Styles & Forms | Classical Era | Classical Music

One reason why music of the Classical period lends its name to Western art music in general is because it best embodies the values on which the modern world was built. The ideas of the Enlightenment movement emphasized the rights of the individual, and would lead to the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

One of the Enlightenment’s principal thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was concerned with making music accessible to a wider audience, and defined it as ‘the art of inventing tunes and accompanying them with suitable harmonies’.

Haydn’s Symphonies And String Quartets

Abandoning the contrapuntal complexities of the Baroque, this new style was fundamentally harmonic. With its complex but logical sets of key relationships to the main (tonic) key tonality allowed subtle or dramatic contrasts of mood through changes of key that could be carefully planned, often over long periods. The principal formal model was the Sonata-Allegro movement – the fast movement that opens most symphonies, sonatas, concertos and string quartets of the Classical era. The inherent tension and excitement in so many Sonata-Allegro movements derives from the relationship between the tonic key and the secondary, or dominant, key. Most sonata movements describe a journey away from the tonic to the dominant key and beyond, before returning again to the tonic key.

The new style brought with it new genres of instrumental music: one chamber, the other orchestral. Both the symphony and the string quartet owe their development at the end of the eighteenth century to Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), the first in a line of great Viennese composers who would dominate Western music until the end of the nineteenth century. Haydn established the four movements that remained the standard pattern for the symphony and string quartet until well into the twentieth century.

In successive series of symphonies and quartets, Haydn extended the logic of key relationships within and between movements. In the symphonies, he defined new roles for wind instruments within the orchestra and transformed the genre from the light, crowd-pleasing form he had inherited into what, in the nineteenth century, became the medium of choice for a composer’s serious musical thoughts. His last 12 symphonies, written in the early 1790s for subscription concerts in London and collectively known as the London Symphonies, are his finest achievements in this genre. On the other hand, his string quartets are the medium in which Haydn’s personality is perhaps most apparent. The regular phrasing and recognizable musical sentences of the archetypal Classical work are disrupted in these pieces by a charming wit – one that is never gratuitous, but the result of the music’s inner logic. In an age that placed great store in the art of conversation, Haydn also increased a sense of equality among the four instruments. In the best of these works, such as Quartets nos. 75-80 Opus 76, a new application of the art of counterpoint enables a dialogue of musical ideas to pass back and forth between...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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