home navbar

As is the case with all historical movements (musical history included), different aspects of an historical time can be seen as creating the conditions for a period to occur or a style to crystallize. In the introductory remarks to his anthology, Music In the Classic Period (Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1995), F.E. Kirby names several historical developments he thinks gave rise to the period in music history we call the Classical Period: the rise of the middle class, the development of the galant style and opera buffa, and a new set of aesthetic values. Each of these, Kirby contends, contributed to the classic style music produced by the three quintessential Viennese masters of it: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Some musicologists see the period extending from around 1750 to 1820; others see it as somewhat shorter, 1770 to 1820. Good reasons exist for both, and only rarely are beginnings and endings of historical periods and movements clear cut. Few, if any, would disagree that Mozart and his music are rightly termed classical, both in content and intent.


"The middle of the eighteenth century witnessed perhaps the most comprehensive change that has ever taken place in the history of Western music. The change in music was a natural part of the change that took place in Western civilization generally, a change that may briefly be characterized as involving the rise of the middle class, the bourgeoisie, to political power and the concomitant decline of the aristocracy — in short, the formation of political and social life as we know it today. This change in the political, economic, and social order had a profound effect on all musical life. At bottom, it affected the economic support for the musician. Heretofore he had been under the patronage system, in the employment of and subservient to the wishes of a church or court, of a bishop, an archbishop, a rector, a prince, a duke, and so forth. But once the change had taken place, his support derived rather from the large and generally anonymous mass audience before which he performed his works in public concerts, and which purchased the compositions he published. The wishes and tastes of this large audience had to be satisfied, and although the great composers' refusal to compromise brought about an improvement in its taste, the vast majority of composers — most of them long forgotten — contented themselves with providing works that would gratify the mass taste and little more.

"An important aspect of the sociopolitical-economic change in the position of the musician and composer was a new musical style which, although affected all kinds of music, was mostly involved with instrumental music. This new instrumental kind of music may generically be termed galant. Its main features were basically a homophonic texture, simple harmonies, and regularly organized, well-balanced, easily grasped melodic phrases, the whole being unassuming, simple, pleasing, ingratiating, and sweet. The style as a whole was derived from the popular and unpretentious comic operas of the early and middle eighteenth century, especially those of the so-called Neapolitan School.

"In consequence of the new taste that developed in the first half of the eighteenth century, there developed a new type of opera, the opera buffa, or comic opera. The earliest of these were simple works, the two acts of which were sandwiched in between the three acts of an opera seria. Unlike the opera seria, the characters in an opera buffa were drawn from the contemporary middle class (not from classical antiquity, early history, or the Bible) and frequently represented stock character-types from the popular theater, or commedia dell'arte, of the time: the jealous and miserly old man, the shrewd and pert servant girl, the brave young lover, the comic doctor, and so on. The opera buffa grew into an independent genre of opera, and indeed soon usurped the position in the repertory formerly occupied by the opera seria.

Yet it was instrumental music that ultimately gained the greatest importance, in contrast to the Baroque and preceding epochs. The bulk of this instrumental music corresponded to the unassuming norms of the galant. Characteristic is the name given to many of these instrumental works — divertimento. Other names meaning the same thing are cassation, nocturne, and serenade. Works of this type are intended as social compositions, background music, as we would say, to social gatherings of the time.

"This galant music was regarded as corresponding to the leading aesthetic principles of the time, which were wholly rationalistic and called for the artwork to be logically and rationally organized, clear and comprehensible to the senses. Descartes' demand for "clear and distinct" thought became an aesthetic element for the creative artist, a demand echoed by many musical theorists of the eighteenth century. At the same time, however, there ran an important countercurrent, which opposed the dominance of reason by asserting the value of imagination in an artwork. This movement came especially from England, from the writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), and Edward Young (1683-1765) which became known on the Continent and there exerted considerable influence, particularly in Germany. Once the works of Shakespeare in their original versions became known, they provided a strong argument against the rationalistic conception of the artwork; and again this influence was pronounced in Germany. Finally, the poems of the alleged Celtic bard Ossian—even after the deception of James Macpherson became known—had a powerful impact.

"Along with this stress on the role of the imagination in an artwork went a new interpretation of the role of the artist. This came about by virtue of the idealistic philosophy of the eighteenth century, the revival of conceptions that go back to Plato. Ultimate reality was seen to lie not in the physical world, which one perceives through the senses, but in a supersensible or metaphysical realm of ideas that lies above and beyond. The objects in the physical world were regarded as poor copies of their archetypes in the supersensible real world of ideas. In this scheme the work of art had traditionally enjoyed a peculiar position: Although it necessarily belonged to the physical world, it was also held to represent or symbolize the eternal realm of ideas. The artist thus became a sort of mediator between the supersensible realm and that of ordinary physical reality, and hence, as someone in contact somehow with this higher realm, became very special indeed. Although this idea was not new in the eighteenth century, it there took on particular importance, for in connection with the new emphasis given the role of imagination in the artwork it had a profound effect on the idea of the artist as a creator. In Shaftesbury's phrase, the artist is a "second maker, a just Prometheus, under Jove," whose creative power is seen as analogous to that of God himself. This idea represents the beginning of the "genius theory" that became so popular in the following century; and in the understanding of the eighteenth century the only genius was the artistic genius. As exponents of this idea in one way or another in the eighteenth century, we can refer to the dramatists connected with the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany, as well as the Weimar classical writers Goethe, Schiller, and Herder, or, in France, Rousseau. Toward the end of the century the German philosopher Immanuel Kant set the limits to what reason can hope to accomplish, establishing the basis for the aesthetics of the nineteenth century.

haydn"This new orientation in aesthetics had its effect on music. The musical artwork, just as in the other arts, became a vehicle for expression, no longer being seen as the concrete and generalized affections of the Baroque, but rather as personal and subjective, the feelings of the artist himself. The musical artwork became the unique and individual expression of the composer. The old idea of the unity of affection prevailing throughout a composition gave way to a manifoldness, a variety of expression within a piece which usually appears as the use of more than one musical theme, frequently of themes that contrast strongly with one another. Dynamic variations, with crescendos and decrescendos, became important elements in the new music, and it is this that explains the rise of the piano in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Contrast and variety became the hallmarks of the new music.

"The new expressive ideal and seriousness of purpose affected the easy, pleasant, and popular galant music of the time, which had to be adapted so that it could become a suitable vehicle for the new intent. This can be seen most particularly in instrumental music, which lay at the heart of the new styles. The change was primarily made by German (or German-speaking) composers who had settled in Vienna: the Hungarian Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) [see left] and the Austrian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). It is they who established the new kind of instrumental music in a way that was to remain dominant for the whole of the nineteenth century and to some extent the twentieth. Thus, they paved the way for the work of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). For this reason they, along with Beethoven, have come to be known as the Viennese Classical group of composers. — F.E. Kirby, Music In the Classic Period (Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1995), pp. 2-4.