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Classical music composers?

Recently I was working on the History aspect of the forthcoming Foundations in Music course and realised that more Baroque composers seem better known today than those of the following Classical period (c.1750-1827). Whenever I have received work from students it often contains the usual culprits of the Classical age and so this blog is written in a hope to shine a light on some of the other great names of this period. With some research and listening, students will realise just what an innovative period it was in the history of music.
When it comes to the Classical period of music history we have four names that dominate everything, and for the first time the cult of personality takes over from the general image of composers controlled by autocratic aristocrats and monarchs. This individuality of thought begins to make itself felt more widely than at any other time in the history of music. The four names are of course Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert.
All except Haydn were freelance composers. This was something new and unheard of at the time and each in turn contributed something very new to the music of this period. Austrian born, Haydn was under the control of the Esterhazy’s in Hungary but had an almost free reign to compose and develop ideas, whilst Mozart broke away from the Archbishop of Salzburg to go freelance. Both Beethoven, who was German born, and Schubert also lived and worked in Austria. Each of these four composers contributed uniqueness and genius in good measure.

L-R: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert
L-R: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert

So was that it, was that all the composers that there were in the Classical period? Of course not! It was one of the most innovative and composer-rich eras of musical history. Think of today and the fact that anyone who writes a tune is called a composer, whether they can read music or not, but back in the Classical era you truly could not walk the streets of Vienna without falling over composers of great skill and worth, who were all adding something to the uniqueness of the age! Vienna was the centre of the musical world and as one wise composer was once heard to have stated:
‘Come the end of the world I would not wish to be anywhere else but Vienna as it is still fifty years behind the times.’
Although this statement was made much later, when the decay of the Hapsburg Empire was in full swing, it does show the mind-set of people towards the city that was the centre of the musical world. The Viennese themselves did not understand the importance of the city as a musical centre yet the composers themselves understood its role and position only too well.
Vienna remained the centre of the musical arts until around the mid-1930s. It was here that so many composers and musicians congregated to make a name for themselves whether as the beneficiaries of aristocracy or as independents scraping a living from their skills. We may not know many of their names anymore, or their music, but without them the music of the period would not have gained the stylistic fingerprints that the greats used so well to create their masterpieces.
Anyone who has seen the famous film of Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus may be able to name Antonio Salieri, but after that most people would probably be extremely hard pressed to name a single other composer of the period.

Antonio Salieri – Der Rauchfangkehrer
At the time, many other composers were considered greater than the four that we now consider to be the master composers of the age. Other composers were just as innovative as the famous four in their developments. Some, such as Vanhal, developed little from his first works but the form and style that he wrote in remained at the very core of the period’s style. The work of Johann Stamitz pushed the orchestra and the Symphony into the form that we recognise today. Others, such as Kozeluch or Mysliveček, were as revolutionary as Beethoven in their writing and their adventurous orchestrations. These were not just composers of a lesser rank, their music stands alongside the great four and occasionally could actually be argued to be better.

J.B. Vanhal – Symphony in D Major
Even a fleeting acquaintance with some of the composers’ music is a delight, but to get to know their music more intimately reaps rewards in many different ways. Occasionally a melodic shape catches you off guard, or a harmonic progression doesn’t do what you expect it to. The form may not be quite what you expect and all these simple things catch your attention making you listen with even more intent to what the composer is saying. Sometimes it is simply the pure beauty of the melody that enraptures you from the very start.
These composers, for some inexplicable reason, have fallen from today’s performance repertoire. Some would argue that this is simply due to the music being second rate, but this is pure hogwash, as is the supposition that the composers who wrote the largest quantity of pieces may have lacked skill and finesse and have hence been ignored. On this point, it is worth remembering that Haydn wrote no less than 104 Symphonies, Mozart wrote 41 numbered, and a good deal of un-numbered, yet that accusation is not levelled at these masters. They were part of the music scene of the period and their music stood or fell just as the lesser known names did at the time.

Franz Anton Hoffmeister – Flute Concerto No.22 in G major (Allegro)
Getting over the prejudices, or biases, that have been passed down to us is paramount to our own understanding and enjoyment of other composers’ works and this is certainly necessary with music of this period. Drop any preconceived ideas, open your mind and ears and enjoy a freshness of spirit with a large body of relatively unknown works.
Give the following list a chance, you will be extremely surprised at what glorious music you have been missing out on:

  • Carl Philippe Emanuel Bach
  • Johann Stamitz
  • Franz Krommer
  • Gioachino Rossini
  • Jiri Benda
  • Christian Cannabich
  • Jean Baptiste Vanhall
  • Josef Krauss
  • Franz Anton Hoffmeister
  • Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf
  • Muzio Clementi
  • Michael Haydn
  • John Marsh
  • Antonio Salieri
  • Leopold Hoffmann
  • Francoise Gossec
  • Leopold Kozeluch
  • Antonio Rosetti

The period was one of great changes and developments in orchestras and their formal structuring. Chamber music (String Quartets and String Trios) really began to be heard and developed. Sonata Form, that was to dominate for over two centuries, came into full force as a structuring technique. Opera came into its own with some composers concentrating on it as their main field of composition, such as Rossini and Donizetti, as well as Salieri.
Look beyond the usual fare and discover a whole new world of delights. You will never look at this period of the “Age of Enlightenment” in quite the same way ever again. The list is certainly not extensive but does give a good overall example of the wonderful music to be encountered.

Johann Stamitz – Symphony in D Major

Posted by author: Ash Ahmed
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2 thoughts on “Classical music composers?

  • Andy, I look forward to your sequels to this article perhaps exploring Renaissance then Baroque music music. Those who are not into choral music may not have encountered Byrd, Tallis and Gibbons in the is country or Victoria, Guerrero or Lobo in Spain. If anyone hasn’t heard the music of these greats be prepared to be transported. Nothing does it for me like Victoria’s O magnum mysterium,or Tallis’s O nata lux. I am no longer a believer in the conventional sense but there is something utterly transcendent about these works.

  • Totally agree with you John. Also Tallis’s Spem in Alium and Taverner’s Misa Gloria Tibi Trinitas are wonderful life enhancing works too. Thanks for the kind comments. Will take them on board and do another couple.

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