My sincerest hope is that this title is not off putting. For many years I found classical music to be dull. It all sounds the same, right? Wrong. The misconception about Classical music is just that: it has no variety. The biggest perpetrators of this notion are those who create CDs with titles like “Classical Music for Relaxation” or “Music To Put The Soul At Ease.” What kind of music is on those CDs? “Classical” music.
Have you ever listened to a symphony by Mozart or Haydn? They are filled to the brim with complexity and ingenuity. A common misconception is the qualifier “classical.” A lot of people (myself included at one time) think that “Classical music” denotes everything written by composers from the renaissance all the way to present day that “sounds classic.” First of all, that does not even make sense. A symphony by Bach is going to sound vastly different to one by Tchaikovsky. Bach and Tchaikovsky were not even alive at the same time. Johann Sebastian Bach was a Baroque composer, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Romantic composer. The term “Classical music” really only refers to music composed between about 1750 and 1800. Each era, from Medieval to Modern, has its own defining characteristics. The Baroque was complex, and most people living at that time were not too fond of the music.
The Classical era was a time of revolution. The American revolution began in 1775, followed by the French revolution in 1789. This era brought about a break from absolutism, monarchy, and the class system. The aristocracy was losing its grip on society and the middle class was rising. Some might point out that the middle class did not truly come about until around the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This is true, I am not disputing that fact. In this time period, and even afterward, composers were celebrities. People absolutely adored them, and because of this, music was in high demand. Composers were no longer composing simply for the prince that employed them. For example, Mozart worked as a freelance composer in Vienna in the later part of his life, after resoundly deciding to leave the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg. He was able to do this because the Viennese loved him.
The musical style of the Classical era was marked by balance, proportion, clarity, and accessibility. Remember, this music was being consumed by members of the rising middle class and performed in private homes. Of course, you still had symphonies, concertos, and a myriad of operas. With opera, came an increase in storytelling. The music meant something, whereas up until about 1750, the music was merely to show off the talents of the singer. The music propelled the story forward, the most well-known examples being “Orfeo y Euridice” by Gluck, and “Le nozze de Figaro” by Mozart.
If you stuck around this long, you may be wondering, “what is the point of listing so many seemingly pointless facts about a time long past?” The point, friends, is this. The Classical era’s influence on music was profound, and to this day, there is evidence of its effect. Opera halls, concert halls, and recital chambers around the world continue to perform the works of Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and hundreds of other composers. Simply put, they were geniuses ahead of their time, composing for the people. The next time you come across a piece of “Classical” music on the radio, I challenge you to resist changing the station or clicking next on Spotify or Pandora. It just might surprise you.