What were the historical periods of music history? And how did they shape music as we know it today?
In this series, we’re diving into the music of the past, from Ancient to Modern times.
Today, we’re learning about the music of the Classical period.
The Classical Period
The Classical period (not to be confused with the genre of music that is called “classical”) began in about 1750, at the end of the Baroque Period.
The Enlightenment was in full swing during this era, and music reflected this emphasis on human potential.
It ended around 1820, with the ushering in of the Romantic Period.
This list of Classical composers is by no means exhaustive, but it will give you an overview of the most influential composers during this time.
Several of J.S. Bach’s sons made their mark as composers in the Classical era.
The oldest, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, was a masterful organist and a creative composer of keyboard music.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was a prolific writer of chamber music and sacred compositions. He was also skilled on the flute and harpsichord.
Johann Christian Bach, the youngest of Bach’s sons, was also an organist who eventually broke with his family’s Lutheran beliefs and converted to Catholicism. He composed in several genres, and had a fondness for opera.
Jane Mary Guest was a notable English pianist and keyboard composer. She was appointed as the music teacher of Princess Charlotte, the daughter of King George IV.
Duchess Anna Amalia of Germany was a talented composer who wrote chorales, cantatas, fugues, and at least one sonata.
Christoph Willibald Gluck, a native of Germany, is credited with revolutionizing the genre of opera. In true Classical fashion, he simplified operatic arias and recitatives and made them more harmonious and elegant.
Austrian native Joseph Haydn is one of the most well-known composers of the Classical period. He is called the Father of the Symphony and String Quartet because he did so much to shape the genres into what we know them as today.
Luigi Boccherini was an Italian composer whose works have been favorably compared to Haydn’s. He was a very skilled cellist.
Marianna von Martines was an esteemed composer with a prolific output of over two hundred works. She was one of the leading musicians in Vienna in her lifetime.
Leopold Mozart, the father of Maria Anna and Wolfgang Amadeus, was a talented composer and violinist. He was his children’s first teacher.
Maria Anna Mozart, daughter of Leopold and sister of Wolfgang Amadeus, was a gifted composer in her own right who often collaborated with her brother. Unfortunately, her works are lost to us today.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the most talented and most famous composers who ever lived showed tremendous skill in every genre. He was especially famous for his operas, concertos, and symphonies.
Antonio Salieri, an Italian opera composer, was a known rival of Mozart’s. After the latter met an early death, he was accused of having poisoned him. However, there was never any proof behind this claim and historians have dismissed it.
Austrian pianist and composer Josepha Barbara Auernhammer was one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s first students. She composed duets, sonatas, and many variations and was known especially for her piano works.
Maria Theresia von Paradis, although blind from the age of three, was a talented performer and composer of cantatas, operas, concertos, and more.
Italian-English composer Musio Clementi was known as the father of piano technique. He wrote many sonatas and technical studies for the instrument.
Marianna Bottini was an Italian composer and the wife of a Luccan marquis. She composed music for the festival to honor St. Cecilia in Lucca, the only woman to do so.
Ludwig van Beethoven is another of the world’s best and most famous composers. His music was innovative, powerful, and dramatic, and it influenced almost every composer who came after him.
Carl Maria von Weber was a gifted composer of German opera. His work transformed opera in Germany from Classical to Romantic in style.
Franz Schubert, an Austrian prodigy, was known for his lieder and chamber music. His compositions were expressive and melodic. Despite his short lifetime, he wrote over fifteen hundred works!
Important Note: The works of Beethoven, von Weber, and Schubert form a bridge between the Classical and Romantic styles of music. I have chosen to include them in our study of Classical music because their lifespans fall mostly into that period (1750-1820). However, they could also be considered Romantic composers.
During the Classical period, opera became smoother and lighter than it had been during the Baroque years. Comic opera became much more popular than it been previously.
Many genres that are well-known today, such as the sonata, symphony, and string quartet, reached new heights of popularity during this period.
Public concerts became commonplace, allowing composers to reach more people with their music than ever before.
Following the ideals of the Enlightenment, fine music was seen more and more as belonging to all people rather than just the very wealthy.
The violin family was very important during the Classical era, especially in the development of the string quartet.
Percussion and brass instruments achieved a new prominence in symphonies and other genres.
Woodwinds, especially clarinets, grew in importance during this period. Many wind instruments were redesigned so that they could reflect the more sensitive, expressive music that was being written.
For the first time, the piano replaced the organ as the most popular keyboard instrument (a trend that has continued ever since). Harpsichords and clavichords soon became relics of the past.
Classical Musical Styles
The Classical period brought class and refinement to the forefront of music.
Composers crafted smooth, tasteful melodies with light textures, giving Classical music its characteristic elegance and charm.
Two styles in particular came to define the music of the Classical world.
The first one was the galant style. Galant music was light, elegant, and pleasing (hence the term “galant”, which comes from the word “gallant”, meaning polite and respectable). This style sought to smooth and simplify the often complex music that the Baroque period was known for.
The second style was the German “Empfindsamkeit” (Sensitive Style). This style was emotionally sensitive and expressive.
Below is a recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major. This famous piece reflects the gracefulness, elegance, and lightness that defined Classical music.
That’s the summary of the Classical period of music history. What are your thoughts?