The defining era of the Classical genre and where the genre gets its namesake, the ‘Classical era’ of music is primarily defined by those living and composing between around 1750 - 1820. During this brief time, we see some of the biggest influencers within piano and musical composition come to light, from the mighty Mozart, bold Beethoven and the sublime works of Schubert to name just a few. The classical era is famed for having transformed a vast array of musical types and bringing with it a truly definitive texture that even to this day, many pianists and musicians can lose themselves in.
Today we will be exploring what the term ‘Classical’ means, its key themes and investigating the works of some of the era’s best composers. All this with the hope of not only developing your own interest in classical music, but allowing you to explore your own expression and understanding of the classical era within your own playing.
What Is ‘Classical’ Music?
Not to be confused with the other eras within the classical genre such as Baroque, Romantic and Contemporary, classical music has a signature lightness and clarity and complexity than that of the styles found in its predecessor, the Baroque period. Trends such as the use of a clear melody line over a chordal accompaniment are commonplace and perhaps the biggest change of all is the adoption of the piano in place of the harpsichord, allowing composers to truly begin expressing themselves and their musical imaginations on the piano (which of course gets us truly excited!). Unlike the harpsichord, which plucks strings with quills, pianos strike the strings with leather-covered hammers when the keys are pressed, which enables the performer to play louder or softer, you can learn more about this in our brief history of the piano here.
It is for this reason that because of the new piano technology, why the classical era remains some of the most commonly played and beloved genre within piano music, because it was a time where piano experimentation and form was front and centre.
Understanding Classical Music
The western classical movement was, understandably, an incredibly European movement, being driven from the likes of cultural capitals such as Italy, Austria (Vienna in particular) and France (Paris) to name a few. The Baroque period had well established the likes of Opera as a form and this laid the foundation for the creation of the orchestral symphony, the first master of which was Joseph Haydn. Haydn took existing ideas, and radically altered how they functioned—earning him the titles "father of the symphony" and "father of the string quartet".
As Haydn continued to experiment with his quartets and orchestras, another young prodigy began gaining traction, taking the foundation that Haydn had laid and applying them primarily to both Opera and virtuoso concertos…You may know him best as Mozart. Mozart's popularity grew and grew throughout his short life, playing for many nights on end for vast audiences. Haydn was even noted as seeing Mozart as “his only true peer in music”. This respect was mutual and Mozart sought to learn from Haydn too.
Music soon became an incredibly cultural part of Austrian and European culture and society, with it, the formation of music schools and provinces, by the time of Mozart’s death at just 35, his legacy had been laid and composers in Paris, Rome, and all over Germany turned to Haydn and Mozart for their ideas on form.
More experimentalists came to add their own twists and takes on the musical forms and it was in 1794 when another new name came to shake the scene once more. Beethoven’s three piano trios which idiomatically used Mozart's techniques of avoiding the expected cadence. During this period, there was a definite shift from "vocal" writing to "pianistic" writing, as well as increasing the notion of texture at the forefront of music as music became progressively more complex.
Towards the end of the era, for various reasons, another shift can be seen as emotion and nuance became even further embedded in the foundation of classical music Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Carl Maria von Weber, and John Field are among the most prominent in this generation of "Proto-Romantics", which later became that of the Romantic era.
Improving Your Classical Playing
Despite the genre actually being focused more around simplicity of melody and structural form, there is still an immense level of depth to explore within the classical genre that can be placed into your playing. We have also covered this in our guide to tips and techniques to improving your classical playing, so instead here we will be focusing more on the expressions and interpretations of classical era music.
Do Your Research:
The classical era did see the formation of many of classical music’s greatest composers, most of which are still highly regarded today. The first step in exploring their works further and on a new level is to research their personal lives to draw out their intentions behind the works. For example, During his lifetime, Haydn wrote over 106 symphonies, many of which revolve around his religious background. Another composer of the time, Franz Schubert for example faced a difficult decision during his life, to pursue a career in music or law, but it was during his composing of “Symphony No.5” that it is believed this was the turning point where Schubert discontinued his law study to focus on his music.
“Symphony No. 5” is generally regarded as a tribute to the classical masters Haydn and Mozart. The iconic piece has become a favourite for music enthusiasts and anyone who wants to enjoy the fullness of his music. By placing yourself in his shoes, we realise the music has a far deeper level of meaning to explore.
Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment:
There is a general misconception within piano playing and music that things must be played as written. In short, not only is this often not possible, but can even be discouraged. There is a reason why many scholars have dedicated their lives to reading original manuscripts. Because there were no recordings of these masterpieces, it is impossible to truly understand the meaning behind the music. This is why we often recommend getting creative with music and supplying your own injection of character into even the most iconic pieces. Our friend Jean Kleeb has done exactly this with his works such as ‘Mozart Goes Jazz’ and ‘Beethoven around the world’. Read our interview with him here.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this quick guide to the classical era, for more information on the other eras of classical music, don’t forget to read our guides to the Baroque period or our guide to the Romantics period too, or for those looking for modern innovations, our guide to the modern composers' keeping classical alive! For those looking to upgrade their piano, or who want to explore the genre further, be sure to visit our piano showroom to explore our range of quality sheet music from the classical music era.
If you are interested in upgrading or purchasing your first piano, our experts are here to help with every step of the way! Contact our team today.