Classic Music Has More Than One Meaning

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Contributed by Sally Hitchcock

Most of us call art music (western music from the 15th through the 20th century) classic as contrast to all kinds of popular music. It also has a more narrow meaning since music constantly changed though the centuries, and the period between 1750 to about 1820 is called the Classical Style Period. Another name is “Viennese”, since the most known composers of the era worked in Vienna. Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart were the top three, and they created large pools of piano music since their period of music happened when more people enjoyed the newly popular piano for themselves. The era’s style was basically a melody with an accompaniment. (Doesn’t this sound like pop music, too?)

Classic style was a new thing since before the time of Bach’s son's music was heavily produced for church and royalty with not much done as simple as a melody and accompaniment. The Bach-style was more elaborate with more than one voice fitting together in patterns that took some intelligence to figure out. 

Actually the era brought a whole new sense of business to music. Composers published their music, performed it and began to teach. My favorite classic composer to start students with is Muzio Clementi, who walked to London and hung out his “shingle” as a piano teacher after serving his seven years of service to a family of the landed gentry, and became a super star as well as the first wildly successful teacher. His compositions were published, and he eventually owned both a publisher's business and a piano building business. 

The other development in the era’s music was the creation of the Sonata form with contrasting melodies and harmonies to have longish pieces to play to pleased audiences. The listener can hear the return of beginning melodies, or revisions of them, and then a brand new style portion would show off different touches and styles, before a final deliberate “display” of finger technique that finished off fast and furious, or at least a bit show-offish.

Of course, we can hear portions of Beethoven that seem too emotional to call them melodies, because the Classic Era moved into the Romantic Era, where forms and styles of composing changed again. We know that happens in all art and culture since “old fashion” and “modern” happens with most new generations.