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1750 - 1820

Classical Era


The Classical period in Western music occurred from about 1750 to 1820, despite considerable overlap at both ends with preceding and following periods, as is true for all musical eras. Although the term classical music is used as a blanket term meaning all kinds of music in this tradition, it can also occasionally mean this particular era within that tradition.

The Classical period falls between the Baroque and the Romantic periods. The best known composers from this period are Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Luigi Boccherini,Muzio Clementi, and Christoph Willibald Gluck.



During the Classical era, new ideas took shape that would sweep through Western culture and leave it dramatically changed. Ordinary people questioned how society should be organized and considered the basic rights of the individual. In North America, British colonists staged their famous Boston Tea Party in a protest against taxes. The Declaration of Independence and the war it inflamed gave republican ideals a focus. These ideals resurfaced as France's population rose against Louis XVI and his queen, Marie-Antoinette, and ushered in the age of Napoleon.

This was the age of reason, in which the arts and architecture underwent dramatic change. Artists looked to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, which seemed emblematic of their own ideals. While Goya, Piranesi, and Constable abandoned the flourishes of the Rococo artists who preceded them, Goethe and Schiller transformed German drama and poetry, and Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding pushed the English novel into the forefront. Classical architecture that reflected the ancient civilizations -the White House in Washington, London's British Museum, the Winter Palace of St Petersburg - was raised in one major city after another

The pace of technological change and innovation accelerated. With the development of steam power and the invention of the first mass-production spinning machine, the Industrial Revolution gave western nations unprecedented wealth, and set in motion the forces that would lead to another era of social upheaval.

It was in this unsettling and exhilarating time that composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Gluck set their unique marks, with the relative simplicity and restraint of their music; and the symphony, the concerto, and the sonata all underwent a significant evolution.

The eighteenth century is often described as the Age of Reason. As philosophers and scientists began to challenge traditional assumptions about the nature of belief and authority, they called into question the unfettered power of the Church and the Monarchy. Their spirit of enquiry was rooted in a critical approach, which did much to spawn the turbulent events that were soon to engulf the Western world.

The Rococo

In the middle of the century, however, these upheavals were distant clouds on the horizon. The prevailing style in the arts was the Rococo, a style that epitomized the elegance and sophistication of courtly life. The term derived from the rocaillc, or decorative shellwork, that French architects had introduced in order to soften the severe grandeur of High Baroque design. Its hallmarks were grace, frivolity, and sensual pleasure.

In painting, the Rococo found its prime exponents in the French artists Jean-Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher, while its finest architecture was produced in southern Germany and Austria. The sheer abundance of decoration inside the Bavarian church of Die Wies (1745-54) and at the abbey church of Ottobeuren (1748) demonstrate Rococo's potential for hedonism and overindulgence.

The musical equivalent of the Rococo was the Style galant, which laid a similar emphasis on lightness and elegance by replacing the complex schemes of Baroque music with free-flowing melodies. In Germany the style, which was described as "empfindsam" (sensitive), assumed a more sentimental character. It flourished in the 1750s and 1760s. finding its fullest expression in the music of C.P.E. Bach.

The emotional side of the style heralded the appearance of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement that dominated German cultural life in the 1770s and 1780s. Particularly associated with this influential literary tendency is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who, together with his friend Friednch Schiller, created some of Germany's greatest drama and poetry. Goethe's masterpiece, Faust, provided enduring inspiration for artists and composers. In England the literary scene was dominated by Samuel Johnson, who single-handedly composed a Dictionary of the English Language, but is remembered as much for his witty, acerbic conversation, recorded by his biographer James Boswell. The novel also developed during this period, after early models by Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding.

                                  Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. Achilles and the Centaur Chiron


The Age of Enlightenment

As the eighteenth century wore on, reaction set m against both the stylistic extremes of the Rococo and the type of society that had generated it. Critics could look at the canvases of a painter like Watteau, where figures m masquerade disport themselves in dreamy, parkland settings, and argue that they were the product of a regime far too absorbed in its own artificial pleasures and utterly cut off from the all too evident sufferings of its people.

These grumblings were most evident in France, where a group of writers known as the "Philosophes" (philosophers) laid the groundwork for the French Revolution in a movement known as the Enlightenment. At their head, the brilliant but scathing essayist Voltaire attacked religion as mere superstition and promoted instead the human virtues of reason, tolerance, and justice.

Voltaire himself believed in the value of enlightened despotism, but in his wake there followed writers who were more eager to uphold the cause of democracy and the rights of the individual. Thomas Paine, the radical English-born political theorist who defended the American colonists against Britain, was one of the leading lights of this crusade. In France, the philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau in particular captured the revolutionary spirit of the age in his most famous work. The Social Contract, with its fusion of morality and politics.

The American Revolution

The Philosophes advocated change and progress, and their hopes were fulfilled m the most dramatic fashion possible. Trouble had been brewing m the North American colonies since the early 1760s, as the English government unwisely sought to impose a series of punitive taxes on its distant colonies. "No Taxation without Representation" was the rallying cry, as the colonists fiercely resisted such measures as the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), and the Tea Act (1773). The last precipitated the ''Boston Tea Party" of December 1773, when three shiploads of imported tea were unceremoniously dumped into the harbour by citizens of Boston as a protest against taxes on tea and the trading monopoly given to the East India Company.

The English parliament responded bullishly to the situation, and the crisis rapidly turned into openrebellion. The first shots were fired m 1775, and a year later the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, was signed. It took the colonial revolutionaries a further seven years to turn this resolution into hard reality, but geography and dogged determination finally tipped the scale. For the British government, waging a war 3,000 miles away, while also contending with hostile European neighbours, posed too stern a task. In 1783, the English forces finally capitulated. Peace was sealed by the Treaty of Paris in the same year, and in 1789 George Washington became the first President of the United States of America.


The last such meeting had been called in 1614. The States General was composed of three sections: the Nobility and the Clergy - both of whom were anxious to defer much-needed reforms in order to maintain their privileges - and the Third Estate, representing the remainder of the community. When the different parties could not agree, the Third Estate broke away, declaring its exclusive right to be seen as the true National Assembly. Louis XVI opposed this, but his hand was weakened by rioting in Pans and, in particular, by the storming of the Bastille, the city's prison-fortress, on 14 July 1789.

From this point on, the revolutionary tide was unstoppable. The Parisian disturbances were repeated in the provinces and the King's authority- gradually ebbed away. In 1791, he tried to flee with Queen Marie Antoinette, but the couple were intercepted at Varennes and taken back to the capital in disgrace. This encouraged the radical elements in the National Assembly. The following year Louis XVI was removed from office and imprisoned, and in 1793 both he and Marie Antoinette were executed. In a decisive break with the past, the newly elected Convention announced that 1792 was to be Year 1 of the new Republic.



Significant developments in the art world echoed these momentous events. Here, the vehicle for change was Classicism — an influence made more confusing by the different contexts in which the term itself is used.

On one level, "Classicism" relates to the influence of the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. This is most evident in areas such as architecture, where there are obvious models to imitate. In a field such as music, the allusion is far less clear. Here, "Classical" can refer to those qualities that were most prized by the artists of the ancient world — clarity, simplicity, moderation, and balance. In practical terms, this meant a departure from the complex polyphony of Baroque music and a greater reliance on unadorned melody and harmony.

"Classicism" can also be used as a contrast to the term "Romanticism." While a Romantic artist might be described as one who gave free rein to the emotions in his work, a Classical artist would take a more detached, intellectual approach. Used in this sense, "Classical" is a stylistic rather than a historical term. Thus Mozart, whose music is passionate but also highly controlled, can be seen as the quintessential Classical composer. Beethoven, on the other hand, is not so easily categorized and is often seen as representing a bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras. Although he lived during the Classical period, many of his works anticipate Romanticism and he is taken by many to exemplify the Romantic artist.

The stimulus for the Classical revival of the late eighteenth century came from two main sources. On the one hand, it developed as a natural reaction against the fussiness and apparent superficiality of the Rococo style. At the same time, it stemmed from some exciting new archaeological discoveries. The marvels of the ancient world had retained their appeal ever since the Renaissance and, throughout the eighteenth century, a visit to the antique ruins in Rome remained a highlight of the Grand Tour, that essential element in the education of every wealthy young man. This interest greatly increased following the excavations at Herculaneum in 1737 and at Pompeii in 1748. It was further enhanced by the writings of Edward Gibbon, who began his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1773 and finally completed it in 1788, and by the work of Johann Winckelmann, a German antiquarian and scholar, who helped to establish the superior qualities of ancient Greek culture and to spread enthusiasm for Classicism to all branches of the arts.

In architecture, Englishmen such as William Chambers and Robert Adam led the way. The latter's remodelling of Syon House (1762-9), near London, for example, featured an opulent Roman ante-room; his work at nearby Osterley Park included a highly decorative Etruscan Room. In the emerging United States, too, the Classical style was clearly in favour. A particularly fine example can be found at Monticello (built between 1770 and 1775, with later alterations), the elegant country house near Charlottesville, Virginia, which Thomas Jefferson designed for himself.

                                                    Louis Hersent. Daphnis et Chloe



Music in the Classical era

In the musical sphere, these trends were most evident in the growing taste for simplicity and restraint. In Vienna, for example, Christoph Gluck introduced his "reform" operas during the 1760s. He declared that the function of music was to serve the text and the demands of the plot, and sought to eliminate coloratura singing (the florid elaboration of vocal lines, usually by sopranos). He boosted the roles of both the chorus and the orchestra to compensate for this omission.

The blossoming role of the orchestra was not confined exclusively to the realm of opera. For the first time in the history of music, instrumental forms took precedence over vocal ones. The orchestra itself developed into a comparatively stable performing unit, a recognizable precursor of the ensemble that we know today. The harpsichord gradually disappeared from its ranks and the main emphasis started to fall upon the strings. The principal difference from today's orchestras was size. Whereas a modern orchestra contains approximately 100 instrumentalists, its eighteenth-century equivalent rarely exceeded 35. Even the Mannheim orchestra in Germany - the most prestigious outfit of its day, whose discipline and controlled sound were renowned throughout Europe — boasted fewer than 50 musicians. In 1756, its make-up consisted of 20 violins; four each of violoncellos, violas, and double basses; a pair of oboes, flutes, horns, and bassoons; and a harpsichord. Occasionally, trumpets or kettledrums might be added.

The rise of orchestral music fostered the popular success of both the symphony and the concerto. The former originated as an operatic overture, but was greatly expanded during the eighteenth century, gaining acceptance as an independent piece, with its traditional core being the four-movement pattern of the sonata. Haydn, who composed more than 100 symphonies, was the first acknowledged master of the form and is sometimes called "the father of the symphony." The concerto, which had already become popular in the Baroque period, continued to develop as it gained prominence. Essentially, the format consisted of a musical exchange between a solo instrument and the orchestra. Normally, this solo instrument was the violin, but the Classical period witnessed the growing sophistication of the pianoforte — so called because its action enabled it to be played softly (piano) or loudly (forte) -and this offered scope for wider variation.

In some ways, the restrained and disciplined character of the music of this period scarcely seems to reflect the turbulent, frequently violent events that were taking place on the political stage. However, in certain areas, particularly painting, the revival of Classicism produced art that clearly responded to its historical moment.

Vienna and the growth of the bourgeoisie

In fact, this was not the case. Dynamic changes continued in Europe, but they advanced through social rather than political developments. Some indication of their strength can be gleaned from the situation in Austria. For most of the Classical period, and certainly between 1780 and 1828, Vienna was the musical capital of Europe. The four greatest composers of the age —Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert —all had strong connections with the city.

For all its attractions, however, the Austrian court was not the power centre that Burgundy had been in the fifteenth century, or that Versailles had been under Louis XIV. Quite apart from the Napoleonic invasion, Austria had recently lost territories in Italy and the Netherlands, while, in 1806, Francis II (Austria's king) had lost his imperial title when the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist. As a result, both the Crown and the nobility were leading far less ostentatious lifestyles and spending less on the arts. The Hungarian Esterhazy dynasty was alone in maintaining the grandiose cultural standards that had once been expected of the aristocracy, and this was only possible because the Hungarian provinces had not yet felt the full effect of the Austrian economic reforms.

Despite these setbacks, Vienna managed to retain its cultural ascendancy because an important new source of patronage was emerging from the ranks of the bourgeoisie. This expanding, upwardly mobile class owed its increasing prosperity to a series of economic reforms and to the early effects of the Industrial Revolution, which during the nineteenth century spread throughout northern Europe from its origins in Britain. A series of labour-saving inventions had ushered in an age of mechanized mass production. Archaic guild restrictions and the vestiges of feudalism were swept away, to be replaced by more efficient working practices. Large factories, able to accommodate a thousand specialized workers under a single root, overshadowed both the smaller undertakings on manorial estates — which had only survived because of their monopolies and privileges - and the erratic output from the inmates of poor-houses. In Lower Austria the number of people employed in manufacture almost doubled between 1783 and 1790. The key to commercial success shifted from privilege to enterprise.

The rise of the bourgeoisie had significant consequences for musicians. Hitherto, it had been vital for any aspiring composer to seek out a royal appointment or attach himself to a noble household. By the end of the eighteenth century, this was no longer the case. A popular artist might also work on a freelance basis, attempting to earn a living through public performances. In Vienna, for example, two of the mainstays of cultural life were the subscription concert and the salon. For the former, groups of individuals, both aristocratic and middle-class, clubbed together to fund a concert. The salons, meanwhile, were more intimate musical gatherings held in private households. Once again, the patrons of these soirees might just as easily be bourgeois as noble. Both represented potential sources of income for composers.


Development of the music industry

The rapid pace of change is readily discernible in the contrasting fortunes of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Haydn had the most traditional career pattern of the three, holding the post of Kapellmeister (director of court music) at the Hungarian court of Prince Esterhazy for some 30 years. Mozart tried in vain to obtain a similar court appointment, but was ultimately obliged to earn the bulk of his income from giving subscription concerts. By contrast, Beethoven (whose career bridged the Classical and Romantic traditions) was far less dependent on royal patronage and could afford to have informal relations with those of the aristocracy who did sponsor him. Possibly the first successful "freelance" composer, he earned a living through commissions, sales of his music, and public concerts.

The diversity of Beethoven's sources of income illustrates just how far the music business had evolved by this stage. Most major cities could now boast at least one public concert venue. A Music Hall had opened in Dublin as early as 1741. Seven years later, it was followed by the Holywell Music Room at Oxford, the first establishment of its kind in England. Popular concerts could also be heard at the Vauxhall Gardens, on the south bank of the River Thames in London. James Boswell reported that the music there was "vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear", although the Gardens did play host to a public rehearsal of Handel's Music for the royal fireworks in 1749. This attracted an audience of more than 12,000 people, rendering London Bridge impassable to traffic for more than three hours.

By the end of the century, music publishing had become a significant industry, complemented by a fast-developing music press. Even the professional music critic had made an appearance. The new journals that sprang up contained reviews of the latest concerts, along with helpful advice for the growing number of amateur musicians who wished to play at home. Refined manufacturing techniques had brought down the prices of most musical instruments, and it was becoming fashionable to regard a modicum of musical ability as a necessary social accomplishment.

Beethoven, forward-looking in this respect as in many others, was anxious that his music should not be reserved for privileged minorities, but should appeal to the broad spectrum of humanity. This attitude in itself reveals how far the democratic ideals of the Enlightenment were fulfilled. Before 1750, music was created mainly for the benefit of the Church, the nobility, and the Crown; during the Classical era, its enjoyment was made available to many other levels of society; the following Romantic age would provide music for the individual.

                             Jacques-Louis David. The Loves of Paris and Helen. 1788


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