The Classical Period in Music

The Classical period was a time in which the concept that the universe was rational and explainable became the predominant mode of thinking. Through scientific discovery, people believed that the answers to life’s questions were within reach. The laws of physics were revealing themselves, and concepts such as an elliptical orbit that binds and allows planets to revolve around the sun were formulating and accepted on a large-scale. In the past, people thought Earth was the center of the universe. In the Classical period, these ideas were starting to give way to rationalism. With this new rationalism, the power of God as an idea lost some of its credence among rationalists. Scientists were beginning to explore alternative explanations. Superstition somewhat gave way to rationalism and people started to trust in the idea that all events were explainable with science provided the observer asked the right questions. The belief in demonology and witchcraft declined significantly in this period. Those previously accused of having occult powers received a reprieve and were no longer burned at the stake and killed in inhumane ways. Rationalism led to a questioning of superstitions and many people began to choose science over faith. This was a time when people were questioning the Catholic Church and the principles of the relationship between man, God, and the church. They stopped trusting the Catholic Church to provide them with their sole source of spiritual education. The concept of a ruling King started to lose its power as well. In 1647, Charles I was executed by the Parliament. This in itself was proof that the sovereignty of the King was questionable. People were starting to care more about democracies and governments that were fair and equal. The First Viennese School The most influential composers of the Classical period were Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. However, the Viennese School included Schubert as well, a composer from the Romantic Period. These composers garnered the nickname, ‘The Viennese School’ since they hit the high point of their careers in Vienna. They were musically bound to the city of Vienna. Mozart was a close friend of Haydn, Beethoven wanted to study with Mozart but studied with Haydn when Mozart died, and Schubert was a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral.

The “C” in Classical

The capital C in classical music represents the music of the Classical period while the lower case c represents all Western art music. Music that is written today is still referred to as classical music, but not Classical music.

Vienna, Austria: City of Music

Vienna was the capital of the old Holy Roman Empire. It was the central point for a large portion of Europe, including portions of Germany, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Austria. The city of Vienna was an extremely influential and important place to live to gain worldwide influence. This is why so many of the greatest composers eventually found their way there, it was essential that they make their name in Vienna if the rest of the world was to hear their music.

Vienna had a large population of aristocrats near 2,500 with a total population of 215,000. These 2,500 noblemen had over 40,000 footmen, house cleaners, and other servants. The fact that there were so many noblemen may somewhat explain why there was such a high desire to have high music and art.

The nobles funded music concerts and they often enjoyed them with middle-class citizens at public and semi-public concerts. Because of the large amount of money to be made in Vienna, musicians such as Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787) from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825) from Italy, Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) from Rohrau in lower Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) from Salzburg in upper Austria, and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) from the German Rhineland eventually found their way to Vienna.

Vienna became a melting pot, like the United States, in which a variety of cultures merged and created a universal musical style that set the standard for all of Europe.

The Classical Style 

The Classical period continued many of the concepts that were prominent in the Enlightenment: clarity, simplicity, formal balance, and naturalness. Buildings in the 18th century also exhibited these same traits. Music, art, and architecture often influence each other. Because the building architecture drew inspiration from many of the classical Rome structures, this type of architecture garnered the title neoclassical architecture. The White House and some other government buildings in the United States are a good example of neoclassical architecture.

Form in Classical Music

Music in the Classical period built upon particular forms and structure. Forms built upon conventional or pre-existing concepts about music. Some of the forms from the middle ages, such as rondo and theme and variations found their way into the Classical period. Forms that were developed and created in the Baroque period such as ternary and rounded binary forms also had a predominant place. The Sonata form, developed in the Classical period, had its roots in binary and ternary form. The Classical period was a time of great innovation, growth, societal change, and discovery. The most influential composers of the period helped add to this growth through their original music and through the development of the orchestra. Haydn defined the period through his famous string quartets. Mozart served to refine the period through his collection of over 600 works and major Operas. Finally, Beethoven propelled music to new heights with his Romantic period ideals and innovation to the Orchestra.

References and Additional Information:

Classical Music: The Era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (The Norton Introduction to Music History) The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (Expanded Edition)


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