Introduction to the Classical Period

It is a gross simplification to say that Bach died, the Baroque Period ended, and the Classical Period was born.  Some scholars place the start of the Classical Period some years before the death of Bach; some don’t start it until 1775 or so.  For me (and I’d venture for most musicologists), the Classical Period begins in 1750.  As with the Baroque, the Classical Period evolved out of a greater movement within the arts and culture generally—this was, after all, the Age of Enlightenment.  As with the Renaissance, the arts again turned to the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration.  But there was a critical difference this time around:  In the Renaissance, the Church had held dominion over the lives of all Europeans; since that time, the Reformation had taken permanent hold across most of Northern Europe, the Church had stopped being the major patron of the arts, and, accordingly, artists were now free to explore (as philosophers were) the humanist aspects of antiquity.

I am not going to tread on what is truly the Professor’s home ground here, but it is I think fair to say that Enlightenment scholars began to objectify the individual within the context of a universal ideal that connected everyone to the broader sense of what it means to be human.  These universal ideals were expressed through objective truths and were discovered, not through religious texts, but through reason and logic.  This is where the idea of “natural rights” was born. 

Classical artists also strove to cast off the excesses of the Baroque, restoring order to their aesthetic and prizing balance and elegance.  These ideas permeated the fine arts—I can think of no better examples than the Roman sculptor Antonio Canova:

Antonio Canova, Reclining Naiad
Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche

Or the works of the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres:

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Grande Baigneuse

The other important development, particularly for music, was the rise of an educated middle class, who wanted music in their homes and lives as much as they wanted revolutions in their streets. The public music festival began in the Classical Period.  Children of the middle class were given music lessons (and the familiar refrain of “[insert child name], practice your damn [insert instrument]” therefore likely began here too).  Concert halls arose in size and elegance previously afforded only to opera halls.  And these new patrons didn’t want Bach’s “stuffy,” “old fashioned,” and “complex” music.  They wanted their music to be simpler and more accessible. Today’s pop music is merely a continuation of classical composers’ efforts to move from polyphonic composition to composition based on the relationship between melody and an underlying chordal structure.

To that end, classical composers abandoned the use of the basso continuo, the basic, continuous bass line that had served as both the rhythmic and harmonic foundation of all Baroque music, replacing specific bass lines that worked in harmony with the melody.  Exploiting Equal Temperament, later Classical composers changed keys within works with increasing frequency, matched only by increased variation in tempo and dynamics. 

Music composed during the Classical Period is notable for its simplicity, consciously rejecting the complex machinations of Bach.  The harmonic structure of music therefore was limited to a smaller set of chords, with the vast majority of music being composed with the familiar 1-4-5 chord structure that continues to animate rock music today.  How to identify those harmonics?  Let’s look at a much more recent, and basic, example:

The Troggs, Wild Thing

And before The Professor can wave his hand dismissively at the use of only three chords, let’s see what the old 1-4-5 can do in the hands of a real master—Beethoven. Check out the beginning of the final movement of his Fifth Symphony. That our Beethoven: Ludwig van Ramone.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67: IV. Allegro:

Classical composers were also obsessed with musical balance in all aspects of their works and it was this sense of balance that allowed listeners to anticipate exactly where the composer was going.  That isn’t to say that that the Classical Period was a retreat from the high water mark set by Bach.  To the contrary, the Classical Period gave birth to the most important vehicle for the exploration of music theory—the symphony.  While the modern symphony grew out of the Baroque concerto grosso, it was the composer Carl Stamitz, who created the first true symphonic compositions.  They weren’t very good, but the idea caught fire.  The symphony presented composers with the opportunity of playing around with a very basic tune—not unlike what John Colatrane or the Greatful Dead would become renowned for two centuries later.  Religion had dominated and driven the development of music right through to the last final glorious chord of the B-Minor Mass.  Going forward, the composer’s intellect would be king and the symphony provided the grandest of all pallets upon which to allow his thoughts to develop.  The symphony is abstract art at its highest form—something that would remain untested in the other arts for more than 100 years.

Changes in technology also had a profound effect on the Classical sound.  The harpsichord began its slow decline into obscurity, replaced by the piano, which was to become the dominant instrument for composition.  Woodwinds took on greater prominence, joining the large string sections and horns to form the true prototype for the modern orchestra.

The roll call of Classical Period composers remains the backbone of most concert halls and ensembles today: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, the members of the so-called First Viennese School. The music produced by these four composers, especially Beethoven, were the first to achieve enduring popularity, so much so that the entire genre of formal music is now colloquially called “classical”.

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