Music, like other forms of art, evolved from numerous traditions that, when taken together, formed a new way of thinking about, and performing, certain types of works. Audiences change over time, and certain musical compositions that sound odd or strange to one audience are often accepted by others (e.g. The rioting during the premier of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring). When people think of classical music, for instance, they tend to think of the three B's (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms). Certainly, these three giants of music were part of the evolution from the Baroque to the Romantic, each building upon one another's work over two centuries. However, in that time there were numerous other composers who helped develop and forever change harmony, theory, instrumentation, and all manner of musical interpretation. We will begin with an overview of the Baroque era as a basis for our study of the classical symphony, a form that still today tends to define symphonic music for many people. We will then turn to an overview of the transition to the classical era, focusing on Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven in both biographical and stylistic evaluation, and then a brief individual analysis of some of their major works in the symphonic tradition, particularly focusing on their importance to the Viennese "Classical" School, how history, philosophy and politics were reflected in music, and the development and evolution of the symphonic form.
Of the many artists of the Baroque, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach seems to epitomize the era more than any other composer. Bach composed at a time in which the entire philosophical framework of the arts and culture was rapidly changing; worlds had been discovered in faraway places, philosophers and politicians were positing new thoughts, and a radical idea of individual rights and the ability to intellectually transcend the ordinary into the sublime. Many times this was in tandem with religion, but there was also new secularization within the constructs of culture. To understand the composers who came after Bach, we must understand Bach's style -- for it was Bach that began the tradition that would later be embellished by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
We must keep in mind that the historical view of eras is an artificial way of linking trends in art, architecture, and philosophical thought. The Baroque was a style that began to arise out of the Renaissance in the later part of the 16th century, and depending on the medium, lasted until the early 18th century. Most describe it as more florid, dynamic, more emotional and a move away from Renaissance religiosity into more secular thought. However, there were hundreds if not thousands of compositions of a religious nature in the Baroque, and most of the spread of Baroque art, music, and sculpture was a result of the spread of Christianity and the building of new churches. This became even more critical with the Lutheran schism and Protestantism, which tended to emphasize simplicity and a more direct relationship with God. In essence, then, we can look at the Baroque as not just a freer, less religio-centered way of viewing the world, but a mindset that allowed humans to risk more, to explore more, and to do more than utilize Ancient Greece and Rome as the encyclopedia of knowledge and behavior (Friedell, 2009).
Many define this period as the beginnings of the Age of Humanism, not as a strict philosophy, but as a way of learning. For example, in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance learning focused on resolving contradictions between ideas and authors (X said this, Y said that; debate and find which holds truer). Instead, this period in history used a more logical, empiricist approach -- that is, taking known curriculum, apply the principles set forth in X's book or treatise; define what is observable, repeatable, and logical and come up with the truth. In doing so, the interpretation will provide more reliability and accuracy than without a robust examination of the text (See for example: Burkhardt, 1978). It was this environment that formed Bach's musical and philosophical underpinnings, making him a true master of his time.
J.S. Bach lived from 1685 until 1750. He was a prolific composer, organist, harpsichordist, violinist, and teacher. He excelled at counterpoint, harmony and a way to understand music theory in such a way that new rhythms, textures and forms were borrowed from French and Italian Renaissance traditions and turned into a form of evolving music to a more advanced and intellectual state. Much of Bach's music is intellectual, but contains themes from folk music and peasant dances. Bach was a prodigious composer, working in concerti, the keyboard, Passions, Cantatas, Masses, and solo pieces for most of the instruments of the day. He came from a musical family, and also produced a number of talented children who became composers in their own right. His basis of theory and harmony, and some of the "rules" he set up for tonality, were the basis of the classical composers. In fact, Beethoven was so taken with Bach's style; he called him the Urvater der Harmonie, or the "Originator of Harmony" (Lockwood, 2003). Back also lived in a world of transition in which the major powers of Europe were spending huge sums of money exploiting the New World, Africa and Asia. With this came new rivalries, new philosophical ideas, and new tendencies in the way the individual interacted with the State.
The Age of Reason and the Classical Era
The Baroque tended to use harmony and polyphony (multiple harmonies) to express emotion and style. We can visualize this as a simple three or two part interplay, ABA or AB. As the Baroque matured, composers began to give more importance to a single melodic line and the embellished the harmonies in the background. As this evolved into the Classical Period, composers typically used at least two contrasting themes then two variations (or expositions), followed by a second variation of the main them, and then a coda, or ending part that used the major theme as well. The importance of this was that the variations and transitions were seen as part of the overall human condition -- that is birth, maturation, old age and reflection -- again art mimicking philosophy and the manner in which there was interplay between ideas as well as sound (Wright & Simms, 2005).
The other major change between the Baroque and Classical focused on technology -- or the development of more improved instruments and new instruments that helped change the possibilities for composers. The harpsichord, for instance, evolved into the piano-forte and then the piano. Brass instruments evolved with valves and improved techniques; even woodwinds improved with new keys, materials, and techniques -- all acting in a way that would allow more color and tone from the orchestra. As these changes occurred, composers naturally took advantage of the improvements, which then built upon one another to create a larger evolution in compositional techniques and possibilities. Additionally, a fact that is not often discussed is that with increased medical technology, many of the composers lived far longer and had 4-5 decades of productive compositional years, in contrast to previous periods when the average age of death was in the mid-late 40s (McNeese, 2000; Sachs, 2006).
Classical Music as a Reflection of Culture
Artistic periods do not exist in a vacuum, they are, in fact, a product of the culture of the times, the perception of the world held by artists, and the way the artistic mindset affects the listener or viewer. We can think of music as modifying emotions and our perception, and thus changing the way society looks both inward and outward. The Baroque seems to be a transition from the hyper-religiosity of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, moving between the sacred and secular. Many Baroque composers used religious themes to compose some of their most famous works, particularly since there was often a wealthy patron and audience ready and willing to hear such music. Similarly, there was a realization that the human condition could be celebrated in numerous art forms -- like the Water Music from Handle, or the Brandenburg Concerti of Bach. In the Classical Period, though, life was changing and with it, expectations and ideas. The works of Locke and Rousseau, for instance, set the tone for the idea that humans are, by nature, free and equal. Locke's "Theory of the Mind," for instance, seems to be part of the compositional ideas of Haydn, Mozart, and certainly Beethoven in that the individual and relationship to society was open for exploration instead of a predestined approach that came only from religion. The Baroque composer, as reflecting society, celebrated the world through prayer and spiritual awareness. The Classical composer dealt more with the possible, the potential and the way that art, through poetry, painting, literature, sculpture, and most especially through the new medium of combining voice, literature and music, could express the desire for actualization and improvement (Heartz, 2004).