Classical Music (1750-1810)

Classical with a 'c' means anything that is top class, and particularly refers to the ancient Greeks and Romans. With a 'C' it means a specific style of composers. The term classical is commonly and incorrectly applied to any music which is not modern. The correct term for this is actually art music.

Composers of the Period

Composer Nationality Composer Nationality
Stamitz German (Bohemian) Beethoven (1770-1827) German
Gluck (1714-1787) German Haydn (1732-1809)* Austrian
C.P.E. Bach German Mozart (1756-1791)* Austrian
J.C. Bach German    

The composers marked with an asterisk are the most important to remember.

Style Galant

This is an early classical style, and a very courtly style. It was meant to please the listener, as opposed to making the listener think. C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach were the main composers who made use of this style.

Later Classical Style

This style made more of balance and control, grace and beauty of melody, and the form or design became important.


Classical music is basically homophonic. (Baroque music was polyphonic.)

The Orchestra

The Orchestra began to grow. The harpsichord continuo gradually fell out of use. Wind instruments became more important, especially the horns to bind the texture. Strings were still the main instrument to which were added two horns, one or two flutes, or a pair of oboes. Gradually, composers added one or two bassoons, and occasionally a pair of trumpets, or a pair of kettle drums. Clarinets were introduced towards the end of the 18th Century. Mozart was the composer responsible for popularising the clarinet. The woodwind section became a self-contained section:

Music for Piano

Invented as early as 1698, by Cristofori in Italy. This instrument allows soft and loud notes to be played. The strings were hit by hammers, as opposed to being plucked. More expression could be played (e.g. Legato, staccato, cantabile.)

The Alberti Bass is simple broken chords, repeated in the left hand, which keeps the music going, and outlines the harmony.

C.P.E. Bach was one of the first piano composers, and started composing around 1750. J.C. Bach gave the first piano performance in London. A lot of music was printed for harpsichord or piano, but the harpsichord gradually faded out of use.


A Sonata is a work, in several movements, for one or two instruments. With three instruments it is a trio, with four it is a quartet, and with five it is a quintet.

The Symphony

Symphony means a sonata for orchestra. It grew from the Italian Overture, but the Symphony has three movements, instead of three sections. Later on, a fourth movement was added (commonly a minuet in trio). Stamitz was the frost famous symphony composer, and the father of this style, Haydn and Mozart perfected the Symphony in the second half of the 18th Century. The Symphony can be broken down into:

Haydn wrote numerous sonatas, including the Surprise Symphony, the Drum Roll Symphony and the London Symphony. Trios and quartets were also in four movements. Sonatas might have three or four movements. The Classical Concerto did not include the minuet, so only had three movements.

Sonata Form

Sonata form is a way of building up an individual movement, not a piece. It consists of three sections:

  1. The Exposition: The composer exposes his musical ideas. The main ideas are called subjects. The first subject is in the tonic, which modulates (changes key) near the end to a bridge (transition) passage, which leads to the second subject. The second subject is in a new, but related, key, often the dominant (Sta) or relative major (If the first subject is m a minor key). The second subject is usually more tuneful.
  2. Development: Here the ideas are developed. It creates a feeling of tension and conflict. The climax may be in this section.
  3. Recapitulation: The music is repeated from the beginning, but the second subject is now in the tonic. Finally, the music may have a coda (A direct translation is tail), which rounds off the music.

The Concerto

It contains a solo instrument and an orchestra. There are three movements (slow, fast, slow). The first movement has a double-exposition. The first is for the orchestra alone, followed by the soloist. The second, with the second subject group in the related key. Then comes the development and the recapitulation, for both the orchestra and the soloist. Towards the end, the orchestra pauses, and the soloist plays a cadenza (a short passage,'based on themes heard earlier, which displays the brilliance of the player.) When the soloist finishes, the soloist ends with a trill, which signifies the orchestra should come in and finish off the piece. The orchestra plays the coda to end.


Classical composers wrote much vocal music, especially opera. Gluck was an important opera composer. Orfeo ed Euridice is one of his works. He made the actions more important in the opera. At the start of the opera, the overture prepared the audience for what was to come, Mozart wrote operas including The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. The Magic Flute is an example of singspiel (an opera in which singing is mixed up with dialogue). The orchestra mirrors the mood and drama of the action. Don Giovani is an example of 'opera buffa' (comic opera).

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven composed to please himself. He wrote 32 piano sonatas, nine symphonies. The 9th Symphony is the Choral Symphony. He wrote one opera, called Fidelio. Towards the end of his life he became deaf. He could still composer, and hear the sounds in his head, but had great difficulty in conducting his works.

Beethoven modified Classical music. His music is weightier, and on a larger scale. There is more emotion in his music, and his last movements are usually the most important. He uses more discords, more dynamic contrast and more contrast in pitch. He increased the size of the orchestra, for example, he often added a 3rd horn and a piccolo, and also added a choir in his 9th symphony.

The Main Characteristics of Classical Music

  1. Less complicated texture than Baroque (more homophonic).
  2. Emphasis on beauty, elegance and balance.
  3. More variety and contrast within a piece than Baroque (dynamics, instruments, pitch, tempo, key, mood and timbre).
  4. Melodies tend to be shorter than those in baroque, with clear-cut phrases, and clearly marked cadences.
  5. The orchestra increases in size and range. The harpsichord fails out of use. The woodwind becomes a self-contained section.
  6. The piano takes over, often with Alberti bass accompaniment.
  7. Importance was given to instrumental music - sonata, trio, string quartet, symphony, concerto.
  8. Sonata form was the most important design.
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