This week at the chalkboard: The Classical Era

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been covering the Classical Era in two of my classes. (One, a Freshman Intro to Music Lit and Two, a junior level survey of Music History) The Classical Era ends up being my most and least favorite era to teach, for the following reasons:

1. The music is insanely uniform and the era is insanely short.

2. There really are only three major composers.

This makes it both easy and difficult to teach. When I first started, I would dread this era. So much sonata form, so many symphonies and string quartets, and never mind all the piano music. And with only three composers, how to fill the time? I can’t really justify spending oodles of time on Stamitz and Sammartini, (although I do spend some time on them) and forget Wagenseil, Gassmann and Gossec. But over the years, I have come to love many things about teaching this era, partially because of all the other things there are to learn from it that aren’t necessarily about music.

These days, I really relish the time I have to spend on HMB (that’s Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven). Their lives are so informative to modern musicians, and we have enough primary source material about them to get a good picture of their lives and personalities. (You can’t say that about most composers from the Baroque era and before.) So here’s what I enjoy sharing most with my students about these three amazing musicians:

Their career paths

The Classical era was the beginning and the end for the careers of composers and musicians. It was the end of full-time patronage, as fewer and fewer musicians held full time court or church jobs. Haydn worked most of his life at the court of Esterházy. The benefit of this was he had an ensemble to work with every day, and could train, hire, and rehearse them to his liking. He had a place to live, food at the servant’s table, and a steady paycheck. The downside of this was he had to compose whatever the Prince was in the mood for, stay on top of the instrument collection and music library, follow the Prince on lengthy vacation trips to the summer palace, and (at least at first) he was not allowed to publish his music outside of court. Haydn writes of “praying for ideas” to keep up with the Prince’s requests and composes way more works than Mozart or Beethoven. (104 Symphonies to Mozart’s 41 and Beethoven’s 9) Many will argue that he composed many more works of mediocre quality than M or B, which certainly has some truth to it, and most of his true masterworks come from the period in his life after he is retired from court and moves back to Vienna.

Mozart and Beethoven show us more of the beginning of modern music careers. They both spend some time holding positions at court like Haydn, then break away. Mozart spent a little time working in the ensemble at Salzburg, but really hated being seated at the servant’s table (and I’m sure there were other things he hated too, like still living with his Dad at 25) so quit and moved to Vienna to freelance. Beethoven worked as both harpsichordist then violist at the court of Bonn as a young man, but also eventually moved to Vienna to freelance in 1792 (the year after Mozart dies- good planning on his part). Once in Vienna, their careers look pretty similar. They both take students, publish their compositions, organize concerts, perform (although Beethoven can only perform as long as he can still hear), and take commissions. One thing Beethoven manages to do (that Mozart does not) is to convince some wealthy music lovers to give him a stipend, or places to live, or other helpful gifts that help keep him afloat. In return Beethoven dedicates works to them, so if you know his music, you may already know who these kind souls were (for example, the “Waldstein” Sonata). The careers of Mozart and Beethoven do not look too different from that of many modern musicians, who still cobble together a living from teaching and playing, so I always spend time talking about this aspect of their lives. In Higher Ed we often talk about how today’s musician needs to be more “entrepreneurial” than in past eras, but I’m not sure it’s true. What’s more entrepreneurial than Beethoven cajoling dozens of amateur and professional musicians into premiering his Ninth Symphony? Artists always have had to be smart and gutsy to make a living.

All that Sonata Form

While I do find it a little tiresome to listen to SO many works in sonata form, I think it provides a good learning opportunity as well. Comparing an early sonata form by Stamitz with one by Mozart or Beethoven really illustrates the genius of the latter two men. (And also how innovative Stamitz was to break away from just using rounded binary and to start developing his ideas. Although this tends to get lost in intro courses.) I also find sonata form to be a great listening exercise- can you hear (or feel) it when we enter the development section? What exactly are you reacting to? The harmony changes? The switch from longer themes to shorter motives? Or is it just a feeling in your gut? I also love recap sections. Do you feel relieved? Happy to be back in tonic?

I played a Minuet and Trio movement for my freshman last week. I didn’t tell them that’s what it was, just asked them lots of questions about it. It was an excellent performance on period instruments by Tafelmusik of Haydn Symphony #43. They were able to figure out that it was in 3, had an ABA form, it was a dance maybe, and the instrumentation. I was impressed. But my favorite part was that several of them were convinced that the return of the A section was somehow different from the first. Now those of us who have performed hundreds of these Minuets know that you use the exact same music to play the return of A, there are usually no changes other than to skip the repeats. But my students swore that the instruments were different, it was louder, it was faster- something had to be different! This to me was an excellent teaching moment about the transformative power of a good, contrasting B section (or a good development). That if the composer has done his job, “A” should sound new and fresh the second time around.

Three very different personalities

From everything I’ve read about H, he seems like an easy going guy that everyone liked. Especially in the few years before he gets his Esterházy gig, some pretty high-powered people go out of their way to help him. (His neighbor Metastasio gets him a job with Porpora, for example.) I think you can tell from his music that he was witty and had a good sense of humor. (“Joke” Quartet, “Surprise” Symphony) I am also impressed at how the influence of young M and young B seem to inspire Haydn to compose better and more complicated music in his later years- when he could be resting on his laurels.

M seems to have a fabulous sense of humor, although his humor tends towards fart and poop jokes at times. He loved word play and riddles, and was good with languages. He traveled the most widely of the three, and had friends all over, which proved useful later in life when he needs commissions. There are many moments where he seems to have a pretty big ego, but from our modern perspective, that was probably for good reason. He doesn’t deal with authority figures very well, so a freelance career probably suited him well. He seems to be a good husband, and for the most part, a good son.

B was a more difficult person to be around. He also suffered from bad health and stomach problems for most of his life, which I know would make me cranky. You can also imagine the heartbreak of a musician losing his hearing and how that might affect one’s outlook on life. He had very high standards, for his family and his art. While he didn’t have much formal schooling, he continues to learn and read throughout his life. And for someone who many people complained was in need of better grooming, ill-tempered, and moody, he still managed to win many life-long fans of his music. (Although it did not win him a wife, another source of pain for him for many years.)

So all in all, after years of thought, I feel like this era provides all sorts of good lessons about life in the music business, how to listen to music, and about life in general. Oh yeah, and somewhere in there I actually teach what the music of the Classical era was all about.

12 Responses to “This week at the chalkboard: The Classical Era”

  1. Beede says:

    I still object to B as classical. I tell my students there are people out there who will disagree, but in my classroom, B is Romantic.

    Did you hear they think B’s deafness was due to lead poisoning?

    It is a fact that M had that ear-piercing laugh; it is not just Tom Hulce’s masterful interpretation (also taught in my classroom with a disclaimer that someday a prof will try to tell them I am an idiot).

    Falco helps me introduce M as the first rockstar.

    We never get to Haydn – or at least only through the Goughseek period.

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