Historical Background for Classical Style and Form

The characteristics of the Classical style are quite different from those of the Baroque, as they continue to form the basis of music from the Romantic period. Generally, the texture of the music in this period has a distinct feeling of foreground and background: the voice which carries the melody is supported by a subordinate orchestral accompaniment. These are the characteristics for Classical styles:

  • usually executed with two balanced phrases – four bars long each, but sometimes it was built with two shorter symmetrical bars.
  • Each four-bar phrase ends with a cadence either perfect or imperfect.
  • Tonic and dominant chords are most commonly used.
  • Style of harmony vocabulary are indicated by roman numerals – I (Tonic) and V (Dominant)
  • harmonic rhythms are distinguished by its frequency changes of the harmony. An increase rate of change was a standard way of shaping music in the Classical era.

Any skillful composer would have used these building blocks in a Classical style. Dynamic variety was not something that was invented in the Classical period. However, Classical composers are much more detailed and liberal in their approach than their Baroque predecessors. The nuances of the Classical style and its demand were placed on the performer. Another aspect of Classical style is to keep the overall shape and drama of movement. This is a movement often found in Symphonies, Sonatas, Trios, Quartets as well as minuets, Scherzos.

Sonata forms consists of three fundamental sections: Exposition, Development and Recapitulations. The exposition is the introduction of a theme first exposed, development is exploring and developing the theme with series of modulations and finally the recapitulations is the repeat of the exposition with minor modification.

Within the exposition, there are first subject and second subject with the former in tonic key and latter in dominant key. Haydn often minimized the use of 1st and 2nd subject to the point where it ceased to be meaningful to use the label ‘second subject’. Mozart and Schubert were both much more generous with the usage of the melodic theme provided in the 1st and 2nd subjects.

The development section is less stable as if frequently goes through a series of modulations freely. Recapitulation presents the material in the same order as it appeared in the expositions but with the crucial difference where it remains in the tonic rather modulating to the dominant.

The music for CPE Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and countless others was aimed at a full range of performers from amateur to professionals. It was performed at a wide variety of venues from private drawing rooms to, salons, churches, public halls and opera houses.

Traditionally, the market for keyboard sonatas and keyboard trio was for amateur music-makers. A lot of the sonatas where written for teaching purposes. However, towards the end of the eighteenth century, composers begin to write more technically demanding repertoires for fully trained professional performers. Beethoven composed his piano sonata Op.2 and 3 in Vienna in 1796 to promote his own career as a pianist and teacher in Vienna rather than using it for the traditional amateur. Haydn composed Sonata Op.79 with an intended use for teaching purposes as it was a less ambitious work.

On the other hand, the strings quartets and other ensemble works such as piano quartets, sextets etc. have always been played by the professionals for their own pleasure; listeners often had the privilege of eavesdropping rather than attending the performance as an audience. Even though quartets were played in public concert halls, most of the quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were not intended for public performance.

Today’s public concert scene has fully developed orchestra members of fifty to sixty players, but in Vienna the supposed capital of music, did not have a fully developed public concert life until well into the nineteenth century. Concerts by Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart were often played in a private setting.

Haydn’s symphonies were written as part of his royal duties as Kapellmeister (director of music) at the court of Prince Esterházy with only fifteen players and Mozart’s concerto was played by one player per part – essentially a piano quintet. Other performances are small scale appearances like a ‘chamber’ music setting which was played in a chamber room as opposed to a theatre or church.

Most operas in the Classical era were played in public opera houses even though many royal and aristocratic palaces had their own private theatres for operas and plays for entertaining guests as well as space for performers. While the opera is a contemporary style of music, the singers would often travel from one venue to another arranged by the librettists and composers. A lot of opera houses suffered from regular opera house politics in the 1780s. Church music was divided between music composed for the Catholic liturgy and the Protestant liturgy. There were restrictions to countries and regions for which they were written and what could be officially approved. Church music tends to follow tradition which was several centuries old and tended to be more conservative rather than being at the cutting edge of development. In Austria, people mostly attended church rather than going to the opera house or concerts. Typically, the six standard movements of the mass – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei constituted only the main portion of the communion service. There was also Gregorian chant, organ improvisation, shorter choral works, fanfares played by trumpets and timpani such as Mozart’s Ave verum corpus. Going to church was like attending a concert!

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