The Classical Era in music spanned 1730 – 1820, although “Classical” has somehow also become the term to describe pretty much all orchestral music from the Baroque through to the modern era.
So it’s important to distinguish between the era and the music.
Music of the Classical Era is less complex than that of the Baroque before it, and it aimed for a lighter and airier tone. One significant development was that the piano replaced the harpsichord, and it changed the sound of the music enormously.
Although they look the same, a harpsichord and a piano are two entirely different instruments. They both have keys and strings, but when you hit a harpsichord key, the string is plucked. When you hit a piano key, the string is hit with a small felt hammer.
You can’t vary the volume of a harpsichord, but you can that of a piano through various means, such as striking the keys harder or softer, or using the various pedals. Generally, modern pianos have three.
As for the sound, a harpsichord is the more growly and ethereal of the two. One of its most famous modern appearances was in the theme song to the TV show The Addams Family, where it lends itself appropriately to the macabre tone of the franchise.
For comparison, here’s the theme played straight on a piano. It’s the same music, but it’s amazing how different the feel is.
That’s a pretty good encapsulation of the difference between Baroque and Classical, too.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was one of the more prominent composers of the era, and is even known as “The Father of Symphonies.” He built everything from simple melodies, creating larger structures from short motifs, and then created his variations by altering the order of those motifs rather than the structure.
He created the sonata form, integrated the fugue into larger works instead of just having it stand alone, and was a big proponent of the double variation form.
Before symphonies, the common form was a three movement concerto. This evolved, with Haydn’s help, into what we most commonly think of now, which is a piece with four movements and an overall structure that follows the same pattern.
Symphonies started out as three movement concertos, but soon evolved to a four movement structure that followed the same pattern: the first movement would be fast and lively, the second would be slow, the third would be a dance, frequently in triple meter, like a waltz, scherzo, or mazurka, and the fourth would be lively and driving, bringing it to a finale.
A typical example is Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G Major (“Surprise”), in which the movements are as follows:
I: Adagio — Vivace assai
III: Menuetto: Allegro molto
IV: Finale: Allegro molto
What’s interesting in this one is that the first movement starts slow (adagio) but then ends up very fast (vivace assai, literally “so lively.”) The second movement is “Andante,” which literally means “walking speed” in Italian, so I’d say moderate.
Next up is the third movement, a minuet, which is a form of delicate waltz in 3/4 time (which is three beats per measure), and is moderately fast. The finale is also moderately fast, and probably in 4/4 time — four beats per measure.
The opening movement trains the audience. It starts by playing in the chosen key, in this case G Major. The theme is established and repeated, then there’s a transition that migrates us to the second theme, which is usually always written in the relative to the main key.
That can be relative Major or minor, and each key has exactly one. Since we started in G Major, the relative would be E minor. If we had started in G minor, the relative would be B flat Major.
This relative theme plays two times, then we transition back to recap the original theme. After this, there’s another transition, and this is where the composer cuts loose and starts to play with the original themes.
This time, though, the secondary theme is transposed into the primary key, so that now both are being played in G Major in this example. It’s mix and match and play and explore until finally coming back to another transition, ending with the original theme followed by a coda, which is often a repeat of a bar or short phrase from the original theme, teasing the audience up until the final chord.
This was one of Haydn’s signatures, too — drawing out that moment of finally getting to the end, which has become a trope of Classical Music. One great example of this is the end of Tchaikovsky ‘s 1812 Overture, which pulls the full-on endless ending.
Haydn also used humor in his work. The Surprise Symphony, above, is named that for a reason.
This happened largely because in the years when he was developing everything, he pretty much was the court composer for one prince. He didn’t have any contact with what was going on outside of that castle in Austria, and his job was to keep the prince amused. Hence… he changed the course of Western Music once his stuff got out.
Haydn is also the literal bridge from C.P.E. Bach to Mozart and Beethoven. He trained with the first one and mentored the other two.
He composed 106 symphonies, which is a lot. As for the surprise mentioned previously, as my music history teacher told the story, Haydn wanted to write the piece so that the second movement would get very quiet, making all the old folk in the audience lean forward to hear it. And then, bam! There’s a sudden loud orchestral sting that was meant to knock them back in their seats.
Okay, not a huge joke, but that was the trick he pulled off multiple times. You can hear the first one at about 1:15 in this video. Of course, that surprise isn’t as much of a surprise as it originally was, which is probably why modern conductors don’t vary the dynamics as much anymore — that is, the quiet part isn’t as quiet as originally played, nor is the loud part as loud.
And I had intended to get to Mozart and Beethoven in this edition, but I’ve run long, so I’ll save them for next week.