide to human conduct. A parallel shift occurred in Western music during the second half of the eighteenth century. Commonly referred to as the "Classical Era," this musical period was characterized by objectivity (restraint, polish, and refinement), clarity, periodicity (regular phrasing), and balance.

The actual dates of this period are often elusive for both the generalist and the specialist. Some see the period beginning as early as c. 1720 with the operatic works of Leonardo Leo (1694-1744) and Leonardo Vinci [vin'-chee] (c. 1690/96-1730; not to be confused with da Vinci, the painter), while others prefer to restrict the term to the music of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart beginning c. 1780. This disagreement reflects not only a basic problem of semantics (differentiating between classic, classical, classicism, and the various nuances associated with each word) but also a problem as to how the era itself should be viewed. Thus, the Classical Period is often presented as one that begins with a transition dating as early as 1720/30 or as late as 1750, and reaches a peak sometime between 1770 and 1781 in the music of Haydn and Mozart. For that reason, either the death of Haydn or the first decade of the nineteenth century may be considered a logical termination point for the Classical Era. There is also some nineteenth-century documentation to support the notion that the period in question extends from the 1770s up to the threshold of Ludwig van Beethoven's last period (c. 1814-1827); this is based on the idea that in the hands of Beethoven, the traditional boundaries of classical forms are overstepped. Lastly, some historians prefer to include all of Beethoven's works and Franz Schubert's [shoo'-b&rt] (1797-1828) as well.

The years 1720/30 - c. 1770 are often referred to as the "pre-Classic," or less pejoratively, the "mid-century" style. The musical taste of audiences shifted in a manner similar to their counterparts in the visual arts. Just as the latter revealed a predilection for balance and clarity of structure, so too did these characteristics become the focal points for composers. Initially, musical composition moved from the ornate style of the late Baroque [b&-rohk'] Period to a more popular style of extreme simplicity. Around mid-century, composers produced works that featured, above all, clarity and accessibility; in essence, they reacted against the thick polyphonic style of the late Baroque Era. This approach is best seen in the symphonies of such composers as Giovanni Battista Sammartini (1700/01-1775) and Johann Stamitz [shtaa'-mits] (1717-1757). These traits, coupled with a systematic working out of ideas, form the basis for the Classical style.

Usage of the term "classical" is itself problematic. In its most objective form, the word might be used to discuss the most eminent artists and authors of Greco-Roman antiquity whose works exhibited a highly developed sensitivity to balance and clarity. The term itself did not come into use with regard to Western European fine arts until the late eighteenth century; at that time, it was applied as a standard of value. The Schlegel [shlay'-g&l] brothers proposed employment of the word to refer to a "paradise lost," a time and stylistic period characterized by logic, simplicity, unity of content and form. The whole notion of a musical classicism did not surface until the nineteenth century. German literary figures, particularly Goethe [goe'-te] and Schiller, [shi'-l&r] debated the difference between classicism and romanticism. It was only later that the terms were applied to music. Whatever the case, the phrase "Classical Era" as applied by current musicologists denotes not so much a single school or nationality, but rather a convergence of similar trends that occurred throughout Western Europe.

Classical composers shared a common concern for clarity and simplicity of expression, for dynamic but systematic working out of ideas, for a universal approach to musical expression, and for balance between structureand expression of emotion. Dramatic contrasts became standard. Contrapuntal textures were scorned in favor of homophonic ones, in which a single lyrical melody was supported with simple accompaniment. While mid-century composers tended to maintain their homophonic textures throughout an entire piece or movement, by the later part of the eighteenth century others treated texture in a more flexible manner. It was not uncommon to find a piece in which carefully placed polyphonic passages accentuated surrounding homophonic ones. Melody was often stated in discrete, complementary, and well-balanced phrases with unobtrusive accompaniments. Classical composers employed a variety of rhythms within a single phrase. For example, in the span of eight measures, one might hear a slow-moving beginning followed by increased rhythmic activity signaling the phrase's conclusion. Composers found that dynamics could be used for subtle shadings as well as large changes in sound and for the first time began to notate these changes with regularity. Terraced dynamics, so often identified with the Baroque Period, gave way to gradual gradations of volume. While performers of both periods used subtle increases and decreases of sound for expressive purposes, composers of the second half of the eighteenth century made their own interpretive desires clearer.

Music attracted a broad spectrum of listeners. In church and at court, as in earlier times, it remained both functional and necessary; for the upper classes, it provided entertainment; and for the intellectuals, its logic and universality challenged the mind. None of this was so different from previous eras. New, however, was the inclusion of the middle class as a patron of music and as an actual participant in the music-making experience. By the mid-eighteenth century, Europe's death rate was falling, the population was growing, and improvements in agriculture allowed fewer farmers to feed more. The onset of the industrial revolution produced new forms of employment and a greater number of people in urban areas. While the nobility still maintained great wealth and power, a rising middle class made itself known. Royalty was no longer the chief patron and commissioner of music. Increasingly, the middle class achieved importance as a consumer both at public concerts, which became more common as the century progressed, and through the purchase of music publications and subscriptions. Thus, while music of the late-eighteenth century still functioned in court life, it was also a basic part of the middle class lifestyle.

Just as the musical style can be seen as a contrast and break with the past, so too can one view the musician's means of support as moving away from past practices. The old-fashioned employment by royal patron no longer was the sole means of support. The transformation from patronage to "free agent" took place at different times throughout Western Europe, but by the 1770s it had reached a climax. The possibilities for earning a livelihood were as varied as they were numerous: one could be a part-time Kapellmeister; [kaa-pel'-mei"-st&r] one could dedicate a published work to a member of the aristocracy with the hope that acceptance would lead to a boost in sales; one could present individual works (often in manuscript form) to royalty in the hope of receiving some jeweled snuff box and gold coins; one could self-publish; one could give private lessons and/or play for special events (weddings, funerals); one could perform in concert; or one could arrange popular operatic airs for alternative settings. The occupational options for the musician were many; none was wholly secure.

The rise of the public concert, the growing market for inexpensive sheet music and self-tutors, and the gradual replacement of small concert halls and court-sponsored opera houses with larger forums funded by ticket sales and public support changed the established patterns of patronage. At the same time, home music making increased and there was an ever-growing number of small concerts in private domiciles; these provided entertainment for the middle class. This increase in home music making can be directly related to the rise of the music publishing industry. Paris had a thriving industry, which remained in the forefront until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Only at that point, did the rest of Europe truly begin to understand the potential benefits of music engraving. Early classical music publishers included La Chevardière, Le Menu, and Bailleux. London publishing houses such as Napier, Forster, and Bremner soon followed the example of their Parisian counterparts. It was not, however, until the 1780s that one sees the establishment of such firms as Artaria in Vienna, Joseph Schmitt in Amsterdam, and Hummel in The Hague and with branches in Amsterdam and Berlin. This difference may be due to the economic and political climate: London and Paris had more people than Vienna, Rome and Berlin, which meant a greater demand for music. Furthermore, London and Paris had a large "music-hungry" middle class that wanted the latest in sonatas, quartets, and operatic airs. The increased availability of publications allowed the newly affluent to purchase not only sheet music and instructional manuals, but also music journals, which included reviews, criticisms, lists of recently published music, concert announcements, and sometimes printed music.

In many respects, an examination of chamber music points up the growing distinction between the private music-making experience and the public forum. Chamber music, which was long perceived as a symbol of court culture, became increasingly attractive to the bourgeoisie. With these social changes came a new class of amateurs with a need for accessible music, otherwise known as Hausmusik. [hows'-moo-zeek"] This music was simpler than that used for court or public consumption, and was designed for everyday use and performance by all who wished to partake. Some composers, such as Ignaz Joseph Pleyel [play-el'] (1757-1831), Ferdinand Fränzl [fren'-z&l] (1767-1833), Adalbert Gyrowetz [gei'-roh"-wets] (1763-1850), Paul Wranitzky [ray"-nits'-kee] (1756-1808), Leopold Kozeluch [koh'-zhe-lookh"] (1747-1818), and Franz Krommer [kraw'-m&r] (1759-1831), remained dedicated to satisfying these needs. From the outset, their works were considered lighter and more comprehensible. These people strove toward higher levels but, at the same time, remained accessible to the non-professional musician. Stylistically their compositions were predominantly homophonic, contained familiar thematic material, were unassuming in layout, and had a minimal two- or three-part interplay between voices. These were the popular compositions of the day, and commercially, the most successful. Amateurs had varying degrees of technical facility and musical comprehension. The domestic setting was the favorite of smaller music societies, for it allowed each person to participate on his or her own level.

The rise of the professional string quartet was one of the most important developments of the second half of the eighteenth century. Up to the 1790s, the professional quartet, in the modern sense, was a rarity. Until that time, established quartets were staffed by the private servants of the nobility. Alternatively, these groups could be mixtures of professionals and wealthy patrons. Whatever the case, public performance was rare. It was not until the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries that we see the existence of professional groups in the modern sense. As music became more demanding, both technically and musically, the amateur found he could not meet the challenges. As emphasis was placed on both the technical and the interpretive aspects, successful performance of quartets became the province of the skilled professional. Thus the history of the string quartet during the second half of the eighteenth century reveals a continuous state of change where the medium moved from the court circle of dilettantes to the Kenner und Liebhaber (an eighteenth-century phrase used to refer to both knowledgeable musicians and the growing number of amateur music-lovers), and then finally to the professional performer. This corresponds to the general move in the Western music in which music is transformed from a semi-feudal craft serving church, town, and court into a free-enterprise profession supplying predominantly bourgeois markets. By the end of the century, composers could and did think in terms of public performance as opposed to the personal tastes of a single patron. While earlier works were written for the professional or skilled amateur to be played in the aristocratic home, by the end of the century it was not uncommon to hear string quartets in public concerts before audiences of various classes.

Similar developments can be seen with regard to the rise of the symphony orchestra and the keyboard sonata. During the second half of the eighteenth century, one finds a process of standardization of the orchestra, especially in orchestration. The typical ensemble was small and included a four-part string section and pairs of woodwinds. The violin section was the dominant one and it was not uncommon to find the entire orchestra led by either the concertmaster or keyboardist. The first four-movement symphony was composed by the Austrian composer Georg Monn (1717-1750) in 1740. In Mannheim (near Frankfurt, Germany), symphonies, the form of which was derived from the Italian opera sinfonia, were written by Johann Stamitz, Anton Filtz (1733-1760), and Christian Cannabich (1731-1798). With these Mannheim works we have the seeds of the symphony. By the time of Haydn and Mozart, the symphony reached its mature classical form.

Concurrent with the development of the symphony is that of the keyboard sonata. The rise of the standard keyboard sonata began during the same time that the piano replaced the harpsichord as the keyboard instrument of choice. Initially keyboard sonatas were written as didactic pieces or for home amusement. Those by Johann Christian Bach [baakh] (1735-1782) are excellent examples. Most of his works, designed to meet the needs of his pupils and amateurs, are in two movements and in a lyrical and galant (pleasing, refined, and light-textured) vein. The few sets with three movements are more demanding. Only with the works of Haydn and Mozart does one see the complete transformation of the genre, moving from the simple to the complex. Haydn's sonatas, numbering more than sixty, are particularly illustrative. Taken as a whole, they represent typical trends in piano writing during the Classical Period and show a shift in emphasis, from the amateur to the highly-skilled performer. As these works became more complex, their performance moved from the home parlor to the concert setting.

Although many composers lived and worked during the Classical Period, the three major figures are Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Each of these composers made significant contributions to the symphony, keyboard sonata, chamber music -- especially the string quartet -- and church music; in the hands of Mozart, opera reached an artistic level previously unseen. Each made use of sonata allegro form, the hallmark of the Classical Era.

Sonata allegro form, or simply sonata form, is the most characteristic structure in multi-movement instrumental music of the Classical Period. The term itself refers to a structure initially derived from the late-Baroque binary form in which a composer moves from the tonic (a chord built on the first degree of a tonal scale) to a new key, usually the dominant (a chord built on the fifth degree of a tonal scale) in the first half, and from the new key back to the tonic in the second half. Classical sonata structure, dependent first and foremost on harmonic movement, was the predominant form in most first movements of symphonies, sonatas, chamber works, and to a lesser extent in some movements within the mass (religious service) form, and according to Charles Rosen, in some parts of Mozart's operas. It was also used elsewhere, as in slow and concluding movements, and in overtures. This form, which is based on an opposition of two keys, usually the tonic and the dominant, is often divided into three parts: an exposition, where the two keys and often two contrasting themes are "exposed"; a development, an unstable section in which a composer moves through a variety of keys and often works with fragments of melodic material from the exposition; and a recapitulation that signals a return to stability by a reaffirmation of the home key. Although Romantic composers emphasized the contrasting themes, the Classical composer was more interested in the duality of the two keys. Thematic contrast was secondary.

Historians have easily placed both Haydn and Mozart within the Classical Era. Their life spans fit neatly into the time period in question; moreover, in both one finds a preliminary exploration of the mid-century style, which is then transformed into a more personal and fully developed one, bearing the expected traits of a classical composer. Beethoven is more problematic because his music straddles both the Classical and Romantic Periods. His first-period works (up to c. 1802) fall easily within the style of the period in question. His later works, filled with drama, tension, harmonic and structural exploration are better discussed within the context of the nineteenth century.

For Further Reading

Allanbrook, Wye Jamison, ed. Source Readings in Music History. Vol. 5, The Late Eighteenth Century. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1998.

Blume, Friedrich. Classic and Romantic Music: A Comprehensive Survey. Translated by M. D. Herter Norton. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1970. Views the style epochs as one. This is probably the best survey of the many facets of Classical music.

Bücken, Ernst. Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft. Vol. 4, Die Musik des Rokokos und der Klassik. Potsdam: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1928-1934. Although somewhat dated, this text was the first important and independently-published survey of the period.

Engel, Hans. "Die Quellen des Klassischen Stiles." In Report of the Eighth Congress of the International Musicological Society: New York, 1961. Edited by Jan La Rue, 1: 285-304. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1961. An extensive but in places controversial view of the sources of the Classical style.

Heartz, Daniel. Haydn, Mozart, and the Viennese School, 1740-1780. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995.

---. "Opera and the Periodization of Eighteenth-Century Music." In International Musicological Society, Report of the Tenth Congress, Ljubljana, 1967. Edited by Dragotin Cvetko. 160-68. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1970.

Larsen, Jens Peter. "Some Observations on the Development and Characteristics of Vienna Classical Instrumental Music." Studia musicologica 9 (1967): 115-30. Although the orientation is somewhat dated, this work is an important introduction to its topic.

Morrow, Mary Sue. Concert Life in Haydn's Vienna: Aspects of a Developing Musical and Social Institution. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1989.

Newman, William S. The Sonata in the Classic Era. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1983. From a stylistic viewpoint, this is one of the most explicit and detailed treatments of late eighteenth-century music.

Ratner, Leonard G. Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style. New York: Schirmer Books, 1980. This and the next two entries rely heavily on contemporary writings.

---. "Eighteenth-Century Theories of Musical Period Structure." The Musical Quarterly 42 (1956): 439-54.

---. "Harmonic Aspects of Classic Form." Journal of the American Musicological Society 2 (1949): 159-68.

Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1971.

Selected Discography

Beethoven, Ludwig van. Die Klaviersonaten. Wilhelm Kempff, piano. 6 compact discs. Deutsche Grammaphon 429 306. 1965.

---. Die Streichquartette. Quartetto Italiano. 10 compact discs. Philips 454 062. 1996.

---. Symphonies, Vol. 1. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Kurt Masur, conductor. 2 compact discs. Deutsche Grammophon 454 032. 1975.

Haydn, Joseph. The Masses. Preston, Guest, Willcocks, et al. 7 compact discs. Uni/London 448 518. 1968, 1978.

---. The Piano Sonatas. John McCabe, piano. 12 compact discs. Uni/London 443 785. 1975-1977.

---. The String Quartets. The Aeolian String Quartet. 22 compact discs. Uni/London 455 261. 1977.

---. The Symphonies. Philharmonia Hungarica, Antal Dorati, conductor. 33 compact discs. Uni/London 448 531. 1973.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. The Complete Mozart. 180 compact discs. Uni/Philips 60100. 1992.

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