The Classical Era (c.1750-1830) – Music GCSE

The Classical era saw a deliberate move away from the flamboyant and ornate Baroque ideals. Classical architecture and art reflected a new interest in a more restrained style inspired by the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans. Music from this era echoes the architecture in that it uses a clear-cut and balanced structure (which, like the architecture, has symmetry in its design). Simplicity and clarity of line also became a feature of the music in the emphasis placed on a graceful and regularly phrased melodic line.

These new stylistic Classical traits of clarity, order and balance were to be found in the Classical symphony, string quarter, concerto and solo sonata. The period was dominated by three Viennese composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Ludwig wan Beethoven (1770-1827). Beethoven in fact spanned two musical periods. He started off Classical but then moved to the Romantic near his death at the start of the century).

The Orchestra
during the Classical period, the harpsichord was still used, but as the orchestra grew and came to include a standard woodwind and brass section, the harpsichord became redundant and gradually feel out of use. It’s chordal support was taken over by the woodwind section.

At the start of the Classical period, the orchestra was still small – strings plus two horns with either flutes or oboes. However, it soon began to grow with the addition of the wind instruments complete with the bass instrument of the family – the bassoon. By the end of the 18th century, the newly invented clarinet joined the woodwind ranks. The brass section used two trumpets and two horns with percussion provided by the timpani drums.

The symphony was one of the most important and popular large-scale genres invented during the Classical era. It continued to develop throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and up to the present day.

The word ‘symphony’ itself is derived from the Italian for ‘sounding together’. This is appropriate given the formation of the Classical orchestra sounding together its complete four families of instruments. Early examples of symphonies can be traced to the Italian three-section sinfonias for strings and continuo. These were arranged in a fast-slow-fast structure. This idea of tempo contrast translated to the early Classical symphony of three movements, although as the period progressed another movement, the minuet and trio (a Baroque dance form), was placed between the second and third movements, making four in total.

Characteristics of a Sonata Form
The word ‘sonata’ comes from the Latin sonare meaning ‘to sound’ and thus refers to instrumental as opposed to vocal music. Sonata form is used to structure a single movement of a work and does not refer to a complete work, be it a symphony, string quartet, concerto or solo sonata.

The two fundamental ideas expressed in sonata form are:
– Repetition
– Contrast

The structure developed from the two-section binary form, except that sonata form includes a repeat (recapitulation) con the first section.
The three sections are called : 
– Exposition
– Development
– Recapitulation

This provided a pleasing symmetry to the form, rather like an arch shape with the exposition balanced with the recapitulation.

Sonata Form Structure
In this central section, the composer ‘develops’ one or both ideas of the exposition. The development can be based the complete melody or a fragment (motif) from it. Sometimes the composer will use several motifs and combine them in different ways, thus creating new variants of the original subjects. The section features various keys , but deliberately avoids the tonic and dominant keys. The music of this section is often adventurous as the drama unfolds and is constantly changing and restless because of the exploration of different keys.

In the first section the main themes are presented or ‘exposed’. The first theme – called the first subject – is always in the tonic or home key. This theme is usually the most lively and rhythmic. There follows a short linking section called the bridge passage during which the music modulates (changes key) at which point we reach the contrasted second subject. The contrast will be both the mood and key of the music. The new key will be related to the tonic key of the music, such as the relative major (minor) or the dominant key. The whole of the exposition section is then often repeated so that the listener becomes unfamiliar with the two subjects before the development occurs.

The final section balances with the opening exposition. The composer recaps the first subject in the tonic key. The bridge section then follows to balance with the opening section, but does not modulate as the second subject is now heard in the tonic key as the work is drawing to a close. The work can conclude with a short rounding-off section called the coda.

Features of the Classical Style
Some general features and developments include:

  • an emphasis on well-proportioned and graceful melody lines written in regular phrases of often eight bars duration (four bars as a question answered by four) – this is called periodic or regular phrasing.
  • linked to this, a melody-dominated texture became popular (melody-dominated homophony), although polyphony was also used.
  • the musical structure employed had a sense of symmetry and balance (sonata form is a good example of this)
  • structures were defined by clear-cut key schemes with regular cadences.
  • harmony was functional, i.e. chords were used for structural purposes (based on chords I, IV, V and VI)
  • ideas of contrast in terms of key, melodies and more varied dynamics.
  • the orchestra was established as a standard instrumental ensemble during this period and the harpsichord became redundant.
  • new instrumental musical genres emerged – sonata for a solo instrument, concerto, symphony and string quartet.

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