The Classical Period: Part 1
By Nina Pinzarrone
Let’s begin by distinguishing music’s classical period from the general term “classical music.”
The classical period in music (c. 1750–1820) was centered in Vienna, Austria, and included the great composers Mozart (1756–1791), Haydn (1732–1809), and Beethoven (1770–1827). The era’s name comes from a prevailing interest in the art and literature of the classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.
Classical music is art music based on the traditions of Western music, from the 11th century to the present day. Often more complex than folk or popular music, it requires technical mastery and a sophistication of form.
The classical period saw great changes in musical development, due in part to the rise of the middle class. As economic and political power shifted away from court and church domination, art music gained a more diverse audience. Composers created music for concerts and outdoor entertainments aimed at the new middle-class audience. More people sought to become musicians, and composers responded with music that was easier to learn and play. Changes included:
- The new music tended to be homophonic (one melody line, with accompanying chords) instead of polyphonic (multiple melodic lines sounding together).
- Dynamic contrasts and complex rhythms became more important, due to simpler harmonies and more variety in instruments.
- The recently invented piano—expressive and able to play from soft to loud—replaced the harpsichord as the orchestra’s main solo instrument.
- Basso continuo (a continuous bass line played by the harpsichord), traditional in baroque polyphony to add structure and accentuate subtle harmonies, disappeared.
- New musical forms arose, including the symphony, sonata, solo concerto, and rondo.
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.