Since I feel like I’m a little less crushed for time with the new schedule, I thought it might be a good idea to return to our survey of classical music. When last we left it, we were at the end of the Baroque period, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. You can check there for a full list of the week’s posts. And so today, we start at the beginning of the classical period.
As you can no doubt understand, the periods are not exactly clear. Obviously, people were still playing and composing Baroque music well into the classical period. Interestingly, one of the very greatest Baroque composers, Antonio Vivaldi, was all but forgotten until the 20th century, when the great violinist Fritz Kreisler wrote a violin concerto and attributed it to Vivaldi. But what you will notice is that there is not a huge difference between the best work of the late Baroque and that of the early Classical period. In fact, my late Baroque composer CPE Bach is really more of a Classical computer.
The first great composer of the Classical period is Joseph Haydn. (Let’s set aside Gluck for now.) In fact, other than Mozart, there is no one I like as well. In fact, the two men were very close friends. I think that Haydn was kind of a father figure to Mozart — but one who wasn’t a total prick like his real father. I wrote about their special relationship last year, The Son Joseph Haydn Never Had. But Haydn lived such a long time that it would be wrong to think about him only with regard to the early Classical period.
So let’s listen to an early quartet. It was composed in 1763, when Haydn was just 31 years old. As time goes on, it gets harder to be clear about what is changing. There are a few things that stick out to me, however. First is the lack of ornamentation. In the same way that the worst of Romantic period music mindlessly uses chromatic scales, Baroque often ornamented melodies out of existence. There’s also more harmonic structure, with phrases driving to resolution. But it is also, and most importantly I think, less academic — more emotional. This is his Quartet No 8 in E major. I’m sorry, but I could not find a professional live recording of it. Understandably, professionals tend to stick with his later and more refined work. This is still quite beautiful: