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4.9: Classical (Enlightenment Period) (ca. 1750–ca. 1820)

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  • The term classical, when used in the context of works of art, refers to features such proportion and symmetry that characterize the sculpture and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome and also the art of subsequent periods that display those features. Classicists embrace the notion of universal ideals of beauty and strive in art to achieve universality through the representation of ideal forms.

    It is for this reason that the period that followed the Baroque, when the flamboyance and drama were supplanted by emotional restraint and formal balance and symmetry, is
    called Classical. The 18th century is also called the Enlightenment Period, because of the ideals of reason, objectivity, and scientific knowledge found in the writings of Diderot, Voltaire, and Lessing that permeated all aspects of European society and culture. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin are among the Americans who shared the belief in human progress and natural rights, that is, the rights of the individual as opposed to the rights of the state, as embodied in a monarch. These ideas led to the American Revolution, then the French Revolution, with its slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

    Both the aesthetics of classicism and the Enlightenment world view shaped the art of the second half of the 18th and early 19th centuries. As in the Renaissance, architects once again found inspiration in the proportion and grace of Greek and Roman temples. Robert Burns’s poems in Scottish dialect, Jane Austen’s novels about life in a country village, and Schiller’s plays about aspirations for freedom and brotherhood are testaments to enlightenment notions of the dignity and worth of the common man.

    In music, composers of the early classical period discarded complex textures, learned compositional techniques such as fugal imitation, and grandeur in favor of transparent
    textures, a single melody supported by a subordinate accompaniment, and somewhat superficial sentiments. In the mature classical style of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, counterpoint, processes of rigorous development, and depth of expression reappear, but in the context of classical ideals of clarity, proportion, and refined taste. Important developments during the period include expansion of the orchestra to thirty or forty players, improvements in the mechanisms of instruments, especially the piano, and ever greater public support through concerts and publication of music.

    Historic Context

    Building of Independence Hall, Philadelphia, 1731–1751.
    First playhouse opens in New York, 1750.
    King’s College (Columbia University) founded 1754.
    Moscow University founded 1755.
    First public restaurant opens in Paris, 1770.
    New York Hospital founded, 1771.
    Boston Tea Party in protest against tea tax, 1773.
    Louis XVI assumes throne of France, 1774.
    Beginning of the American Revolution; Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia; George
    Washington made commander of American forces, 1775.
    U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776.
    Adam Smith (1723–1790) publishes The Wealth of Nations, 1776.
    American Academy of Sciences founded in Boston, 1780.
    Bank of North American established in Philadelphia, 1782.
    Great Britain recognizes independence of American colonies, 1783.
    U.S. Constitution signed in Philadelphia, 1878.
    French Revolution, 1789.
    U.S. Bill of Rights ratified, 1791.
    Louis XVI executed, 1793; beginning of Reign of Terror in France.
    Building of U.S. Capitol in Washington begins, 1793.

    Eli Whitney (1765–1825) invents the cotton gin, 1793.
    Slavery abolished in French colonies, 1794.
    Napoleon crowned emperor, 1804; King of Italy, 1805; King of Spain, 1808.
    England prohibits slave trade, 1807.
    War of 1812: Napoleon invades Russia; only 20,000 of his 550,000-member army survive.
    Louisiana becomes a U.S. state, 1812.
    Mexico declares independence from Spain, 1813; becomes a republic, 1823.
    Napoleon abdicates and is exiled to Elba, 1814; returns to France, 1815; defeated in Battle of
    Waterloo by Wellington, 1815.
    Simon Bolivar establishes Venezuela as independent government, 1817.
    Chile proclaims independence, 1818.
    Working day for juveniles limited to 12 hours in England, 1819.
    Brazil becomes independent of Portugal, 1822.

    Milestones in Music

    Mozart’s first tour of Europe as six-year-old child prodigy, 1762.
    Handel’s Messiah first performed in New York, 1770.
    Opening of La Scala opera house in Milan, 1778.
    English piano maker John Broadwood patents piano pedals, 1783.
    Charles Burney’s History of Music, 1789.
    Founding of the Paris Conservatoire, 1795.
    Founding of Prague Conservatory, 1811.

    Musical Genres

    Concerto: instrumental work pitting a soloist against the orchestra. Mozart wrote a number
    of piano concertos featuring himself as the soloist.
    Piano sonata: multi-movement work for solo piano. All composers of the period contributed
    to this genre.
    String quartet: four-movement work for two violins, viola, and cello favored by Haydn, who
    established the grouping as the premiere chamber medium.
    Symphony: four-movement work for orchestra. Haydn composed 104 symphonies, Mozart
    41, and Beethoven 9.
    Opera: as in the baroque period, a drama set to music and staged. Mozart was the most
    important opera composer of the period.

    Major Figures in Music

    Franz Josef Haydn (1632–1809): Viennese composer; see Musician Biographies.
    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791): Austrian composer; see Musician Biographies.
    Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827): German late classical/early romantic composer; see
    Musician Biographies.

    Other Historic Figures

    Jean Antoine Watteau (1684–1764): French painter; Embarkation for the Isle of Cythera.
    Voltaire (1694–1778): French writer and philosopher; champion of individual liberties and critic
    of organized religion.
    Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790): American statesman and inventor; Founding Father of the
    United States; publisher of Pennsylvania Gazette; Ambassador to France.
    Linnaeus (1707–1778): Swedish botanist; creator of scientific classification system for plants
    and animals.
    David Hume (1711–1776): Scottish philosopher and historian, proponent of empiricism.
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778): French philosopher; his ideas of liberty and equality taken
    up during French Revolution.
    Frederick the Great (1712–1796): King of Prussia; enlightened monarch who inaugurated freedom
    of the press and worship; accomplished flutist who employed one of J. S. Bach’s sons.

    Denis Diderot (1713–1784): French philosopher; chief editor of Encyclopedie.
    Adam Smith (1723–1790): Scottish economist and philosopher; author of The Wealth of Nations.
    Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792): English portrait painter.
    Immanuel Kant (1724–1804): German philosopher of metaphysics and epistemology; author
    of Critique of Pure Reason.
    Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788): English portrait painter of fashionable society and children;
    Blue Boy.
    James Cook (1728–1779): English navigator and explorer of the Pacific.
    Catherine the Great (1729–1796): czarina of Russia.
    Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781): German dramatist, critic, and philosopher.
    George Washington (1732–1799): Revolutionary War general; first president of the United States.
    Jean Honore Fragonard (1732–1806): French portrait painter.
    John Adams (1735–1826): U.S. Founding Father and second president of the United States.
    James Watt (1736–1819): Scottish inventor of the steam engine.
    Thomas Jefferson (1743–1743): U.S. Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence,
    president of the United States, 1801 to 1809; lawyer, architect, statesman.
    Francisco de Goya (1746–1828): Spanish painter; portraits of royalty; other subjects include
    inhumanity of war.
    Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832): Utilitarian philosopher.
    Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825): French painter.
    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832): German poet, novelist, playwright, and statesman;
    author of The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust.
    Simon Bolivar (1758–1830): Latin American soldier and statesman; the “George Washington of
    South America;” major figure in independence from Spain for Bolivia, Panama, Colombia,
    Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela.
    Robert Burns (1759–1796): Scottish poet who wrote in the Scots language; Auld Lang Syne.
    Johann von Schiller (1759–1805): German poet, playwright, and historian; author of poem
    used by Beethoven in his Symphony #9.
    Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821): Corsican-born general, emperor of France, 1804 to 1814.
    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831): German philosopher; writings on the history of
    philosophy and the philosophy of history, religion, and aesthetics.
    Jane Austen (1775–1817): English novelist; author of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion,
    Mansfield Park.

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