Classical Era Composers: Mozart, Haydn & Beethoven

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  • 0:08 What Is Classical Music?
  • 1:31 Franz Joseph Haydn
  • 3:20 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • 5:00 Ludwig van Beethoven
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are the three composers who epitomize music's Classical period. In this lesson, we'll explore their life stories and learn about the kinds of music they wrote.

What Is Classical Music?

Did you know that your local 'classical music' radio station has been misleading you for your entire life? We're used to thinking of classical music as a general label for everything written a long time ago by people who didn't know about electric guitars. Actually, the Classical period of music was a very specific and limited chunk of musical history: it lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century.

The Classical period was a time when entertaining, tuneful music was trendy. Composers strove to write music that went straight to the heart, instead of challenging listeners with too much complexity. The Classical period also happened to produce three of music history's most famous composers: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Their music defined the Classical style, and they were so celebrated by 19th century music historians that they've become poster boys for concert music in general. That's why you have the adjective 'classical' attached to your local concert-music radio station!

Franz Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was the oldest of the three and a friend and mentor of Mozart and Beethoven. Haydn grew up near Vienna in the Austrian countryside. At the age of seven, he embarked on a musical education, working as a choirboy at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Vienna was a musical epicenter during the Classical period, so going to Vienna to learn music was sort of like going to Hollywood to get into the movies.

In 1761, Haydn started a job as music director at the court of a Hungarian aristocrat, Prince Paul Esterházy. During the Classical period, working as a court musician for a powerful aristocrat was one of the highest-profile jobs a musician could do. His job was to be the Esterházys' family iPod: he wrote music and organized concerts for them as the leader of a large group of staff musicians. He was known as a warm, kind director: his orchestra loved him, and nicknamed him 'Papa Haydn.'

Haydn spent 30 years working for the Esterházys, and the music he wrote for them gained him international fame. His works included instrumental music like symphonies and string quartets, as well as vocal music like operas and sacred pieces. Haydn is also remarkable for being one of the funniest composers in music history. He loved to write gag pieces like the 'Surprise Symphony', a work that lulls its audience with gentle music only to freak them out with a sudden blast of sound.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Haydn's contemporaries considered him the greatest composer of his time, but Haydn himself assigned that top slot to his younger friend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Born in Salzburg, Austria, Mozart was an astonishing musical prodigy who could play the harpsichord and compose by the age of six. His father, Leopold Mozart, was eager to showcase his son's talent; Mozart spent most of his childhood touring Europe with his father and sister, performing concerts for royalty and dignitaries.

Before he was 20, Mozart was already working as a court musician for a powerful archbishop in Salzburg. Leopold Mozart was happy to see his son in such a respectable position, and he was not thrilled when Mozart quit his job in 1781 to move to Vienna and be a freelance musician. In Vienna, Mozart published compositions, concertized as a pianist, and had his operas produced. Between it all, he managed to create an unorthodox, but successful career.

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