MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

MT: Tuesdays 11:10 - 2:05 in Room 6-170
UR: Thursdays 6:05 - 9:00 in Room 6-170

Intro to Classical Period

This is probably going to be our typical format for online content, now. Read through all of this text, click on the videos, and then answer seven comprehension-type questions for Exercise #10.

It should be fairly straightforward if you open the exercise in its own tab and flip back here for reference.

The Classic Period (1750-1820) and the Enlightenment

This is, of course, a mildly confusing name for a musical era, since all along we’ve been listening to so‐called “classical” music. Yet, this particular period for music is also known as the Classical or Classic period.

The Classic period is where we see our most well-known composers, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

In general the Classical period was a reaction against the values of the Baroque. You may remember that the Baroque was a time of extravagance, when the aristocracy was at the height of its powers.

In the late 1700s, people were tired of all of this excess. They wanted things to be simple, logical, and "natural."

The Enlightenment

As science and philosophy continues to gather momentum (thanks to the work of Sir Isaac Newton and others), we enter a period called the Enlightenment. Now educated people are no longer content to study the classics, but rather they exude a new confidence that they can figure out the world through observation and reason. (Immanuel Kant declares the motto of the Enlightenment to be "Have the courage to use your own understanding!")

The most fashionable activity in Enlightenment France is the salon, a party to which the most impressive thinkers and debaters are invited. The point of a salon is to sit around and argue about how the world works.

The concept of God during the Enlightenment is called Deism ‐ this is a belief in a Creator who is a "clockmaker" who designed the world and then simply lets it run, without interference.

Thus, a Deist doesn't really worry much about religion. What the people of this era really worshipped was "Nature.” (This often tended to mean whatever they wanted it to mean. They would talk about things that we would consider “culture” or “society” and proclaim them to be “natural.”)

The most revolutionary idea of the time was the belief that man had certain essential human rights, like the right to expression, property ownership, and freedom of religion. Such concepts would eventually inspire actual political upheaval in the United States and France.

The Emerging Middle Class and Public Concerts

The class system won’t really change drastically until the Industrial Revolution (in the 1800s), but in the 18th‐Century the middle class gains a new cultural significance. Public concerts cater to independent people with spending money and leisure time, and these new ideas about human rights also reflect the middle-class perspective.

I have a clip from the movie Amadeus that depicts Mozart performing in a public concert in Vienna. This eventually becomes one of his main sources of income. He composed a lot of piano concertos for these events, which allowed him to be the star performer.

The Arts

In this period we have our first major reaction to the prevailing ideas of a previous era, where art becomes intentionally simpler and more "natural."

One useful concept in looking at arts and culture is the idea of whether a person, work or era is Dionysian or Apollonian. These qualities are named after Greek Gods – Dionysius is the god of wine and other “wild” things, and thus art that is Dionysian is also relatively wild, emotional, and creative. Apollo, on the other hand, was the god of the sun, light, and truth, and Apollonian art tends to be very rational, organized, and technically-oriented.

In the move from the Baroque to the Classical period we definitely see a shift from a more Dionysian aesthetic to a more Apollonian one, and the pendulum is going to swing back and forth between these poles for the next few periods.


You may remember that in our intro to the Baroque we looked at Versailles, the glamorous new capital of France built by Louis XIV.

In the Enlightenment the new fashion is for Neo-Classical architecture, which is much simpler and less ostentatious. Here's the Panthéon in France, built 1758-90.

These designs were modeled on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, and they are supposed to be temples of logic and order. This design might also remind you of our nation's capital - when they finally got around to building the capital in the 1800s they also used this Neo-Classical style.


In music we definitely see a trend towards more simplicity and clearer organization.

Less Polyphony, Clearer Phrasing

Classical composers write less polyphony than Baroque composers. In class I compare the first minute or so of a Corelli Trio Sonata (which is was our first example from the Baroque), with the beginning to a Mozart Violin Sonata. Here's a short video where I discuss the difference.

Questions-and-Answer Phrasing

Also, Classical-period phrases often seem to have a specific function or syntax. They form certain relationships with other phrases that have inspired many people to argue that music can act as a sort of language with a grammar of its own.

One of the most common structures we see with phrases is the question-and-answer relationship. I have a youtube video I made about this.

Mixing Emotions

Baroque music tends to focus on one emotion for a large stretch of time, but in the Classical period they like to mix together emotional ideas and play them off of each other. This new approach was called Empfindsamkeit or "sensitivity" in German.

I have a brief video that demonstrates this...

Comic Opera

One of the early signs of a change in musical taste in the 18th-century was a new trend in opera. Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (The Maid Turned Mistress) of 1733 was one of the first comic operas (or opera buffa) to appear, and it was an immediate sensation.

Comic opera is faster paced, lighter in tone, and more interested in interaction between people than the old “serious” opera was. It also has a different attitude towards the ruling class – Baroque opera tended to glorify the nobility (because that’s who was paying for it), but comic opera often ridicules them.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, La serva padrona 1733

In this opera, Uberto has a maid named Serpina who bosses him around all of the time. He decides that the way to get out of this situation is to get married, so that he no longer needs a servant. Serpina finds out about this and in this scene she argues that he should just marry her.

This humorous tone of this music spreads to instrumental forms of the Classic period as well, so that you will also hear it in a symphony, string quartet, or piano sonata.

The importance of form

The large‐scale pattern that a piece makes becomes supremely important in the Classical period – it is a huge part of “the point” of this music.

Most Classic symphonies, piano sonatas, string quartets and so on present three or four movements which select from a handful of standardized forms. In the next few classes we will learn about the Minuet and Trio, Sonata Form, Theme and Variations and Rondo. If one can master these four patterns one will be equipped to follow the vast majority of Classical‐period music.

The invention of the fortepiano

One of the main instruments of the Baroque was the harpsichord, the somewhat twangy keyboard instrument that is always plugging away in the background of the music. In the Classic era, however, we finally get an early version of the piano.

Harpsichords have difficulty playing at different volumes – it pretty much doesn’t matter whether you press the key gently or with force, the result is going to be more or less the same. This is because the internal mechanism is like a small pick that twangs the string.

Our new instrument has hammers that strike the strings, and this gives us a full range of options from quiet to loud. The name “fortepiano” was simply an advertisement of this fact, as forte is Italian for “loud” and piano means “soft.”

Here is Krisitan Bezuidenhout playing some Mozart on a historical fortepiano. You can hear that it still sounds a little different from the modern piano we are familiar with.


Now it's time to try Exercise #10.

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