Classical Era

Classical Era of Western Art Music

The Classical Era of Western Art Music was between the years 1720ish-1830ish.  During this time, the trends of music, art, literature, and architecture moved away from the busier, layered and dense textures of the Baroque Era (1600ish-1720ish) towards a lighter, uncluttered, and cleaner style.  The music of the Classical Era was mainly homophonic in which a clear and dominant melody was written over a chordal accompaniment.  This contrasts with the layered and busier counterpoint style of the previous years – the Baroque Era.  Variety and contrast of keys, melodies, mood, dynamics, and other musical elements became more important during this era.


Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Early Classical Era

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Haydn was born in Austria and lived there for most of his life.  He spent much of his life as a court musician for the Esterhazy family (a powerful Hungarian family).  Because their estate was so remote, he was isolated from many other composers and trends in music. This forced him to compose in his own original manner, apart from the other trends in music of his day.  This forced him to, in his words, “become and original.”  

Esterhazy family estate
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Haydn is known as both the “father of the symphony” and the  “father of the string quartet” because he contributed so much to these music forms.  This experimentation allowed Haydn to play a crucial role in establishing many of the key classical forms such as the Symphony, the String Quartet, etc. Although versions of all these forms already existed, Haydn was the principle composer to explore them in depth and promote them.  At the time of his death, Haydn was one of the most celebrated composers in Europe.

A symphony is a long form,  piece of music usually written for an orchestra.

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 22 in E flat major – “The Philosopher”

A string quartet is a small ensemble made up of two violins, a viola, and a cello.

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Haydn’s Quartet No. 62 in C major –  “The Emperor”


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Middle Classical Era

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria and from an early age began playing violin and keyboard instruments.  Mozart was a child prodigy and he not only began composing music at the age of 6 but he also was a child star who traveled around Europe dazzling audiences with his performances and compositions. 

Mozart as a child
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Though Mozart’s music shares much in common with that of his great predecessor Haydn (clear, balanced, and with a focus on homophonic melody), Mozart, unlike Haydn, wanted to be both a composer and a virtuoso performer. Mozart also wanted to compose in the two major genres of the day: opera and virtuoso concerto.

A concerto is long form composition written to feature a solo instrument and accompanied by an orchestra.  One of Mozart’s most famous concertos was written for the clarinet which was a new instrument at the time.  Some believe that this famous concerto is one of the reasons the the clarinet gained prominence as a new instrument and became part of the standard instruments of the symphony orchestra and wind ensembles.

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto

Opera is a genre of classical music as well as a name for a dramatic work in one or more acts, set to music for singers and instrumentalists.  These works are generally staged with settings, costumes, and the acting out of the music.  Mozart found problems in the style and pacing of previously written operas by past composers that he wanted to either fix or change. Some of these fixes included:

  • The characters in his operas had real, believable personalities.
  • The plots were about real-life middle class citizens 
  • There was a more continuous flow to his operas.
  • The style, orchestration, harmony and melody all contributed to setting the mood and adding depth to the characters. This meant that his music matched the feelings and emotions of the characters or scene on stage. 

“Queen of the Night” Aria from The Magic Flute

Mozart wrote over 600 works in all genres of the day.  Another of his most famous instrumental works is “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Translated in German as “a little serenade” or “a little night music,” “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is one of Mozart’s most immediately recognizable pieces.  This piece was written for chamber ensemble – a smaller instrumental group that traditionally would have fit in a palace chamber or small room.

Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik


Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Late Classical Era

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Born in Germany in 1770, Beethoven had a tough and strict early childhood.  Wanting the same fame and success for his son as Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven’s father would wake him up in the middle of the night and make him practice his instruments for many hours which included violin and clavier (an early version of the piano).  During his childhood, Beethoven had the opportunity to study with Haydn and was later sent to study with Mozart but never had the chance due to Mozart’s early death from a high fever.

Beethoven’s is considered to be a transitional composer who’s music changed over the course of his career and helped to shift the trends of music.  His later music helped to end the Classical Era and usher in the beginning of the Romantic Era. Beethoven’s early works show heavy influence from Mozart and Haydn. He wrote a fair number of concertos, most of them for piano. Piano Concerto No. 2 was written by Beethoven in order to establish himself as a serious performer and composer.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 2

beethoven-deaf

Beethoven began going deaf while composing his second symphony. Although he tried to keep it a secret from friends and the public, it was evident that his hearing was failing. It was around this time that Beethoven’s music started to change.  

Beethoven’s ear trumpets
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By the start of composing his third symphony, Beethoven’s deafness was quite progressed. He went through a period of depression and despair as a result of his ongoing deafness. He eventually resolved to believing that art would be his salvation and threw himself into his work, specifically this symphony. This symphony had many similarities from symphonies written before, but was more expressive and had moments of great dissonance within the first movement which was uncommon for that time period.  This piece was also twice as long as the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn.  This greater use of dissonance and expressiveness in this famous piece marked the shift towards the Romantic era.

Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 “Sinfonia Eroica” (Heroic Symphony)