In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classical Era

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Essays
  • Anthologies
  • Dictionaries
  • Journals
  • Source Readings
  • Style
  • Genre
  • Geographical Studies

Music Classical Era
Bertil van Boer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0128


Perhaps the shortest and yet most prolific period in music history is the Classical Era. Traditionally, it has been roughly defined as the last half of the 18th century, e.g., from the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750 to some date in the early years of the 19th; contenders for this include the turn of the century (1800), 1810, just after the Treaty of Vienna ending the Napoleonic Wars (1815), 1820, or the death of Beethoven in 1827. Blume’s Classical and Romantic Music even postulates that the so-called Classical and Romantic periods are a single continuum, noting that musical style developed steadily over the course of a century and a half. Issues of chronology have resulted in a “long” and “short” 18th century, wherein the period is defined according to a number of different stylistic trends. Indeed, there is some debate on whether these styles, such as the so-called galant, Empfindsamkeit (or empfindsamer Stil), or “Pre-Classical,” reflect the final developments of the Baroque period, are simply transitional steps towards a more traditional “Classical” style, or are indicative of a definitive musical stylistic change. Moreover, terms like Rococo or Enlightenment are architectural or philosophical terms usually adapted to the music of the period but without specific musical definition. A new emotionalism in music is defined as Sturm und Drang, a term taken from a literary movement, and the mainstream works of the last half of the century are often stated to conform to “Viennese” Classicism, despite the fact that Vienna was but one of half a dozen cities which served as seminal musical centers during the century. Finally, defining the entire Classical Era in traditional relationship to three composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1756–d. 1791), Joseph Haydn (b. 1732–d. 1809), and Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770–d. 1827), is neither historically nor stylistically accurate (save perhaps in the case of Haydn), for it ignores the global reach of music, not to mention places and composers whose musical innovations set the stage for the following Romantic period. It also sets up a hierarchical structure that forces a subjective comparison between these so-called icons and others, often labeled Kleinmeister. While this debate on the exact parameters of the period continues, the Classical Era is defined by increasing and more colorful use of orchestration, development of standard formal structures found in the sonata principle, for example, use of contrasting and often lyrical themes that are developed musically within each work or movement, insertion of dramatic elements into music (rapidly contrasting dynamics or dynamic shading, articulations, varying subtle textures, etc.), use of advanced harmony and modulation, development of both voices and instruments in terms of technical ability and expressivity, and the rapid expansion of a musical culture that spread globally. As a result, the scope and variety of music during this period have been problematic for overviews, with most scholarship directed towards traditional figures, cities, or individual geographical places and/or composers. This section is intended to show some of the extant general, geographical, and stylistic overviews, with more detailed bibliographies to be found separately in other Oxford Bibliographies Online.

General Overviews

The main purpose of this section is to provide general histories of the Classical Era, generally those intended to be used as textbooks. Downs 1992 and Pauly 1988 were early attempts based upon the great masters tradition (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), a focus also found in Taruskin 2005. Blume 1979 is an important early study of the development of musical style. Pestelli 1984 and Rushton 1986 are based upon genre, though the latter also contains composer-specific discussion. Rice 2012 is a short overview volume based upon geographical centers in which the style of the period developed.

  • Blume, Friedrich. Classic and Romantic Music: A Comprehensive Survey. London: Faber, 1979.

    This small book is still important in discussing the continuity of stylistic developments between the Classical and Romantic periods. Although written more from a philosophical-aesthetical point of view, it is a useful primer in understanding many of the reasons behind the history of the period.

  • Downs, Philip G. Classical Music: The Era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. New York: Norton, 1992.

    This is part of the general Norton Introduction to Music History series, principally intended as a general overview of the period. Although mainly focused upon the biography and contributions of three acknowledged principal figures, it includes a wealth of ancillary material in the form of discussion of social contexts, development of musical genres, and musical centers.

  • Pauly, Reinhard G. Music in the Classic Period. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988.

    Following its initial publication in 1965 as part of the Prentice-Hall History of Music series, it attempted to fill a void in the Norton Music History series. There is good introduction on the generic and specific concepts of Classicism in music, with further chapters devoted to genres, including the symphony, art song, sacred music, opera, chamber music, and sonata.

  • Pestelli, Giorgio. The Age of Mozart and Beethoven. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511597275

    This is a now-dated overview of the music of the Classical Era, divided into two sections. The first is generic, devoted to instrumental and vocal music. The second section focuses on Mozart and Beethoven, with discussions of genre and style as reflected in the music of these composers.

  • Rice, John. Music in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Norton, 2012.

    Takes the approach of a musical grand tour throughout Europe, with a brief excursus into the North American continent (including Jamaica). It discusses the intellectual, cultural, and sociological views of music and musicians of the period. It comes with an anthology of twenty-nine representative compositions, all of which are provided with some analytical commentary. The only drawback is that it ignores a number of important areas of music, including Scandinavia.

  • Rushton, Julian. Classical Music: A Concise History from Gluck to Beethoven. New York and London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.

    A concisely written survey that is developed mainly according to genre, the work is accessible and meant primarily for the knowledgeable reader. The approach reflects brief statements that attempt to encompass the period by touching momentarily upon a wide variety of topics. Some analysis and fifty illustrations are provided, but there are not any musical examples outside of the latter.

  • Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. 6 vols. New York: Oxford, 2005.

    Volume 2 of this set, the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, offers an overview of the Classical Era with emphasis upon Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The subject matter tends to be a bit perfunctory on general topics, but there is a good explanation of the transition from the Baroque period and to the Romantic period, with a good range of standard repertory examples.

  • Wellesz, Egon, and Fredrick Sternfeld. The Age of Enlightenment: 1745–1790. Vol. 7 of New Oxford History of Music. Edited by Gerald Abraham. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

    Volume 7 in the New Oxford History of Music series; approaches the period from a largely generic point of view. The coverage of the various genres is broad in terms of geographical scope and contains numerous musical examples drawn from a wide variety of composers.

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