Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: The Genesis of Classical Style

We have arrived at another of those great transitions in music history. Bach summed up the Baroque in such an authoritative manner that I suspect composers working in the 1750s and 1760s were a but puzzled as to how to continue. Or perhaps that is just an illusion of perspective! Composers at the time might just have been worried about where their next commission was coming from and how best to please the audiences in the latest fashionable style. The generation after J. S. Bach saw the influence of three of his sons and I talk about their music in this post. Their music seems to partake of the light, cheerful, sparkling qualities of Vivaldi more than the transcendent counterpoint of their father! Indeed, as one commentator said recently, it is Vivaldi that heralds the Classical style more than Bach.

In what is almost an echo of the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, the new Classical style is lighter, more chordal and less contrapuntal than the Baroque. Bach was the last serious composer of fugue. The newer composers sought striking effects, dynamic contrasts and contrasts of mood. In the Baroque, each movement tended to have a single affect or character/mood. The allemande was sober and restrained, the courante more flowing and energetic, the sarabande expressive and the gigue dancing--sorry for the stereotypes, but while each of these dances in the Baroque suite has its own character, it is hard to put into words! But the point is that in the Baroque an individual piece or movement had a specific character that was consistent throughout. The innovation of Classical style was that through contrasts of key and loudness, articulation and other devices, a single movement would have contrasting moods. This is at the foundation of sonata form.

If the fundamental Baroque form is the binary dance movement, such as the allemande, or a contrapuntal texture such as fugue, the fundamental Classical form is the sonata. The Baroque forms expressed the possibilities of a single theme or idea while the Classical forms were about the dynamic contrast between two or perhaps more different ideas. But enough of this theoretical mumbo-jumbo, let's listen to some examples. Here is some typical music of the late Baroque:

As you can hear, the music explores and varies the theme, but the character is stable throughout: no big contrasts between different moods. By the 1750s, after Bach's death, some composers were starting to work towards a different style:

Johann Stamitz (1717 - 1757) falls right in the transition from Baroque to Classical. In the piece above, we can hear the basic elements of this change: simpler themes, contrasts in articulation (between short notes and sustained notes) and above all, the use of crescendo which gives the music more of a feeling of drama and impetus. The first great master of Classical style was Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)--actually, his life nearly spans the whole period.

Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)
While the Baroque lasted from around 1600 to around 1750, the Classical period was only half as long: a mere eighty years from 1750 to 1830. It is the shortest era in music history. But for all its brevity, it is also perhaps the most important. Classical style remains a kind of paradigm for art music and some of its principles are still influential today. It also produced a great deal of what continues to be the core repertoire of orchestras, pianists, string players and singers to this very day. But back to Haydn! By the early 1760s he was writing movements like this:

You can't quite say that Classical style springs forth from the pen of Joseph Haydn fully formed, but almost! All those little hints that we hear in the Stamitz are now fully realized in the earliest symphonies of Haydn. We begin with a minute of crescendo from very soft to quite loud with no melody whatsoever, just the notes of a single chord layered on one another. This is a nice musical analogue to sunrise. Then the movement proper begins. We have lots of contrasts: between wind instruments and string instruments, between soft and loud and something entirely new, between melodic passages and passages when the orchestra just chunks along, laying down beats without any particular melody. This is inherent in Classical style: that harmonies can exist just filling in a certain amount of time. This increases the drama as one is waiting for a melody to appear. It may have come from comic opera where the orchestra may be vamping along while a character comes on stage, but before he or she begins to sing. So we have a fresh way of composing music and the question arises, just how flexible is the new style? How much expressive weight can it bear? In the late 1760s and early 1770s Haydn began to answer with question with music like this:

This is much weightier. This sub-period is known as "Sturm und Drang" from an associated literary movement. The drama is increased with more use of minor keys and dissonant harmonies. Contrasts continue to generate drama. There are long passages with no melody and the melodies we do hear are very simple. There are loud passages contrasted with soft ones and lyric tunes contrasted with energetic ones. Clearly the Classical style has a lot of possibilities. Here, to demonstrate some of them, is a movement from a late Haydn symphony:

After nearly two minutes of slow introduction, the orchestra launches into a superb, expansive allegro that is the very essence of Classical style: clarity, impetus, balance, elegance and expressive power are all united for the best musical effect.

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