Music in the Classical Era

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Music is the strongest form of magic.” – Marilyn Manson

Music has been the greatest form of human expression since the dawn of time. It has the innate power to transport people to different eras, remind people of their happiest and saddest moments, and bring us to tears whenever we hear that one song that really makes us feel something.

Every era of music in human history has had an impact on the way music is created, heard, experienced, felt, and meant. Almost each era has impacted and influenced the music in the next age, and sometimes vice versa! The classical music period is still an important part of Western culture today, giving birth to the extraordinary works of

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Music is the strongest form of magic.” – Marilyn Manson

Music has been the greatest form of human expression since the dawn of time. It has the innate power to transport people to different eras, remind people of their happiest and saddest moments, and bring us to tears whenever we hear that one song that really makes us feel something.

Every era of music in human history has had an impact on the way music is created, heard, experienced, felt, and meant. Almost each era has impacted and influenced the music in the next age, and sometimes vice versa! The classical music period is still an important part of Western culture today, giving birth to the extraordinary works of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Gluck, and Schubert.

The Gregorian Chant was the earliest form of music recorded during the medieval era. It was used commonly for ceremonies and church services as sacred music. The renaissance built on this and made the motet and German hymns really popular.

The motet was sung without instruments and completely a capella. German hymns were designed to be simple enough for the worshippers to sing along during church services. These developed into oratorios and cantatas in the baroque era.

The cantata was an Italian genre of secular music that was sung in a choir with instrumental accompaniment. It could be a solo cantata – similar to opera, or a sacred cantata – similar to the oratorio.

Oratorios were the main sources of sacred music for the church along with various other compositions, sung either as a solo or choir. Fashioned after the music found from ancient Greece, the opera was made very popular during the baroque, and continued to be popular all through the classical era, too. Throughout the three eras, singing was the main form of music: but instruments? Not so much.

Though the blanket term ‘classical music’ is used to describe music from the medieval era all the way to the early 2000s, the true classical era fell roughly between 1730 and 1820. During the in-between period of the baroque and classical eras, the ‘galant’ style of music was welcomed as a light-hearted return to simplicity after the confusion and complexity of the baroque.

‘Style galant’ as it was known, had shorter periods, was not as polyphonic, and had more song-like melodies throughout the pieces. So music became more homophonic. This meant that there was a single melody line in the music, and rather than have clashing melodies as with baroque, there were instead harmonies to match and complement the melody. This made music much easier to listen to and the style even carried over to how we make music today, with a sung melody and instruments creating harmonies as an accompaniment.

The development of music in the classical era took place during the Age of Enlightenment, a period when people started to separate from the church and focus more on science as the centre of all reason and logic (Stein, 2006). It was an important time for Western society and culture. Because of this, it was only natural that music separated from the church as well and moved into its own secular category. Religious music was still made, of course, but secular music – music separate from the church – dominated the musicscape.

The classical era was revolutionary in many ways. It saw the creation of a few new instruments, particularly the piano, and saw composers place more importance on instrumental music, compared to vocal music.

The primary instrument of the classical era, the piano, was invented in Italy around the 1700s and derives from the word pianoforte – piano­ meaning soft and forte meaning loud, indicating the different levels of volume you can draw from the instrument depending on how hard you press the keys. It is an acoustic, stringed instrument where the strings are struck by wooden hammers covered in soft material. This was a development from the harpsichord where the volume of the instrument could not be controlled because the strings were plucked by a trigger mechanism.

The most notable composers of the era – Ludwig Van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – were possibly the most influential composers of the time and believed instrumental music was to be given the utmost importance. Because of this, various orchestras were created.

 

The string quartet was created by Franz Joseph Haydn. It usually has four movements, or parts, and was one of the most prominent forms of classical music created during that era. A quintet is a group of five instruments or singers and was created because composer Luigi Boccherini favoured a second cello in his string quartets.

The musical composition mainly written for orchestra and most important in Vienna, the symphony, played a massive role in public life, including church services. Labelled a ‘symphony’ from the Greek symphoniameaning agreement or concord of sound, it was composed of four or five different sections. Woodwinds, brass, strings, keyboard or piano, and sometimes percussion play in an orchestra (Kallen, 2013).

While Franz Joseph Haydn worked for the German prince Nicholas ‘the Magnificent’ Esterhazy, he was called the “father of symphony”, producing over 102 symphonies, and crafting the modern orchestra. The Italian style of symphonies became used for overtures in operas, and the composition of a symphony generally had three movements, or parts.

A trio, or a trio sonata, is mainly known as an ensemble of three instruments. It usually consists of two top parts, either played by violins or other high-pitched instruments, and a lower-pitched instrument from the basso continuo. Sometimes there may be four instruments depending on whether the group has a basso continuo, contributing towards the harmony of a piece by supplying a bassline and chord progression. The continuo can be a piano or cello.

A sonata can be many things, but in the context of the classical era it was a piece of music played for a solo instrument – usually a piano, or a small ensemble consisting of two to four movements within the composition (bbc.com, 2021). Probably the most well-known sonata would be Beethoven’s piano sonata no. 14, Moonlight Sonata. The sonata was a very popular and important genre of classical music during that era because it could be played by people who had instruments at home. Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven all composed numerous sonatas for either piano, cello, flute, or violin.

Even though composers pushed the importance of instrumental music, opera music still had an important role in the classical era. It was changed pretty drastically by Christoph Willibald Gluck. He focused more on transition and modulation, where the music changes key. A good example of this in more recent music would be I Wanna Dance with Somebody by Whitney Houston or Wouldn’t it be Nice by the Beach Boys. Both these pieces of music have parts that move upwards in key. This kind of thing was used a lot in the classical era to influence emotion.

The use of a chorus – as in repetitive parts in music which become memorable – became widely used in compositions such as Für Elise by Beethoven, or Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. The chorus is the easily-remembered part of a composition or song that runs repeatedly through people’s heads; not to be confused with the alternative definition of chorus used during the classical era: a choir, or group of singers singing in unison ‘who sometimes portray servants, party guests or other unnamed characters’ (Opera Vocabulary, n.d.).Nowadays, every single song has a chorus; part of a trend that started in the classical era and never really ended.

Most composers of the time also wrote operas wherein chorus singers were heavily utilised. During the classical era (the time of the Enlightenment), the first public performances of concerts in 18th-century Europe meant that music was more accessible to the public and became highly successful. Orchestral and opera concerts were also a way to distinguish class with upper-class people seated in booths and lower-class people in the stalls.

‘Amateurs and professionals alike would play for audiences in cities like London and Paris, where more musicians could be found and where orchestras would come together’ (Sadie & Latham as cited in Kallen, 2013). When the first concert was performed, the musicians probably did not think about how widespread and important concerts would become for future generations. Concerts are now a big part of every culture worldwide.

Overall, the classical era probably had the biggest impact on music culture through the decades. The most influential and well-known composers made music that grew in importance; a time in which people could gain access to their own instruments and make their own music. Without this point in music history, people might never have been able to enjoy listening to music from those times, let alone develop their own music and play for themselves and their families at home.

 

Sources: 1. The sonata in the Classical period – The sonata – GCSE music revision – BBC bitesize. 2. The History of Classical Music. 3. The Cambridge companion to Jonathan Edwards. Cambridge University Press.

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