THE CLASSICAL ERA: 1750 - 1810
The very name of this era has overpowered all of Western art music. "Classical" has come to mean everything in music from Josquin to Messiaen, and a thousand composers between. In fact, the Classical era in music was relatively brief, had at least in retrospect a specific body of characteristics, and served as spiritual and stylistic home to three of the greatest composers of all time: Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven. The convenient starting date of 1750 belongs, of course, to the death of JS Bach. The equally convenient closing date of 1810 centers around Beethoven and the premiere of his radical Symphony No. 5 in 1808.
It was also a period of fervent intellectual endeavor, political upheaval, and scientific and technological triumph. Personal and court fortune replaced the church as patron of the arts, and a few composers were actually making careers as freelancers, beholden to no one. Across most of his life, Haydn was very nearly an indentured servant. Beethoven would owefealty to no person.
This was an age of Enlightenment and science and world-shaking invention. Benjamin Franklin began his own experiments with electricity in 1751; Kant lived from 1724-1804, and influenced generations, as did Goethe from 1749-1832. In 1769 Watt patented his steam engine, across his life of 1769-1821 Napoleon re-made Europe, and in 1770 New York heard its first performance of Messiah. A year later the First Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published, in 1774 oxygen was discovered, and in 1776 came the Declaration of Independence. The steamboat was invented in 1788, and a year later came the first stirrings of the French Revolution. Louis XVI would lose his head in 1793, the Paris Conservatory would be founded in 1795, and in 1799 Beethoven wrote his first symphony. And from 1756-1791 Mozart walked the earth.
As with the Baroque and Rococco, so too was the Classical Era first defined in architectural and aesthetic terms. After the Baroque and its successor movements had gone as far as possible, and nearly imploded in consequence, we see in the Classical a cleansing, a simplification, a reordering.
Geopolitics also played a role. In the German-speaking world, and at Vienna in particular, we find an astonishing commitment to the new music of the day. Rivalries existed between major and lesser courts for the rights of premiere, the claim to a famous composer, the vitality of a great orchestra and greater opera house. Patrons actually quarreled over the right to commission new music. (How incredible this sounds in our own conservative and backward-looking times.) After the birth of new music, publishing houses then bid (or bribed) for the right of first publication.
But there was more: In the Baroque and preceding eras, music tended to serve descriptive and narrative functions. With the rise of the Classical, music began to tend toward the abstract, a pleasure in formality, a sense of intrinsic and absolute design and content. Although the great bulk of music was still written for purposes of entertainment at court and community functions, much was written for deeper reasons. A sophisticated, maturing audience was rising and the greatest of the Classical composers found their ear.
We will examine the primacy of key, tonality, the uses of the tri-tone, and the place of Topic in all this music. We shall see an increasingly elaborate musical notation: dynamics, phrase, tempo and character now began to be marked in manuscript and the published scores and part-sets that followed. Not only were these issues of increasing theoretical importance to composers, they also represented an important fact on the ground: With the widespread dissemination of printed music, a composer could now expect performance one thousand miles from home, given by complete strangers unfamiliar with his means and purposes. A higher level of codification was now required, and provided.
We will also examine the rise of Sonata-form, the Sonata itself, Haydn's invention of the string quartet and the symphony, and the changing house of opera - most particularly in the work of Mozart.
The composers of the Classical era are, of course, extremely well-known to 21st century listeners. Rather than dwell too long on the obvious, let me recommend instead wonderful music that may not yet be in one's grove of chestnuts. Consider, for example, listening to the earliest symphonies of Haydn (Morning, Noon, and Night are good starters), thepiano sonata No. 1 of KPE Bach, or the overture to Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Listen to the 1st, 2nd, and 4th symphonies of Beethoven after you have listened to any of the last twelve of Haydn. Consider also the later keyboard works of Sammartini (1701-1755), or any of the seventy-five symphonies by JWA Stamitz (1717-1757). This neglected figure created the Mannheim school and its astounding orchestra, and that ensemble influenced every composer who heard it, including Mozart.
And finally to Mozart himself: I once conducted a concert in which we played the 1st and the 41st symphonies. In this way could we trace the trajectory of this immortal, first to last. Although Mozart considered himself a composer of opera above all, any of his symphonies (except No. 37, which he wrote virtually none of-Michael Haydn actually composed it) is worth study. So too are any of his concerti. If you don't already know them, go today to his concerto for clarinet, and for bassoon. They are miracles of conception, art, and most musical speech.
There are many important books written by and about Classical theory and theorists. Such authors as Quantz, Gluck, KPE Bach, Leopold Mozart and Dr Charles Burney are vital prime sources. In our own time, I would like to recommend two in particular: The first is by Stanford's Leonard Ratner, and is a "classic" in its own right:
Classic Music -- Expression, Form, and Style
New York: Schirmer Books, 1985
The second is another worthy:
The Classical Style
New York: Viking, 1971