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Composers of the First Viennese School

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The term Classical music has more specific connotations than many realize. In this lesson, we're going to talk about the development of Classical music and the role of the First Viennese School.

The First Viennese School

We talk about Classical music a lot, but what does that actually mean? This term actually denotes an era in music, roughly spanning the 18th century, that was distinct from the music styles both before and after. The 17th century was the Baroque period, characterized by heavy, ornamental and serious music. The 19th century was the Romantic period, defined by dramatic and awe-inspiring melodies. The Classical era was the bridge spanning these to, during which many of our modern conceptions of symphonic music were established.

However, the Classical movement in music didn't simply happen. It was largely thanks to a series of composers who all knew each other and operated out of the Austrian city of Vienna. Collectively, historians call these composers the First Vienna School. The term is generally used to denote a period in music history, during which Classical music was truly established and refined. So, to appreciate Classical music we need to go back to school. In Vienna.

Joseph Haydn

The first great composer of the First Viennese School was Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). For many historians, the era of Classical music begins with Haydn's compositions of the 1750s. Hadyn was an Austrian-born musician who was first trained as a singer as the Baroque style of music was waning and becoming less popular. He started working as a composer in noble courts, where he began experimenting with new forms of compositions, building on the developments of the Baroque era and innovating in new and exciting ways.

Joseph Haydn
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Haydn's influence on music was vast. On one hand, he started composing for larger orchestras than was common in the Baroque era. His arrangements for these larger ensembles helped define the modern concept of a symphony. Yet he was a versatile composer and also wrote for smaller groups. In particular, Haydn is considered the father of the string quartet. Overall, his style was cleaner and lighter than the heavy Baroque style and focused much more on developing the melody. Haydn's music was also emotional, creating a strong contrast to the serious and formal music of the Baroque era. In particular, Haydn was known for interjecting a sense of humor into his symphonies that reflected his own personal love of practical jokes. The most famous example comes from his so-called ''Surprise Symphony'', in which a sudden, loud chord unexpectedly breaks the monotony of a slow movement, jarring audience members in their seats. Haydn's compositional styles would become defining traits of Classical music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A younger contemporary of Haydn in Vienna was another prolific composer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Mozart was one of the most famous prodigies in European history, composing symphonies and performing in royal courts before he was 10 years old. He would also go on to be one of the most prolific and versatile composers in history, writing symphonies, solo concertos, dances, religious music, and small ensemble pieces. He may be most famous, however, for his operas.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart

Mozart was familiar with Joseph Haydn as a person and musician, and in fact, Haydn was likely one of Mozart's mentors. So, it's not surprising that Mozart built on many of Haydn's innovations. However, genius that he was, Mozart's compositions were entirely distinct. He brought new levels of emotion into his works. He embraced the clarity and balance of Haydn, but also introduced much more technically-demanding melodies and harmonies. Orchestras continued to grow in size under Mozart, and musicians became further revered for technical virtuosity. In all, the emotional, delicately balanced work of Mozart is exemplary of Classical music.

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