The kinds of music that fit under the umbrella “classical” are incredibly diverse. Compare, for example, the minimalist workings of a Steve Reich to the grand machinations of a Bachian fugue. At the same time, Classical music is a very specific period of musical history.
In this article, we’ll discuss what exactly Classical music is while giving several examples and the history of this great art form. Let’s get started!
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One thing we must remember about classical music is that for numerous years, it was many people’s only music. Though the peasantry has always had their folk tunes, which have evolved into the various branches of “popular music,” the songs that were written down and ascribed lasting beauty have always been what we now term “classical music.”
Even the composers of the middle ages, who created their works to be played at church, created what we now term classical music.
Therefore, when most (if not all) musical authorities from before the 20th century speak about music, we must see that they’re talking about their experience of music, which is classical.
Take what the famous pessimist, Nietschze, once said about music. Without music, he tells us, life would have been a mistake. History is full of great thinkers who ascribed profound importance to the works of Mozart, Satie, Chopin, and others.
John Cage, the modernist composer, felt that the purpose of classical music was to “open the mind,” preparing it for “divine influences.” If you spend most of your time listening to more rhythmic music (like pop or rap or rock), classical music can feel like a pause, a breath amidst a crowded world.
Now, let’s return to the classical music definition. When people in the West refer to classical music, it is not immediately clear what they are referring to.
Very often, “classical music” refers to the musical tradition of the West, excluding the independent growth of music in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. However, a more broadly inclusive definition sees classical music as any formal music tradition from anywhere in the world.
For the sake of brevity and to allow for a more intricate study, in this article, we will restrict our inquiry to the genre of formal music (roughly between 1750 and 1820) that is, confusingly, also referred to as “Classical.” For ease of reading, then, we will describe the genre that existed between 1750 and 1820 with a capital C as in Classical, and the far-reaching and inclusive institution as classical, with a small C.
For many commentators and laypeople alike, the institution of classical music saw its most perfect form between 1750 and 1820. During this time, some of the most well-known composers of all time were making their mark on Europe and the world. Perhaps this may explain why the era of music is simply called “Classical,” as though the works from this period fully express our musical tradition, both then and now.
Around 1750 (a year that very nearly coincides with the birth of Mozart, 1756 and that exactly coincides with the death of Bach in 1750), the piano began to replace the harpsichord as the main keyboard instrument for composers’ compositions.
The harpsichord uses a system of quills that pluck the strings as the musician plays. The result of this is the sometimes tinny, plucked quality of the harpsichord. Furthermore, as the player plucks the strings on the harpsichord, they cannot alter a given note’s volume (dynamics).
Piano revolutionized the keyboard, as it uses instead of a plucking system a hammering system, muted by felt pads. In a piano, the player can change the dynamics according to his or her whim, affording the instrument a great deal more expressive capability. The original name of the piano was the fortepiano, which literally means loud-soft in its native Italian.
The development of the piano at this time is no accident, as composers began to feel a greater need for the self-expressive qualities of music we often associate with classical music. Considering the impersonality of Church music (everything is for the glory of God), the post-enlightenment composer used the tools available to them to say something or demonstrate something with their music.
As a result of this need, many people acknowledge Classical music’s lyrical quality. It is often dramatically satisfying compared to Baroque music, with one central melody line underscored by subordinate voices (in music, we often refer to individual sounds as a voice). Seen in this light, it is evident that the counterpoint of Baroque music began to wane in popularity (though we did not forget it!).
The best way to talk about music is to hear it first. Here are 9 of the most popular examples of Classical music.
Likely the best remembered of all the Classical songs on this list, Für Elise was written in 1810 by Beethoven. Interestingly, Beethoven never had a woman named Elise in his life (that we know of), leading musical historians to speculate about the title.
The most commonly accepted version of the story is that Beethoven wrote this song for the woman he wanted to marry, Therese. His handwriting was somewhat sloppy (he was too busy with his musical ideas to focus on good penmanship), and the printer interpreted the song’s name as Für Elise.
The error in the song’s title went uncorrected because, unfortunately, Beethoven died before its 1855 date of publication, more than 45 years after the composer wrote it.
Der Hölle Rache Kocht in Meinem Herzen (Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Der Hölle Rache Kocht in Meinem Herzen or simply “The Queen Of the Night Aria” is an aria by Mozart that he wrote for his opera The Magic Flute. As the song is from an opera, we don’t find the exact name in the song. Instead, performers and opera-goers use the name for convenience’s sake to denote this particular part of the opera.
“Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart” is the first line of the aria, sung by the Queen of the Night. In the song, the Queen puts a knife into her daughter’s hands and demands the daughter murder Sarastro, the Queen’s rival.
The Queen of the Night Aria is probably best remembered for its chorus. As it is a coloratura part for soprano (read: extremely difficult), the Queen must sing an insanely high F6 (two octaves and a fourth above middle C).
Mozart first composed the piece in 1791. He wrote the part for his sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer.
First performed in Vienna in May of 1824, Symphony No. 9 is Beethoven’s final (completed) symphony, and the symphony most held up by musicologists as evidence of his supreme genius.
Even in the 21st century, Symphony No. 9 remains one of the most performed symphonies in the world. Interestingly, Symphony No. 9 features human voices as part of the instrumentation. Because the Classical era of musical composition emphasizes instrumental music, Symphony No. 9 features one of the first utilization in a symphony of the human voice.
Lay listeners will probably most remember Symphony No. 9 for Beethoven’s use of the poem Ode To Joy by Friedrich Schiller and the evergreen melody that appears in the symphony’s fourth movement.
Written and performed in 1798, towards the end of Haydn’s professional career, The Creation captures the composer’s late-life questioning of the meaning of life and the point of humanity’s existence on Earth.
Haydn wrote The Creation, an oratorio with a performance time of just over 90 minutes, following his trip to England, where he witnessed the stunning works of Handel in all their powerful glory.
Haydn, who always loved a string quartet, greatly expanded the scale he typically worked with, creating a large orchestra with a big sound to instill in his audience’s hearts the grandness of the mystery of life.
Written in 1787, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is probably best translated into English as “a little serenade,” but many English translations prefer the more lyrical (and more literal) A Little Night Music.
Mozart wrote this serenade, made for the Chamber orchestra, while he was composing his Don Giovanni. Interestingly, historians are at a loss as to why Mozart composed this piece.
The commonly accepted theory is that Mozart wrote Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on commission. This interpretation would make sense, as there are many documented instances of Mozart writing serenades on commission. Meanwhile, the date of the piece’s original premier has been lost to history, a fact that Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’s being a commission can readily explain.
The piece has four movements, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is often noted for its delicate and understated beauty, making “A Little Night Music” both an apt appellation.
Though perhaps one of Mozart’s lesser-known compositions, Symphony No. 41 (often called “The Jupiter Symphony”) is the composer’s last completed composition and as such attains some mythic proportions to musicologists.
Its lower visibility in the popular eye notwithstanding, the Jupiter Symphony is perhaps one of the best examples of Classical music. Mozart scored his symphony for woodwinds like flute and oboe, horns, timpani, and strings.
Symphony No. 41 saw its first performance in 1788, just three years before the composer’s untimely death. It is not sure where the nickname “Jupiter Symphony” comes from, but many commentators attribute the affectionate name to contemporary impresario Johann Peter Salomon.
Performed in 1825, Ave Maria (or Ellens Dritter Gesang — Ellen’s Third Song, as it was initially titled) remains one of the most enduring works of the Classical period of musical composition and indeed Schubert’s most well-known piece.
The song is a prayer to the Virgin Mary. As such, the song’s opening line is the same as the title popularly given to the piece.
Ave Maria is noted for the simplicity of its scoring since Schubert wrote it for solo female voice and piano. In sound and point of fact, Ave Maria is a prayer, and even though most English natives can’t understand the German words of the prayer, we feel the simultaneously mournful and uplifting melody of this enduring prayer to “our great sweet mother.”
Because this article has detailed classical music composers quite thoroughly, an important and unanswered question is the state of Classical music today. Here are the five most prominent Classical musicians currently working today.
Diana Damrau is a coloratura soprano from Germany. You can hear her incredible voice in the above clip of the Queen of the Night Aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Diana Damrau’s voice is incredibly dynamic and powerful as a coloratura, allowing her to articulate lyrical passages perfectly while producing a rich and affecting sound during slower, more stately arias.
Born in 1971, the soprano is 50 this year and seems to be celebrating it with a production of Anna Bolena at the Zurich Opera.
Though Yo-Yo Ma is probably best known today for his work in Baroque and contemporary music, he remains a powerhouse of Classical performance. This clip shows the cellist performing Schubert’s Ave Maria with the pianist Kathrynn Scott.
Born in Paris to Chinese-American parents, Yo-Yo Ma has spent his life exploring the fabric of our culture that connects us. He finds the most aesthetic expression of that fabric in the work of the old masters, in Bach and Beethoven.
Now at 66 years of age, the always prolific Yo-Yo Ma spends his days touring the country and teaching about the Classical music tradition. A fan favorite is his performance at NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series (here).
Certainly one of the most well-recognized and well-liked Classical musicians of our time, Lang Lang is a Chinese virtuoso pianist who has performed with the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic.
In the world of Classical musicians, Lang Lang is relatively young at only 39 years of age. Above, his work on Für Elise proves his talent through the elegant simplicity of his expressive power.
Though Chinese by birth, Lang Lang has spent much time in the United States since 1997, where he moved with his father to study piano intensively at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Joshua Bell is an extremely exciting violinist and conductor who has worked as a recording artist, chamber musician, and director. He plays a Gibson Stradivarius.
At 53 years of age, Bell still has plenty of room to extend his reach in the Classical music sphere, especially in the field of education. In 2019 he was honored at the Dresden Music Festival for his commitment to arts education.
Currently working at the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Switzerland, the Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly has been called “the most exciting Classical conductor working today.”
With an extensive and impressive record both in the studio and before a live audience, Riccardo Chailly will continue to attract fans to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, as his contract lasts through 2026. You can catch just one example of his brilliant work right here.
Classical music as an institution dates back to at least the Greeks (you can listen to a performance of Ancient Greek music here), where it played a ritual and entertainment role.
The middle ages in Europe, with its de-emphasization on the role of the individual (subsumed as they were within the rituals of the Catholic Church), saw an expansive growth of classical music under the costume of religious music. Gregorian chants from composers like Peter Abelard in the 12th century eventually gave way to the grand orchestrations of the late middle ages and the Renaissance.
After the Renaissance (and with it the fracture of Christianity into Protestantism and Catholicism), musical experimentation flourished, and the exclusively religious music of the middle ages gave way to, in succession, the well-known genres of Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and, eventually, Modernist, Contemporary, and Postmodernist music.
The story of Classical music begins with a Europe that was quickly moving towards modernity. The general taste in Europe was starting to change around the mid-eighteenth century, coinciding with the advent of the piano.
In the mid-eighteenth century, we see a shift in architecture, painting, writing, and all the art styles to a classical ideal. This “classicism” had artists looking back to “a better time” — a pre-Dark Ages Europe with the (mostly imagined) correctness of Greek and Roman aesthetic and moral values.
This classicism emphasized the individual above the group and established the contemplation of beauty as the occupation par excellence of life. In this way, classicism set the stage for the more dramatic and moody Romanticism that placed the human thinker at the center of a lush and violent cosmos.
With the death of Bach (the Baroque era’s most eloquent composer) in 1750, composers were left in a state of flux, grasping for new musical styles with a more satisfying dramatic effect. This veritable primordial stew of compositional ideas was gestating in the mind of the young Mozart when he composed his first piece in 1761 at the age of five.
As he gained maturity, the Austrian Mozart and the Austrian Joseph Haydn stunned Europe with their impressive works. Their lives (lived through their work) made Austria the center of the Western European world and the so-called “Viennese School” the foremost group of compositional thinkers.
Following the death of Mozart, still more disciples attributed their genius to the Viennese School’s ever-developing aesthetic. Composers like the German Ludwig Van Beethoven and the Austrian Franz Schubert etched their names into the history books with well-remembered works like Schubert’s Ave Maria and Beethoven’s ever-beloved Für Elise.
With the experimentations of the later Classical composers, the last vestiges of the Baroque era seem to have disappeared. An increasing chromatism (use of chromatic harmonies in the chord structure) began even to shake the foundation of Classical music.
In the late 1820s, with the deaths of both Beethoven and Schubert, the Viennese School had effectively broken up. The center of European musical thinking again ended up thrown into the air.
With the early works of Chopin and Liszt, the Romantic era began with no locus, no old masters upon whose gravity the center could hold. Eventually, Paris became the center of the world, though that is a story for a different article.
The values of Classical music are still innately pleasurable to our ears. The dominant fifth, the inclination for a dramatically satisfying piece; these are values we typically take for granted in music today but were first formulated by Classical composers.
Today, you can likely find a Classical music concert in every city in the world. In some places, you might be able to listen to Classical music every day. Beethoven and Mozart, especially, remain deeply popular and played far and wide, from Japan to South Africa, to Poland, to the subways of New York.
The formal discipline of Classical music, too, remains quite popular for students in music schools across the USA, who dissect the pieces of Beethoven as though in a lab, analyzing them for their parts, diving deep into the genius machinations at the heart of works of such lasting beauty.
Between 1750 and 1820, an explosion of musical thought brought forth the names of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and many more to the popular imagination.
The music these composers made has lasting influence, attested by the fact that most of the pieces mentioned in this article and nearly all the composers are recognizable by our readers.