In the last video, Classical Period Music part 1 (check it out here), we talked about some of the important points of the Classical era, like when it was (roughly 1730-1820), homophony and the sound of Classical music, and the role of instrumental music. If you missed that video, definitely check it out!
In today’s Classical Period Music part 2, we’ll look at more of the instrumental genres that became a thing, like symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets, and the composers who innovated them. We’ll also talk about some of the developments of music toward the end of the Classical era, with the new crop of musicians like Beethoven and Schubert.
The Sonata as a Song Structure
First things first – we need to talk about the sonata. The sonata is a song structure that became super popular in the Classical era.
Think about modern music nowadays. Even if you haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing pop music structure, you probably have a basic idea of the verse/chorus structure used in basically every modern song. A typical modern song might go like this:
Intro – verse – chorus – verse 2 – chorus – bridge – chorus x2
Not every modern song fits into this formula exactly, but you get the idea.
Sonata form is a little more complex, but it’s got three parts: The exposition, development, and recapitulation.
The exposition is the main idea, the development takes that idea and messes around with it a bunch, and then the recapitulation returns to that main idea again, sort of like a repeat. It’s actually like a very complex version of rounded binary form (ABA).
There are enough rules and details in sonata forms that we could probably talk for hours about it, but I wanted to just touch on it today because you’ll see sonata form pop up in all kinds of Classical music – usually the first movement of a sonata, symphony, concerto and string quartet, which are all popular Classical music genres.
The Sonata as a Song
The concept of the sonata as a song form emerged earlier in the Baroque period (for example, Scarlatti wrote over 500 of them for keyboard), but they changed and evolved in Classical period music, reaching their peak with guys like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
A sonata generally has 3 or 4 movements – usually a lively first movement in sonata form, then a slow movement or maybe a minuet, and then a lively 4th movement as a finale. Of course, there are exceptions, like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata which begins on a very slow and somber note.
“Sonata” means a piece “played”, as opposed to “Cantata”, which means a piece “sung”. So sonatas are instrumental pieces. There are all kinds of sonatas out there – piano, violin, cello, flute, you name it.
Haydn and the creation of the symphony
The symphony exploded in the Classical period, mainly because aristocrats really liked them and paid musicians to create them. In the early Classical period, symphonies weren’t the huge productions they are today, so even a relatively small court could afford to have a symphony.
Since Haydn wrote at least 107 symphonies, he’s a good dude to mention when we’re talking about them. He didn’t invent the genre, but with such massive output, he gave the symphony shape. Haydn is often referred to as the “father of the symphony”, as well as “father of the string quartet”, which we’ll talk about in a moment.
The symphony itself originated as string instruments, but evolved to have horns, then oboes, then horns and oboes. Later came the flutes, bassoons, clarinets and timpani. At the end of the 1700s, we had the full-scale Classical orchestra that we know today.
So we have this awesome guy Haydn, who basically created the gold standard of what a symphony is. Was anyone else making groundbreaking symphonies?
Well, Haydn only considered one person as his true musical peer – Mozart. They were good friends and musical bros – Mozart created at least 47 symphonies. They were both huge influences on each other, though Mozart’s style was more singing-like.
Haydn’s Symphony 100, “Military”
Let’s take a listen to his 100th symphony, nicknamed “Military”. I think it’s got a good blend of Haydn’s characteristic lightheartedness, but also with some interesting twists.
Symphony no. 100 in G Major “Military”, 1st movement, Adagio-Allegro
Development of the string quartet
We have Haydn to thank for another musical genre, and that is the string quartet. A string quartet is made up of four instruments – two violins, a cello and a viola.
Haydn established the genre in the 1750s, and other major composers followed in his footsteps, like Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
Since we’re about to segue into a discussion on the later Classical period and how music evolved with guys like Beethoven, I thought it would be fitting to give you an example of a Beethoven string quartet – particularly the one he considered his most perfect work.
Beethoven String Quartet, Op. 131 in C# Minor
This quartet is/was considered so awesome that Schubert not only commented, “After this, what is left for us to write?”, he also requested to hear it on his deathbed. This is Beethoven’s op. 131 in C# minor quartet.
Mid to End of Classical Period Music
That quartet we were just listening to was actually composed in 1826, making it one of Beethoven’s more Romantic-sounding works, and more similar to the music of the future (ie the Romantic era) as opposed to the past (the Classical era).
By 1790, the new sound of music had been firmly established by guys like Mozart and Haydn, who had changed the musical landscape and had many imitators. But a new crop of musicians were to enter the scene in the 1790s and create a radical shift.
There were many people who played a role in shifting music, especially Beethoven, Hummel and Schubert – they were all friends and rivals, and ushered in the new era. Music started to become more ambitious and intense, minor keys were used more frequently, and the sound became more complex and dare I say emotional.
For a last example of late-Classical, early-Romantic music, I wanted to pick a piece by Schubert. His name isn’t as familiar to us as Beethoven, he only lived to age 31 and only had one public concert of his music while he was alive – but he wrote a ton of excellent music.
I want to show you the rather modern-sounding Piano Sonata in B flat Major, D 960, the slow second movement. It’s both breathtakingly beautiful and simple at the same time, and has a very modern-sounding faster middle section.
Schubert Piano Sonata in B flat Major, D 960
And that concludes today’s part two of the Classical Period Music series! The intention with this is to give you a brief overview, so you have an understanding of the timeline, the composers and the sound in the Classical era.
In the future, we’ll go more in-depth on specific topics. Music history is fascinating and I love nerding out on it. I hope you enjoy it as well!