The Symphony as Model T
The Classical era
Over the three centuries of the Renaissance and Baroque periods music had become incredibly complicated. Critics had given the Baroque era its name, which means “ugly”. They imagined that
Western music couldn’t possibly get more complicated and ugly than it already was. History has shown that the music itself wasn’t so ugly as they thought (after all, they couldn’t even conceive of what would come next, let alone 200 years later when atonality was invented). But there was one respect in which the critics were right: overall Western music could only get simpler and not more complex. The Classical era represents a time in Western music when everything was stripped down and a different kind of revolution took place, a revolution in form and style instead of a revolution in the very nature of organizing sound.
As usual this didn’t happen all at once. Bach’s sons, particularly Carl Phillipe Emanuel Bach, continued to compose complicated music. But the complexity was of a different sort. You can think of it as someone building a vehicle with lots of chrome and fins and grills, things that don’t really need to be there but make the thing look cool. In J. S. Bach’s time the complexity was still an outgrowth of inheriting much of the Renaissance legacy; in other words the musical forms the Baroque developed were pretty basic once you got underneath all the complexity. You had a fancy looking car but the thing ran beautifully. By the time the Baroque era ended, however, the fanciness was a matter of ornament as much as musical substance, probably more ornament. To continue the car metaphor all the filigree and fins made the cars look cool but they started being less fuel efficient and less aerodynamic. From the perspective of a classic Classical music fan things had to get worse before they got better.
To describe the change people were making from the Baroque to the Classic era I need to change metaphors. We’ll still talk in terms of transportation but a new metaphor is in order. People in the Baroque era were drawn around by a lot of horses pulling fancy carriages, or by huge trains that hauled a lot of stuff. They looked cool and carried a lot of weight but they weren’t cutting it with the philosophical, economic, and social changes of the time. People wanted to travel quickly but not quite so far and with more freedom. The time was ripe for someone to invent the car. The metaphor might break down here but people were looking for something that had complexity but had it hidden away in a less obvious place. In Baroque music the complexity was starting to feel too obvious. The symphony, the piano sonata, and the string quartet were on their way to being invented.
The philosophical era to keep in mind for this period is the Enlightenment. Things had to make sense. Whatever musical solutions were invented for this time had to be rational and somehow reflect the order of the natural world. This was the time in which rationalism, secular humanism, and Deism were officially born. This was also the period in which we saw the rise of representative democratic republics (like the United States). The Age of Reason demanded music that wasn’t fraught with conundrums or emotional excess and these were things the Baroque period seemed to have. This was also the period in which a middle-class consumer audience that listened to and aspired to play art music came into being.
In a very real sense the music of the Baroque period was about to collapse under its own weight. It was believed through the Renaissance to the Baroque era that a musical movement had to have one basic tempo and one basic mood. If you changed moods you had to write a new movement or a new piece. J.S. Bach, while breaking this principle when he chose, normally held to it. It worked for a century but after 100 years the dance forms and fugues of the Baroque were starting to lose their appeal. They weren’t bad, really but they didn’t quite reflect the times anymore. The modes had fallen completely out of use even before Bach died. The major and minor keys had completely taken over yet the musical forms available were still mostly based on principles developed at the end of the Renaissance. Beyond Bach and Handel the Baroque style simply could not grow. They had done everything there was to do in the style. Bach’s descendents knew it. What was less certain was what to do about this situation. What music would be the best match for the fully evolved major and minor musical world?
At this point I make a long story very short. Skipping entirely the various transitional composers between the Baroque and Classic eras I’ll start talking about Franz Joseph Haydn. It was Haydn who figured out how to simplify musical form and define the instrumental ensembles that have defined not only the Classical era but also most art music since then: the symphony, the solo piano and the string quartet. Equally important, it was Haydn who encouraged Leopold Mozart to train his son Wolfgang to be a composer. Leopold had no impression that his son was a musician of any unusual talent. Had Haydn not intervened on the boy’s behalf there’s no telling whether we would have had anything by Mozart. Haydn also inspired the young Beethoven. Whether or not you like Haydn’s music there’s no escaping his profound influence on the other important composers of the Classical era and by default on subsequent eras of art music.
Haydn was the court musician for a Prince Eszterhazy not too far from Vienna. Haydn’s job was to make music on order. For a lot of people the idea of composing a symphony on command to please the tastes of your patron doesn’t sound appealing. Depending on your patron it was terrible but Haydn’s boss gave him all this stuff: free medical care, a free house (with the prince voluntarily covering home repairs even after two fires, how many bosses offer to pay every kind of insurance on your house), the freedom to hire and fire whomever he chose, and the freedom to compose whatever and however he saw fit. The prince also gave Haydn a salary that, for the time, was pretty big. There was just one stipulation. Haydn couldn’t leave the court, ever, without direct personal permission. This was a situation where you didn’t want to be liked by your boss so much. It made vacations to cool places a rarity.
So what kind of stuff could Haydn write if he could write whatever he wanted but couldn’t get out much to hear what everyone else was doing? Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say. Haydn invented, as if from the ground up, the traditional four-part sonata cycle we hear throughout classical music. The advantage of this form was that it could be used in any instrumental setting and was pretty easy for even uneducated people to understand. It also lended itself to adjustment to whatever ensemble you had handy. You had a dramatic first movement that was usually fast; a slow movement that was a set of variations, often on an accessible tune; a dance; and then a more complicated, faster dance (think of the difference between a spirited waltz and a foot-stomping line dance). The first movement, especially, has defined a lot of art music since the 1780s. It’s too complex to discuss here but the sonata allegro form essentially replaced the fugue as the musical form of choice for dealing with complex feelings and ideas. What’s more, it was all pretty short, at least when Haydn was writing.
Compared to the sprawling length of Baroque music Haydn’s sonata form might be a half-hour at most and be in four easily digested parts. Haydn had invented the musical equivalent of the Model T. Ford and he could even paint it any color you liked. It wouldn’t be true to say Haydn literally invented all of these forms because the birth of a musical form takes decades and dozens to hundreds of people. On the other hand, Haydn was the first to get this new sonata idea right and keep getting it right. Perhaps more important, he taught people how they could write this new kind of music.
You’re unlikely to hear about this these days but Haydn did things in his music that made him controversial, things we take for granted. For instance, Haydn would state that a composition was in G major and then kick everything in the piece in to g minor anytime he wanted, astounding his audience with pranks. Never before had a composer made a habit of mixing moments of G major and G minor together in a single movement. Critics, especially from northern Germany denounced Haydn as destroying the art of music with empty frippery. The rule had always been one movement, one mood. You couldn’t mix tragic and comic elements freely within seconds of each other. Haydn made this a habit not only in almost every symphony but even within the movements of his symphonies. This came off nothing better than a bad prank for people who were still used to Baroque music.
Haydn didn’t simply play pranks; he could customize pranks for a given audience. Depending on the national habits there were things you weren’t supposed to do. One of them was to use brass instruments in certain keys in Paris. Some of this had to do with temperament and tuning and some of it was tradition. For some of Haydn’s symphonies for Parisian crowds he introduced brass instruments in precisely these off-limit keys, and even saved the brass parts for the second movement so he could make the surprise more shocking. Just at the point when people expected him to be quiet he brought out the loudest instruments he could find in the most inappropriate keys. Haydn’s habit of pulling stunts on his audience made a lasting impression on Mozart and Beethoven alike.
Haydn had also stripped musical form down to the simplest, most accessible (and “popular”) level. This was the era in which all you really needed was a good tune and some supporting chords. Of course other composers were doing this, too. Karl Ditters was another composer from this time who had been working on these same innovations. Haydn was far from the only person doing these kinds of things but he seemed to do it all first and do it better than everyone else. And word got around. People in Paris and Vienna wanted to hear Haydn’s stuff, there was even word that the people in London wanted to hear this new music. Haydn wanted this at least as badly as the Viennese but not just to make money and be popular. He’d never had a chance to really travel anywhere since he became court composer to the Eszterhazy family. After all, no one can write for just patrons or money forever. Something else has to happen.
Of course when you write on order you don’t mind repeating yourself a lot. Haydn wrote a lot of music which today sounds routine and some of it is. But Haydn was far more radical than we can readily appreciate now that we’ve heard Mozart, Beethoven, and everyone else since their time. Haydn's music is more profound than many musicians and listeners give him credit for. His handling of key was radical in his day. Not only did he mix major and minor keys in ways that weren’t usual, he also moved from one key to another in unusual ways. For Haydn counterpoint and independent parts were something to hide so well no ordinary person would know they were still there. Since the end of the Classic era Mozart and Beethoven have been considered the better and more profound composers but this has as much to do with the mythos created for them by subsequent eras. In their own day Mozart and Beethoven considered Haydn their musical father.
As if being a musical innovator weren’t enough, Haydn was the first bona fide international success story in Western music. He was able to do something no one else had done before, pull off an international tour that won over huge audiences, got rave reviews and even earned money! Mozart advised that Haydn not tour because his own international tours had failed but Haydn visited London and wrote his twelve legendary London symphonies anyway. He was able to do this because of his patronage from the Eszterhazy family. In spite of the strict rules of his contract Haydn was able to get some of these restrictions waived by an Eszterhazy prince (the successor to his original employer) who didn’t like music. This gave Haydn the freedom to write on command and take time off to make more money off of his music. After all, his boss wasn’t asking for music anymore so Haydn could write whatever he wanted for whomever he pleased. At last! It was time to go out and see the rest of Europe. So he made visits to England and won them over almost instantly. Haydn by the end of his life had become so popular he was even a fairly well known name in the United States. No composer had ever achieved such popularity before while still alive. Haydn’s fortunes were to be indicative of the options many other composers would soon have. By all accounts Haydn had the dream career. Even his students were of the highest distinction.
Haydn’s artistic successors were Mozart and Beethoven who both studied with him early in their careers. Mozart actually died before Haydn but Mozart always thought of Haydn fondly and didn’t mind saying he owed Haydn for teaching him how to compose. The two became lifelong friends and together their music constitutes most of the Classical music that is still worth listening to. Mozart took his cue from Haydn in writing piano sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies. Mozart, unlike his mentor, was a virtuoso and came naturally to everything Haydn worked for years to achieve. Mozart didn’t introduce so many striking innovations as his mentor by Mozart did everything Haydn did even better than Haydn. Mozart also excelled in opera, something Haydn wanted to be good at but didn’t seem to master. Mozart refined the Classical style to the highest level of polish and skill. Mozart also managed to bring back elements of Baroque music and ingeniously bend it to the new Classical aesthetics. Unfortunately for Mozart his music was considered too dark and weird for the popular taste and Mozart fell into financial ruin, dying well before Haydn. It was only during the 19th century that Mozart would begin to be fully appreciated.
Beethoven, Haydn’s other famous pupil, was more of a problem child. He came from at best a tumultuous family background with a drunken, abusive father and an absentee mother. For Beethoven Haydn’s music was equally inspiring but Beethoven had issues, our modern euphemism for what may be called problems in the head. Beethoven’s unstable temper and musical ambition led him to see the symphony, the piano sonata, and the string quartet as media through which to express his frustration and ambition. This was even more true after he started losing his sense of hearing in his mid-30s. Beethoven experience an early mid-life crisis and his response. The Model T’s he learned to make from Haydn weren’t cutting anymore. He had more baggage and a lot on his mind so his cars needed to be bigger. The symphony, particularly, needed to be bigger for him to say what he had to say.
Where Haydn cranked out symphonies that numbered as high as 104, Beethoven could only pull off nine. But these were all titanic symphonies, bigger than anything heard before. Where Haydn composed 80 string quartets Beethoven wrote just under 20. What Beethoven appeared to lack in productivity was more than made up for by breadth, length, and drama. Beethoven took the fairly straightforward forms of his day and pushed them to their breaking point, grasping harmonies that even Haydn had avoided. Beethoven in his 30s was establishing his heroic style and paving the way for the next age of Western music.
Haydn himself wasn’t sure why Beethoven was going in such strange directions. Haydn wasn’t too proud to admit he’d been surpassed yet again but he had no idea why Beethoven was writing such strange music. Beethoven, for his part, couldn’t figure out whether he wanted to keep his mentor’s approval or cast him off. But by the time he composed his Third and Fifth symphonies, Beethoven couldn’t afford to go back to his earlier style. Almost as soon as the middle class came into being artists couldn’t help craving their attention and hating them at the same time and Beethoven was the first major composer to conspicuously struggle with this, a struggle Haydn never even had to think about.
What Haydn began, musical trickster that he was, Mozart and Beethoven took as far as they could. Things had become simplified through Haydn’s music but Beethoven’s middle and late symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets were bringing size and complexity back into Western music, size and a lot of drama. Beethoven even brought back the fugue at just the point when it was starting to be forgotten. His work became more introspective and expansive and people chalked this up to his being insane and/or deaf. Both might have been true but Beethoven had figured out where he thought the musical future lay. He was going to explore every boundary Haydn never thought to look at and push the forms of the Classical era to their breaking point. For that, and for the romantic mythos surround his tortured life, Beethoven has now become one of the greatest idols in musical history—his music pushed beyond the limits of the Classical age defined by Haydn into a new age of Western music. By the time Beethoven died in the 1820s the Classical era had already ended. Perhaps it really ended when Haydn himself died around the dawn of the 19th century.
It was during this time that nationalism was kicking into high gear. The American Revolutionary War was happening and the French Revolution. The ideas of the Enlightenment were about to crash into nationalism and bloodlust. The 18th century was over and Mozart was dead and all of a sudden Haydn’s musical creations somehow seemed out of pace with this new world and Beethoven, insane though many thought him to be, seemed to be paving the way for bigger and longer music. It was the time in Europe when musicians in little nations, and the little nations themselves, were going to get big-headed about everything.
A short list of Classical composers and key works
There are 104 symphonies, 80 string quartets, and probably 60 piano sonatas to choose from, not counting his dozen masses and three or four oratorios. The pieces I most recommend listening to are the following.
The London Symphonies: Nos. 93-104
These dozen symphonies laid the foundations for pretty much every symphony since. They are simple, direct, easy to understand, and fun. After decades of Mozart and Beethoven being elevated to gods Haydn will come off as manufactured and boring by comparison but this is to hear through post-Romantic ears. There are a lot of good recordings of these works.
String Quartets Opus 74, 76, and 77.
These late quartets are Haydn’s best and show what he could do in ensemble playing. Haydn frequently played his own quartets with friends. He, Mozart, and his friend Karl Ditters would get together every so often and play each others quartets. For a good Op.76 recording check out the Tokyo string quartet.
This is one of Haydn’s late oratorios. I normally don’t recommend choral music from the Classical period. Most of it is actually quite lame. The price of making cool instrumental music was making choral music that sucked. But Haydn’s Creation is an endearing and accessible piece. He even arranged for an English and German version.
You know, I honestly don’t really like Mozart. He’s good and I respect him but I don’t like him as much as Haydn. He comes off as too slick for my tastes. This doesn’t mean Mozart shouldn’t be listened to, just that I’m not a huge fan of him. His “Haydn” string quartets are good and his “Jupiter” symphony is, too. He, like Haydn, sang in choirs so his choral music is okay if you like the style. His operas and his Requiem are the works to study. I’m occupied with other musical studies right now but I’ll get around to studying his operas eventually.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Not “von”. Beethoven liked to think he was royalty but this was probably him compensating for his short stature. J Don’t pay too much attention to Beethoven’s earlier works since they’re too much like Haydn. They’re not bad, really, they’re just not different enough from Haydn to give you any idea of how Beethoven changed Western music. Under no circumstances listen to the bulk of his choral writing. I know tons of people will disagree with me strongly but Beethoven’s choral writing is on the whole pretty lame. If you like his choral writing, more power to you. I can’t stand it.
The Third Symphony (“Heroic”)
This was the beginning of, surprise, Beethoven’s “heroic” period. It’s also his first major work from his middle years. It bears virtually no connection to Haydn.
The Fifth Symphony
Trust me, literally everyone in the Western world has heard part of this symphony at least once in their lives. It holds up best of all his symphonies. Here again Beethoven has almost no connection to Haydn, although he does start in a minor key and end in a major key (something that almost became a trademark for him). This is one of the most recorded symphonies of all time. It really won’t matter too much which recording you pick.
The Ninth Symphony
“Joyful joyful”. Beethoven butchers Schiller by adding his own verses and the choral writing is not very good but Beethoven gets by on the grandeur and precision of his instrumental writing. This was his last complete symphony and introduces choral writing to what had previously been a strictly instrumental work.
All of the string quartets past Op. 18 are worth checking out. The Op. 18 quartets are just too much like Haydn to do much for me. You might like them, though so consider checking them out. His best quartets are arguably his later ones, especially the Op. 130 quartet in B flat (make sure you get a recording with the original ending “the Grand Fugue”). The B flat quartet was the first point where Beethoven wrote a piece he cared about deeply and then sold out in the interest of making the work more publishable, audience friendly, and financially lucrative. Nevertheless, it’s still one of his greatest works. I haven’t heard as many Beethoven recordings but the Tokyo and Emerson String Quartets do a good job
Of course there’s the notorious “Moonlight Sonata” and you should listen to it provided ou listen to all of it. “The Tempest” is another great sonata, and the “Appasionata” sonata, too (you’ll hear what sounds like a minor version of our national anthem). His best sonata is really his last, the 32nd piano sonata in C minor. Alfred Brendel does a good job recording this piece but you may have trouble finding copies since Beethoven’s really late sonatas don’t seem to appeal to buyers or stores quite as much. There’s where the gems are, though.