Classical Period

The Classical Period (1750-1825)

The word “classical” refers to the Classical Period of Ancient Greece.   It is a period of balance and elegant clarity.  The skeptical mind turned to reason as a tool in examining the world.  It is the age of Isaac Newton in physics and Benjamin Franklin in electricity.  Significant painters included Jacque Louis David and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

This period is the called The Age of Reason and The Enlightenment.   Emphasis was that common sense and reasoning could solve the problems of mankind.  The “back to nature” philosophy of Voltaire and Rousseau taught that nature embodied the simple life and the good life.

Universal and objective elements are emphasized in the artistic work of the Classicists.  In music, absolute music was emphasized.  Absolute music is music that has no extra-musical elements involved in its composition.  This is in contrast to program music, where there is an outside element involved in the composition.  Instrumental music made significant advancements, due in part to the better construction of instruments.  Forms, such as Sonata and Rondo, were standardized.

Politically, this was the time of the birth of the United States.  The founding fathers were all products of the The Enlightenment.  This was also the time when the Freemasons became important.  Mozart, Haydn, Washington, and Jefferson were all Freemasons.

Sonata Form

The sonata remains the most important instrumental musical form.  Composers from the Classical Period such as Mozart and Beethoven adapted this form to meet their needs.   The relationship of the keys of themes is the important element of the sonata:



Introduction  / A Theme  / B Theme  // Development  // A Theme  / B Theme  / Coda

Tonic            /Tonic        / Dom.        // Various Keys  // Tonic        / Tonic        / Tonic

Tonic             /Tonic       / Rel.          // Various Keys   // Tonic       / Tonic       / Tonic

Exposition                                         // Development   // Recapitulation


Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)

C.P.E. Bach was a composer from the early part of the Classical Period.  He was the fifth child and second surviving son of J.S. Bach.  His middle name is from his godfather, Georg Philip Telemann.  He was in the transitional phase between the Baroque and the Classical.

He was born in Weimar, but educated at the St. Thomas school in Leipzig, where his father was cantor.  He pursued study in law and the University of Leipzig, but abandoned his studies to devote his time to music.  Shortly thereafter, he became court composer to Frederick II of Prussia, aka Frederick the Great.  Frederick became king less than two years later, and Bach became a member of the royal orchestra.  By this time he was one of the foremost clavier players in Europe.

Bach wrote “The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments”, a definitive book about keyboard technique.  It was revolutionary in its use of the thumbs in playing scale passages.  He also discusses figured bass and counterpoint in this book.

In 1768, he succeeded Telemann as the director of music in Hamburg.

C.P.E. Bach’s work is for the most part not performed today.  However, there are pieces of his music which remain in the keyboard repertoire.  His greatest legacy is his book about keyboard performance, which influenced Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Some of C.P.E. Bach’s works are examples of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) style.  This was a reaction to the rationalism of the Classical Period.  In this style, minor keys are more favored than in the bulk of Classical Music.  The emotionalism of this style paved the way for Romanticism.

Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809)

Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart exemplify the music of the middle part of the Classical Period.

Haydn was born into a family where music was important, but there were no professionals.  Haydn’s singing voice was excellent, and he earned a position in the choir at St. Stephen’s in Vienna.  When his voice broke, Haydn was eliminated from the choir and forced to live on his own.  He roomed with friends and taught himself theory and composition.  He did manage a few composition lessons with Porpora, who was an outstanding musician of the period.  Haydn free-lanced around Vienna for a number of years and worked to advance himself musically and socially, finally obtaining a position in the Esterhazy court.

The Esterhazy family was one of the most well-to-do families in Europe.    Prince Nicholas Esterhazy sought to have the one of the finest court orchestras in Europe, and Haydn was appointed director.  Haydn’s duties were many and varied.  He managed and directed the orchestra, composed original music for the orchestra, wrote operas, and even wrote music for a marionette theater.

Prince Nicholas died in 1790, and his successor was not interested in music, so he released Haydn and most of the orchestra.  Prince Nicholas had allowed Haydn to publish independently, and the impresario, Salomon, presented Haydn in London in 1791 and 1794 to a resounding financial success.  Haydn then returned to Vienna to live out his days, a famous and rich man.

Haydn wrote 104 symphonies and extensive work in several genres.  His works for piano are performed extensively today, as are his oratorios.  Two of Haydn’s famous symphonies are the “Farewell” and “The Surprise”.   Haydn’s string quartets are excellent and performed often.  Haydn composed a trumpet concerto that is a staple of the trumpet repertoire.  Haydn expanded the orchestra from about 25 members to more than 40.  In his later symphonies, we find the full complement of the standard orchestra.

Haydn was a Freemason in the same lodge as Mozart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is possibly the greatest genius music has ever seen, and considered by some possibly to be the greatest genius of all time.  He exhibited prodigious talent by the age of two and was composing by the age of five.  Mozart’s father, Leopold, was a violinist and composer.  Leopold exploited the young Mozart.

As Mozart aged, his life became more and more difficult.  Because Mozart’s personality was not suited to the court life, he never received a position as a court composer. As result, there was a constant struggle for money.  Mozart was married to Constanze Weber in 1782,  against the wishes of his father.

Although Mozart composed in every classical form, his operas remain the pinnacle of the entire repertoire.  The Marriage of Figaro was composed in 1786 on a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.  The opera was successful in both Vienna and Prague, but the following year, Don Giovanni was unsuccessful.  Don Giovanni is now considered by many musicologists to be the best opera every written.

Mozart’s health began to fail through overwork.  The Magic Flute, a singspiel, was successful and Mozart’s final days were accompanied by the success of this work.  Mozart was commissioned to write a Requiem by a mysterious patron.  Mozart was convinced that the Requiem was for himself.  Because of Mozart’s numerous debts, he received the lowest class of funeral and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven occupies a place in history where revolution occurred in the Americas and in France.  Beethoven’s music employs Romanticism as its underlying philosophy, but his music is composed in the Classical style.  Some of Beethoven’s best friends were artists and writers who had completely embraced Romanticism.  Part of Beethoven’s challenge was to adapt the Classical forms to this new philosophy.

Beethoven was born in Germany to a musical family.  Beethoven’s father was an alcoholic, and Beethoven was forced to support the family at an early age.  At age 11 he became assistant organist in the court chapel.  At age 12 he became harpsichordist in the court orchestra.  At age 17 he played for the critical Mozart, who made the famous remark, “Keep an eye on him—he will make a noise in the world someday.”

Beethoven moved to Vienna, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.  He studied with Haydn and others, and generally had contentious relationships with his teachers.  However, Beethoven respected Haydn and dedicated his first set of piano sonatas to him.

Beethoven took the aristocracy by storm.  He was a welcome guest in the finest homes in Vienna.  His works bear dedications to them.  They were his support as a young man.  Beethoven also took the Viennese public by storm as composer and concert pianist.  Beethoven’s exterior was rough, and on more than one occasion he ruffled the feathers of his patrons.  Concert life and music publishing were stronger than ever, and Beethoven got to the point where he could name his price for his compositions.  Beethoven was a skillful businessman and he knew his own value.

When Beethoven was in his late twenties, at the height of his performing career, he began to notice hearing difficulties.  His doctors recommended that he retire, and in 1802 he went to Heiligenstadt, as summer resort outside Vienna.  Beethoven had considered suicide, and in an emotional letter to his brother called The Heiligenstadt Testament, he describes his feelings.  In this letter, Beethoven writes that he saw his deafness as given to him by God so that he can withdraw into himself to produce the finest in music.  Beethoven had perfect pitch and an infallible musical memory, so he was able to compose without hearing the music himself.  Beethoven became the first composer to support himself solely through the publication of his music.

Beethoven’s music is divided into three style periods.

1.  Period of Imitation.  In this period, Beethoven imitates and builds on the composition of his teachers, most notably Haydn.  One of Beethoven’s influences was Clementi, who was a contemporary and a competitor of Mozart.   Clementi’s approach to the legato performance on the piano became the norm for all pianists as a result of Beethoven’s work.

2.  Period of Expansion.  In this period, Beethoven forges his own style.  This is the period where Beethoven makes significant adjustments to the Sonata-Allegro form in terms of scope (longer and shorter) and in key structure.  Beethoven expands the Coda into what amounts to a second Development.  This is the period where Beethoven becomes unable to perform his own works, so his attention turns to the art of composition itself.

3.  Period of Realization.  Beethoven has completely developed his own style.  His works become even more adventurous, especially in the use of the Sonata form.  The Ninth Symphony serves as a bridge to Romanticism.  His last five piano Sonatas become some of the most significant works for piano, and his late string quartets are some of the finest in the chamber repertoire.

Classical Period Quiz 1

1.  Contrast the Baroque style and the Classical style. (4)

2.  Discuss Sturm und Drang. (3)

3.  Discuss three important musical contributions of C.P.E.  Bach. (3)

4. Discuss four ways that Haydn and Mozart were the same? (4)

5.  Discuss three ways that Haydn and Mozart were different. (3)

6.  Discuss how things for Mozart might have been different had he lived another twenty years.  (5)