E85.2073: Music Literature: The Classical Period

Copyright 1997-98 John V. Gilbert All Rights Reserved


The terms "classical" and "romantic" can be useful descriptors concerning musical style if we are careful not to think of these descriptors as absolutes or outlining exclusionary boundaries with regard to musical styles. "Classical" is especially troublesome since it is used by many as a way of distinguishing music from pop and rock genres, as though anything that is not "pop, rock" "folk" or "country western," etc. is "classical" music. We also use "classic" to describe that which is enduring and excellent in the arts from a Beatles song, a modern painting, to a Brahms symphony, and so on. In music, we use classical to describe a style, and specifically to describe a period of history from approximately the last half of the eighteenth century through the first decade of the 19th Century. Such dates are arbitrary, and as we will discover, we can examine the music and perhaps find other ways to delineate the span of the period.

Tha major focus of this course is with the works of three European composers: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Haydn was born in 1732. He was 18 years old when J.S. Bach died. Bach was relatively unknown and considered old-fashioned at the time, and although music was undergoing some radical changes, Haydn inherits the concertante style of the Baroque and his early works utilize the continuo, even though the fabric of music now contained textures that made such a practice no longer relevant. Beethoven died in 1827, so when taken together, the three lives of these extraordinary geniuses spanned almost a full century. Yet, we will be concerned with the last half of the eighteenth century, because it was during this time that classical style coalesced and emerged as a distinct moment, largely due to the appearance of one of the brightest and most creative human beings to have ever lived: Mozart.

Mozart was born in 1756 when Haydn was 24. Haydn was a rising young composer at the time with vocal works, choral works, divertimenti and trios, an Organ Concerto, and an opera Der krumme Teufel (1752-53). 1756 appeared to be a particularly prolific year, the organ concerto was composed and he began his first string quartets of which nine have survived.

But it would not be until 1781 that Haydn would compose what the distinguished author Charles Rosen considers to be the pivotal and defining work in shaping what we call classical style with the String Quartets, Opus 33. Mozart was 25 years old and had already accomplished more than many composers would accomplish in a lifetime, and he had but ten years left before he would die in 1791, but what an incredible decade that was to be for the history of music. For although Haydn brought to music a highly distilled, efficient and dramatic style, Mozart would add immeasurably to the style, and the two composers in a synergistic exchange of creative energy and ideas created musical treasures that we still admire and enjoy. Mozart learned from Haydn, and Haydn learned from Mozart. Thus we will see that Mozart's response to the work of Haydn is a creative dialectic that explores the possibilities of the new style and elevates it to a new level, and it is from this exchange that musical expression is distilled to a perfect balance of musical elements.

Beethoven emerged on the scene at a point when classical style was already being transformed through the late works of Mozart and Haydn. Both had taken the dramatic implications of the motivic contrapuntal style and followed the expressive possibilities when coupled with emotional intensity. The dramatic energy unleashed by the "new" classical style open the door to many possibilities, and Beethoven was quick to capitalize on the expressive power unleashed through motivic and melodic transformation.

Yet there were signs of change on the musical landscape. These signs were present throughout the world. When Mozart was 20 years old, the American Colonies were fighting a war for independence from England and for individual freedom. Two years before the death of Mozart, the French Revolution would shatter the social system of Europe, a system that was already in a state of disintegration. Yet, for a brief moment, the rationalism of the day that permeated musical expression and musical form was a dynamic force which enabled the musicians to articulate ideals of symmetry and balance in highly efficient and satsifying musical works.

"Re-Discovering" the Roots of Western Civilization: Greece

The terms "classic" and "classical" came into use in the 18th and 19th centuries as Europe began to identify with antiquity, especially ancient Greece and the ideals manifest in that culture. In general, the art, sculpture, and architecture (which had survived in ruins) became the icons that gave new life to classical ideals of balance, restraint, symmetry, purity of line, and form. In the visual arts and architecture the term "neo-classicism" was coined to distinguish the 18th Century practices from the original classical ideals. But in music there was no surviving music except for a few melodic fragments, and some treatises on music which were highly theoretical. Europe really didn't have any music models from Greek antiquity to revive, so the classical musical spirit gathered a momentum of its own, fired by the energy of the visual arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture.