What is Classical Music

The word ‘classical ’music conjures for many a reference to any music that is old and not in our modern contemporary society. More likely, most will regard ‘classical’ music under a very broad period from Bach’s time including Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff or Debussy regardless of the history period of Western Art music which denotes from c.1750 to c 1830. As well, the word ‘Viennese’ composers were associated with the four commanding figures of the period, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) were all associated with the city of Vienna.

The term ‘Viennese Classics School,’ ‘Classical Period’ and ‘Viennese Classics’ came into common use at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, when commentators studied Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert as the foundation of the music of their own time. There were references to ‘Classical’ – referred to as old.

The term ‘Classical Period’ gained its identity due to the fact that it implies restraint, poise and elegance, hence Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were labeled as ‘Classical Period’ composers while Schubert as a ‘Romantic’ composer, who was more inclined to be expressive, wayward and indulgent.

Those who first promoted ‘Classical,’ and its use hundreds of years ago saw the period c1750 to c1850 as the formula for the next hundred years or so. Indeed composers of the twenty-first century and their musical lives were heavily influenced by the Classical era.

Generally, Italian Opera was recognized as Baroque genre while Symphony was regarded as Classical period. The development of the symphony promoted a more standardized orchestra and public concerts. As with the Baroque era, music performed in the Classical time was mostly contemporary. However, the Classical period also observed an increasing interest in performing older music alongside new music. This trend continues to gain popularity until the Romantic era where all works performed were old rather than new. Attending concert halls was compared to visiting museum.

Even though instrumental music gained in importance in the Classical era, vocal music continued to flourish. In opera music, Mozart and Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 87) sought increasing drama. The opera seria (serious opera) died out in the eighteenth century, while Mozart opera comedies offered an equally serious and more detailed treatment of human natures and relationship. The Italian language was challenged with French and German. Fidelio, Beethoven’s operatic works begin to gain parity with the Italian Opera. Singspiel was in the form of spoken dialogue instead of the Secco (keyboard accompaniment) recitative.

Church music for the Protestant and Catholic liturgies was being composed in huge quantities by composers great and small. Haydn’s Stabat Mater, Beethoven’s Mass in C Minor and Mozart’s Requiem were all part of the liturgies repertoires.

Unfortunately, Europe focused their attention on the ‘Viennese’ composers and let hundreds of composers dissipate, including several who had contributed to the vitality of musical life. There was a great deal of minor composers such as Johann Christian Bach (the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach 1735 – 1782), who had been living for the second half of the eighteenth century in London, who was well known for his symphonies, concertos and opera’s.

Another son of J S Bach, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (1714 – 1788), who worked in Berlin and Hamburg, was one who was dissatisfied with the lightweight emotional content of most music from the middle of the eighteenth century. This is known as the ‘galant’ style. There is an occasional eccentric quality in Haydn’s music, which came to be known as ‘empfindsamer Stil’ (literally ‘expressive style’). Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all knew and admired CPE Bach’s music. His ‘expressive style’ from North Germany was one of the main sources of inspiration for the profundity and drama of the poise, balance and elegant Classical style.

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