History of European art music
Medieval (476 – 1400) Renaissance (1400 – 1600) Baroque (1600 – 1760) Classical (1730 – 1820) Romantic (1815 – 1910) 20th century (1900 – 2000) Contemporary classical music (1975 – present)
The Classical period in Western music occurred from about 1730 to 1820, despite considerable overlap at both ends with preceding and following periods, as is true for all musical eras. Although the term classical music is used as a blanket term meaning all kinds of music in this tradition, it can also occasionally mean this particular era within that tradition.
The Classical period falls between the Baroque and the Romantic periods. Probably the best known composers from this period are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven, though other notable names include Muzio Clementi, Johann Ladislaus Dussek, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Christoph Willibald Gluck. Beethoven is also regarded either as a Romantic composer or a composer who was part of the transition to the Romantic; Franz Schubert is also something of a transitional figure. The period is sometimes referred to as Viennese Classic, since Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert all worked at some time in Vienna.
The Classical style as part of a larger artistic change
In the middle of the 18th century, Europe began to move to a new style in architecture, literature, and the arts generally, known as Classicism. While still tightly linked to the court culture and absolutism, with its formality and emphasis on order and hierarchy, the new style was also a cleaner style, one that favored clearer divisions between parts, brighter contrasts and colors, and simplicity rather than complexity. The remarkable development of ideas in "natural philosophy" had established itself in the public consciousness, with Newton's physics taken as a paradigm: structures should be well-founded in axioms, and articulated and orderly. This taste for structural clarity worked its way into the world of music as well, moving away from the layered polyphony of the Baroque period, and towards a style where a melody over a subordinate harmony – a combination called homophony – was preferred. This meant that playing of chords, even if they interrupted the melodic smoothness of a single part, became a much more prevalent feature of music, and this in turn made the tonal structure of works more audible. (See also counterpoint and harmony.)
The new style was also pushed forward by changes in the economic order and in social structure. As the 18th century progressed, the nobility more and more became the primary patrons of instrumental music, and there was a rise in the public taste for comic opera. This led to changes in the way music was performed, the most crucial of which was the move to standard instrumental groups, and the reduction in the importance of the "continuo", the harmonic fill beneath the music, often played by several instruments. One way to trace this decline of the continuo and its figured chords is to examine the decline of the term "obbligato", meaning a mandatory instrumental part in a work of chamber music. In the Baroque world, additional instruments could be optionally added to the continuo; in the Classical world, all parts were noted specifically, though not always notated, as a matter of course, so the word "obbligato" became redundant. By 1800, the term was virtually extinct, as was the practice of conducting a work from the keyboard.
The changes in economic situation just noted also had the effect of altering the balance of availability and quality of musicians. While in the late Baroque a major composer would have the entire musical resources of a town to draw on, the forces available at a hunting lodge were smaller, and more fixed in their level of ability. This was a spur to having primarily simple parts to play, and in the case of a resident virtuoso group, a spur to writing spectacular, idiomatic parts for certain instruments, as in the case of the Mannheim orchestra. In addition, the appetite for a continual supply of new music, carried over from the Baroque, meant that works had to be performable with, at best, one rehearsal. Indeed, even after 1790 Mozart writes about "the rehearsal", to imply that his concerts would have only one.
Since polyphonic texture was no longer the focus of music, but rather a single melodic line with accompaniment, there was greater emphasis on notating that line for dynamics and phrasing. The simplification of texture made such instrumental detail more important, and also made the use of characteristic rhythms, such as attention-getting opening fanfares, the funeral march rhythm, or the minuet genre, more important in establishing and unifying the tone of a single movement.
This led to the Classical style's gradual breaking with the Baroque habit of making each movement of music devoted to a single "affect" or emotion. Instead, it became the style to establish contrasts between sections within movements, giving each its own emotional coloring, using a range of techniques: opposition of major and minor; strident rhythmic themes in opposition to longer, more song-like themes; and especially, making movement between different harmonic areas the principal means of creating dramatic contrast and unity. Transitional episodes became more and more important, as occasions of surprise and delight. Consequently composers and musicians began to pay more attention to these, highlighting their arrival, and making the signs that pointed to them, on one hand, more audible, and on the other hand, more the subject of "play" and subversion – that is, composers more and more created false expectations, only to have the music skitter off in a different direction.
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