At its narrowest, it refers to a style period between Baroque and Romantic composed between about 1750 and 1830.
The representative composers are nearly all Viennese: Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and in some enumerations, Schubert. None of these composers knew they were writing classical music.
No one thought of “classical music” until after they died.
At its broadest, “classical music” means whatever classical music radio stations play. It’s nearly always the music of dead composers, most often composers who have been dead now for more than a century.
It includes operas by Rossini, dance music by the Strauss family, and marches by Sousa, and excerpts from decades-old Broadway musicals. None of that music was considered classical music when it was first heard.
Before anyone thought of classical music
Music for the nobility
Before the middle of the 18th century, Europe had a rigid class system. The nobility occupied the top of society, and the peasantry the bottom. Some music appealed to all social classes, but they all experienced it to suit their own needs.
In most nation states, a king ruled, aided (or opposed) by a hierarchy of dukes, counts, earls, and so on. The Holy Roman Empire was a loose confederation of electors, princes, archdukes, margraves, and others. Dukes ruled Italian city states. The pope headed the Roman church, with cardinals, bishops, and abbots under him.
All these nobles had their own courts and hired a musical establishment. Nearly all the “early” music in standard music history and music appreciation texts was composed for the use and pleasure of the nobility.
Rulers required a constant stream of new music. With very few exceptions, once a composer died, the court soon stopped performing his music. Music written for special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, or baptisms of heirs, was probably never heard again.
From the Renaissance onward, the nobility considered themselves men and women of leisure. They occupied their time with pursuits that required little physical exertion. Their education always included music. They learned to enjoy music that was sophisticated in composition and technically difficult to play.
Music for the peasantry and middle class
Peasants comprised the vast majority of the European population. The peasantry heard whatever music the ruling classes used to project their power and prestige. But they never heard the music performed at court.
The nobility took no notice of music that appealed only to the peasantry. It survives only as folk music if it hasn’t disappeared completely.
A class of skilled craftsmen, merchants, bankers, and others worked their way out of peasantry at least by the Middle Ages. People in this middle class aspired to become as much like the nobility as they could. Rulers eventually passed sumptuary laws forbidding extravagances in dress, food, or possessions to commoners. They wanted to maintain social distance.
The middle class listened to whatever music was available in towns and cities. When the nobility tired of a particular style of dancing or singing, it was essentially handed down to the middle class.
Classical music stations occasionally play selections of this early music. More likely, people who want to listen to it have had to look for it in the “classical music” section of record stores or, more recently, on YouTube. But none of it has anything to do with the idea of classical music.
The classical music period
Music and the rise of the middle class
As early as the seventeenth century, the middle class had both time and money to spend on music. They attended the opera and concerts. They learned to read music, sing, and play instruments.
But they didn’t collect taxes and rents. They still had to work for a living. They lacked the leisure to acquire the nobility’s level of musical education and sophistication.
Therefore, the middle class wanted music simpler in structure than court music, easier to understand without education, and that didn’t require professional proficiency to sing or play. The middle class grew in wealth and power until, in the middle of the eighteenth century, it began to overshadow the nobility.
By about 1780, the nobility began to adopt middle class musical tastes as their own. For centuries, the middle class had imitated the tastes of the nobility, but now the nobility began to imitate the middle class.
Giovanni Sammartini represents the first generation of middle-class composers whose music appealed to the nobility. Most of us today find it dull.
Joseph Haydn gave this music a polish and sophistication that appealed to audiences world-wide and across all class boundaries.
But some social changes needed to happen before he could become well known. He worked for the princes Esterházy near Vienna most of his life, and his first contract was fairly typical. It required him to compose music on demand and not allow anyone else to copy it.
Prince Paul Anton wanted music exclusively his own. But after he died, his son Prince Nikolaus had other ideas.
He saw an advantage to having a well-known music director. He allowed Haydn to accept commissions to compose music for others. Haydn composed music not only for local patrons, but for those in France and Spain. Through both manuscript copies and printed music, his music became known and loved all over Europe.
The next prince, Anton, dismissed most of his musical establishment. Haydn remained nominal music director, but had few duties. Anton permitted him to make his two visits to London.
Late eighteenth-century concert life
Neither Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart nor Ludwig van Beethoven ever received a court appointment. They had to function as freelance musicians in Vienna, which in turn included making sure their music received international performances.
The Viennese style represented an amalgam of earlier French, German, and Italian styles. As such, audiences everywhere found something familiar in it.
These three composers are hardly the only Viennese composers with a world-wide audience, but the music of the others fell out of favor after they died. Representative music of the older national styles seldom had international appeal.
Composers such as Carl Philip Emanuel Bach wrote some music with the idea of popular appeal and other music that only connoisseurs could appreciate. The Viennese wanted to appeal to all segments of the audience. Their music was simple enough for the casual music lover to enjoy and had enough surprises and subtlety to satisfy connoisseurs.
Concerts at the time were essentially variety shows. They included various vocal selections and small instrumental ensembles as well as pieces for full orchestra. They included the sophisticated music both by the Viennese triumvirate and composers with more local reputations. This music revealed more of its charm on repeated hearing.
But concerts also included unsophisticated songs and other pieces that people who were not connoisseurs could understand and appreciate. So everyone could find something to enjoy at concerts even if they didn’t care for everything on the program.
Disruption and return of concert life
Concerts took place in large and small cities all over Europe, but three major capitals came to dominate concert life: Vienna, Paris, and London. Any composer who wanted to be well known had to have his music performed at concerts in those cities.
The French Revolution and its aftermath caused concert life in Paris to cease for almost thirty years. Concert life likewise ended in London nearly as long.
Organized concerts didn’t completely cease in Vienna. One orchestra presented annual concerts. Vienna never had a dedicated concert hall. During the latter part of Beethoven’s life, it became expensive to rent theaters for concerts, and the orchestras didn’t play especially well. Signs of a division of taste had already started to appear by 1800.
Concert life continued in many other cities, but none ever approached the influence of the three capitals.
The deaths of Beethoven (in 1827) and Schubert (in 1828) ended the classical period. They had no successors. No living composers appealed to the audience that appreciated orchestral music more for its artistic merit than for its value as an amusement. That audience had no choice but to organize private orchestras so they could play the music of now-dead composers with other like-minded people.
The larger majority of the public wanted entertainment and cared nothing for art. They had plenty of music to choose from. The newly established popular music industry saw to that as sheet music became a commodity. The three capitals were also the leading centers of music printing. With no concert life, publishers had no market for orchestral music. They began to specialize in popular songs, less expensive to print and more lucrative.
The idea of classical music
Traveling virtuosos, unable to rent concert halls, performed in the homes of wealthy patrons of both the aristocratic and upper-middle classes. They praised the amateur performers who also played there.
They composed formally simple music that showed off dazzling technique. It was entertaining, amusing, and with few exceptions, artistically empty.
Invited audiences began to argue about the relative merits of virtuosos, much the way modern movie-goers argue about the relative merits of Superman and Batman.
When the major capitals reestablished professional orchestras and orchestral concerts beginning in the 1810s, a new generation of listeners attended. They had no experience listening to music in sonata form, the chief invention of classical-era performers.
Besides, Mozart and Haydn had always paused between different parts of the form to make it easy to follow. Beethoven blurred over the joints and made the form more difficult to follow.
So the audience for popular music had no interest in reviving orchestral music by dead composers.
Even during Beethoven’s lifetime, a writer in the British music magazine The Harmonicon obviously preferred entertainment to art:
“Beethoven’s Eighth symphony depends wholly on its last movement for what applause it obtains; the rest is eccentric without being amusing and laborious without effect” (June 24, 1827, emphasis added).
Meanwhile, once concert life resumed, people who appreciated artistic subtleties could once again listen to professional orchestras playing their favorite music. They had no patience for the emptiness of commercial music. Schumann dismissed it as the work of Philistines.
And commercial music came to include popular operas by Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Spontini.
A journalistic war of words broke out between partisans of new and old music. A French critic of the 1830s proclaimed that there were only two kinds of musicians: Rossinists and classicists. By that time, the idea of classical music had been born. It made a handy term for writers to use in contrast to popular music.
The arguments favoring one over the other haven’t changed much in nearly 200 years, but Rossini’s overtures won grudging acceptance on orchestral programs. His operas disappeared for generations.
Newer music in the classical tradition
The generation of Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz began to compose new “classical” music. Later generations of composers have produced a steady stream of it.
Unfortunately, the generation that came to prominence after the Second World War had great contempt for classical music audiences. Ever since, the classical music establishment has lost faith in the willingness of modern audiences to listen to anything that wasn’t part of the classical canon before the war.
Just as people who want to listen to “early music” must find it primarily on recordings, so must anyone who wants to hear the “classical” music of living or recently deceased composers.
William Weber. Music and the middle class: the social structure of concert life in London, Paris and Vienna. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1975.
Composer montage. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Duke’s entrance to Paris. Public domain fromWikimedia Commons
Joseph Haydn. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Beethoven. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Hannover Square. Public domain
Rossini. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons
John Adams. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons