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The Classical Symphony

The Classical Period

The Classical period (1750 to around 1820) gets its name because of the simplicity, order and reason of its music, which was modelled on the symmetry of Greek and Roman architecture. Classical music contrasted greatly with the decoration and complexity of the music of the preceding Baroque period.

Europe in the late eighteenth century was an exciting and progressive continent. Alongside the great steps in technology that were occurring in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, which brought wealth to many European countries, art and politics became deeply affected by new thinking known as The Enlightenment. The motivation behind this thinking was the idea of having balance, simplicity and logic as the cornerstones of all art, as was the case in ancient Egyptian and Greek civilisations. A stronger bond between mankind and the natural environment was sought, and there was an increasing disrespect for the aristocratic ruling classes.

The French Revolution took place in the final years of the eighteenth century and sparked revolutionary thoughts in minds right across Europe. A side-effect of this was that some composers began to lose their sponsorship from wealthy aristocratic patrons and while this made times hard for them, it did give them more artistic licence to shake up musical conventions and develop more original styles.

During the Classical period, Vienna grew in importance as a European musical centre and many composers moved there. While some composers, like Haydn, remained with rich patrons, other composers benefitted from cities like Vienna opening theatres which employed their own orchestras. These theatres staged operas and instrumental concerts where symphonies and concertos were all the rage. Chamber music also grew in popularity, particularly string quartets and sonatas. The piano rose to prominence as the principal keyboard instrument after the dominance of the harpsichord in the Baroque.

The foundations of the new, simplified Classical musical style were laid by mid-eighteenth century composers such as J.C. Bach, C.P.E. Bach and Gluck, but the three major composers of the Classical period – and in many opinions in all of European music – were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Their influence has remained strong for two hundred years, and their work has affected our musical language ever since.

Characteristics of Classical music.

These are some of the key features, many of which are likely to be found in a piece of Classical music:

Melodies are commonly arranged into two or four-bar ‘question and answer’ phrases. This balanced, symmetrical approach is known as periodic phrasing.

Harmony and tonality is functional. Functional harmony is the use of chord progressions and cadences to dictate the key, and functional tonality is the use of related keys to dictate the structure.

Texture is predominantly melody and accompaniment – simple, homophonic texture with an emphasis on balanced lyrical melodies. Polyphonic textures such as counterpoint, so popular in the Baroque, were used sparingly in the Classical period.

Instrumental music finally overtook vocal music in popularity, though sacred vocal music and opera continued to develop in the Classical period. The piano rose to prominence, and the orchestra took its recognised shape with strings, wind and some brass instruments. Chamber music – particularly sonatas and string quartets – became common.

Like the melodies, structures are balanced. Ternary form and sonata form are the most common, both based around the idea of repetition and contrast and modulation to related keys.

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