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What Is Classical Music? It Depends on Whom You Talk To

Updated on June 28, 2012

When I was in elementary school, my music teacher told me I needed to remember three great B's of classical music: Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms. She presented it to me as fact, along with the idea of two and two being equal to four or the sun rising in the east -- something I could take to the bank with me for the rest of my life.

That's why I was shocked to discover recently that others beg to differ with her.

It turns out that music scholars have a much stricter definition of classical music than the one I grew up with. They set the Classical Period from about 1750 to about 1830. Under that definition, Beethoven still qualfies as a classical composer (he died in 1827) but J.S. Bach, who died in 1750, barely does. Brahms doesn't even come close. He lived from 1833 to 1897.

So much for public education.

A Classical Composer All the Way
A Classical Composer All the Way
Not a Classical Composer
Not a Classical Composer

Where Did All the Classical Composers Go?

I thought about my newly acquired knowledge, and for a moment I had hope. All was not lost. Under this new definition, Mozart (1756-1791) would still be considered a classical composer, which I found comforting. If anyone was a classical composer, it was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Gioacchini Rossini would be one, too. Even though he died in 1868, he stopped composing forty years earlier. There were others, too, that still fit in the group of classical composers. Franz Schubert (1797-1828), for example. Or Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809).

But there were others among the best classical composers who no longer made the cut. Richard Wagner (1813-1883), composer of Tannhaeuser, Lohengrin and the irrepressable Ring of the Nibelungen, wouldn't be a classical composer under that definition. Neither would Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), who wrote Aida and Rigoletto, or Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), who gave us Tosca, La Boheme and Madame Butterfly. How could these guys not be classical composers? Okay, I could maybe see Richard Wagner not being one. Nearly everyone agrees that he was a pretty nasty man. The Pantheon would probably be better off without him. Maybe someone else had problems with Verdi or Puccini. Art, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

But how could one possibly eliminate Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), composer of The Four Seasons, from the group? Or Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), he of the ubiquitous Canon in D? Or Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)? Or Franz Liszt (1811-1886)? Or Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)? Their work was some of the most classical-sounding music one would ever hope to hear. And yet they weren't classical composers?

What in the world was going on?

Sounds Like Something's Baroque

It turns out that music scholars actually divide Western music of the Fifteenth to Nineteenth Centuries into three distinct periods: the Baroque Period, lasting from 1600 to about 1760; the aforementioned Classical Period; and the Romantic Period, which lasted from about 1810 to 1900. For convenience, it is all labeled classical music, although the technical term for it is music of common practice period.

Sounds like something the Government would do.

Under the broader definition, Vivaldi, Wagner and the rest would become classical composers once again. Vivaldi was a composer of the Baroque Period; Wagner a composer of the Romantic Period.

Everything was right again. I could trust my music teacher after all.

Definitely a Classical Composer
Definitely a Classical Composer

Toward a More Practical Definition

What really distinguishes classical music, of course, at least from the layman's point of view, is not who wrote the music and when but what form it takes. Just as most of us could identify a country and western song if we heard it, so can we generally identify classical music, no matter whose fingerprints are on it. There are quite a few modern composers who write in classical forms.

Some of the great forms of classical music are:

1. The Concerto. A composition usually broken into three movements and typically featuring a single instrument against the rest of the orchestra. Often the chosen instrument is a piano, although there are plenty of concerti that have been written for the violin as well. The word concerto is most likely a synthesis of two Latin words meaning to unite and to fight. Thus at times during the concerto the two groups seem to be working together while at other times they sound as if they are competing. The order of the movements is typically fast-slow-fast. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are some well-known examples.

2. The Sonata. The precise form of the sonata can be a bit squishy as it evolved over many years. Generally speaking, it is a multi-movement instrumental piece typically containing three movements (also fast-slow-fast) but there are two- or four-movement sonatas as well. Many sonatas are written solely for piano, but there are plenty that involve two instruments, typically a piano and something else. To complicate matters further, the word sonata can also refer to something known as sonata form, which is a sonatalike structure built into something else, such as the first movement of a symphony (see below).

3. The Symphony. The symphony has four distinct movements. The first is a brisk movement, generally adhering to sonata form. The second movement is slower. The third is generally a dance movement, and the fourth movement is also brisk. Some famous symphonies include Beethoven's Fifth, Sixth ("the Pastoral'), and Ninth ("the Choral"); Haydn's 94th ("Surprise") and 101st ("Clock"); and Mozart's 41st ("Jupiter").

4. The Suite. The suite is also an instrumental work, generally consisting of several short dance pieces. The first couple of pieces are usually fast, with the third one slower. Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, from his fabled ballet The Nutcracker, is one of the most famous examples.

5. Chamber Music. Chamber music takes the concerto or the symphony down to a much smaller scale. Rather than using a full orchestra, chamber music is restricted to only a few instruments and is generally meant to be played before a smaller audience. It is from chamber music that we get the idea of a string quartet or a string quintet.

6. The Opera. Most of us are familiar with this one. It's a play where everybody sings, often while they are dying. If a lot of people die, it's called opera seria. If things are more lighthearted, that's opera buffa. There's also a third type called opera bouffe, that includes sections which are spoken rather than sung. Such sections are known as recitative.

7. The Oratorio. The oratorio is a lengthy vocal piece for several voices which has all the elements of opera except for the action and the staging. An oratorio typically has a religious theme. Perhaps the most famous oratorio is Handel's Messiah.

8. The Cantata. Also a sung piece, the cantata is usually shorter than an oratorio and may be on a secular theme or a religious one.

Regardless of form, composer, or era, classical music remains a popular listening choice that is pleasant to the ear and soothing to the soul. Those who have not yet experienced classical music should give it a try.


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