Why You Must Listen to the Confusingly Named “Classical Period” of Classical Music

Welcome to another attempt at cracking the rather large nut that is understanding classical music. We left off with J.S. Bach and the end of the Baroque era. Now if you weren’t confused already, historians thought it appropriate to designate the period between 1750 and 1830 as the “Classical period.” This is the era we will take a look at today.

But Ed, I thought you were talking about classical music this whole time?

Good observation! For reasons unbeknownst to even one as knowledgeable as yours truly, the term “classical music” has been adopted to refer to all of music that can be considered “high art” or “art music.” Therefore, even though we left the Classical period back in 1830, “classical” music is still composed to this day. I am not particularly fond of this terminology for that very reason; it tends to imply that all “classical” music that is performed came from or sounds like it was written 200 years ago. Maybe “art” music makes a bit more sense–but you know what, I am not really in the mood to bore you to death with semantics right now. (Probably too late for that.)

Anyway, the Classical era had many composers, but only a few stood the test of time. In fact, the entire era can pretty much be summed up by three famous names: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.  I am going to save Beethoven for a later article because…well, he’s probably the most incredible musician to ever live. But Haydn and Mozart are nothing to shake a stick at, so let’s talk a bit about them.

Franz Joseph Haydn (aka “Papa Haydn”)

He loves it when you call him "Big Papa"

Any Classical period music worth talking about seems to have come out of the town of Vienna, Austria. It is here where Haydn worked for Nikolaus Esterhazy and Haydn earned the title “the father of Classical music.” He pretty much defined the standard forms used for both the symphony (a multi-movement work for orchestra) and the standard string quartet (another multi-movement work for, well, a string quartet). Haydn was one busy dude, writing over 100 symphonies, 80 string quartets, a multitude of concerti, oratorios (large works for choir, soloists, and orchestra), and other chamber works.

Here is the final movement to his “Farewell” Symphony. The story goes that the musicians under the Esterhazys’ employ were stuck working much later in the summer than they were originally told, therefore leaving their wives and families back at their homes. So in protest, the musicians were instructed to leave the stage one at a time before the music was over as a not-so-subtle means of communicating their displeasure.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

There’s not too much I can say about this guy that hasn’t been repeated about a million times. The 1984 oscar-winning movie Amadeus pretty much sums it all up. It’s not even that the movie is factually accurate. (There is not much evidence whatsoever that Salieri had any hand in Mozart’s demise.) The movie does, however, capture just how remarkable Mozart’s accomplishments truly were.

Now at the risk of being ostracized by the entire musical community, I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of Mozart.  At least, I don’t worship every note he wrote the way that most of my colleagues seem to. I think this mainly comes from the fact that being a cellist, I was always baffled as to why Mozart never wrote a single cello sonata or concerto or even a short concert piece for our instrument. Instead we basically have to sit there with our sole purpose being to accompany the violins while they have the time of their life playing gorgeous melodies. Thanks, Amadeus, thanks a lot….

Anyway, several of Mozart’s pieces stick out as some of my absolute favorite music, and those include three of his operas: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. The following three videos are some amazing moments from all of these operas and also represent three of the emotions and styles that Mozart does best: pristine beauty, pure joy and charm, and chilling drama.

Finale to Act II of Le Nozze De Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)

Around 2:00 break out the handkerchiefs because this is one of the most beautiful melodies ever sung.

Papageno-Papagena Duet from Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute)

This duet I think best captures the charm and joy that is present in so much of Mozart’s music. You can’t listen to this stuff and not have a smile on your face.

Don Giovanni Act 2 Finale (the Commendatore scene)

Don Giovanni gets the piss scared out of him (and so does the audience) when a man he killed returns from the dead to put him in his place. This has got to be one of the most legitimately frightening scenes in all of opera. The building drama of the music when the ghost comes out will give you chills.

If you have been hesitant about getting into opera, I would consider these three staples from Mozart as a terrific litmus test. The music is phenomenal, the stories are entertaining, and even the more serious parts don’t last too long before he lightens the mood. If you are looking for more great Mozart, check out his famous Requiem, his quintet for clarinet and strings, his later symphonies (upper 30s through 41), and some of his piano works. However, I will leave you with another selection from Don Giovanni, the famous “Catalogue” aria, where Don Giovanni’s lovable servant Leperello confesses to a young lady how many women the Don has slept with.

Coming up next:  get ready to have your mind blown with music of the greatest composer to have ever lived….yup, I said it.

(I’ll give you a hint, its not Ke$ha)

468 ad