A Short History | Classical Era | Classical

The very name, ‘Classical Era’, speaks for itself: it proclaims a period that is regarded as ‘Standard, first-class, of allowed excellence’, with manifestations that are ‘simple, harmonious, proportioned, finished’, to quote a dictionary definition.

The period from 1750 to roughly 1820 is widely recognized as one of exceptional achievement in music – it is the time of all the main works of Haydn, Mozart and Gluck, and most of those of Beethoven, as well as the earlier music of Schubert and much of the output of Rossini. The word, of course, reflects attitudes to the classicism of ancient civilizations, Greece and Rome; and it was the middle and late eighteenth century that, through its archeology, truly began to discover classical antiquity. This period was not, however, a time of stability, but one of enormous social change, provoked by Enlightenment thinking and scientific progress; this all had its effect on many aspects of musical life across Europe.

In music, this was a time – at least until the first decade of the new century – when composers were happy to pursue the same basic ideas as to how music should be constructed and presented. The idea of balance between different keys and between different sections helped to orient the listener and make clear to him or her the design of a piece and what was to be expected of it. It has been said that there was no classical period in music, only a classical style. But the rules or conventions within which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven created their masterpieces were not laid down by them alone, nor were they exclusive to those three men: they had evolved over many decades and were common property. These three composers were simply their supreme masters.

The political situation in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century helped to shape musical developments in different countries. The political stability and economic health of England and France enabled London and Paris to develop as significant urban centres. The decentralization of Germany and Italy conversely created a number of cities, towns and courts, each with their own self-sufficient musical establishment. Austria was a combination of the two: although numerous provincial towns and estates had their own musical cultures, nobility from all over Europe came to Vienna for part of the year, bringing a concentration of resources. This cosmopolitanism was perhaps one of the reasons for the synthesis in Vienna of national styles drawn from the rest of Europe.

Key Events

1750 Johann Stamitz appointed leader of Europe’s finest orchestra, at Mannheim
c. 1762 Robert Adam’s Syon House echoes classical Roman architectural styles
1770s Haydn’s early mature works; classical era in music reckoned to start
1775 American Revolution against the British begins
1776 Declaration of Independence in United States; the multi-volume Encyclopédie is published, edited by Diderot in collaboration with Voltaire and Rousseau
1785 The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, a landmark neo-classical painting
1789 French...

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