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  • Date :
  • 7/31/2004

The Classical Era

(1750-1820 C.E.)

     Although the Classical Era lasted for only 70 years, there was a substantial change in the music that was being produced. Classical music placed a greater stress on clarity with regard to melodic expression and instrumental color. Although opera and vocal music (both sacred and secular) were still being written, orchestral literature was performed on a much broader basis. The orchestra gained more color and flexibility as clarinets, flutes, oboes, and bassoons became permanent members of the orchestra.

     The classical style was dominated by

homophony, which consisted of a single melodic line and an accompaniment. New forms of composition were developed to adapt to this style. The most important of these forms was thesonata which was in instrumental music. This form continued to change and evolve throughout the classical period, and it is important to note that the classical sonata was very different from the sonatas written by Baroque composers.


The early 1700s reflected a musical style known as Rococo. This style served as a transition from the Baroque to the Classical Era.

 Rococo, which developed inFrance, is actually an art term that described a new art style which was both a light and embellished. Musically speaking, it is refered to as style galant. In Germany, after 1750, the style galant became empfindsamer stil. With this change in name came an added element of expressiveness and sentimentality.

     As classical music evolved, distinctive characteristics developed. Changes in form were seen along with changes in phrase structure. Shorter phraases and well defined cadences became more prevalent. During this time period, a favorite accompaniment pattern was the Alberti bass (name for Dominico Alberti), which featured a broken chord progression.

     The melodies of the Classical era were more compact and diatonic. Harmony was less structured. It used the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords. In addition, during this period, diatonic harmony was more common then chromatic. Composers mainly used chords in triadic form and occasionally used seventh chords in their compositions.

     The four major composers of the Classical era were Haydn, Mozart, Gluck, and Beethoven. These composers wrote extensively for vocal and instrumental mediums.


     While the instrumental works of the Classical era were grandiose, the vocal works of the time did not make much of an evolution from those of the Baroque era. There are a few important key changes in concepts that occured, however.

     With the Classical Era came both the decay and subsequent reformation of the Italian opera seria, or serious opera. Its once dramatic and emotional presentation had evolved into a showy and artificial art form. Although many musicians of the time realized the tragic decline of the opera seria, change took place slowly. To try and restore the opera seria to its former greatness, composers made certain changes in their writing styles. While not everyone agreed upon or employed these changes, many of them can be found in some of the operas of the late 18th century. According to Hugh M. Miller, the following were some of the changes tha occured in opera during the 18th century:


1. Melodic recitatives with orchestral accompaniment were favored over Secco recitatives

2. Solo singers began to lose some of their autocratic domination over opera performance and ostentatious virtuosity was less evident
3. Choral ensembles were used on a much more frequent basis
4. There was a greater concern for the dramatic aspects of peras, as therehad been in the past and less concern given to formal music aspects
5. The orchestra was no longer just used for accompaniment and expanded in size and nature
6. Chains and arias were not the only structures used as composers made operas more dramatic by using different techniques
7. Rigid da capo arias appeared less frequently as they gave way to more diversified forms. (127)

     During the same time, the comedic opera began developing. This type of opera was in sharp contrast to the opera seria. It catered more to the people who wanted to "revolt" against the more serious and dramatic opera.

Religious Music
     For the most part, after Handel mastered theoratorio, it died out as a musical form. Few oratorios of consequence were composed after Handel. During the late 18th century, any oratorios that were still being performed appeared to be almost identical to operas. Some oratorios went so far as to be staged and acted while the performers wore costumes. It is also important to note that Haydn’s oratorios during the Classical era closely resembled Handel"s earlier oratorios.

     Church music now resembled operatic music more than ever before. Almost all composers of church music during the Classical era also composed operatic music.

Masses became operatic styled pieces of literature for the orchestra, the solo voice, and the chorus. Duets and arias even resembled operas; the only feature that distinguished them from opera was their texts.

     During the Classical era, some Baroque characteristics still remained in place in

sacredmusic. Fugual choruses andbasso continuo parts remained virtually identical to those in the Barqoue era.

Instrumental Music

     During the Classical Era, many changes in instrumental style took place. The classical

sonata evolved a great deal during the period. Sonata form was the basic structure in which composers wrote instrumental music. Sonata form was applied to solo sonatas, chamber music, symphonies, and concertos. Musical compositions of this time contained three or four movements, each with its own special characteristics.

     The first movement of a Sonata was called the sonata-allegro. It consisted of three sections:

1) Exposition:
This section presented the main theme of the movement in thetonic key. The theme then transitioned by a bridge and modulated to the dominant key, or relative major key if the movement was in a minor key. The second theme was presented in the dominant key. This section concluded with a closing theme orcodetto.

2) Development:
This section used the material from the exposition which the composer "developed" and expanded. Motives were presented in various keys, registers, and groupings of instruments. In this section the composer also used new themes that were not found in the exposition section. The composer ended this section in thetonic key and moved directly into the recapitulation.

3) Recapitulation:
The recapitulation was a restatement of the exposition but with all subsections remaining in the tonic key.

     In the second movement of a sonata, there were three specifications that usually occured. It was written in a slow tempo, in a contrasting key (usually the subdominant or dominant), in relation to the whole work. Additionally, this movement was more lyrical than the other movement.

     The third movement in the classical sonata was called the

menuetto or minuet. Like the other movements, this one also had special characteristics. It was written in a moderately fast tempo, played in the tonic key, and was written in three-four. The minuet had three sections: minuet, trio, and a repeat of the minuet. In a sonata with three movements, the minuet was left out or omitted. In some of Haydn and in most of Beethoven’s works in sonata form, the third movement was called a scherzo. It utilized the same aspects of the minuet, but was more humorous in nature. Sometimes the two middle movements were reversed, so that the minuet came second and the slow movement third. In a three movement composition, the minuet or scherzo was omitted.

     The fourth movement, or finale, also had distinct characteristics. It had a lively tempo, was played in the tonic key, and was usually played in sonata-allegro form.


     Another important form of instrumental music was the symphony, which blossomed during the 18th century. The basic form of the classical symphony was the Italian overture, called sinfonia. It was an orchestral composition arranged in three movements (fast-slow-fast).

     Instrumentation commonly found by the end of the 1700"s included:

1. Four woodwind instruments in pairs (flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons)

2. Trumpets, horns, and timpani in pairs
3. String choir with first and second violins, violas, cellos, and string basses

     Orchestration utilized the following:

1. The strings remained the most important sound in the orchestra.

2. Themes were played by first violins.
3. Harmonies were usually played by second violins and violas.
4. Cellos and basses were doubled; however, the basses sounded an octave lower.
5. Brass instruments, without valves, were only used in tutti passages and played harmonies, instead of main thematic material.


     The Classical solo concerto was similar to that of the Baroque but differed in the style and structure of movements. The Classical Concerto followed the fast-slow-fast formula, but omitted the minuet movement, thereby containing only three movements.

First Movement
     The first movement was written in sonata-allegro form, but had two separate expositions. The first exposition introduced principal themes by the orchestra in the tonic key. The second exposition had a solo instrument convey the theme in a more brilliant and showy style.

     In the next stage the composer developed and expanded these musical ideas. At the conclusion of the development section, recapitulation began. At this point, the composer restated the main themes of the movement. Near the end of recapitulation a

cadenza is played. This cadenza was freely improvised in a virtuosic manner. During the 1800s, cadenzas were usually written out beforehand by composer or performer.

Second Movement
     The second movement was written in a contrasting key. It utilized a slow tempo and was stylistically more lyric then the first. This movement is the least virtuosic movement of all three.

Third Movement
     The third movement was written inrondo form. It had a lively tempo, and was stylistically lighter then the other movements. Sometimes a cadenza was added.


     Chamber music was its own distinct musical entity, very different from the orchestral medium. It was composed for a very small ensemble with only a few members and with only one instrument to a part. It was at its height in music literature during the Classical era.

     Divertimento was composed for various media, such as small chamber ensembles and small orchestras. It had three to ten movements, which included minuets, dances, standard sonata-form movements, and marches. This music was meant for outdoor and informal performances. It was less sophisticated than symphonies. Haydn wrote over 60 divertimentos, and Mozart wrote more than 25.

String Quartet
     String quartets were the most popular chamber medium of the Classical era. They were made up of one cello, two violins, and a viola. They were written in 4 movements, using the Classical sonata form.

Other Chamber Music
     Music was also written for mixed quartets, which used three string instruments and one additional instrument (usually oboe, clarinet, piano or flute). There was also music written for stringtrios, mixed trios, stringquintets, and mixed quintets.

Keyboard Music
     Solo Sonatas for piano or harpsichord were important during the Classical era. Well known composers of this style were Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach, J.C. Bach, and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Additionally, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven also wrote piano sonatas.


Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)

     Of German descent, Ludwig Van Beethoven was born in 1770. It has been said that Beethoven and his music are the bridge between the Classical and the Romantic eras. Beethoven had a difficult child-hood; he was often angry and frustrated, but he also had a wit and personal charm about him. He was self-educated and rose above his tribulations to become one of the greatest composers of all time. Beethoven"s music experimented with new rhythms, and he composed music based on an idea, as opposed to a full rhythm. His works were composed for quartets, concertos, symphonies, and piano sonatas. To some, Beethoven is regarded as the father of modern music.

      It is often said that Beethoven"s music contained his own struggles for both political and personal freedom. His defiant plea for these freedoms can be heard somewhat in his Fifth Symphony, and wholeheartedly in his

Ninth Choral Symphony, and in his opera Fidelio. He put an extreme amount of emotion into all his works. Beethoven"s music is recognized around the world. He composed nine symphonies and pieces such asFur Elise, andMoonlight Sonata


The musical career of Beethoven can best be viewed in three different phases.

 In the first period of his musical career, he composed his First and Second Symphonies, Opus 18, six string quartets, and the first fifteen of his thirty two piano

sonatas. In the second or middle stage of his career, Beethoven began to build on Classical works, bringing them to a new level of expressiveness. In this stage he composed his Third Symphony, also known asEroica. This piece was both longer than his other two symphonies and was so dramatic and emotional that it would change the symphonic form as the musical world knew it. In his third and last stage, Beethoven was at his most creative, and he explored music further then he had ever done before. In his final piano sonatas and stringquartets, Beethoven abandoned traditional form, while still keeping his own original sound. It is said that his musical defiance is due in part to his deafness which isolated him from society.

     Beethoven"s music remembered today for its unique quality and for its defiance. His new styles bridged the Classical and Romantic era and brought the musical world from the old into the new. Beethoven was also the first composer to ever be appreciated by the public within his own lifetime. Thanks to him, great musicians of their time would recieve the credit they were rightly due.

Christoph Willibald Glock (1714-1787)

     Christoph Willibald Gluck was of Bavarian heritage and was a writer of the operatic form. Gluck spent ten years of his life in Italy, where although his operas were not highly acclaimed or noteworthy, they were successful. On one occasion, he played one of his Italian operas in London. It was not well received because Handel was the dominating composer of operas there. Handel commented behind his back "Gluck knows no more counterpoint than mine cook (Kaufmann, 55-56)."

     Gluck eventually reformed his style and applied classic Greek principles to the Italian operatic form. His new operas showed growth and were full of drama, emotion, genuine orchestral accompaniment, powerful choruses, and dignified melodies and arias. By his fortieth birthday, Gluck had written twenty operas. Gluck wrote the now famous operas

Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste, Paris and Helen, Iphigenia in Aulis and Armide. Gluck"s new style was hailed as modern, innovative, and almost revolutionary. Christoph Willibald Gluck made the operatic composers of the era seem "old hat". One critic is quoted as saying, "If the Greeks had had a musician, they would have had Gluck (Kaufmann, 56)."

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

     Austrian born and raised, Franz Joseph Haydn began his musical career as a choirboy in Vienna. While at school, scribbling music on paper became a favorite pastime of his. A man named Count Furnberg became the first patron of Haydn. Under the Count, Haydn played string quartets and composed his first eighteen quartets. He then went on to be a music director to the Count Morzin. At this time, he composed his Symphony No. 1, which was followed by over a hundred more. He then spent thirty years with the family of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy. During those years, he composed five masses, forty string quartets, sixty symphonies, thirty clavier pieces, one hundred and five cello trios, and many different types of works for funerals, weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations. Symphonies No. 44

"Allegro","Allegretto","Adagio","Presto", and No.1041st mvmt.,2nd mvmt.,3rd mvmt.,4th mvmt., are among his more popular works.

     Some of Haydn"s most famous pieces are the Minuet of the Ox, the Rasierquartet, the Kaiserquartett,

The Creation and The Seasons. Furthermore, Franz Joseph Haydn is known as the father of the string quartet. Mozart has been quoted as saying, "From Papa Haydn I learned all I know about string quartets." He added extra instrumentation into the orchestra and sang his music with all his heart. Haydn is regarded today as one of the greatest composers in all of music history.

  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

     Austrian born, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was regarded to be the greatest child prodigy the world has ever known. At age four, he heard his older sister playing a harpsichord minuet. Mozart begged his father to let him try the piece, and by ear, he played the piece perfectly. Throughout his life, tragedy struck. He was one of the most talented composers ever to walk the face of the earth, yet he led a life filled with much unhappiness.

     Upon traveling toItaly, Mozart fell in love with the Italian opera. One of his most famous peras is The Escape from the Seraglio, in which the heroine was named after his wife Constanze. Although many of the people inVienna greatly praised this opera, Mozart"s patron, Emperor Joseph, was not a fan of the style. Even though Mozart had his streaks of bad luck and his family was often in debt, his marriage to Costanze held many moments of happiness. On Sunday mornings, Haydn and two other musician friends from Vienna would show up at Mozart"s residence and would play string quartets. Haydn is quoted as telling Mozart"s father, "I declare to you upon my honor that I consider your son the greatest composer that I have ever heard (Kaufmann, 67)."

     Mozart composed many operas of which his most loved are

The Marriage of Figaro,Don Giovanni, andCosi Fan Tutte. His last opera,The Magic Flute, has charm and intelligence, even though it was written when he was sick and depressed. Ironically, during the same year that he wrote his last opera, a stranger approached Mozart and asked him to write a Requiem Mass. Although the stranger"s motives and identity were unclear, Motzart began writing the Requiem Mass that was requested. When it was half finished, Mozart"s sickness took a turn for the worse, and he died. The Requiem Mass would be his last composition. When he died the piece included (includingRequiem Aeternam,Kyrie Eleison,Dies Irae, andConfutatis,Lacrimosa. Although he only lived to age 35, Mozart is regarded as a prominent musical genius.

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