Student Question

In your own words, summarize the main musical elements of the Classical Period, the most important genres and techniques, and at least 2 major compositions of the time.

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The Classical period in music is generally defined as lasting from about 1750 to 1827, and its most important composers are Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Though Beethoven's position as a Classicist or Romantic has often been debated, most musicologists from the middle of the twentieth century on have considered him the culminating figure of the Classical era, despite the fact that he was lionized by the following, Romantic, generation and that his work was seminal in the development of the Romantic movement.

Perhaps the hallmark of the earlier decades of Classicism in music was a kind of simplification of texture in comparison with the previous period, the Baroque. Unfortunately, our explanation of this will necessarily be an oversimplification of the facts, but what occurred around the middle of the eighteenth-century was that homophonic textures (a single melody with accompaniment) became dominant, as opposed to the more polyphonic (meaning melody in more than one part in the texture) style of the Baroque. As the Classical movement progressed, however, and the mature works of Haydn and Mozart were written, textures became more varied and complex. Mozart, especially, in his later works was heavily influenced by the music of J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel, who are generally considered (along with Antonio Vivaldi) the most important composers of the Baroque.

The major instrumental genres of the Classical period were the symphony, chamber music (especially the string quartet), the sonata, and, to a lesser extent, "lighter" genres such as the divertimento and serenade. The principal genre of vocal music was opera, though the mass and oratorio (especially in Haydn's work, but in Mozart and Beethoven as well) were also significant. Often historians have stressed that the aesthetic ideals of the period were elegance, balance, and restraint—contrasting with the greater emotionalism of both the Baroque and the Romantic periods. But this is an enormous oversimplification and even a distortion of the qualities of, especially, the mature work of both Haydn and Mozart and all the work of Beethoven. Neither the composers themselves, nor their contemporaneous listeners, nor the generation that immediately followed them thought of their music as necessarily restrained or unemotional. In fact, the Romantic writer and critic E. T. A. Hoffmann used the word "Romantic" to describe Mozart, especially his opera Don Giovanni (Don Juan).

One cannot choose just two works as outstanding examples of the period. There are too many important and iconic pieces for us to narrow our selection to that extent. But the following groups of works should probably be included among the greatest and most representative pieces, broken down by genre:

Symphony

Haydn symphonies no. 93 through 104.

Mozart symphonies no. 35 through 41.

All nine Beethoven symphonies, especially no. 3 (the Eroica), 5, and 9

String Quartet

Haydn Op. 20, 33, and 76 (there are multiple quartets in each Opus number)

Mozart K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464 and 465 (these are the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn)

Beethoven Op. 18 (six quartets), Op. 59 (three quartets), and Op. 131 and 132, among others

Piano Sonata

Beethoven: the "Moonlight," "Pathetique," "Waldstein," and "Appassionata" sonatas

Opera

Mozart: Don Giovanni (Don Juan) and The Magic Flute

Oratorio

Haydn: The Creation.

Mass

Haydn: Lord Nelson Mass

Mozart: Great C Major Mass and Requiem

Beethoven: Mass in D (Missa Solemnis)

Concerto

Mozart: Piano concertos no. 20 through 26.

Beethoven: Piano concertos no. 4 and 5.

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