Classical Music: The Classical Period

Not long after I first started primary school in the 1980s my class did a unit study on Pompeii and the ancient Romans. It made such an impression on me that while travelling in Europe in 2005 I finally realised the dream of twenty years before and visited the city famously buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79C.E.

Classical musicians
Musicians preparing to perform during the Classical period.

I am far from the first person to be fascinated by this ancient ruined city. When it was first rediscovered in 1748 the art, architecture and sculpture that emerged sparked a movement in the artistic world that would come to be known as The Classical Period. Musicians and composers, of course, faced somewhat more of a challenge than their peers in other mediums: while images of Roman instruments lingered in their art, no actual instruments had survived, and neither had any written music. Undaunted, the composers of the Classical Period (c.1750-1825) simply used their imaginations.

The Romans were remembered as a disciplined, military people, so the embellishments of the Late Baroque were stripped back. A clear tune, moving forward with a certain military precision was embraced: it may be difficult to decide where to begin in humming a Baroque tune, but the Classical is another story.

Woodwind instruments joined the strings and brass of the Baroque, effectively completing the orchestra that we know today. The symphony, originally in three parts but later expanding to its familiar four-part structure, emerged, making use of the massed sound of the orchestra with less of an emphasis on solo parts. Plot-wise, opera became more realistic, but also more dramatic, laying the groundwork for the emergence of Wagner in the latter part of the 1800s, but without a doubt the two names that dominate the classical period are Mozart and Beethoven.

The two were in many ways very different: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), the delicate child prodigy who scraped a living composing memorable music with commercial potential (the light operas ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ and ‘The Magic Flute’, catchy tunes like ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’/ ‘A Little Night Music’, and – fun trivia – the melody which we recognise today as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’), and Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827), the prototype tormented artiste whose big, bigger, and yet bigger still symphonies anticipated the Romantic period and who famously went deaf in his later years.

Both composers lived in a very different world from that of their predecessors. Music was no longer reserved for the grand occasions of the church and the aristocracy. The emergence of concert halls and opera houses meant that music had become entertainment for a growing middle class with disposable income and free time to indulge in the arts, including music, and Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries (Haydn, Paganini, Schubert and Rossini to name just a few) produced a prodigious body of work to satisfy their demands and – hopefully – make a living.

Mozart’s instantly-recognisable Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

The first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony , the first notes of which are apocryphally claimed to follow the rhythm of a knock on the composer’s door (although he wouldn’t have heard it, being already deaf when this piece was composed in 1804-08)

Not originally composed as theme music for The Lone Ranger, here’s the finale to Gioachino  Rossini’s (1792-1868) William Tell Overture.

What do you make of the music of the Classical period? Love it? Hate it? Let me know your thoughts.

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