Classical music “Classical music” as a musical era

The musical epoch of classical music is primarily associated with three names: Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Their accomplishments have had an enduring imprint on the continuing development of music—including in Germany.

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra Freiburg Baroque Orchestra | Copyright: Marco Borggreve If we understand "classic music" not as a collective term for concert hall music in general, but rather as an era in the history of music, then it is connected with three names: Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. The activities of these three "classics" is so closely bound up with Vienna, the capital of contemporary Austria, that we call this epoch more precisely "Viennese classicism", for only one of the three, Beethoven, was born in what is today thought of Germany. Of course, the nation-states of "Germany" and "Austria" did not even exist at the time of Viennese classicism. Beethoven's birthplace, Bonn, for example, belonged to the bishopric of Cologne, whose Archbishop was also the son of Hapsburg emperor who resided in Vienna and an electoral prince, who had a vote in the imperial succession. Vienna was, until 1806, the capital of the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation". Viennese classicism could thus quite be said to be classicism in Teutschland, as the German-speaking world was then called for the sake of simplicity.

The importance of the composers Haydn, Mozart und Beethoven lies primarily in their development of lasting new forms of instrumental music, which became the foundation of nineteenth and twentieth century music: the symphony, the instrumental concert, the string quartet, the piano sonata and other forms of chamber music. Together, these three musicians, who were also personally acquainted with each other (Haydn and Mozart were friends and Beethoven was Haydn's pupil), contributed by 1800 at the latest to setting instrumental music on an equal footing with vocal music in the minds of their contemporaries. If previously vocal music, especially church music and opera, had always been regarded as the truly significant form of music, now the symphony, the string quartet and the piano sonata were looked upon as at least of equivalent importance, and by the Romantic era it was even customary (particularly in E. T. A. Hoffmann) to see instrumental music as the "real" music, invariably with reference to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Of Continued Importance

Haydn, Mozart und Beethoven are called "classics" because at least some of their works have been continually played since their premiers up to the present. Such continuity hardly existed for composers before the eighteenth century (with the exception of the "Catholic classic" Palestrina), and even in the eighteenth century for only a few works, particularly Georg Friedrich Händel's oratorios, Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard music (which was admired mainly by musicians) and Christoph Willibald Gluck's so-called "reformed operas". In this continuity, this "timeless validity", their contemporaries saw the quality of the "classical", and the idea of a "Viennese classicism" was developed mainly by writers from central and northern Germany as a parallel construction to the "Weimar classicism" of Goethe and Schiller. For this reason alone, not to mention the influence of German music, Viennese classicism belongs to the history of "classicism in Germany".

The "timeless" achievements of Viennese classicism would not of course have been possible without the previous work of many other composers who had emancipated themselves from the traditions of the Baroque and developed new models of expression and form and on whose music the "classics" were able to build. These include in particular the composers of the South German-Austrian-Italian tradition of instrumental music, whose center, in addition to Vienna, was the Manheim court orchestra, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a son of Johann Sebastian Bach, who exercised a decisive influence on all three Viennese classicists.

Creators of new worlds

It was (Franz) Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), who as conductor for the Princes of Esterházy between 1761 and 1790 mainly spent only the winter months in Vienna, but who after two highly acclaimed visits to London (1791/2, 1794/5) settled in the Hapsburg capital, that decisively influenced especially the genres of the symphony and the string quartet, in which he developed vast musical connections with the help of a few melodic building blocks. His inexhaustible hankering for experiment, which lasted during a career of more than fifty years as a composer, and his equally reflective and non-schematic use of all available musical resources, made him in these genres, and also in his piano sonatas and trios, into a "continent", known today unfortunately only in tiny snippets. Regularly performed are his late oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was born in the then independent archbishopric of Salzburg. After extensive travels through Europe, first as a child prodigy and then as a young composer, he went to Vienna in 1781 and worked mainly as a piano virtuoso and teacher (after 1787 also with a position as composer for the imperial chamber). He took up all the genres influenced by Haydn and extended them in the instrumental dimension primarily in his piano concerts, which are like small operas for soloist and orchestra, and in his great string quintets. Here, as in the major operas of Mozart's Viennese period (Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute), a veritable profusion of characteristic and expressive musical ideas and artistic diversity of treatment enter into a balance that not infrequently overtaxed the capacities of contemporary listeners.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), a native of Bonn, established himself in Vienna in 1792, like Mozart, as a piano virtuoso and freelance composer (supported mainly by the high aristocracy). The nineteenth century saw him above all as the master of pathetic, tragic and daimonic expression, especially in his "from night to light" Fifth and Ninth Symphonies and in his piano sonatas such as the Pathétique, op. 13, the Moonlight, op. 27, 2 and the Appassionata, op. 57. This picture, however, tended to overlook both Beethoven's sense of humor and lyricism and his multifarious engagement not only with Mozart and Haydn but also with J. S. and C. Ph. E. Bach and Händel. The radical individualization of both musical expression and of individual works themselves that Beethoven drove forward in his late music baffled his contemporaries, but came to form the dominant idea of the composer's approach to his art in the years ahead.

The birth of a musical public

These composers are also called "classical" because their combination of clear structure and conciseness of musical language and form has always been felt to be extraordinarily successful. (Their previously mentioned German and Italian predecessors and contemporaries created the basic conditions for this musical language.) The clarity is based on the plastic, self-contained and melodically succinct formation of themes, which are developed sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously, using all the resources of harmony and counterpoint. Especially in these melodies, the musical language of classicism comes closer to the popular music of the time than ever before or since in the history of music.

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven also became "classics", in the previously mentioned sense of enjoying a constant presence in concert hall and opera houses, because their works arose at a time when the main features of today's musical life were developing: public concerts for paid admission, the dissemination of music through music printing, and the critical discussion (especially in central and northern Germany) of concerts and new works in newspapers, magazines and special musical journals. All these (to some extent long existing) tendencies condensed between 1770 and 1830 into a "musical public" such as had not hitherto existed. These efforts were sponsored by the aristocracy and the economically successful and educated middle classes. It was the unique mixture of a musically highly educated (and very wealthy) aristocracy and a broad interest in music that extended into the lower classes which made Vienna an ideal breeding ground for a music that pursued the reconciliation of popularity and art up to the beginning of Beethoven's "third period". And this is probably also the reason that we have always sought to see in the works of Viennese classicism the musical representation of a humanity based in tolerance, responsibility and the balance of feeling and reason such as comes to expression especially in Haydn's oratorios, Mozart's The Magic Flute and Beethoven's Fidelio and Ninth Symphony.

To the later era of Romanticism, which was marked by a broken and complicated relation to the world and society, this music soon seemed to represent a blessed, golden past (Haydn, Mozart) or an unattainable "titanic" ideal (Beethoven). Both attitudes are evident early on in a fourth composer who is not generally assigned to Viennese classicism but who was committed to it in many ways: the native Viennese musician Franz Schubert (1797–1828), who lived mainly as a freelance composer in humble material circumstances, and whose instrumental music and songs move between a more or less Biedermeier classicism at the highest level of inspiration on the one hand and a downright disturbing intensity of expression on the other (the latter particularly in the late string quartets, the string quintet, the "Unfinished Symphony" and above all in the lieder from Gretchen am Spinnrad to Winterreise). These later works of Schubert became a decisive source of inspiration for Romantics such as Schumann.