Music History - The Classical Period (1750-1825)



The term, "Classical", refers to the reason and restraint found in the life of the ancient Athenians. It has been used by historians to describe all the arts that are concerned mainly with problems of form, logic, balance and restrained expression--and that were also based on models of Greek and Roman art. The term, as applied to music, refers to the works of those eighteenth-century composers whose music gives the impression of clarity, balance, lyricism and restraint of emotional expression.

A primary idea was that the process of reason could realize truth; thus, the utmost emphasis must be placed upon learning and intellectual pursuits. The universe was thought to be a "machine", governed by inflexible laws that man could not override. Another view was that "whatever is true is true throughout the world--it is universal". Emotional restraint was the result of the notion that man's emotions as a guide to truth are false. His rational intellect should control his behavior.

Austria and Germany became the center of very vital musical activity. These countries had a large number of courts, each able to maintain its independence. Each court had by this time given up much of their political and economic independence but maintained their artistic and social status. There was even great rivalry among them in artistic and social matters. There was a long tradition of instrumental music, an abundance of talent, a natural love of music, great artistic ambition and much wealth.

Composers depended upon the patronage of a court or aristocratic society that was very discriminating in its tastes. This society was not only sophisticated and elegant, but also disclaimed emotional displays. It was an "Age of Reason", looking upon feelings with suspicion.

The concert hall and opera house became established institutions, making it possible for all classes to enjoy creative activity--aristocratic or not. Publishing houses also were well established, making performances of musical works widespread. They even favored certain composers (often at the expense of others), which exerted a strong influence on composers and the public. The church, however, became less influential as far as musical patronage was concerned. There was no suitable climate in the church for the continuous growth of religious music, especially because the aristocracy did little to maintain the religious music at the level of the Baroque.

Function of Music: Music during this period served a highly sophisticated and aristocratic society. Its most common function was to provide entertainment for guests in exclusive saloons. Discriminating audiences patronized public concerts of orchestral music, and the elegant spectacle of the opera. In the home, it was possible for the amateur musicians to learn to play compositions. In fact, many serious composers were called upon to write chamber music, as well as vocal solos and ensembles, for amateur performances. Music for dancing was in popular demand for a society that enjoyed lively entertainment. In the church, composers were called upon to write sacred music for its services--but it tended to give way to a "secular" spirit.

Historical Events: The factory system begins, American Revolution, French Revolution, Napoleon becomes dictator of France.

Visual Arts: David, Ingres.

Literature: Burns, Goethe, Schiller, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Scott.

Philosophy: Rosseau, Kant.

Prominent Composers: Sammartini, Gluck, C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Stamitz, Haydn, Dittersodorf, Boccherini, Mozart, Clementi, Cheubini, Beethoven, Kuhlau, Diabelli.

Practice and Performance: During the Classical Period, dynamics became commonplace. This was indeed another was of achieving contrast, employing crescendo and diminuendo, as well as sudden changes from "ff" to "pp". Composers give explicit directions in dynamics, tempi, phrasing form and other interpretive matters--leaving little the performer's imagination. While ornaments were not always written out, there was a precise formula for the execution of each figure. Music was performed with a sense of balance, polish, order, neatness, planning and good taste. There was still some improvisation buy generally applied to the cadenza of a concerto (even so, most cadenzas were written out!).

Prominent Musical Characteristics: Again, the sense of "polish" and "neatness" was the norm. During this time, the pianoforte gradually replaced the harpsichord. Music forms are now precise and clear, with sections being clearly marked off by cadences. Classical music is characterized by symmetry of form, with balanced musical periods (usually in units of four-measure phrases). Folk music even became gradually introduced into serious music. Melodies were lyrical with smooth contours. Ornaments were often written out, but became a lyric part of the melody itself (no longer being merely decorative). Also, melodies were often built out of short melodic "fragments", contrasted homophonically with a second melody. (In effect this led to the ABA formula). Chordal structures also became melodic when broken; and in faster tempos, ascending upwards, they were referred to as "rocket figures". Rhythm was essentially simple and constant, clearly punctuated by rhythmic cadences. An important device of rhythm was the "Alberti bass", which is the breaking-up of a triad into broken-chord figures with a repeated rhythmic pattern. Even silence became part of the element of rhythm. Strong cadences are sometimes followed by a measure of silence in order to heighten the effect of the cadence itself. The tempo of a movement, or section, is always constant from beginning to end. Harmony is tonal, simple, and rarely uses anything beyond primary chords. There is a formal key relationship between themes and movements of forms. This key relationship provides contrast and interest without introducing new material (Sonata-allegro form is a good example of this). Key relations between movements are not so varied. In general, all movements are in the same key (except sometimes for the second movement).

Instrumentation: The most popular means of musical expression during the Classical Period was instrumental--the orchestra, chamber music and solo instruments. The Classical orchestra usually consisted of two of each of the following instruments: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and tympani--and a host of strings numbering around twenty-five. This orchestra was divided into four major groups: strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Each group became a type of "choir" in itself. The harpsichord gradually gave way to the pianoforte. Instrumental chamber music became very popular, as did the opera. There were a large number of operas composed during the Classical Period--but vocal music apart from the opera was of minor importance.

Vocal Compositions: Recitative, aria, chorus, ensembles, lied, oratorio, mass.

New Large Forms: Symphony, sonata, solo concerto, chamber music (duets, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets), serenade, divertimenti, cassations, notturni.

New Small Forms: Sonata-allegro, rondo, theme and variations minuet and trio, scherzo, tenary (ABA), bagatelle, overture

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