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May 27

The MyMusicTheory Guide to Music; Part 5 – The Classical Era

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The Classical Era 1750-1830


What is “classical music”? To many people, it’s a general term which encompasses all music which is not “pop” or “jazz”, etc. To people who are interested in “classical music” in general however, the term really only refers to the specific period from about 1750 to 1830. In this article, we’re talking about music of the Classical Era – music which was written from roughly the time of J.S. Bach’s death (1750) to that of Beethoven’s death (1827). In less than a hundred years a lot changed in music – let’s explore what was going on in Classical times.

So much happened during the Classical era that we can only touch on a few aspects of it in such a short article. Some monumental figures who feature heavily at this time are Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, all of whom were both prolific and progressive, meaning that they wrote an awful lot of music and their style developed with time. Each musical era evolves gradually from the next; there is never a sudden overnight change in techniques, so composers who were around in the early Classical days (for example Mozart) initially wrote in a style similar to the Baroque days, and later composers’ styles evolved into the Romantic era.

The popularisation of the piano also had a dramatic effect on the music composed at this time.

Mozart lived from 1756 to 1791, and Beethoven from 1770 until 1827, so their lives overlap and span the Classical era. We can learn lots of useful facts about the era by examining their music alone, but if you want to explore Classical composers a bit more, you could also try some Haydn, Schubert, Stamitz, C.P.E. Bach and Gluck.

Form

During the Classical period, quite a few new types of “standard” composition were invented or developed. We see the emergence of the sonata, the string quartet, the symphony and the concerto.

Generally, these four types of composition had a similar organisation to them; the difference was in which instruments were playing together.

Each had three or four movements; the first and last movements would normally be quick, the second movement slow, and if there was a third movement it would be in a dance form, for example a minuet and trio.

A sonata was a piece for solo instrument with a piano accompaniment, or piano solo. It would have three or four movements.

The string quartet followed a similar pattern to the four-movement sonata form. A string quartet consists of two violins, a viola and a cello. There is no double bass in a string quartet.

The Classical symphony was a large-scale piece for full orchestra.

The concerto was written for one solo instrument accompanied by a full orchestra.

The first movement in each of these types of composition was usually written in sonata form. In basic terms, this means that the movement was divided into three main sections. First came the exposition, where the various themes used in the piece are presented with some key changes. Next up was the development, where the original themes would be manipulated, expanded or altered in some way, and finally came the recapitulation, where the themes from the first part were restated, but without the change of key.

Here is part of Mozart’s first violin concerto, written in about 1775. Typically of early classical music, the themes are frequently built on sections of scales and arpeggios (broken chords). At 5’20, the orchestra pauses, and the violinist performs a cadenza, an improvised section designed to show off the soloist’s skill and wow the audience.


In contrast, here is the first movement of Beethoven’s final (16th) string quartet from 1826. Notice how much more lyrical the style of music has become – the emphasis on scales and arpeggios is much less, and instead there is a lot more melodic variety with an attempt to convey emotion, and more harmonic and dynamic variation and contrast. This clip is interesting as it gives you a potted history of Beethoven’s life.

Texture & Style

Whereas in the Baroque era most music had been polyphonic (with several independent strands of music woven together), in the Classical period homophonic music dominated – tunes played above a chordal accompaniment. The overall effect is that Classical music tends to sound cleaner and lighter than Baroque music.

In style, Classical music is elegant and graceful. A truly magnificent Classical piece has to be properly constructed, in proportion and performed with moderation and control.

Instruments

The piano was invented in 1698 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, in Italy. The early models were crude however, and it wasn’t until various technical improvements had been made over time that the piano began to achieve popularity. By the late 18th century, pianos were featuring in public performances across Europe, and before long the piano replaced the harpsichord as the standard household musical instrument.Cristofori piano

The main difference between the harpsichord and the piano is that the piano can sustain notes, whereas a note played on the harpsichord dies away almost immediately, and the piano can produce a very broad range of dynamics, from pianissimo to fortissimo, whereas the harpsichord is basically just – quiet.

At the end of the 18th century a new wind instrument was invented, which became very popular very quickly – the clarinet. Mozart was particularly taken with the instrument, and composed some of the most beautiful clarinet music ever written. Here’s the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto:

During the Classical period, the instruments of the symphony orchestra  became standardised. There are four sections in an orchestra – the strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. The string section comprises violins, violas, cellos and double basses. The woodwind has flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. The brass section has trumpets, trombones and tubas, and later French horns were frequently added. The percussion section can vary, but could include a bass drum, timpani, triangle, cymbals and tuned instruments such as the xylophone or glockenspiel.

We could say that Baroque music was mostly about form, and Classical music was a proportionate balance between expressiveness and form. Towards the end of the Classical era (which really has no definite end date), the focus began to shift towards a greater emphasis on expressiveness, with form becoming much more flexible. This was the beginning of the Romantic Era.

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2 comments

  1. Musik Mosiah

    Great information. The elements used in your article are so appropriate. A number of person will benefit from your post.

  2. Solomon Esemuze

    better explanation with videos illustration.

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