The Rise of Classicism and Romanticism

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The Rise of Classicism and Romanticism

Defining the Period.

The music of the later eighteenth century has often been described as "classical," a term that is problematic for several reasons. Like the composers of the later Renaissance and the early Baroque, the great commanding figures of this classical era, Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the youthful Ludwig van Beethoven, did not imitate the music of classical Antiquity since little ancient music survived for them to emulate. Rather the use of the term "classical" to describe their music developed in the nineteenth century among those who saw in these composers a musical language that expressed harmony, balance, and an idealized sense of beauty, values that were at the time seen to be very different from the more emotional and rebellious spirit found in the works of the early Romantics, the movement that was long seen as replacing the "classical" style after 1800. The term "classical," in this sense, thus came to summarize the differences between the music of this brief era and the Baroque period that preceded it, as well as the Romantic era that soon followed it. Such an easy generalization has proven difficult to sustain on closer inspection, since more recent research has shown that many European composers in the later eighteenth century did not completely abandon the techniques and forms that Baroque composers had long relied upon. Nor did all adopt the elegant simplicity and balanced poise typical of the works of Mozart or Haydn. This classical style was common only among certain groups of composers, particularly those that lived and worked in and around the Austrian capital of Vienna at the end of the eighteenth century, and among artists who imitated their musical idiom throughout Europe. The designation of this period as "classical" proves similarly problematic, since even in the works of the two supreme examples of the classical style—Haydn and Mozart—elements are present that herald the more tempestuous Romanticism of the early nineteenth century. As a result, the term "classical" has in recent years come to be associated only with a particular kind of musical style popular among the Viennese composers and their imitators throughout Europe for a relatively brief period in the late eighteenth century.

The Eighteenth Century and the Notion of Musical "Classics."

The use of the term "classical" proves problematic, too, on other grounds. During the eighteenth century the modern phenomenon of a musical public for serious music emerged. Around 1700, those who attended concerts and operas, or who listened to music in church, expected to hear music that was new. Major public events at this time called for original music; those compositions might still be played for a few years, but new ones would soon replace them as listeners expected with popular music. In the opera houses of the time, too, few works survived in the repertory of most companies for more than a few years. Throughout the eighteenth century an important change was occurring in the ways in which people thought about and listened to music. First in England, then in other parts of Europe, many people came to value the great composers of the early eighteenth century and sought to continue to perform their works. The English society called the "Concert of Antient Music," founded in London in 1776, devoted itself to organizing concerts of earlier music, and in 1789, thirty years after Handel's death, they organized a festival to commemorate his music. This attitude toward music was similar in many ways to the reverence that was developing in eighteenth-century England for the works of Shakespeare, which were now hailed as literary embodiments of the genius of the English language. Like Handel's music, Shakespeare's works were quickly becoming a body of texts that was seen as canonical, literary classics that should be continually revived, performed, and celebrated in festivals. In the musical world this enthusiasm for older music soon spread elsewhere, as groups in Germany and other parts of Europe revived the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and other composers of the Baroque era. The advocates of these revivals believed that the music of these composers was not only beautiful, but also serious and learned. Its performance might uplift listeners, in contrast to popular songs of their day that they condemned as immoral and bawdy. The new conventions of these revival movements taught that the music of earlier times deserved special attention and that it should be listened to in silence and respect. As a result of these early efforts at revival, the notion of "classical music" as a serious art form was created. An assumption of the concert-going public as it developed at the end of the eighteenth century was that public performances of serious music should include not only new compositions, but also those composed many years earlier, including as far back as the later Baroque era.

Europe 's Musical Centers.

Since the eighteenth century fans of European serious music have relied upon the term "classical" in two ways; they have used it to refer to the entire body of composed music written in the Western tradition that merits serious listening in every era, even as they have also employed the word to describe the short period at the end of the eighteenth century that was dominated by the elegant, simple, and balanced works of figures like Haydn and Mozart. Both figures developed a specific musical language that has often been called "Viennese classicism." It is undeniable that the works of these composers were avidly studied and imitated throughout Europe, sponsoring the development of "Viennese classical" schools of composers as far away as Finland. Yet Vienna was only one of many important musical centers in late eighteenth-century Europe. London and Paris, for example, had more vigorous and well-established traditions of public concert going than Vienna did, and both Haydn and Mozart were concerned throughout their careers to see that their music was played and known in these and other cities. Today the works of Haydn and Mozart have become so widely known that they have become in many people's minds synonymous with the entire concept of a late "eighteenth-century" sound. The enormous popularity of these works, though, tends to obscure the unprecedented compositional activity and experimentation that was occurring in many places throughout Europe in this period. The small city of Mannheim, for instance, was the capital of the southwestern German state of the Rhineland Palatinate, and despite its size was one of the great centers of musical innovation at the time. Mozart, Haydn, and other great Viennese composers kept abreast of the musical developments that occurred there, and they wrote works for the great virtuosi that were members of the city's famous orchestra. The city's composers, recognized already in the late eighteenth-century as a "Mannheim School," developed a musical idiom different from Viennese classicism. Among the most famous members of this group, Johann Stamitz (1717–1757) and his son Carl Stamitz (1734–1801), made use of rapid dynamic changes and contrasting themes, elements that showed off the brilliant playing of the Mannheim orchestra. Both Gluck and Haydn hailed another Mannheim-trained composer, Johann Martin Kraus (1756–1792), as a musical genius. Trained at Mannheim and active in Paris and Stockholm, Kraus's reputation has since the eighteenth century been eclipsed by his almost exact contemporary, Mozart. Beyond Vienna and Mannheim, Paris and a number of Italian cities nurtured composers and musicians that developed international reputations at this time.


introduction: Just as painting and sculpture had taken center stage in the Renaissance, the extraordinary musical achievements of the eighteenth century led many commentators to wax poetic about the great strides being made in the art of music in their own day. An example of this can be seen in the English lawyer and antiquarian Daines Barrington's letter to the Royal Society in London during 1769, in which he described the prodigious feats of the young Mozart.


If I was to send you a well attested account of a boy who measured seven feet in height, when he was not more than eight years of age, it might be considered as not undeserving the notice of the Royal Society. The instance which I now desire yon will communicate to that learned body, of as early an exertion of most extraordinary musical talents, seems perhaps equally to claim their attention.

Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, was born at Saltzbourg, on the 17th [really the 27th] of January, 1756. I have been informed by a most able musician and composer that he frequently saw him at Vienna, when he was little more than four years old.

By this time he not only was capable of executing lessons on his favourite instrument, the harpsichord, but composed in an easy stile and taste, which were much approved of.

His extraordinary musical talents soon reached the ears of the present empress dowager, who used to place him upon her knees whilst he played on the harpsichord.

This notice taken of him by so great a personage, together with a certain consciousness of his most singular abilities, had much emboldened the little musician. Being therefore the next year at one of the German courts, where the elector encouraged him, by saying, that he had nothing to fear from his august presence, little Mozart immediately sat down with great confidence to his harpsichord, informing his highness that he had played before the empress.

At seven years of age his father carried him to Paris, where he so distinguished himself by his compositions that an engraving was made of him.

The father and sister who are introduced in this print are excessively like their portraits, as is also little Mozart, who is stiled "Compositeur et Maitre de Musique, age de sept ans."

After the name of the engraver, follows the date, which is in 1764: Mozart was therefore at this time in the eighth year of his age.

Upon leaving Paris, he came over to England, where he continued more than a year. As during this time I was witness of his most extraordinary abilities as a musician, both at some publick concerts, and likewise by having been alone with him for a considerable time at his father's house; I send you the following account, amazing and incredible almost as it may appear.

I carried him a manuscript duet, which was composed by an English gentleman to some favourite words in Metastasio's opera of Demofoonte.

The whole score was in five parts, viz. accompaniments for a first and second violin, the two vocal parts, and a bass.

My intention in carrying with me this manuscript composition was to have an irrefragable proof of his abilities, as a player at sight, it being absolutely impossible that he could have ever seen the music before.

The score was no sooner put upon his desk, than he began to play the symphony [i.e., the orchestral introduction] in a most masterly manner, as well as in the time and stile which corresponded with the intention of the composer.

I mention this circumstance, because the greatest masters often fail in these particulars on the first trial.

The symphony ended, he took the upper [vocal] part, leaving the under one to his father.

His voice in the tone of it was thin and infantine, but nothing could exceed the masterly manner in which he sung.

His father, who took the under part in this duet, was once or twice out, though the passages were not more difficult than those in the upper one; on which occasions the son looked back with some anger pointing out to him his mistakes, and setting him right.

He not only however did complete justice to the duet, by singing his own part in the truest taste, and with the greatest precision; he also threw in the accompaniments of the two violins, wherever they were most necessary, and produced the best effects.

It is well known that none but the most capital musicians are capable of accompanying in this superior stile. …

Witness as I was myself of most of these extraordinary facts, I must own that I could not help suspecting his father imposed with regard to the real age of the boy, though he had not only a most childish appearance, but likewise had all the actions of that stage of life.

For example, whilst he was playing to me, a favourite cat came in, upon which he immediately left his harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time.

He would also sometimes run about the room with a stick between his legs by way of a horse.

source: Daines Barrington, "Account of a Very Remarkable Young Musician," in Mozart: Die Documente seines Lebens. Ed. O. E. Deutsch (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1961): 86–90. Reproduced in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. Eds. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin (New York: Schirmer, 1984): 308–310.


By the final years of the eighteenth century, Vienna was already eclipsing these other centers, in large part because of the productivity of its most famous composers, Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and at the very end of the century, Ludwig van Beethoven, a citizen of the German city Bonn who took up residence in the city and studied for a time with Haydn. Vienna had many other musical figures of merit as well, some of who attracted international attention at the end of the eighteenth century. These included Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739–1799), a composer of a number of opera and symphonies; Johann Albrechtsberger (1736–1809), a composer of sacred and keyboard music who often wrote fugues; and Joseph Eybler (1765–1846), a protégé of the great Haydn. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Mozart's pupil, also came to maturity during the era of Viennese classicism, and continued to write music that reflected its values during the early nineteenth century. It was Josef Haydn, however, that helped to establish the conventions of many of the genres of orchestral and instrumental music in which the Viennese masters wrote. These forms have continued to dominate much serious music until modern times. Haydn's influence was especially important in the development of the symphony, the string quartet, the sonata, and the piano trio. Born in humble circumstances, he was initially trained as a choirboy. Left without resources at the age of seventeen he followed a musical career. He began schooling himself in composition, largely by reading the major works of musical theory and by studying the scores of other major composers, including Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Soon he became an accompanist in the study of Nicola Porpora, one of the leading opera impresarios of the age and the voice teacher of such great singers as Farinelli and Caffarelli. Porpora offered whatever guidance he could as Haydn began to perfect his compositions, but Haydn developed a musical language that was distinctly his own even in his early years. During the 1750s and 1760s, the composer experimented with the latest styles, writing compositions in ways that made use of the techniques of the Galant and Sensitive Styles, and experimenting with ways to express Sturm und Drang emotions in his music toward the end of this period. The longest portion of the great composer's career was spent at the Esterhàzy court, one of the wealthiest and most cultivated aristocratic circles in Central Europe. The Esterhàzy employed one of the largest orchestras of the day, and within five years of Haydn's appointment in 1761, he had risen to become the director of this enviable musical establishment. He remained in this position full-time until 1790, although his duties often brought him to Vienna. In the Esterhàzy household, Haydn was required to produce music in all the genres then popular, and although he initially had some problems in getting along with the count, he gradually acquired great independence and through the publication of his works in Austria and abroad, he acquired a sizable fortune.

Haydn 's Works and his Impact on the Sonata Form.

Haydn was enormously prolific, although in the generations after his death a number of works were falsely attributed to him. Today his considerable output of new compositions is recognized to include 104 symphonies, 68 string quartets, 29 trios, 14 masses, and 20 operas. Haydn authored a number of concertos, piano sonatas, and a host of smaller compositions as well. Although he produced masterpieces in almost every genre, it is for the glories contained in his symphonies and string quartets that he has most often been celebrated. Although Haydn did not create the symphony, he perfected its form and composed a body of symphonies that has consistently served as a source of inspiration to later composers. Among these, the Paris Symphonies (Numbers 82–87) are generally recognized as the first set of masterpieces of Haydn's mature style. They were commissioned for performance at a Masonic lodge in that city during 1785–1786, and they were enthusiastically accepted from their first hearing. Haydn's set of London symphonies (Numbers 93–104), completed while the composer was a resident of the English capital, represent his crowning achievement in the genre, and they continue to be among the most commonly played eighteenth-century orchestral works. Through his many compositional efforts, Haydn also helped to establish the popularity of the sonata form, a form that was increasingly used to organize the first movement of piano sonatas, concertos, and symphonies. The development of this form helped give composers standards to guide their work and ways to show off their skills and creative imagination. It gave members of the audience a sense of what to listen for, so that they could both enjoy the work and appreciate the ways a composer played with the form. Once it took its basic shape, composers used sonata form throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. A movement in sonata form has two main parts. In the first part, called the "exposition," the composer first introduces a main musical theme in the work's main key, then a second theme in a related key. The second main part has two sections. The first of these is called the "development" because the composer plays with, or develops, the themes from the first section in a number of ways. In the second section, the "recapitulation," the composer goes back to the main themes again in ways that recall the exposition, though now the work stays in its main key. Some movements in sonata form may simply end with a cadence, a set of concluding chords, while others may add a coda, or concluding segment. This format is fairly simple and allows for a great deal of variation and creativity. Although he was not the only composer to make use of the form, Haydn's brilliant use of sonata form has consistently provided inspiration to composers since the eighteenth century who have relied upon it.

The String Quartet.

At the end of the eighteenth century strings continued to hold the highest respect among musical instruments, second only to the voice in overall status. Groups of stringed instruments ranging in size (and therefore in pitch, from low to high) playing together had been common since the Renaissance. In the mid-eighteenth century, composers varied some of the works they had been writing for violins and continuo. They began to prefer a stringed instrument, usually the cello, for the lowest or continuo part, and to include a middle part for the viola. In this way the harpsichord, which had often served to play the continuo part, gradually disappeared from these ensembles, in favor of a new grouping that consisted only of strings. The resulting group of four voices—two violins, a viola, and a cello—became a standard group for composers and performers, known as the string quartet. Haydn's enormous output for these string ensembles helped to popularize the form of the string quartet, and to standardize the genre's form even more definitively than his orchestral works influenced the later writing of symphonies. Through his efforts the string quartet was largely established as a form that consisted of four movements, usually of fast opening and concluding pieces surrounding two interior movements. One of these interior pieces was usually written as a slow movement, while the other was often a minuet. In his 68 quartets, the composer's continuous adaptation to the changing styles and tastes of the late eighteenth century become brilliantly apparent, as does the depth of his creative and lyrical genius. These works, like the composer's famous Paris and London symphonies, demonstrate the sense of balance, proportion, and idealized beauty, as well as the intellectual coherence and ready intelligibility that have often been noted as key features of the musical language of the Viennese classical era. During his brief life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart also composed 26 string quartets of incomparable beauty, although it still remains today largely a matter of taste which composer's works an individual listener prefers. Mozart freely admitted his great indebtedness to Haydn in perfecting his use of the form when he published his homage to the great master, the "Six Haydn Quartets" in 1785. Both composers' quartets rank among the greatest achievements in the Western musical tradition, and long provided a fertile source of inspiration for the great masterful contributions that nineteenth-century composers like Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms continued to make to the genre.


While Haydn's great genius has long been recognized, his accomplishments have paled in the popular imagination to those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a figure who was recognized in his own lifetime in Austria and beyond as a divinely-inspired prodigy. Haydn wrote masterful compositions in many genres, but influenced later compositions primarily through his symphonies and string quartets. He also struggled with composition, laboring over his pieces until he got all the details just right. Mozart, by contrast, amassed a catalogue of works during his brief life that included masterpieces in every musical genre common in the later eighteenth century. He was, in other words, a great universal genius, as capable of setting church music and opera as he was of producing major works for the orchestra or the small ensemble. Unlike Haydn, he was reported not to have labored at all over his compositions, but to have produced them while carrying on conversations with his family and friends. Trained by his father to assume the role of a musical director within the confines of a traditional court, the Archbishopric of Salzburg, Mozart made many significant contributions to church music early in his career, and continued to write sacred music throughout his life. His output of sacred music included fourteen masses; two oratorios and several sacred musical dramas; and 22 motets, besides his incomplete but masterful Requiem, one of only several masterpieces he worked on during the final months of his life. He produced fifteen operas, notably his great masterworks, The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 and Don Giovanni in 1787, as well as several other musical dramas, like Cosi fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, and Idomeneo that continue to inspire enormous admiration today. He wrote 56 symphonies and 23 piano concertos, as well as a host of incidental and dance music for orchestra, small ensembles, and keyboard. Such a brief description barely scratches the surface of Mozart's art and fails to do justice to the many small gems that the faithful listener can discover among his opus. It is impossible to summarize in brief the scope of such an achievement, an achievement that was compressed into the brief space of only 35 years, although generations have consistently called attention to the composer's melodic invention, his rich harmonies and textures, his sense of elegant beauty, and his formal proportions. His achievement has long been accepted as the finest expression of the Viennese classical era. And yet, in the later stages of his career, particularly in the final years of his life, the composer also experimented with a new musical language that was to come to full flower only later in the Romantic era. His late works anticipated the more tempestuous Romantic musical language that Beethoven and other Viennese composers were to develop in the early nineteenth century.

The Rise of Romanticism.

In the final years of the eighteenth century, composers in Vienna and other European musical centers began to experiment with new sounds and styles, making use of a broader range of possibilities that the new large orchestras of the time offered. They also exploited the widespread popularity of small, intimate chamber ensembles like the string quartet. In Vienna and other European musical centers many composers began to experiment with new sounds and styles, and music began to change very quickly. These changes can be seen in the career of Ludwig van Beethoven, who studied with Haydn in Vienna in 1792. Although he was schooled in the graceful elegance and rationality of Viennese classicism, Beethoven soon began to experiment with ways to enlarge that style's possibilities. Beethoven's career also coincided with an important change in the taste of European audiences and composers. By the end of the eighteenth century instrumental music was attracting more and more attention, a departure from sensibilities of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, which had held vocal music in highest esteem. The increasing importance of instrumental music was a result of new thinking about the arts. In particular, the literary movement known as Romanticism began to have its effect on the world of music as well as the other arts. Its advocates valued feelings and emotion over words and reason. Many of them argued that instrumental music, with its abstraction from both words and pictures, was the noblest and highest form of human expression. While early Romantic composers like Beethoven and Franz Schubert kept the basic rules of harmony and composition they inherited from the eighteenth century, they often departed from those rules or subtly modulated them to express their innermost feelings, and so to uplift the spirit of the audience. Thus advocates of Romanticism broke the connection between melody and word, the rhetorical pattern of thought that had inspired many of the musical innovations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although it is usually true to say that the boundaries of decades or centuries are too artificial to mark the ends of artistic movements, it is reasonable to say that the years around 1800 marked an important change in European music. From this time forward a new Romanticism was to surpass in importance the long-standing sensibilities of the Baroque and classical eras.


John Irving, "Sonata Classical" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Eds. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell,. (London: Macmillan, 2001).

Sandra Mangsen, "Sonata Baroque" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Eds. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. (London: Macmillan, 2001).

James Webster, "Sonata Form" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Eds. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. (London: Macmillan, 2001).

Neal Zaslaw, ed., The Classical Era: from the 1740s to the End of the 18th Century (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989).

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The Rise of Classicism and Romanticism

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The Rise of Classicism and Romanticism