Reflective account – Part four – The Classical Style

Posted on November 13, 2013


Open College of the Arts, Music 1,

Tibor Kovacs, October 2013


The musical formats defined and refined in the Classical period have been serving as gold standard models for the following centuries. The musicians of the eighteenth century seem to have developed very successful recipes for creating art that would please both the senses and the intellect. Hence it made good sense to try getting a better understanding of the inner workings of some characteristic works. I followed the score of some pieces, trying to identify the basic construction blocks of the music, which has been a laborious process, but ultimately very rewarding, when I started to gain some basic insight into the makings of the music I enjoy so much. For this purpose I have first chosen a work clearly displaying the characteristic elements of sonata form, Beethoven’s First Symphony.

To understand the development of music, I found the analogy of spoken language helpful. In this sense I think we could say that if the Baroque and Renaissance era defined the “words” or “expressions” (melodic patterns) and the “syntax” (tonal relationships) of Western music, the Classical period introduced the narrative. Although musical storytelling existed previously in the form of opera and songs, there the narrative was conveyed mainly by words. In the classical era instrumental music became much more independent as a standalone work of art.

Listening to Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major I was particularly attentive to the melodic patterns and dynamic changes characteristic to the Classical period.  These were inventions of musicians all over Europe, distilled by the leading masters of the era – like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and the Mannheim group – into a cosmopolitan musical language. I found particularly eye opening Charles Rosen’s writings about the Classical style in his book The Classical style. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, in which he describes the typical musical forms (speaking mainly about the sonata form) not as rigid rules or prescriptions to follow, but guiding lines, that allowed each of the great masters to develop their own very individual style. Indeed, listening to a larger repertoire of the masters I found it easy to recognise a piece as belonging to one of them, yet each of them following the same aesthetic principles. It was fascinating to discover the works of composers I never really listened to before, such as Luigi Boccherini, Muzio Clementi and Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. After I found some particularly lovely pieces by Boccherini, I decided to study his artistic life in more detail, but it would be interesting to study in more detail the works of the other composers as well. I have briefly looked into the history of musical publishing and the modern movement of Historically Informed Performances.

I think the music of the Classical period fulfils some sort of universal need for equilibrium in the human psyche, which has been rediscovered by many musicians in the twentieth century. Among them Prokofiev and Stravinsky play prominent roles, being considered the first protagonists of the Neo-classical movement. These composers, to the surprise of their contemporaries, were able to raise classical music to a new dimension, where opposite trends of musical form (i.e. traditional versus new tonality, regular versus irregular rhythm and phrase structure etc.) are brought into a state of balance, completing each other effectively in some of the most original musical pieces ever heard.

Posted in: Part 4