The Hidden Context of the Classical Music

The function of the music was to convey the meaning of the text in a hidden, implied or apparent manner. But what about music without text such as sonatas, trios, quartets, symphonies or concertos?

This was the challenge encountered by many commentators during the Classical period without being able to give a comprehensive answer. A small number of instrument works have titles given to them by their composers such as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – evokes the timeless pastoral, tranquility and captures the listener’s imagination with orchestral birdsong, dancing, and a storm and shepherd’s song. Most orchestral music does not have a title leaving endless debate by theorists, philosophers and listeners. Responses are varied from individual to individual, from place to place and from era to era.

When Haydn said his music was understood throughout the world, what he really means was that the language in which they were written was used throughout the musical world. Composers throughout Europe shared a common musical style with few regional differences. Haydn could experiment with his musical language by changing the harmonic progression used, disrupting the expected phrase, patterns of a minuet or a distortion of the broader terms of a sonata form.

Musicians of the Classical Period often thought about the content of a single passage, movement, or the piece being conveyed in a general type of music. Unfolding one phrase to another with care being taken to  enunciate the musical ‘text’ clearly. The poet Goethe said that nothing is more stimulating than listening to a string quartet that is like a conversation between four intelligent people’.

When composers write Minuet in a sonata, quartet or symphony, it is obvious that it is a dance movement. But when Mozart wrote ‘Le nozze di Figaro’, Figaro sings his aria ‘Se vuol ballare’ (if you want to dance) using the metre, tempo, phrase and rhythms of a minuet, even when the word ‘minuet’ is never mentioned in the text.

Other rhythms and forms of minuets are landler, contredance, gavotte, sarabande and other forms of dance that permeate the music for all composers throughout the Classical period.  For instance, Mozart’s Piano Concerto K271 or finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with fast movements in 6/8 time. This is a challenging contrapuntal music in the chordal context.

Music in the Classical Period is complex in its nature and resonance and none of the approaches can completely describe the explanation. All performers can only open themselves to as many different styles of resonance as possible.

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