Masculine Geek and Classical Music, Part 4: Periods and Key Figures. The Classical Period (1750-1820)

Last time, we looked at the Baroque period.  J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel are the two giants of the period, but, like other periods in the history of classical music, there were many other composers of copious talent and industry.  Sadly, they were forgotten over the years for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that scores of their music were lost or misplaced, not to be discovered until a few centuries later.  The same fate befell other composers in the Classical and the Romantic periods, but we’re not discussing that here.

The stress in the Baroque period was on counterpoint and ornamentation, and there were a wide variety of genres within the period.  Much of the music, not surprisingly, was religious in nature, with J. S. Bach composing many cantatas for use in the Lutheran services of his day.  Handel, too, wrote religious music, though he was quite prolific in writing opera, which was gaining in popularity during this period.

Moving into the Classical period, the music became simpler and more tightly structured.  Counterpoint gradually fell out of fashion and homophony (i.e., the same sounds) and greater harmony emerged.  Those of you out there who have studied music know about melody and accompaniment.  In the Classical period, it’s just one melody with some chordal accompaniment.  Ax I said, simpler harmonies and tighter structure.

Also important in the Classical period is the rise of more solo instrumental music, which I covered in the previous post on forms.  One starts to see more sonatas for solo instruments (usually piano and violin), the trio, string quartet, symphony, concerto, serenade, and divertimento.  Woodwind instruments became a self-contained section in ensembles.  Lastly, the “classical” form of the sonata and symphony emerged, and the orchestra grew in size.

For concert-goers, many pieces that you’d hear will be from the Classical period, because of the amount of music written for both the orchestra and solo instruments.

And, now, on to the main figures . . .

Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach.  Born in Germany, and spent his career in Germany.  One of J. S. Bach’s four talented sons, CPE Bach’s style is early Classical, called the “galante.”

Christoph von Gluck.  Another prolific composer of the early Classical period, Gluck’s main contribution included simplifying opera and stripping way the complexities of the Baroque period.

Joseph Haydn.  Extremely prolific Viennese composer on account of his service to the Austro-Hungarian nobility and his long life.  Haydn wrote music in nearly all major forms, but he is best known for his substantial contributions to the symphonic form, of which there are 103 symphonies.  Haydn gave us the modern form of the orchestra.

Representative works:

Johann Christian Bach.  Another one of J. S. Bach’s talented sons.  He was born in Germany, but spent his career in both Italy and, later, England, becoming known as the “English” Bach.  J.C.’s style is very much galante, and his music greatly influenced the younger Mozart’s style.

Luigi Boccherini.  One of the main Italians of this period, Boccherini was quite prolific during his lifetime, but then faded into relative obscurity after his death.  He is best known for his chamber music.

Muzio Clementi.  Born in Italy, but spent the majority of his career in England.  A virtuoso pianist, Clementi tightened the sonata form for piano.  He also taught and ran his own piano manufacturing firm.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  A man who really needs no introduction, because even those non-concert-goers know something of the man.  The poster child for “genius,” and the subject of the 1984 movie Amadeus, Mozart’s contributions, along with Haydn’s, define the Classical period.  Mozart wrote sonatas, concertos, symphonies, masses, songs, trios, quartets, serenades, and many other forms.  He tragically died at age 35, which adds to his mystique.

Representative works:

Ludwig van Beethoven. Another man who needs no introduction or description, save for the fact that he was born late in the 18th century, was influenced by both Mozart and Haydn, and is a bridge composer between the 18th and 19th centuries.  Beethoven wrote sonatas, concertos, symphonies, songs, trios, quartets, etc., and his style retained many of the Classical forms while experimenting with the newer pre-Romantic ideas emerging toward the end of his life.  A true maverick.

Representative works:

Niccolo Paganini.  An Italian virtuoso violinist – almost demonically possessed, according to those who heard him.  Best known for his fiendishly difficult pieces for solo violin, and his influence on Franz Liszt, as well as other composers from the 19th century onwards.

Finally, as is the case with other periods, there are many other lesser-known composers here, too numerous to mention.  The beauty of the Classical period is that, though the forms took root in the Baroque period, those same forms were standardized and codified in this period.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Romantic period, where the impetus to experiment came first from Beethoven and continued with many other composers that we’re very familiar with.

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