Did you know that the word 'classical' in 'Classical music' is a reference to 'classical' Greek and Roman art? In this lesson, we'll talk about how the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome influenced both music and art during music's Classical Period.
What is a Classic?
What do we mean when we call something a 'classic'? Whether it's a classic car, a classic novel or a classic cheesecake recipe, we call something 'classic' when it's both an oldie and a goodie.
Did you know that there's a more specific meaning for the term 'classic'? When it started to appear as a French word in the 1600s, 'classic' didn't just mean something vintage and classy. 'Classic' was used to describe things relating to the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Classical Music and Neoclassicism
At various points in Western history, people have looked back to Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations to inspire the art of their own time. One of those times was music's Classical Period, a part of music history that lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century.
During the Classical Period, music wasn't the only art form to find inspiration in Ancient Greece and Rome. In an artistic movement called neoclassicism (that means 'new classicism'), painters, sculptors and architects were also finding inspiration in the forms and subjects of Greco-Roman culture. There were many similarities between art and music in the Classical era, and we'll look at some of those similarities in this lesson.
Neoclassicism in Art
The first thing to know about neoclassicism was that it was a reaction against something. Starting in the early 18th century, a style called rococo was popular, first in France, and then throughout Europe. Rococo style was all about soft, pastel colors, curving shapes, and subjects that were entertaining and sensual rather than serious.
In the mid-18th century, French artists were getting tired of rococo, which they considered frivolous. This opinion had a lot to do with the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that started in France around the same time. Enlightenment thinkers believed rationalism could lead to a moral and just society, and neoclassical artists agreed. Take it from the famous neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David: 'The artist must be a philosopher and have no other guide except the torch of reason.'
Turning away from the rococo style, neoclassical painters found inspiration in the art of Ancient Greece and Rome. They felt that Greco-Roman art supported moral values, like courage and patriotism, and that it was their duty to communicate these values, too.
Here's a famous neoclassical painting by David. Painted in 1784, it's called Oath of the Horatii, and it depicts a scene from Roman history. The three Horatii brothers are promising to risk their lives in battle for their country, while their families weep. The painting celebrates patriotism, bravery and sacrifice.
Oath of the Horatii by David
This painting doesn't just take its subject from Ancient Rome. It was visually influenced by Greco-Roman art as well. Notice how realistic the figures in this painting are, and compare them with this Ancient Roman carving of a soldier. Realism was valued in Ancient Greco-Roman art.
Neoclassicism focused on the realistic details emphasized by Greco-Roman art
The picture also borrows the idea of symmetry from Greco-Roman culture. The figures are divided into three groups within the three arches. Compare that to the symmetry of the Parthenon, one of Ancient Greece's most famous structures. To neoclassical artists, realism and symmetry were rational, enlightened ways to communicate moral values in art.
Neoclassicism and Music
While neoclassical painters were busy imitating the values they saw in Ancient Roman art, Classical-era composers were also working rationalist ideals into their music. Just as form and symmetry were important in David's painting, Classical-era composers organized their music into orderly forms using repetition and contrast. One example is a popular genre from the Classical period called sonata-allegro form.
Sonata-allegro form is a three-part structure used in instrumental music. It starts with a first section called the exposition, which introduces two contrasting themes, or melodies. Its second section is called the development, in which the two themes explore a musical landscape. The third section, the recapitulation, is a repeat of the exposition, with a few changes. These three sections give sonata-allegro form symmetry and order, like the three arches in David's Oath of the Horatii.
Like neoclassical art, Classical-era music also found inspiration in the moral messages of the stories of antiquity. For example, take the opera Idomeneo by the preeminent Classical-period composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Idomeneo is based on an Ancient Greek myth about a king who must choose between sacrificing his son and saving his kingdom. Idomeneo's readiness to put national welfare before his personal feelings resembles the sacrificial bravery of the Horatii brothers in David's neoclassical painting.
That's not to say that all Classical-era music is serious and moralistic. Many of Mozart's operas are full of humor and flirtation, just like rococo paintings. For example, his opera Don Giovanni follows the amorous adventures of a womanizing nobleman. But even Don Giovanni ends with a strong moral statement: The wild protagonist is dragged down to hell for his licentious ways. That means that rationalism, not sensuality, triumphs in the end.
During music's Classical Period, which lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century, both music and art found inspiration in Ancient Greco-Roman culture. In the visual arts, this was called neoclassicism, and it was a reaction against an earlier, lighter style called rococo. Neoclassicism celebrated the Enlightenment values of morality and rationalism with forms and subjects influenced by Greco-Roman art. Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii is a famous example. Neoclassicism's concern for form also appears in Classical-era music, for example in the symmetry and order of sonata-allegro form. Classical-era operas like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Idomeneo and Don Giovanni reflect the rationalism and morality of neoclassicism.
Once you are finished, you should be able to:
- Identify when music's Classical Period occurred
- Discuss the influence of Greco-Roman art and ideals on Neoclassicism paintings and music
- Describe examples of artistic and musical works from the Classical period