Music History 102:

The Classical or Viennese Period




The Rococo

The contrapuntal practices of the German Baroque began to give way in the first half of the eighteenth century to a highly ornamented style of melodic instrumental music, especially in France. This style has come to be called Rococo, after the same movement in the visual arts. The paintings of Boucher, Fragonard, and Watteau are prime examples of the visual style of the time. This refined but ornamented style could already be heard in the music of French composers Couperin and Rameau, and pervades the music of Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736). It is evident as well in the music of the two sons of Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) and Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782). J. C. Bach eventually made his home in London and became known as the "London" Bach in order to distinguish him from his older brother. Johann Christian's many keyboard concertos had a profound influence on the eight year old Mozart when the two met in London in 1764. Likewise, C. P. E. Bach's expressive keyboard sonatas came to influence the piano sonatas of later composers Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. Each of these masters made the Austrian city of Vienna their home, thus equating the Classical style with the Viennese style.

image of Vienna


With the increasing emphasis of the age on reason and enlightenment, the writings of thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and Jefferson served to fuel a sense of mankind's being in charge of its own destiny -- that through science and democracy, people could choose their own fate. Such prevailing philosphy and thought likely triggered such events as the French and American Revolutions. The results of these events brought to the artistic world an expanded freedom of thought, in which artists' creative impulses began to find a freer rein of imagination and felt less constrained to abide by the established "rules" of the preceding ages. Earlist among these thinkers in the realm of music was the "great reformer" of opera, Christoph von Gluck




portrait of Luigi Boccherini

The rise of the Symphony

About the middle of the century in Mannheim, Germany, composer and conductor Johann Stamitz (1717-1757) and his followers began to develop the orchestra and the art of orchestration, basing their music on the Baroque homophonic style, but now with chords played in unison rather than contrapuntally. The Baroque figured bass was now fully written out in specific parts for all of the instruments, rather than being left to the discretion of the players. Basing these larger works on the Baroque three-part sinfonia (overtures to operas), other elements were introduced, such as the contrasts of dynamics and tempo within movements. This kind music became the basis for the Classical instrumental sonata, string quartet, and orchestral symphony, and reached its apex in the works of Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The elegance and courtly grace of the early Classical period may well be best exemplified by the familiar strains of the Minuet from the String quintet op. 13, no. 4 by the Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805). Known during his lifetime as an exceptional cellist, Boccherini is not considered a composer of any real import today. But he did compose a great deal of chamber music and concertos of great charm and melodiousness. Later in the period and spanning the turn of the century, Viennese composer Franz Schubert further developed the symphony and string quartet in his own style, operating as he was under the shadow of the great Beethoven. Schubert also transformed the German Lied (song) into an art form.




Christoph Willibald von Gluck

Born: Erasbach, near Weidenwang, July 2, 1714
Died: Vienna, November 15, 1787

Born in Bavaria, Gluck left home at the age of fourteen and spent several years in Prague. Eventully he acquired enough money to travel and study music in Vienna and in Italy. Here he became acquainted with the styles of Baroque opera and composed several operas in the prevailing style. Between 1745 and 1760, he travelled over Europe during which time he was able to make a survey of the state of opera at the time. A musical theorist as well as a composer, by 1761 Gluck had come to the conclusion that the important elements in ballet and opera should be the story and the feelings of the characters, not the ridiculous intrigues, mistaken identities, and myriad sub-plots that had become the stock-in-trade of the Baroque opera. Gluck intended to reform the opera of the late eighteenth-century by abolishing vocal virtuosity for its own sake and causing the music to serve the needs of the drama.

portrait of Christoph Willibald von Gluck

Gluck's first work to incorporate these new practices remains his most popular opera. Premiered in Vienna in 1762, it was based (perhaps not surprisingly) on the classic Greek subject of Orpheus, the greatest musician of legendary antiquity. The lament of Orpheus (castrato) upon losing his beloved wife to the Underworld a second time remains one of the most moving arias from early Classical opera "Che farò senza Euridice" from Orfeo ed Euridice.
The Viennese public, however, did not immediately take to Gluck's reforms or his music. It was not until the 1770s, having moved to Paris at the behest of Marie Antoinette, that Gluck experienced any popular success with his reform operas. His settings of the Greek legends of Iphigénie en Aulide in 1774 and its "sequel," Iphigénie en Tauride in 1779, caused a sensation. The operatic public, as well as the critics, were antagonistically divided between the merits of Gluck's reforms and the traditional Italian operas of Niccolò Piccini (1728-1800), whose works were extremely popular in Paris at the time.

With the composition of his last operas in 1779, Gluck retired to Vienna where he had been invited to become court composer to Emperor Joseph II. He died there in 1787. Although his style of music was coming to an end and his ideals were just gaining a foothold at the time of his death, Gluck's operatic reforms did have a far-reaching impact on future composers, affecting the stage works of Mozart, Berlioz, and Wagner.




Franz Joseph Haydn

Born: Rohrau, lower Austria, (baptized April 1), 1732

Died: Vienna, May 31, 1809

Born second of twelve children to a poor but music-loving family, at the age of eight Franz Joseph was accepted in the choir of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. In 1749, after enduring nine years at the cathedral, he was turned out when his voice broke. Without money, a job, or a home, the young man somehow survived by singing, playing the harpsichord where he could, and teaching, all the time practicing and continuing to study music. He also began composing and making connections, and was given his first professional position leading the orchestra of a Count Morzin of Bohemia. His first symphony led to his being engaged in 1761 as orchestra conductor to the Hungarian Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. Haydn spent thirty years in the employ of the Esterházys, virtually as a servant, but nevertheless composing some 90 symphonies, two dozen operas, a number of masses, and vast amounts of chamber music. His fame spread across Europe due to the publication of his music and, almost unknown to him, the immense popularity of his music set the standard of the musical tastes and techniques of the next half century. He met the young Mozart in 1781 and the two became close friends and admirers of the other's music.

portrait of Franz Joseph Haydn

When Prince Nicolaus Esterházy died in 1790 (he had succeeded Prince Paul in 1762 and had retained Haydn's services), Haydn was dismissed by his successor. With a generous pension and income from publications and pupils, Haydn moved to Vienna. He was invited to London by impressario J. P. Salomon for a series of concerts. During this visit and a second trip to England, Haydn composed his last twelve "London" symphonies, his crowning achievements in the genre. He was also asked to compose an oratorio in the style of Handel. He composed two, and his music transforms the majesty of the Baroque into that of the early nineteenth century with such choruses as "The Heavens are Telling" from The Creation, premiered in 1798.

Known today as the "The father of the Symphony and the String quartet", Haydn actually invented neither, but did develop them into the forms that eventually swept throughout Europe. Joseph Haydn was evidently an unassuming man who seemingly without effort turned out literally hundreds of sonatas, quartets, symphonies, operas and concertos during his career. His music is always extremely well-crafted and seemingly simple and charming, but there are always flights of fancy and pure jokes amidst the classical veneer. The most famous example is the "surprise" in the second movement of his Symphony no. 94 in G major, but his humor can also be heard in the finale of the Symphony no. 82 , nicknamed "the Bear" as the bass drone and chortling bassoons in the finale conjured images of a dancing bear in the minds of the symphony's first audiences. Haydn's modernization of the Rococo string quartet turned it into the intimate form we know, in which all four instruments are treated with equal importance. The late String Quartet, op. 76 no.3 gives an idea of the melodic elegance found in the 83 quartets composed by this master of the genre.

By 1802, Haydn, now an old man, felt himself played out. He spent his last years enjoying the adulation that came his way from all over Europe. When in the spring of 1809, the French under Napoleon began their destruction of Vienna, Haydn suffered a quick decline and died on May 31.




portrait of Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert

Born: Himmelpfortgrund (Vienna), January 31, 1797
Died: Vienna, November 19, 1828

Schubert's music neatly bridges the Classical and Romantic periods through its use of lovely melodies, inventive scoring, and nature imagery, wedded to the traditional classical forms while at the same time expanding them. In his tragically short life, Schubert composed operas, symphonies, sonatas, masses, chamber music, piano music, and over 600 songs. But regardless of the genre, his gift for creating beautiful melodies remains almost unsurpassed in music history.

Schubert's music is also passionate, sometimes even dark, with an emphasis on major/minor key shifts and adventurous harmonic writing. Outstanding examples of his gift for melody can be found in the popular Piano Quintet in A major , which includes a set of variations on the tune of one of his popular songs, and from which it gets its nickname, "The Trout". Although left unfinished for unknown reasons, Schubert's stirring and beautiful Symphony no. 8 in B minor remains one of his most often heard and best-loved works.

But it is his songs, or German Lieder, for which Schubert is best known. Through his choice of beautiful poetry by some of the best writers of the day, his inspired melodies, and his sometimes elaborate treatment of the piano part, many of Schubert's songs are miniature masterpieces of poetic and dramatic beauty. His two song cycles (groups of poems by a single or various authors selected because of thematic content, and usually published together), yield some of the finest examples of Schubert's Lieder. "Wohin?" from the song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill) is an outstanding example of the almost limitless artistry of this composer. Schubert's Lieder would come to influence the song-writing of many later composers, including Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Hugo Wolf (1860-1903).




Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane