ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Classical Era

1750 - 1825 A.D.

Listen to Eine kleine Nachtmusik, 1st movement

By the time of his death in 1750, Bach was considered musically old-fashioned. Some of the best representatives of the new winds blowing through the musical world were Bach’s own sons, especially Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach (there were others—Bach fathered 22 children!).

Patronage was shifting from the court to the middle class, and composers’ audiences were less clearly defined. C.P.E. Bach, for instance, composed a set of sonatas and fantasias für Kenner und Liebhaber (“for connoisseurs and amateurs”).

Listen to C.P.E. Bach: Sonata in E Major, Wq. 65/29

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Instead of trying to express emotions common to everyone, the new music—called stile gallant and Empfindsamkeit—tried to express something unique. The steady metrical pulse of Baroque music became more varied and erratic, harmonic design became more symmetrical, and harmonic rhythm slowed down. Pieces often started out with fanfare-like figuration, scales or arpeggios stretched out over a single harmony, sort of like an idling car about to be put into gear.

The style we now term Classical owes much of its formation to one genius: Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). He was one of the last major composers to enjoy steady patronage throughout most of his career, working for Prince Paul Anton Esterházy and his descendents for three decades. To illustrate the relatively low position a musician still held in society, consider the fact that during his tenure at the Esterházy estate near Vienna, Haydn wore the livery of a servant.

Listen to Haydn: Symphony No. 6 (“Le Matin”)

He was extremely prolific, composing 14 Masses, more than two dozen operas, nearly 70 string quartets, about 175 works for a stringed instrument called the baryton (a favorite instrument of one of his Esterházy patrons), over 50 keyboard sonatas, approximately 500 song settings and hundreds and hundreds of serenades, cantatas, divertimentos and chamber works. Yet his place in history is best summarized by the nickname history has given him—Father of the Symphony—for nearly single-handedly creating the genre as we know it today (he had ample opportunity to hone his craft, composing over 104 of them!).

Throughout his long career, his symphonies became longer, more developed, more expressive. He went through one period (during the 1770s) when his work reflected an aesthetic trend called Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”), an idiosyncratic style that featured more violent shifts of emotion, more emphasis on minor keys—in its more brooding aspect, it has sometimes been seen as a precursor of Romanticism.

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