By Sue Talley

By the death of JS Bach in 1750, a major successor to Baroque style was not available. The period between then (or even 1730) and the start of the (high) Classical era in 1780, is called the early Classical period. Even before the death of JS Bach, there was a movement towards replacing majestic splendor by graceful delicacy. If Baroque music is notable for its textural intricacy, the Classical music is characterized by a near-obsession with its structural clarity. The search for intellectual freedom was to be the main principle of this new age of enlightenment. A more spontaneous musical expression was preferred. The better known composers of the pre-classical era were Gluck, Boccherini and CPE, WF and JC Bach brothers.

The end of Baroque coincides with the Rococo period which is a reaction to the formalism, rigidity, and seriousness of Baroque. The pre-classical Rococo style flourished around 1720. Music with refined ornamentation can be seen as counterpart to the movement in architecture. It represents the breakdown of the severe grandeur of high Baroque music with graceful music and detailed elaboration. In music, the term Rococo has been too loosely applied and the term galant is more appropriate. One of the earliest composers wrote in galant style was F. Couperin (1668-1733) in France (his keyboard character pieces). This style can be summarized as pleasing tunefulness and prettiness. Music was designed to be entertaining. Seriousness was avoided. Polyphony was replaced by a single melody placed uppermost in a composition and supplied with most transparent harmony (homophonic texture=melody with chordal accompaniment). The melody consisted of short motives cast in four- or eight-bar phrases (instead of an uninterrupted stream of music with a single affekt). Repetition of short phrases became the characteristic of stile galant. Music stopped for frequent cadences but freely used sevenths and diminished sevenths. The elements of the grand Baroque style were abandoned. Among those were basso continuo, contrapuntal texture and polyphonic writing. Inner parts were fully written out. The mood of music was changeable in the same piece as opposed to constant affekt of Baroque music. Establishing a single emotional quality and maintaining it throughout a composition seemed constricting to the younger composers. A meaning was given to the music by providing titles for them (program music). The flute and solo voice used frequently. The Classical period saw the introduction of a form which has dominated instrumental composition to the present day: the sonata-form emerged from the rounded binary form of Baroque during this period. It appeared in embryonic form in A. Scarlatti's opera overtures, D. Scarlatti's sonatas, Pergolesi's trio sonatas, Sammartini's and Monn's sinfonias.

The German equivalent of style galant was empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style) represented mainly by CPE Bach. This style expressed a wider range of emotions. This style was a refined passionateness and melancholy. This is expressed through surprising turns of harmony, chromaticism, nervous rhythmic figures and free speech-like melody. Bach's music expressed contrasting emotions in close juxtaposition. CPE Bach was among the leading composers who brought sonata principle to the concerto. Baroque textures were abandoned, and a series of textures in which chordal patterns, running figures, unsupported melodies, and other devices alternated according to the expressive requirements of the composer. The long lines of Baroque music were still used but conflicted with the desire to create expressive variety. The balance between variety and unity was accomplished only by later Viennese composers. The inner voices were raised to the level of real accompaniments. Motives derived from the melody often appeared in the inner voices. The bass was freed from its old function of providing merely a continuous harmonic support. It could now become melodic. A new era of fully written-out music, free in texture and varied in emotional content started. The Germans played a significant role in the development of abstract forms, such as sonata form, and in the development of large instrumental genres, such as concerto, sonata, and symphony.

In the new era, the role of the harpsichord as a continuo player was no longer needed. Instead it became a solo instrument in concertos of the new type (especially by CPE Bach). With the abandonment of figured-bass, the trio sonata vanished. It was replaced by harpsichord sonata accompanied by violin, or cello or both. The roles of the harpsichord and string instruments were reversed. With the advent of the piano, the sonatas for piano and violin or cello, or piano trios became fashionable. The three string instruments of the trio sonata was complemented by viola for additional harmonic support and the modern string quartet resulted. Much of the music for a string quartet was cast in the form of the divertimento which originated about the beginning of the Rococo period. This was written purely for entertainment purposes.

The enlightenment age brought about nationalism and humanitarian ideas. Mysticism and superstitions faded. The idea of extending culture to the ordinary people resulted in the emergence of opera buffa (opera comique in France) in native languages and for public performances. The buffa style appeared about 1730 and is characterized by an exuberant, simple, lively, seemingly spontaneous style.

The eminent centers of the early classical era were Mannheim and Vienna. The Mannheim school was developed through the efforts of Johann Stamitz who was the violinist and concertmaster of the Mannheim orchestra. Stamitz has a place in the music history owing to his development of a new style of composition and orchestration. Stamitz also contributed to the development of the sonata principle in the first movement of symphonies. Stamitz's second theme, in contrast to his dramatic, striking, or incisive first theme, is often filled with cantabile expressiveness, bringing a lyric note into the symphony. Abrupt dynamic changes in short intervals were first introduced by the Mannheim orchestra. Stamitz also expanded the movement scheme of symphony from fast-slow-fast to fast-slow-minuet-fast (first used by GM Monn). This plan became a standard in symphonies and string quartet during Haydn's early musical life.

Pre-Classical Musical Styles:

Rococo: This style was chiefly associated with France. It is a rather fussy, elaborate style typified in Rameau and F. Couperin's music (another example is D. Scarlatti). Telemann represents the German equivalent.

Galant: Light and elegant musical style of the Rococo period as opposed to the serious and elaborate style of the Baroque era. Galant referred to a particularly courtly manner of social manner. In music, it is generally used to refer to lightly accompanied pleasing music with balanced phrasing (JC Bach, Sammartini, Hasse and Pergolesi). Galant shares with rococo the idea of heavy ornamentation, but differs from it in its clear phrase structure and mannered cadences.

Empfindsamkeit: It is translated as sensitive style. It was the North German equivalent of Stile Galant in 1750-1780. The romantic variety of Rococo style. It tries to arrive at an expression of true and natural feelings, anticipating to some extent the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. It aims to portray subjective expression, especially melancholy. Typical example is CPE Bach's music. WF Bach's music also falls into this category. The volkstumliche Lied and Singspiel are the results of this movement.

Sturm und Drang: Means storm and stress. It found its most potent expression in serious, minor-key works, full of sudden and sometimes violent dynamic effects. A number of Haydn's symphonies from his middle period are in this style (No 44,45,49 written in 1770-80). Mozart's earlier G minor symphony (K183) is also in this group. An interesting example of this style is Mozart's opera Idomeneo which contains long recitatives accompanied by orchestra for passionate expression and storm scenes in minor keys.

Some generalizations about Classical period music:

* A near obsession with structural clarity. A clearly articulated structure exists in classical music

* Themes are made of very short fragments (instead of long unbroken melodies of Baroque music) in the form of antecedent-consequent. Four-bar phrases became a norm

* As opposed to constant moods of Baroque pieces, different moods in close succession existed in Classical pieces (duality in affekt). With the contrasting themes of the sonata form, thematic dualism became an essential structural element in Classical music as opposed to the principle of the basic affection of Baroque music

* Tonic-dominant harmony, IV-V-I harmonic progression, and classical cadential progression IIb-V-I were used frequently. The use of strong cadential progression frequently compensated for the use of chromaticism in terms of tonality

* Feminine cadence

* Appoggiaturas

* Use of chromaticism for expressive effect was common. This was usually melodic chromaticism without affecting the underlying plain harmony. In its simplest form, it occurs in unaccented passing or auxiliary notes. Melodic chromaticism was used to compensate for the underlying harmonic plainness (especially by Mozart)

* Slow harmonic progression (among the most striking features that distinguish harmony after about 1730 from that of the Baroque era)

* Tune-and-accompaniment texture

* Extensive modulations (equivalent to use of dissonance by Baroque composers) to build longer arches of tension and release

* Tonality plays a role in articulation of the musical structure. Change of tonality points to a structural landmark

* Borrowing one or two chords from the tonic minor key or modulating to the tonic minor (major-to-minor shift was typical of Mozart and Schubert and only used in Vienna)

* Enriched use of rhythm and silence

* Use of dynamics and orchestral color in a thematic way (Mannheim influence)

* Less frequent use of the ternary form, except in the minuet and trio

* Predominant use of the sonata principle which provided musical drama (contrast-elaboration-reconciliation)

* Evolution of the trio sonata into the string quartet; concerto grosso into symphony concertante; and emergence of symphony and modern solo concerto.

Summary of the features of a Classical score: Slow harmonic rhythm, primary triads, appoggiaturas, frequent cadences, clear articulation, variety in orchestral texture, varying dynamics, independence of orchestral sections, tenor registry of the bassoon, double woodwind (including clarinets), from the nineteenth century: trombones, harmonically independent brass, cellos and double basses are on different staves. Juxtaposition of contrasting material/keys. Tune and accompaniment texture.

Chromaticism in the Classical era: In Baroque music, chromaticism (the use of notes extraneous to the diatonic scale) was used freely for expressive effects at emotionally intense situations such as grief or lament especially in recitatives (opera, oratorio), cantata, and in instrumental program pieces. In the Classical style, melodic chromaticism was used frequently (especially by Mozart) to compensate for the underlying harmonic plainness. In its simplest form, it occurs in unaccented passing or auxiliary notes. Melodic chromaticism does not usually affect the harmony. It is mainly used for color-modification of diatonicism (the coloristic use).

By the Viennese composers, chromaticism was used to interchange tonic major with minor (the modulatory use). This becomes evident when the chromatic notes used in a passage are those of the parallel minor or major key. The true modulation to tonic minor is again a feature of the Classical style, but mainly in Neapolitan opera written in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Personal Characteristics:

HAYDN (1732-1809): Mainly influenced by CPE Bach. Follows the French overture style for symphony writing (slow chordal introduction and contrapuntal allegro). His hallmark in symphony writing is motivic development. Haydn minimizes contrasting subjects in movements in sonata form; thematic development, instead, pervades all parts of the movement. Closely related first and second subject (monothematic sonata form), but strong observation of key relationships. As in Symphony No.96, drama was his priority. He achieves this with rather surprising effects such as sudden key changes, changes in dynamic, infinitely varying textures including counterpoint, conflict and contrast of keys, and the use of silence and pause for special effects. Later interest in unusual and irregular phrase length (3,5,7 bars). Also in later works, less frequent use of the tonic chord and perfect cadence, more frequent use of chord VI and imperfect cadence. In string quartets, he observed air of conversation, and equal partnership (except those written for the violin virtuoso Tomasini). He was fond of variation form. He used it in most slow movements. It was often double variation (two ideas were alternatively used): A-B - A'-B' - A''-B'' - A''', etc. He developed the sonata-rondo form for the last movements of his symphonies in the late 1760s (2/4 or 4/4 allegro or presto as opposed to earlier 3/8 or 6/8 presto finales). Most of these features were inherited by Beethoven. He imitated Haydn in his use of harmonic richness, remote keys, concentrated use of motifs and dynamic effects.

MOZART (1756-1791): Mainly influenced by the elegant symphonies of JC Bach whose cantabile style and lyrical second themes had the greatest impact. Like him, Mozart followed the Italian style in symphony writing: melodiousness, flowing melodies, smooth lyricism, longer phrases. Rich texture with many sixths and thirds over repeated basses. Abundance of themes linked together. His instrumental writing has analogies with operatic arias especially in the piano concertos. He has one particularly routine formula to delay the final cadence particularly in vocal music: V7d - Ib - I - Ic - V7 - VI. In his operas, he does not simply present lively tunes with light accompaniment as in other Italian operas of the time, but the melodic line, suggestive harmony and the rich orchestration carry messages about the emotion behind the words. The main similarity of Beethoven to Mozart was thematic richness in his music. Beethoven, however, built his themes on characteristic motifs suitable for extensive development.

 Chamber Music in the Classical Period

The emphasis on accessibilty and simplicity meant that most music was written with one melodic line, with all the other instruments providing accompaniment. In other words, the violinist always got to play the pretty melody while the other players got stuck with boring chords and repetitive notes. For this reason the most popular form of chamber music was the violin solo with keyboard accompaniment. Eventually, the string quartet became the preferred instrumental arrangement for most chamber music composers.

Throughout the classical period, chamber music was widely played by amateurs, often simply for the enjoyment of the players. Sometimes there would be no audience, and playing the music would just be another way to socialize. Many times the players would simply improvise.

The great composers of the time all wrote a good deal of chamber music. More importantly, they all eventually moved away from the "violin solo" style of composition, and gave more interesting material to the other instruments. This new flexibility of expression paved the way for the widespread popularity of chamber music.


When you speak of music form the Classical Period, you always end up going over the same three names: Wolfang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven. From the hundreds of composers that wrote in their day, only these three have preserved for themselves a place in history. Beyond these "Big Three", only a small handful of names are even remembered.

 New Developments

Sonata Form

The rise of homophony (music with distinct melody and accompniment) required the growth of new melodic forms. By far the greatest among these was the sonata form, which enjoyed popularity throughout the Classical Period and into the Romantic.

String Quartet

Historically the most widely employed form of chamber music, the string quartet was born and popularized during the classical period.