From Baroque to Romantic: Understanding the Significance of the Classical Era

Synecdoche. It’s a lovely word. sin-ECKdock-ee. It burbles off the tongue like a waltz. It’s a thoroughly musical word. Except it isn’t, really. It’s a figure of speech in which a part of something refers to the whole. “He asked for her hand in marriage” although one assumes he wanted to marry the rest of her too. “I’ll just do a head count” although one hopes that there will be torsos and associated limbs included in the final tally.

In the West, when we talk about “Classical Music”, we usually mean all art music composed in the last millennium or so. Strictly speaking, though, the Classical Era refers only to a short but incredibly fertile period which lasted around 75 years (roughly from the death of J.S. Bach in 1750 to the death of Beethoven in 1827) sandwiched neatly between the end of the Baroque Era and the start of the Romantic Era. Its significance is so huge that the word “Classical” has also come to refer to the entirety of the West’s output of art music since medieval times.

In some ways, the Classical Era can be viewed as a sort of act of musical patricide. Johann Sebastian Bach represents the zenith of achievement of the preceding Baroque era, but it was two of his sons who did as much as anybody to wrest musical language away from this earlier style and to forge something completely new.

Carl Philipp Emanuel (or C.P.E. as he’s almost universally known these days) Bach was a master of the new Empfindsamkeit or “sensitive style”. In the Baroque period, each movement of a piece usually had one “mood” or “texture” from beginning to end but C.P.E. introduced greater emotional contrast (often shockingly so) between different sections of the same piece. His symphonies and concertos have a new, conversational style—the listener is taken onboard an often unpredictable emotional rollercoaster as the movement progresses. There is a much more direct connection with the vagaries of the human psyche than before.

Johann Christian Bach (who spent much of his career in England and acquired the nickname “The London Bach”) was a prime exponent of the Style Galant and was a huge influence on the young Mozart. The Style Galant represented a step back from the complexities and intricacies of the Baroque period. There was a new emphasis on long, flowing melodies, simple textures and clear distinction between melody and accompaniment. The music of J.C. Bach isn’t performed all that much these days but it’s worth listening to, if only to hear how similar his music sounds to Mozart’s. We tend to think of Mozart as a great innovator or visionary but the broad brushstrokes of his mature style were already in place before the young Wolfgang ever dipped quill in ink.

This isn’t meant to minimise Mozart’s achievement at all. In fact, you can’t study the Classical Era without acknowledging the overwhelming importance of “The Big Three”: Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. The careers of these three composers (sometimes called the First Viennese School) not only trace the transformation in musical style from Baroque to Romantic but they also reflect the shifting role that music played in European society during this period.

During the Baroque period, the great patron of new music was the Christian Church, but the economy of music-making began to alter during the mid-18th century and the great courts of the nobility became the prime funders of new work. Haydn spent the greater part of his career at the court of Prince Esterházy in modern-day Hungary. The courts demanded increasing amounts of secular (i.e. non-religious) music from composers and this led to a huge increase in the amount of purely instrumental music composed. Haydn almost single-handedly established the symphony and the string quartet as the major forms that would dominate concert halls for the next couple of centuries. So great was his achievement (he penned a colossal 104 symphonies and 68 string quartets) that he simultaneously acquired the sobriquets “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet”.

After a prodigious childhood, Mozart began his working life at the court of Salzburg but soon left to pursue a freelance career in Vienna—evidence that not only had music been secularised when it moved away from the Church but that the general public (with all its vagaries of fashion and taste) was fast becoming the driving force behind music-making. He had an adoring public and he needed to feed them!

Beethoven made a similar transition from court musician (in Bonn) to freelance composer in Vienna but, by the end of his life, had become the archetypal Romantic, traipsing across stormy heaths, the tortured artiste who finds his musical inspiration while grubbing about in his psyche—in other words, setting the stage for the various shades of soul-searching that composers would undergo in the 19th century.

At the heart of the Classical Era was a wider attempt to return to the values of classical antiquity, in particular Ancient Greece. Art, literature, architecture and music all aimed for clarity of expression, for a renewed emphasis on open formal structures— everything needed to be orderly, hierarchical and well-articulated. The density of Baroque works where several voices and instruments all vie simultaneously to be heard was the antithesis of this. Composers followed these ideals in the structures they used to write their pieces, creating greater internal contrast, greater drama, more of a sense of storytelling. They orchestrated their works to produce a clear separation between melody and harmony and with a clearer hierarchy of instruments within the orchestra— some instruments were purely melody instruments; others secondary. C.P.E. Bach modelled his works on the rhetorical principles of antiquity— linking instrumental music to human speech—and these declamatory and structural devices became part of the language that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all employed.

These formal innovations were accompanied by major developments in instrumental technology. The harpsichord (which only had one volume setting—usually loud) was gradually replaced by the piano which could play an almost unlimited range from very loud to very quiet and which was ideally suited to this new music of contrasts. Mozart, who in his time was as well known as a keyboard player as he was a composer, brought the piano concerto (a work for piano soloist accompanied by an orchestra) to a new level of sophistication. This form, with its clear distinction between soloist and accompaniment, with its internal drama of contrasts and with an instrument with a dynamic range that can reflect the mood (defiant, lyrical, exuberant, etc.) of the protagonist was something that could never have been achieved without the musical and instrumental innovations of the Classical Era.

In short, music became more human. Its impact on listeners was more immediate, less intellectual but equally, if not more, moving.

In some ways, the Classical Era seems to stand alone. So many of its innovations can be seen to be a rejection of the preceding Baroque period but, at the same time, it can seem formal and stylised in comparison to the emotional maelstrom that followed in its wake during the Romantic Era. Another way of looking at it is that all Western art music led up to the Classical Period (with Mozart as its most perfect expression) and all subsequent music led away from it.

One last example of synecdoche might be “he scaled the highest peak” when presumably our mountaineer in question clambered up the lower parts of the mountain also. If Mozart is our metaphorical peak, then perhaps lumping together the past thousand years of music under the one name “Classical” isn’t quite so unreasonable after all?

By Mikel Toms. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the July 2023 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.