Western Music History/Classical Music


The Classical era occurred between 1750 and 1820. It was an age of enlightenment, set in motion by the great philosophers Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau. People of the Classical period believed in reason, moving away from custom. They attacked the privileges of the aristocracy. The four great composers of the Classical Period were Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. The latter two made the transition to the succeeding Romantic period. The first three were drawn to Vienna, and Schubert born there. The middle class was more powerful in the Classical era than before, now having access to music, music lessons, printed music etc… which used to be a privilege of the aristocracy. Public concerts were now given for the first time.


There is a much greater variety and contrast in mood, with lots of fluctuation. This is contrasted with Baroque pieces, which convey a single mood according to the "Doctrine of Affection".


There is now an enormous flexibility of rhythm. Classical pieces contain a wealth of rhythmic patterns, which make use of syncopations, or stresses of the upbeat, changes in note values etc… In a Baroque piece, few patterns are reiterated throughout. In Classical pieces, there is constant rhythmical change.


Most Late Baroque music is polyphonic. Classical music moves back towards homophonic textures consisting of melody + accompaniment.


In contrast the relatively asymmetrical and elaborate melodies of Baroque music, classical era melodies are generally balanced and symmetrical, and often have a question-answer relationship in the cadences.


There is a widespread use of dynamics. With the invention of the piano (pianoforte), crescendos and decrescendos come into widespread use. The music is not restricted to the terraced dynamics typifying that of the Baroque era.


The basso continuo, and the figured bass is abandoned in the Classical era, as there were many amateur musicians who could not improvise from the figured bass. Another reason for this was that composers wanted more control over their work.

Major-minor tonality provides the structural framework for all musical forms and genres.


In Baroque music, the orchestra changes from piece to piece. In the Classical period, there is a standard group of instruments constituting the orchestra:


The Strings form the most important group (and still are the foundation of the modern orchestra). The first violins carry main melody. The lower strings play accompaniment.


The purpose of the Woodwind section is to add contrasting tone colours to the accompaniment and to provide occasional melodic solos.


The Brass give power to the music and fill out the harmonies.


Timpani give rhythmic bite and emphasis.


Classical pieces consist of several movements that contrast each other in character and in tempo. Forms carried over from the Baroque era include the Concerto, Opera and Symphony. The new emerging forms in the Classical era are the String Quartet (four movements - Fast; Slow; Dance-like; Fast), the Sonata (four movements - Fast; Slow; Dance-like; Fast).

Various forms employed in the classical period include: Binary (A | B), and Ternary (A | B | A). Ternary may be used in an individual movement, and often the third movement in a symphony, string quartet, sonata, etc. There was also the Minuet (A | Trio B | Minuet A), for example, the third movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Mozart). The Rondo form was also employed (A | B | A | C | A, etc.) For example: Mozart’s String Quartets, only found in last movements. The Minuet and Trio (A | B | A), where A – Minuet, B – Trio. Theme and Variation form (A | A1 | A2 | A3 | etc… ) is basically the theme followed by variations,for example, Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, 2nd movement.

The most important new form of the Classical period was sonata form. It can be found in solo form, chamber music, concertos, and symphonies. Sonata form divides a movement into three basic parts:

  1. Exposition: The theme or themes of the movement are introduced, often in different keys.
  2. Development: The composer experiments with his or her theme(s), changing their keys around or writing variations of them.
  3. Recapitulation: The themes are restated in more or less the original form, but are now all in the tonic, i.e. the key of the piece.

Sometimes a composer also uses a slower-paced introduction or an extra concluding passage called a coda.


One of the great contributions to the classical era is the symphony. Haydn wrote an amazing 104 symphonies, Mozart wrote over 40, and Beethoven wrote 9 (the first two of which best fit the classical style). The classical symphony lasts between 20 and 45 minutes, consisting usually of four movements:

1st movement : Sonata form

2nd movement : Slow. May use sonata, ternary or theme-and-variation form.

3rd movement : Dance-like. Minuet and Trio form.

4th movement : Brilliant and heroic. May use sonata, rondo or sonata-rondo form.


The Concerto is a three-movement work for instrumental soloist (or occasionally two or three soloists) and orchestra. The first movement is always in a lively, brisk tempo. A cadenza often appears near the end of the first movement, during which the orchestra is silent and the soloist is given an opportunity to demonstrate technical ability. The second movement is generally slow, and any form may be used. the third movement is contrasted from the second and usually quite fast, usually employing rondo form.

The concerto uses a specialized sonata form containing two expositions, the first of which is normally for the orchestra alone, the second for the soloist with the orchestra accompanying. The concerto lasts between 20 and 45 minutes.

String QuartetEdit

The string quartet is for two violins, viola and cello. It consists of four movements, using the same forms as used in a symphony.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)Edit

During his lifetime, C.P.E. Bach was more famous than his father, Baroque master J.S. Bach. He is regarded as a key founder of the Classical style and period, and most, if not, all of his compositions have more simplistic techniques that use more emotional power, in contrast to the ornamental Baroque music of his father. He composed an immense output consisting of keyboard sonatas, concertos, symphonies, oratorios, chamber music, and more. One of his most well-known pieces is the "Solfeggietto in C minor".

Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787)Edit

Gluck was a German composer from Bavaria, known for his contributions to changes in operatic form of the Classical period. Aside from writing opera, he also wrote ballet suites, chamber music, orchestral music, and other genres, but is most well-known for his operatic reforms.

Reform of OperaEdit

Orfeo ed EuridiceEdit

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)Edit

Haydn is referred to by many scholars as the "Father of the Symphony". He was born in Austria, and his father made wagon wheels. Haydn incorporates folk tunes in his music which his father sang to him as a child. He was a pioneer in the development of the symphony and the string quartet. Mozart and Beethoven influenced his style, even as did he theirs. He was a master at developing themes, often using contrasts of key, mood, texture, rhythm, dynamics and orchestration. His music contains unexpected pauses and tempo changes. He wrote over 100 symphonies, 68 string quartets, piano sonatas, concerti, operas and masses. His last 12 symphonies are called his "London symphonies". The London Symphonies each have a nickname, such as “Surprise”; “Clock”; “Military”; “Drum Roll” etc.

Trumpet Concerto in Eb maj (1796)

His Trumpet Concerto in E flat major was written on a different trumpet to what was around before. It consists of three movements: Fast | Slow | Fast. The third movement uses Rondo Form.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)Edit

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Austria. He is one of the most versatile of composers in the entire history of music. He wrote masterpieces in all musical forms. All his music has a ‘singing’ quality, even his instrumental melodies seem to grow out of the human voice. His music conveys a feeling of ease, grace, balance and perfect proportion. He created compositions with ease (e.g., writing his last three symphonies in 6 weeks!). He wrote over 600 compositions, all of which were catalogued by Von Köchel (a botanist) in chronological order. Thus, we refer to Mozart’s work by the “K” number, which indicates the chronological position of the work in his output. Many of his concertos were among his finest works; he wrote many for piano, several for violin and for horn, as well as two flute concertos, one bassoon concerto, one clarinet concerto and one oboe concerto. He was a master of opera, with most of his operas being comedies. The Italian operas were sung throughout, whereas the German operas included speech. Some of his better known operas were :The Marriage of Figaro", "Don Giovanni ", and "The Magic Flute". Additionally, Mozart wrote forty-one symphonies.

Mozart’s Concertos The Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major was written during a very productive stage in Mozart’s life. Its three movements stress delicacy and lyricism, rather than orchestral power and virtuosity. Trumpets and timpani are absent from the orchestral setting, whereas the clarinets, flutes and bassoon are highlighted. The first movement has two expositions. The orchestra presents the two themes, which are restated by the piano in the second exposition. The development is based on a new theme, introduced by the orchestra. Towards the end of the movement, there is a cadenza.

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)Edit

Ludwig van Beethoven's career has 3 phases. His first phase was between 1770 – 1802, during which his music was strongly influenced by Mozart and Haydn. He wrote his first two piano concertos, first two symphonies, string quartets Op.18 and first 10 piano sonatas all during this period. His second phase was between 1802 – 1815. During this stage he was going deaf. He greatly expanded upon existing forms, and infused his music with heroic expression. his works include the Kreutzer Sonata for violin and piano; his only violin concerto; 3rd, 4th and 5th piano concertos and some of his greatest piano sonatas including “Les adieux”, “Waldstein” and “Appassionata”. His third phase was from 1815 – 1827. Now he was totally deaf, leaving him completely isolated from society. He departs substantially from established conventions, both in form and in style. His works include the 9th symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last piano sonatas and the late string quartets.

Beethoven believed that there was a moral force behind music. He revised and refined his work repeatedly. He used classical forms and techniques but gave them new power and intensity, creating a bridge between classicism and Romanticism. His works convey tension and excitement through syncopations and dissonances. Entailing many contrasts in mood, tiny rhythmic ideas are repeated over and over to create momentum. There is an enormous range of expression in his work: tempo, dynamic and expressive indications are marked far more extensively in his scores than in those of his predecessors. Often he had markings such as “< p”. He uses extremes of pitch far more. He unified the movements of his symphonies, sonatas and string quartets. Often, one movement leads directly into another with out a pause (attacca). There are also thematic inter-relationships between movements. Many of his movements use sonata form, but the development section and the coda are greatly expanded. He uses the scherzo rather than the minuet for the 3rd movements of his pieces. His scherzos have rapid movement with rhythmic drive. His most famous works are his nine symphonies, which were conceived for large orchestras. In some of them he adds piccolos, trombones and contrabassoon. All instruments play difficult music, and Beethoven was the first composer to make dynamic use of brass instruments within the orchestra. Beethoven's odd numbered symphonies are more forceful, whereas the even numbered symphonies are very calm and lyrical. His Symphony No. 9 is the first up to that time in music history to use a choir, which we hear in the "Ode to Joy" finale movement. He wrote 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, five piano concertos, one opera (“Fidelio”), two ballets, one violin concerto, and two masses. He incorporated fugues extensively in his later works.

Symphony no.3 This symphony was intended to reflect on the life of Napoleon. However, Beethoven scratched out its dedication to Napoleon when he found out the general had invaded Austria. Nicknamed the Eroica Symphony, it was the longest symphony ever composed at the time of its premiere.

Symphony no.5 In his Symphony number 5, he unifies all contrasting movements. The first four-note motif is used extensively in first and third movements. The third movement theme reappears in the finale. The last two movements are connected by a bridge. This contrasting element that he retained by employing the motif in all four movements of Symphony no. 5 is known as a cell.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)Edit

Schubert was a Viennese composer and child prodigy. His earliest works, like that of his predecessor Beethoven, were in the Classical style. His output consists of over 600 songs, nine Symphonies, eight completed operas, six masses, and an abundance of piano music, string quartets and other chamber works. His songs embrace a wide spectrum of moods, and his melodies range from simple folk-like tunes to complex lines. He makes use of very rich harmonies and rich accompaniments.

Last modified on 30 July 2013, at 15:51