The Classical period of music is from 1750 to 1830.
Classicism was a stylistic development in mid 1700s across the arts and architecture which was hugely influenced by the ancient “classical” world, and in particular Ancient Greece.
It was characterised by simple, clear structure and divisions. Whilst the word Baroque literally means “strange/weird”, classical very much conveys a sense of balance and “order”.
The French term “style galant”, literally meaning “elegant style” or “light elegance” is very helpful in understanding much of the Classical Period.
Musical Features of the Classical Period
There are a number of “fingerprints” you should look out for when identifying music of the classical period:
Balanced phrasing with clear cadences.
Have a listen to this extract of a flute sonata by Haydn.
Can you hear how the phrases are balanced? They are typically in groups of 4 bars and have clear cadences.
(Taken from the European Archive)
Classical music is typically constructed of a melody line with a chord based accompaniment.
(you can hear this in the piano accompaniment of the Flute Sonata by Haydn in the example above)
This is a style of accompaniment that you will come across a lot in classical music pieces.
It uses a broken chord pattern playing the root note, then the 5th then the 3rd. Have a look at the following example taken froma piece by Mozart:
Instruments of the Classical Period
It is important to understand that there were 3 very significant instrumental developments in the classical period:
- The Orchestra very significantly increased in number of instruments.
- The Piano replaced the harpsichord – (the piano (or fortepiano) had huge potential as an instrument for composers.
- The improvised continuo part so commonplace in the Baroque period gradually died out as composers specified which instruments would play in accompaniments. This was typical of a more “structured” approach to music. Composers also added dynamic markings and phrasing to bring added interest to the single melody line.
Composers of the Classical Period
To have a good understanding of the classical music period, you need to appreciate the impact of “The Big 3” – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (technically, they are described as the “First Viennese School” rather than “The Big 3”!!)
All of the examples you will hear below are from these 3 composers to give you a basic introduction to some of their work.
Musical Forms of the Classical Period
The classical period witnessed the dawn of the symphony – a large-scale orchestral composition (usually made up of 4 movements).
It was (and still is) seen as being the medium by which composers expressed their most “weighty“and “profound” musical thoughts.
Haydn wrote 107 symphonies! He clearly must have been very “weighty” and “profound”!!
His early symphonies were more like suites and were written specifically to be performed for his employers in the court in Esterhazy.
However, as his symphonies developed, he showed that a huge variety of musical ideas/forms could be used to create symphonies, rather than there being one set formula.
Here is an example of one of Haydn’s later symphonies:
(Taken from the European Archive)
Mozart built upon the work Haydn had put into his symphonies, further developing his art.
However, it was Beethoven who took the symphony onto a whole new level of emotional expression.
His 3rd Symphony (“Eroica”, 1803-4) used bold harmonies, subtle key relationships and large dimensions and heralded a new era in musical writing.
In short, it was “revolutionary”!
In many ways, Beethoven’s music bridged the gap between the classical period and the Romantic period which followed.
Have a listen to these 2 examples from Beethoven’s symphonies. Can you hear the intense drama and “big” sound that Beethoven brings to his music?
(Played by the Fulda Symphonic Orchestra)
The symphony still survives today as a very popular musical form which showcases the composing skills of great composers.
The concerto became a very popular form of composition in the Classical Period.
The concerto is a piece of music written for solo instrument and orchestra in which the solo instrument is contrasted and combined with the orchestra.
They are a fantastic way to show off the virtuosic skill of the performer.
There is a section called the cadenza in which the soloist is given the opportunity to really “show off” their ability.
Not surprisingly, Mozart (who was known for his flamboyance!) wrote many concertos.
Have a listen to this example from one of his piano concertos.
Listen out for the way the music of the soloist is contrasted and blended with the orchestra. Also, enjoy the amazing performing skills of the soloists!!
(Performed by NOVA Community Chorus)
The sonata is an instrumental composition for a solo instrument. A piano sonata features the piano on its own, whilst a sonata written for another instrument (such as violin, flute, clarinet, etc..) will be accompanied by the piano.
They usually contain several movements (a movement is a self-contained section of a bigger piece – think of it as being like “mini pieces within the overall piece of music”)
The sonata originated in the 16th century, was developed in the Baroque period, but the Classical period “marked the greatest period in the development of the form” (Michael Kennedy, “The Oxford Dictionary of Music” Copyright OUP 1985).
The Sonata remains one of the most widely used forms for solo instrument composition.
Be careful not to confuse the term “Sonata” with “Sonata Form”.
Have a listen to this example of a violin sonata by Mozart:
(Performed by Boris Borgolotto)
There were other forms of instrumental music seen in the Classical Period, including the trio and the string quartet.
Vocal Music in The Classical Period
Vocal music in many ways mirrored the development of instrumental music in the Classical Period.
Balanced phrases and clear structures where clearly evident.
Opera was hugely important and, most notably, the operas of Mozart.
It was during the Classical Period that some of the operas most popular today were written.
Watch this extract from The Royal Opera House taken from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”: