A History of Music for Singers – The Classical Era

A History of Music for SingersIf the Baroque Era was the era of music for Kings, the Classical Era was music for escapism. As we learned in the last part of this series, the music of the Baroque era was composed for Kings and Dukes. However, as Capitalism began to rule supreme in Europe, composers became more business minded and began to become more independent.

Fashion in 1700s

From a wider point of view, the Classical Era was a time of social and political upheaval in the Western world. In 1776, after a bloody war, thirteen British colonies joined together to declare themselves independent and formed what would become one of the most powerful nations on earth – the United States. Two decades later, the French declared a revolution and chop off the head of their King. Revolutions were also happening in Belgium, Austria, Haiti, Poland and Ireland. The Swedish and Russians assassinate their ruling monarchs. By the end of the era, in 1820, Britain has been to war with Napoleon twice, both at Waterloo and Trafalgar.

However, in music, this is not the era of Wagner’s Sturm und Drang. No, Mozart is King of the opera house with his tales of love and adventure – escapism akin to today’s trend for comic book superheroes in the midst of financial recession and uncertainty. To be rich enough to go to the opera and enjoy high classical music is to be at risk of being overthrown by the revolutions of the poor. No one wanted to pay money to be reminded how bad life was outside, so the classical composers provided a safe haven where all was right with the world.

Edinburgh Old CollegeThe other key influence on Classical music was the “classics”. Developing on from the Renaissance interest in Greek and Roman ideas, Classical art and architecture drew on the Greek and Roman art which was being rediscovered by collectors. This is the era of the Grand Tour when rich Europeans travelled to the Mediterranean to collect a little bit of history. It’s the era of the British Museum with its classical columns on the outside and Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon (collected 1810-12) on the inside. Classical art is notable for its simplicity, clean lines, formal structures and emphasis on order and hierarchy (an antidote to the challenge to order and hierarchy going on politically). You can see an example of this in the picture of the University of Edinburgh’s Old College which was designed in 1817.

This emphasis on clean lines, simplicity and formal structure extended into music. Classical music is notably less rich than Baroque music, and tends towards a “melody and accompaniment” form. By using this form, there was more scope for other kinds of variety such as greater use of dynamics and changes of mood within a single movement or section. Modulations became more adventurous and more frequent, paving the way for the chromaticism that would be a hallmark of Romantic music (itself leading to atonalism). Here’s an example of classical song by Beethoven:

FortepianoByMcNultyAfterWalter1805Instrumentation became more fixed. In the Baroque era, it was common to miss out certain instruments or add in additional ones, and use a “continuo” bass (similar to a modern leadsheet which shows just the chords and leaves the pianist or guitarist to interpret the chords as they see fit). Classical music moved towards a system whereby the music was played as written every time with the same instruments. The “continuo” bass declined as the piano (see right for an example of an early design) replaced all previous instruments as the keyboard of choice for all music. This alone provided a whole new vocabulary of musical sounds as the piano can be played with much greater expression than the harpsichord or organ. This is one of Haydn’s piano sonatas:

For singers, the Classical era saw developments in of both opera and song. Oratorios fell out of favour, and instead, Mozart made opera a real genre of its own with his engaging stories drawing on literature as well as mythology and theology which had previously dominated. As composers were drawn more and more away from the church and into the drawing room, secular songs became popular with composers setting poetry to music. Many of the new art songs were “serenades” dedicated to a specific person. Vocal music in this era was really a prelude to the flowering of the voice as an instrument that the Romantic era would bring. Words were important, but the melody became more important. Here’s a great example of Mozart melding melody with words in the opera The Magic Flute:

For the ordinary people, song became the means of protest. The music of the people was key to uniting them around a cause and expressing the fears of the participants. It’s no co-incidence that the very successful musical Les Miserables is set against a background of revolution with its rousing chorus of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”. Songs had always reflected the political circumstances, but now it was a unifying force for war. (Another thing which foreshadowed the role of popular song in the 20th Century). Here’s a song from the American Revolutionary War which is still sung today:

The key forms of music in the Classical era for voice were:

Most of the new forms were for instruments, and these included:

When you’re listening to decide if something is music from the Classical era, it’s likely to have some of these features:

  • Simple but beautiful
  • Restrained and elegant
  • Clear in melody and accompaniment
  • Usually singable, with clear phrases

Composers to Remember:

The composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Aus) is the most notable “transition” composer who bridged the Classical and Romantic styles.

–> Next week: The Romantic Era

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