|[pictured: "Allegory of Music" by François
The late baroque period (late 17th century - early 18th) was
characterized by hugely elaborate pieces, usually with numerous
lines of polyphony and wildly flowing melodic
developments. The classical movement, starting around the
mid-1700's, was aimed at bringing music back "down to earth".
Composers began to strive for beauty through simplicity and
Andreas Werckmeister, a respected musician, wrote in 1691 that music was "a gift of God, to be used only in His honor." This statement reflected the general attitude of the time: religion was at the center of society. This view was redically changed however, by the philosophical movement called the Enlightenment.
The general idea behind the Enlightenment was basically that by using reason and logic, man could accomplish anything. Thus, where people once relied on the church to determine their beliefs, the focus was now shifted towards the individual. This focus on humanity led to a growth in the arts, including music.
In keeping with the Enlightenment ideals of balance and logic, composers in the classical period strove to maintain a perfect order in their music. Music was supposed to meet the listener at his level, and not make him have to make an effort to understand it. For this reason, composers valued simplicity over complexity, and tried to please without using excessive emotion.
A key factor in the growth of music during this time was that several members of the middle class began to gain influence. They could now afford to support a new market for writers, artists, and musicians: public concerts were held for the first time; music printing increased enormously; musical journalism began. Furthermore, composers were now free to reflect the feelings of the general public instead of a select group of experts.
Also, Enlightenment philosophy reasoned that all humanity was under a universal, natural law. This belief was reflected in the music as well; composers from all countires generally followed the same "rules" of composition. This was in contrast with nationalism, which would later become a major element of the Romantic Period.
By the end of the Classical period, the view of music had
drastically changed from that of 85 years before: in 1776, Charles
Burney published his General History of Music, which
contains the following statement: "Music is an innocent luxury,
unneccesary, indeed, to our existence, but a great improvement and
gratification of the sense hearing."
Chamber Music in the Classical Period
The emphasis on accessibilty and simplicity meant that most music was written with one melodic line, with all the other instruments providing accompaniment. In other words, the violinist always got to play the pretty melody while the other players got stuck with boring chords and repetitive notes. For this reason the most popular form of chamber music was the violin solo with keyboard accompaniment. Eventually, the string quartet became the preferred instrumental arrangement for most chamber music composers.
Throughout the classical period, chamber music was widely played by amateurs, often simply for the enjoyment of the players. Sometimes there would be no audience, and playing the music would just be another way to socialize. Many times the players would simply improvise.
The great composers of the time all wrote a good deal of chamber
music. More importantly, they all eventually moved away from the
"violin solo" style of composition, and gave more interesting
material to the other instruments. This new flexibility of
expression paved the way for the widespread popularity of chamber
When you speak of music form the Classical Period, you always end up going over the same three names: Wolfang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven. From the hundreds of composers that wrote in their day, only these three have preserved for themselves a place in history. Beyond these "Big Three", only a small handful of names are even remembered.
Click here to
see the full listing of Classical composers.