Today’s episode is about Classical period music, and since there’s so much to talk about, I’ve decided to split this into two videos. Honestly this subject is so dense and interesting that we could talk about it for hours and hours, but the focus today is to get a general idea of the period, an overview.
Recently I did a two-parter video on Baroque period music, so if you like this video, you’ll probably dig that one as well. The Classical period happened right after the Baroque period, so I’m attempting to keep it linear.
In today’s video we’re going to cover the basics of Classical style, homophony, and instrumental music.
In the second part, we’ll talk about some of the genres that were innovated in the Classical period, such as the symphony, and how the music shifted in tone toward the end of the classical period.
Classical Period Music: Basics
So let’s get the basics out of the way. When was the Classical period in Western music? I usually say it was from 1750-1825, but 1730 is when transitions away from Baroque styles began.
Out of all of the important musical eras, most of us are familiar with Classical composers – we’ve got guys like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert hanging out in this time period. We’ll talk about those composers a bit more in the next video, since they were important to the development of Classical music.
Homophony and simpler melodies
In the Baroque era, everything was really intense and really complicated. The Classical period brought simpler melodies and a lighter texture.
One feature of music in the Baroque era was counterpoint – multiple melodies all playing at the same time. This is also called “polyphony” – “poly” meaning multiple. In the Classical era, a new texture became dominant – “homophony” where “homo” implies singular.
What this means is that you started getting just a single melody line with chordal accompaniment, which is a lot more similar to modern music.
Chords became really important in Classical music, because they gave the music a sense of order and structure. One of the main ideals in the Classical period, be it with art, music, or science, was the idea of the universe being structured and organized, and beautiful in its simplicity. The music of the time reflected this ideal for order.
Classical Period Music – The Sound
The sound of Classical period music was lighter (in the early-to-mid Classical period, anyway), but also featured more variation within a piece. Whereas Baroque music featured a single affect, or mood, throughout an entire composition, Classical music tended to be more bipolar, with many moods within a single piece.
We’ll talk about instruments in a moment here, but another big change with Classical music was more details being added to sheet music. In the Baroque era, things like phrasing and dynamics were never marked – it was all meant to be improvised. But in Classical period music, more details appeared.
Toward the end of the Classical period, the light and simple ideal began to evolve into something richer and more complex (though still based on chords). A hallmark of the later Classical period are Beethoven’s powerful symphonies, for example.
But let’s take a listen to a piece that reflects this light texture: Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K. 334.
So far we’ve been talking a lot about the overall tone of Classical period music, but we’ve mainly been talking about instrumental music. Up until the Baroque period, instrumental music wasn’t something people would just sit and listen to. You’d listen to the travelling troubadour play his lute and sing songs, or you would go to church and listen do vocal a capella. The only time you’d be listening to instrumental music is if you were dancing at a party.
In the Baroque period, instrumental music grew in popularity, and instrumental continued to grow even bigger in the Classical period, flourishing and soaring to new heights.
This is the era where people would go to the theatre and catch a symphony, or maybe a string quartet would be playing at an aristocratic party.
Vocal music was still a thing, though, mainly in opera. Mozart, for example, wrote many famous operas, like the Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. These were both comic operas, which were very popular at the time – it’d be like going to watch a goofy romantic comedy at the theatre nowadays. Only with live music and singers.
The birth of the piano
So let’s talk about instruments.
My favorite innovation in the Classical era was the development of the piano. Harpsichords were phased out in favor of the pleasant mellow sound of the piano. And since the piano was capable of more dynamics and could convey a wider range of moods (as opposed to the harsh-sounding harpsichord), piano music became more detailed and elaborate. Playing Bach on the piano is a very, very different experience than playing Beethoven.
Since instrumental music was becoming more and more popular, new song forms emerged – the sonata, quartet, solo concerto, and symphony, to name a few. We’ll get into more of that in the next video.
In the Baroque period, there was something called “Basso Continuo”, which was basically an improvised bass part played by a keyboard and a low-sounding instrument, such as a double bass. This was phased out in the Classical period as composers became more and more specific with their music, indicating exactly what instruments would play when.
Instrumental music was still mainly for the elite in the Classical period. Musicians often had rich patrons, or would work at an estate, for princes and dukes and the like.
Back in that time, musicians were workhorses. Nowadays we’re lucky if our favorite artist releases an album every two years, but back in the Classical period, there was constant pressure to write new music on a regular basis. For example, Mozart died fairly young but still composed about 200 hours of music.
Haydn, who worked at a court and had even more pressure to constantly compose, and who also lived to his seventies, wrote far more than that, by at least double (by my rough estimations).
Even some of the most prolific pop/rock composers can’t even light a candle to that. For comparison, Queen wrote wrote 16 albums from 1973-91 – a lot of albums by our modern standards. Assuming each album is an hour long, that amounts to 16 hours of music.
200 hours…versus 16.
Because Classical composers were on such a tight schedule, they generally only had one rehearsal with their band (if they were lucky) before performances. Can you imagine?
In part 1 of this video, we covered the basics of Classical music and its style – homophony, chords, and the continued rise of instrumental music.
In 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 (Spoiler alert: Haydn will be spoken of). We’ll also talk about some of the developments of music toward the end of the Classical era, with a new generation of musicians like Beethoven and Schubert.