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The Classical Period

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I put up a few links I'd found for the histories of various art forms in the Discovering Ballet forum, and in looking through them I noticed something in the Music History section that went along with our discussions on the Classical period in music, and in Western Europe's history generally.

My undergraduate music history text (c. 1968) considered the "classical period" in music from Mozart to Beethoven; Mozart began it, Beethoven developed it to its apex. Then the Romantics rebelled against it. I know that's a simplistic summary, but I hope it will do.

In the music history resource that I found on the net (which is an "official" site and looks solid) Beethoven is now his own period.

The classical period (late 18th century) in dance is the age of Noverre, and other creators of the ballet d'action, some of whom worked into the early 19th century.

I thought of Cliff's point on another thread, can one person define a period? And wondered if there were those who know more about music history than I do who could comment further on this, on the historiography of music history. What are people teaching/being taught today? Where is Beethoven?

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Beethoven is the link between the classical and romantic periods.

As to what is being taught today, the texts differ from the tests. What I mean is that there is a good deal of material taught in the music literature texts -- information about what was going on in history at the time to so inspire and influence the artists of the day. However, it has been my personal experience that the actual testing of such matters has been sophomoric at best. In one such course, the vast majority of the students flunked the first of four exams, and were allowed to bring home their tests and use their texts to correct their mistakes and thereby bring up their scores. I actually had a professor tell me from then on that if I wrote more than 5 sentences in an essay answer, I would be penalized (so as to make the playing field more even for the rest of the class).

I might seem like I'm digressing somewhat, but my point is that it's a dirty shame more people are not interested in the whole picture of art. I can eat history for breakfast. What kind of family life did Mahler have? Why did Wagner think singing was actually the least important aspect of opera? How did Picasso link up with Stravinsky? How did Haydn get the nickname "Papa?" These are the things students should want to know -- not just be able to regurgitate the driest, most basic facts about these composers.

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I agree, Funny Face. Once when I taught dance aesthetics, in a graduate course, someone asked for a time line because, as she put it, "I have nothing to hang any of this [the readings in dance history] on." Most of the people in that class couldn't name a Romantic poet or painter or composer -- they'd never been taught it.

Back to Beethoven, I just found this site (with a discussion board!)

They take the "it doesn't matter, good is good, what period something is is of interest only to music historians" approach.)


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This is from the classical music section of the Internet Public Library - Music History 102:

From roughly 1750 to 1820, artists, architechts, and musicians moved away from the heavily ornamented styles of the Baroque and the Rococo, and instead embraced a clean, uncluttered style they thought reminiscent of Classical Greece. The newly established aristocracies were replacing monarchs and the church as patrons of the arts, and were demanding an impersonal, but tuneful and elegant music. Dances such as the minuet and the gavotte were provided in the forms of entertaining serenades and divertimenti.

At this time the Austrian capital of Vienna became the musical center of Europe, and works of the period are often referred to as being in the Viennese style. Composers came from all over Europe to train in and around Vienna, and gradually they developed and formalized the standard musical forms that were to predominate European musical culture for the next several decades. A reform of the extravagance of Baroque opera was undertaken by Christoph von Gluck. Johann Stamitz contributed greatly to the growth of the orchestra and developed the idea of the orchestral symphony. The Classical period reached its majestic culmination with the masterful symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets by the three great composers of the Viennese school: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. During the same period, the first voice of the burgeoning Romantic musical ethic can be found in the music of Viennese composer Franz Schubert.

The site that I'd put on Discovering Ballet Music History Resourcesis an outline of material in one of the current standard undergraduates text, A History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout and Claude Palisca (4th ed.). It has three separate chapters: Early Classical Period (Scarlatti, C.P.E. Bach), Classical Period (Hadyn-Mozart), and then Beethoven.

Beethoven's work was divided into periods as well -- three, if I'm remembering correctly (and I may not be -- I'm writing without checking). As is often the case with "bridge" (a great word) artists, the earlier period was more classical, in this case; the later one more romantic. Other opinions on this welcome, of course.

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There really is so much to be fascinated by in the transition from the Classical to Romantic periods in history.

For instance, Beethoven was such a fan, initially of Napoleon. Napoleon started out as the consummate revolutionary. He not only battled for the people, but once the revolution took hold, he gave the people a place to take it -- he gave some 'concrete' to the ideals that other revolutionaries had, in terms of how government and education, etc., should be set up. Prior to him, the folks didn't know what to do with their newfound freedom and anarchy would have taken hold.

But -- Napoleon's power caught up with him. He began to emulate the very things he had once detested. He considered himself higher than the pope.

If you go back and look at art -- portraits of Napoleon throughout his life, you will see a dashing, fearless looking soldier on horseback in the early years. Later on, he looks downright silly, dressing like the early Greeks.

Beethoven got fed up with all of this, and after he had initially written and dedicated a symphony to Napoleon, he -- upon hearing that the latter had declared himself emperor -- tore off the dedication sheet and replaced it with the ambiguous "in memory of a great leader."

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Hey, hey, hey, class! Let's keep it dignified. Say -- didn't Beethoven have a disco hit? Oooops -- see, now you've got me started.

In all seriousness, I did take one particular course where the students were so surprised to hear the non-disco version of that symphony. They never knew it was a classical piece. Scary.

I like the idea of Beethoven being a time period all his own. He broke so much ground, not only in terms of his music, but in the image of what a musician should be. Beethoven was the fella to make being a musician a real job, instead of being funded by, and at the mercy of, the royal class. This was a tremendous change in the status of musicians.

Prior to that time, even the greatest musicians/composers had to be very careful about not stepping on royal toes. They got around speaking up for themselves and their people in a variety of ways. With Haydn, it was with diplomacy and humor. With Mozart, it took the form of wit and sarcasm in his operas.

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Oh -- here's a poser for y'all. I guest taught a dance history class one day, giving a presentation about music and history in the link between the classical and romantic periods. Well, we all know about the location of ballet's beginnings. But -- I said to the class, "where did a girl have to go if she wanted to date a musician?" Interesting, isn't it, that the music was coming largely from Germans and Austrians.

Any thought about why this was the case, whereas ballet and theater were sprouting elsewhere?

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Thank you, Funny Face. You are hereby appointed class disciplinarian :)

The "transition" period issue is now beginning to fascinate me. I checked Kirstein and he, too, takes neoclassicism/classicism right to the bring of romanticism. I know now that scholars view this differently -- I've come across the term romantic neoclassicism (or neoclassical-romanticism). But I don't know when that change in viewpoint occurred.

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Beethoven is a composer all to himself. He started very much in the tradition and styles of the later Classical period, and over the course of his life, led the musical world into the Romantic. His earliest pieces are very like late Mozart, and his later pieces contain the things that Mendelssohn picked up and ran with. In Beethoven there is the transition of periods all within one composer. There was no great battle as of the Classical Era between the Gluckistes and the Piccinistes - Beethoven did it all himself. (Obviously Gluck won that earlier battle; as little as Gluck is heard today, Piccini isn't heard at all!) It's strange that in painting, the viewer can see a change in many artists over time, where Robert Walter Weir, a full-fledged member of the Hudson River School of Painting (Romanticism - someone once called it "Sir Walter Scott on canvas") into an equally full-fledged Impressionist "The Coal Dock at Hoboken", for example. Composers tend to find their way and stick to it. Beethoven's music was the evolution of the Classical into the Romantic.

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I went to decent public schools where the art and music classes concentrated on practice, not theory or history. I learned that I lack any musical ability and cannot paint. It was only after discovering ballet that I began listening to classical music.

Sorry for shifting the subject. Why is it, that while much of classical music came from German and Austrian composers, there are few German and Austrian ballets?


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What a terrific question! My off the top of the head answer is that I think much of it is due to the institutional structure of ballet. First, all over Europe, ballet scores were usually created by house composers -- composers attached to the opera house. There are exceptions, of course (Mozart wrote a ballet, as did Beethoven) but generally you had people who specialized in ballet music and generally they weren't the top composers. Why top composers were drawn to opera and not ballet is a question I can't answer. Second, Vienna does have a continuous ballet tradition and had some good choreographers, but the ballets haven't lasted, for the same reasons they haven't lasted elsewhere -- generational change, no notation, no easy way to keep ballets alive from one choreographer/dancer generation to another.

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Ist besser als krankheit.

Actually, the Mecca of the musical world for much of the past 300 years has been Leipzig. It was known for excellence in music before J.S. Bach moved there in 1723. Stimulated, and some say protected, by the presence of the University, Liepzig Conservatory did for music what the University, founded in 1409, did for Theology, Law and Medicine.

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Why is it, that while much of classical music came from German and Austrian composers, there are few German and Austrian ballets?

One thought that comes to mind is that German music tends to be heavy, and the best ballet music is light -- not light as in "frivolous" but as in "getting off the ground." The dance music I can think of in German works tends to be folk-based: a weighty kind of dancing. Of course, if there had been choreographers of real talent working in Germany and Austria at the time of the great composers, this might have been different.

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I think Ari has made a good point -- German music isn't musique dansant. (generally, generally)

Re Frederick the Great, he did have a ballet company -- La Barbarina (I forget her real name) was his ballerina and he was quite taken with her. He wanted a world class ballerina -- so he wanted to compete with his fellow Greats, as it were. Perhaps that strain of ballet didn't develop because there was no Academy? (But first, a school. Louis and Mr. B.)

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I had my first music history class today, and we are studying the Baroque and "Classic" periods. My professor (he says other music historians do this too) uses "classic" so that people won't be confused as so often happens with Classical/classical--they could mean either "classical music" in general, the Classical period, or refer to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Interestingly, I know someone mentioned that ballet borrows the terms of its period from other arts such as music, but my professor today said that music borrows them from literature and painting! Goodness knows what the English and art professors would say... :ermm:

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