But what about those more shadowy figures, the ones that provide the transition between these two mountain peaks? Who are they and can we trace the movement from one era to another? In this case, the change from the Baroque to the Classical era, we can indeed. Music history, like all history, is enormously complicated, but the fundamentals are clear. In this case, we need to go back to J. S. Bach and in particular his sons. Uniquely in music history, Bach had three sons, all trained by himself, that were three of the most important composers in the next generation. I wrote about the Bach family in this post titled "Bach Family Values."
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach went to Berlin and Hamburg for his career, both in northern Germany. The northern style was more emotionally intense (termed the empfinsamer Stil) than the southern style that we will get to in a minute. Here is a painting of him accompanying Frederick the Great at his palace San Souci in Potsdam outside Berlin. Notice that C. P. E. Bach is sitting with his back to the audience, which answers a recent question:
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The younger J. C. Bach followed a different path journeying to Italy and then settling in London. His style, influenced by the sunny lyricism of Italy, was lighter and more melodic than that of C. P. E. Bach and is usually called the galant style. Both sons adopted a more harmonic, less contrapuntal texture than their father. They are both transitional figures between the High Baroque and the Classical eras. How did that work? Leaving out a lot of detail and minor figures, C. P. E. Bach was a large influence on Joseph Haydn. As I said the other day, C. P. E. Bach came up with about half of the fundamentals of Classical style and Haydn took it the rest of the way. J. C. Bach, on the other hand, was a big influence on Mozart who met him in London as a boy. Mind you, a boy on a major European tour! The first few piano concertos by Mozart are actually his arrangements of keyboard sonatas by J. C. Bach. Here is one of them:
We can see traces of the influence of the northern style in Haydn's sometimes striking harmonic leaps and his focus on just a few motifs. In Mozart, the southern style shows itself in the melodic luxuriance and sheer charm of the music.
There are lots of transitional figures in music history and I always find them fascinating--probably because we are in one of those transitional phases right now, stumbling to find our way from the strictures and extremes of Dada Modernism to whatever comes next. For quite a while now we have been rediscovering the pulse and consonance, but apart from that, the engine of the next musical style is not yet clear.
Another couple of interesting transitional figures are Monteverdi, bridging the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, and DuFay, the one between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Beethoven, one of the most complex figures in music history, as I was hinting at above, is not a transitional figure. Virtually everything that you read about him in program notes and liner notes on CDs, not to mention the Wikipedia article, says that he was:
A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art musicNot true! He showed signs in his earlier music of being just that, but instead changed course and honed and focused his style on being the culmination of Classical style and not a harbinger of Romantic style. The Romantics tended to dilute the focus of Classical harmony in favor of adding chromaticism and remote harmonic regions. Not Beethoven. As Rosen writes:
The works of Beethoven's last period, indeed, often represent a contraction or even a distillation of classical procedure rather than an expansion ... For these reasons it may be justly claimed, as Tovey did, that Beethoven's innovations are largely a conflation of Haydn's and Mozart's different methods, and that he is best comprehended within their tradition; to Haydn's dynamic sense of continuous motivic development he added Mozart's feeling for long-range movement and the massive treatment of subsidiary key areas ... In this respect above all Beethoven stood almost alone in his time: as the underlying material in the works of all his contemporaries grew more complex and more chromatic, the basic motifs of Beethoven's music became simpler and more diatonic, very often the fundamental elements of the tonal language itself.
I think that the reason that we have so widespread a wrong conception of Beethoven is that the Modernist ideologues have distorted music history to support their concepts. Beethoven was a great composer, therefore he was innovative, radical and looking to the future. And in some ways he was, but not in the way they required for their ideology!
The true transitional figures from the Classical to the Romantic eras were figures like Carl Maria von Weber, Hummel, Clementi, Dussek and, possibly, Schubert. So much of what he did was Classical and he died so young that we don't know what path he might have chosen. He may well have distilled out the Classical style as Beethoven did, or developed a more Romantic concept of harmony as we see in his frequent use of the flat submediant.
To end this rather long post, here is a very late Beethoven string quartet that has everything to do with the Classical style and nothing to do with Romantic style. The String Quartet in F major, op. 135. The performers are the Alban Berg Quartet: