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5.1: Introduction and Historical Context

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  • Of all the musical periods, the Classical period is the shortest, spanning less than a century. Its music is dominated by three composers whose works are still some of the best known of all Western art music: Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Although born in different European regions, all three spent a substantial amount of time in Vienna, Austria, which might be considered the European musical capital of the time.

    Music scholars have referred to this time as the Classical period in music for several reasons. For one, the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven has served as the model for most composers after their time and is still played today; in this way, the music is “classic” in that it has provided an exemplar and has stood the test of time. As we will also see, this music has often been perceived as emulating the balance and portion of ancient Greek and Roman art, the time period to which the word “classical” is affixed within literature and art history, as well as the wider field of history.

    Our use of the Classical period to refer to music of roughly 1750 to 1815, how- ever, should not be confused with our broader use of the term “classical music” to refer to art music (music that does not otherwise fall within the spheres of popular music or folk music).

    Beginning towards the end of the 16th century, citizens in Europe became skeptical of traditional politics, governance, wealth distribution, and the aristocracy. Philosophers and theorists across Europe began to questioning these norms and issues and began suggesting instead that humanity could benefit from change. Publications and scientific discoveries of these thinkers proving and understanding many of nature’s laws spurred the paradigm shift of logic referred to as the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment.

    The seeds for the Enlightenment can be found in England in approximately the 1680s. In that decade, Newton published Principia Mathematica and John Locke published his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” These two works pro- vided the philosophical, mathematical, and scientific foundation for the Enlightenment’s great developments. Locke stressed that knowledge is gained through accumulated life experience rather than by acquired outside truth. Newton’s mathematics and optical theory showed that humans can observe, study, define, and test the world around them and can also mathematically measure and prove natural occurrences.

    Besides Locke and Newton, Enlightenment thinkers included Voltaire, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, and Immanuel Kant. Their works especially stressed improving humanity’s condition through the use of reason and common sense in order to provide liberty and justice for all. Many Enlightenment thinkers challenged blind and unconditional following of the authority of religious traditions and institutions and emphasized what they saw as “universal human goods and rights.” They believed that if humankind would simply act with common sense—found in ideas such as “the golden rule”—then societies might advance with greater universal justice and liberty.

    Being able to solve and understand many of the mysteries of the universe in a quantifiable manner using math and reason, was empowering. Much of the educated middle class applied these learned principles to improve society. Enlightenment ideals lead to political revolutions throughout the Western world. Governmental changes such as Britain’s embrace of constitutional democratic form of government and later the United States of America’s establishment of democratic republic completely changed the outlook of the function of a nation/state. The overall well-being and prosperity of all in society became the mission of governance.

    Up until the mid-1700s art, including music, was under the direct control or patronage of the monarchy/aristocracy, the class whose unquestioned rule was founded on divine hereditary right. The arts were their (and the church’s) privilege, luxury, and adornment for generations to come. In its in- fancy, the Enlightenment’s power shift toward the middle class was neither perceived nor anticipated by those in power. America’s successful revolution against England landed a devastating blow to the doctrine of the divine ruling rights of kings. Shortly afterward, the ensuing French Revolution had an unintentional im- pact on the arts and is one of the greatest influences on Western classical music.

    Artists and architects of the second half of the eighteenth century looked to classical antiquity as its model; their work is referred to as neoclassical. You can see this interest when one compares the Parthenon in Athens to the columns of the White House. While in power, aristocrats and their wealthy peers exalted the Hellenism that protected them from getting too involved in the current issues of life. The aristocrats saw the ancient Roman gods, heroes, and kings assemblances of themselves. They viewed themselves in the same light as super humans entitled to rule, possess great wealth, and be powerful. This detachment shaped their relationship with the arts in architecture and the visual arts. The rising middle class, on the contrary, viewed and interpreted neoclassical arts as representations of Ro- man and Greek city-states. This view assisted their resolve to rebel against the ty- rants and abolish despotism. Here musical terminology diverges from that used by art historians (Neoclassicism in music would have to wait for the 20th century). As we have few musical exemplars from classical antiquity and as the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven would become the model for nineteenth century music, music historians have referred to this period as a time of Musical Classicism.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 12.06.54 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Benjamin Franklin, 1759 by Benjamin Wilson. Source: Wikimedia

    The mid and second half of the 18th century saw a revolutionary political and economic shift in Europe. Here the dramatic paramount shift of power from the aristocracy to the middle class began and strengthened. The wealth of the middle class had been expanding due the growing capitalism from the Industrial Revolution. This revolution resulted from a series of momentous inventions of the mid-1700s, including the Watt Steam Engine, James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny, Edmund Cartwright’s power loom, and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

    The following decades witnessed great scientific achievements and discoveries including: electricity by Benjamin Franklin, medical smallpox vaccination by Edward Jenner, the discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestly, the advancement of the mechanistic view of the universe by Pierre-Simon Laplace, and the invention of the voltaic pile (battery) by Alessandro Volta Pierre Laplace (b. 1749-1827) a gifted and talented scientist and mathematician, felt that due to scientific explanation for the planets, their motion, and possibly how they began, humans no longer had any need for God. This mindset even further reduces the influence of the church on society and music.

    During the enlightenment, the burgeoning middle class became a major market for art superseding the aristocracy as the principal consumer of music and art. This market shift facilitated a great demand for new innovations in the humanities. While the increased literacy of the middle class led to the proliferation of newspapers, periodicals, and novels throughout Western Europe. These sources provide us with reviews of concerts and published music and capture eighteenth century impressions of and responses to music.

    5.3.1 The visual arts and architecture

    The visual arts developed two major styles in the Enlightenment. Both are representative of the dualism found in the arts during the classical era. As the aristocracy tried to adhere to the Greek and Roman mythological antiquity, artists such as the painter Jacques-Louis David (b.1748-1835), of the French revolution adorned his canvases with themes of Roman and Athenian democracy. David’s paintings were admired by Thomas Jefferson, but David’s painting The Death of Marat (1793) received particular praise. Marat, to whom the painting refers, is the murdered Jean-Paul Marat, an influential French revolutionary leader. Marat’s previous influence paired with his murder and David’s painting instantly trans- posed him into a political martyr. David’s painting thus became a symbol of sacrifice in the name of the republic.1

    Architecture in the late eighteenth century leaned toward the clean lines of ancient buildings such as the Athenian Parthenon and away from the highly ornate decorative accents of Baroque and Rococo design. One might also argue that the music of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven aspires toward a certain simplicity and calmness stemming from ancient Greek art.


    1 “Jacques-Louis David.” A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 18 December 2015.

    5.3.2 music in late eighteenth Century

    The three most important composers of the Classical period were Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Although they were born in different places, all three composers spent the last years of their lives in Vienna, Austria, a city which might be considered the musical capitol of the Classical period (see map below).

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Map of Europe by User: “Ssolbergj.” Source: Wikimedia

    Their music careers illustrate the changing role of the composer during this time. The aristocratic sponsors of the Classical artists—who were still functioning under the patronage system—were more interested in the final product than in the artists’ intrinsic motivations for creating art for its own sake. For most of his life, Haydn worked for the aristocracy composing to order and wearing the livery of the Esterházy family, who were his patrons. Though successful working under their patronage, Haydn had more freedom to forge his own career after Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s death and staged concerts for his own commercial benefit in London and Vienna. Beethoven, the son of a court musician, was sent to Vienna to learn to compose. By 1809, he had succeeded in securing a lifetime annuity (a promise from local noblemen for annual support). Beethoven did not have to compose mu- sic for them; he simply had to stay in Vienna and compose. In some ways, the role of aristocratic patron and composer was turned on its head. When philosophically compatible with a sponsor, the artist flourished and could express his/her creativity. But in Mozart’s case, the patronage system was stifling and counterproductive to his abilities. Mozart was also born and raised by a father who was a court musician, though his father was a court musician for the Archbishop of Salzburg. It was expected that Mozart would also enter the service of the Archbishop; instead, he escaped to Vienna, where he attempted the life of a freelancer. After initial successes, he struggled to earn enough money to make ends meet and died a pauper in 1791. The journey through the Classical period is one between two camps, the old and the new: the old based upon an aristocracy with city states and the new in the rising and more powerful educated middle class. The traditional despotism is dying while the new class system increasingly thrives.

    5.3.3 Musical Timeline

    Events in History Events in Music

    1762: French philosopher Rousseau publishes Émile, or Treatise on Education, outlining Englightenment educational ideas

    1776: Declaration of Independence in the U.S.A.

    1789: Storming of the Bastille and beginning of the French Revolution (Paris, France)

    1793: In the U.S.A., invention of the Cotton Gin, an innovation of the Industrial Revolution

    1732: Haydn born 1750: J. S. Bach dies

    1756: Mozart born

    1770: Beethoven born

    1781: Mozart settles in Vienna

    1790: Beethoven moves to Vienna

    1791: Mozart dies
    1791-95: Haydn travels to London

    1792: Beethoven moves to Vienna

    1809: Haydn dies 1827: Beethoven dies

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