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How the Mature Classical Style Conveyed Drama Through Purely Instrumental Means Essay

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Between 1770 and 1890, the mature classical/traditional music was homophonic, and much emphasis was placed on melody. The era was also quite formal in form and structure and tended towards ‘pure’ music that did not really focus on feelings or drama, and seemed to increasingly emphasize the potential of orchestral color to be evocative. This was in the romantic era, in which key use was traditional, and a piece was firmly based on harmonic ‘home’ keys, using dissonance as the primary means to create tension and leading the audience towards resolution.

Generally, in music, the word ‘Classical’ refers to the music that was composed during the period from 1750 to 1810. Although quite brief, this period is inclusive of the music of composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. As the classical style evolved and acme to maturity, more emphasis was placed on the qualities of the beauty of the melody, grace, form, control, moderation, proportion, and balance. Classical composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven tended to strike a somewhat perfect balance between formal structure and expressiveness in their music.

One notable composer of opera during the classical era was Gluck (1714 – 1787). He was known to react against the over-decoration and superficiality of opera in his time. Gluck felt that that music was supposed to serve the story, and not the other way round. “Singers had taken on such importance that the action was frequently held up while they were allowed to show off their technical brilliance. Gluck decided it was time for this to change. He first put his ideas into practice in his best-known opera which was performed in Vienna in 1762 (Lippman, Edward 1992 p.15) Gluck’s explanation was that in drama and opera, the music should serve the story. “The action should be more continuous avoiding interruptions merely for vocal display. Instruments should be chosen and used to suit each situation in the story, and the overture should prepare the audience for the nature of the drama that was to follow.” (Kivy, Peter 1980 p. 192)

Mozart (1756 – 1791) through his instinct for dramatic and his musical genius, transformed opera and depicted a keen observation of human nature. These instincts enable Mozart to imbue warmth and liveliness into his characters. “While creating a deeper understanding of the character, instrumentals often help to carry the story forward. Mozart makes the final scene of an act into an elaborate structure during which all the characters join in an ensemble, but with each character voicing his or her own reaction to the situation that has come about. The orchestra in a Mozart opera plays an important part in the unfolding of the story, even while expressing the mood and enhancing the importance of the voice.” (Frye, Northrop 1956 p. 31)

At some point during the classical era, instrumental music started becoming more important than conventional music for voices. This was something new in musical history, and a lot of music started getting written for piano, which possessed quite a lot of expressive power. It became possible for pianists to suddenly contrast between loud tones and soft tones. It also became possible to control different shades of volume and tone. The volume of sounds and tones could also be increased or decreased gradually, and it was possible to effect more contrasts between staccato and legato. An expressive melody may be shaped in a singing style in contrast with a more quiet accompaniment. Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano in 1709, and the first public piano music performance was given by J. C. Bach in London

As the use of the continuo became less and less popular, music composers began to use wind instruments like horns more frequently. These instruments were used to create a binding in the texture of the music, and towards the end of the eighteenth century, it was normal for strings, bassoons, flutes, clarinets, oboes, trumpets and kettledrums to be included in orchestras

Although Johann Stamitz, was credited for developing the string technique and balance of the Symphony Orchestra at Mannheim, Joseph Haydn is known to be the Father of the String Quartet and the Symphony. Stamitz was also one of the earliest Symphony composers in history. Haydn also served as conductor/composer in Hungary for about thirty years, where he composed some string quartets, chamber music, symphonies, and operas. Some of Haydn’s earlier string quartets were made up mostly of violin solos, cello, and viola. Later on, instruments also played a vital role in his quartets.

Haydn’s music and Mozart’s music represent the culmination of the mature classical style. “Mozart was a virtuoso keyboard performer and a budding composer before he was ten years old. He traveled throughout Europe with his father astonishing the nobility with his performances.” (Barrett-Ayres, Reginald1974 p. 143) some composers of the classic period like Mozart, composed dramatic music. Mozart had a great melodic gift and was able to express dramatic situations by using instrumental music, and this is clearly evident in many of his operas. In ‘Don Giovanni’ which was one of the most famous operas composed by Mozart, there is a combination of both tragedy and comedy. His piano concertos are also quite outstanding. “In them, we find a wealth of beautiful melodies, original formal structures, the unique use of woodwind instruments and the interplay of piano and orchestra” (Till, Nicholas 1992 p. 14)

As a youth, Beethoven actually did take composition lessons from Haydn who was already getting to the age of 60. Beethoven’s earlier compositions were quite emotional and aggressive. Beethoven also gave created expanded conceptions of the classical era forms. These compositions, especially his trio in c minor were an early sign that Beethoven, who can be said to be the last classical composer, would turn out to be the first Romantic composer and the greatest of them all. It would seem that Beethoven affected music in almost the same manner as Michelangelo affected Italian art, in the sense that they both had adverse effects on the will of their successors to create.

It can be said that conflict and drama are part of the constituents of Beethoven’s composition style. In Beethoven’s music, there seems to always be a powerful, times violent rhythmic drive, involving the sharp usage of discords, and striking contrasts in pitch (high pitches against low pitches), tone color, and the use of loud dynamics against soft dynamics.

“During a crescendo, when the loudest chord is expected, Beethoven will often take the listener by surprise by making a sudden drop to the piano. Beethoven increased the size of the orchestra by adding extra horns, piccolo, double bassoon, and three trombones in the finale of the 5th symphony. These instruments are used again in the 9th symphony (Choral) which also includes solo voices and mixed chorus, bass drum, cymbals, and triangle.” (Rosen, C 1971 p. 54)

According to Leonard Ratner, “while Mozart moved in the periphery of the aristocracy, Beethoven kicked open the doors, stormed in and made himself at home. He is the greatest musician to ever walk the planet. There was a force flowing through him, and he suffered through unimaginable torments in order to write it down the way he experienced it, openly and honestly.” (Ratner, Leonard 1980 p. 5)

Classical music in itself possesses a quasi-syntactic structure of musical properties. Some of these quasi-syntactic structures can be described in phenomenological terms. These properties are expressive and can make the drama more interesting to human beings, even though this can turn out to be misleading. It is possible that some classical composers worried about expressive meanings that tended to lead to interpretations that might cause extra-musical claims of ‘aboutness’, suggesting an emotive plot.

“In the Classic style, topics are not extra-musical in the sense of having nothing to offer a syntactic reading of the piece. On the contrary, they are able to account in part for historic work, which ultimately locates its syntax in the same historical continuum. While the historical location may be part of the meaning of a topic for contemporary listeners (the stylistic fingerprints that enable us to place an unknown work historically), it is not usually signified to a contemporaneous listener except in those cases where the referenced style is already historical” (Webster, James 1991, p. 41)

In the classical era, most symphonies were performed as an interlude in between other works, or as single movements. Thus most symphonies of this era ran for about 10 minutes. Instrumental groups also played according to different standards, and the continuo was a vital part of composing music. “In the intervening years, the social world of music had seen dramatic changes: international publication and touring had grown explosively, concert societies were beginning to be formed, the notation had been made more specific, more descriptive, and schematics for works had been simplified (yet became more varied in their exact working out.” (Will, Richard 2002 p. 83)

Beethoven was known to affect some major changes in the length and format of the symphony. Earlier in the Classical Period, it was usual for a symphony to last for about 20 minutes “with a standard form of four movements: (1) a vigorous, fast movement, (2) a slow, lyrical movement, (3) a dance-related movement (minuet), and (4) a fast movement. Beethoven not only considerably lengthened the movements (his Ninth symphony was 65 minutes) but also changed their typical order. He frequently replaced the third movement, the medium tempo minute, with a rapid-paced scherzo. In combination, all of these seemingly small changes created a mood that was heretofore unheard of. In the words of one critic, starting with the Eroica” (Kerman, Joseph 1967 p. 15)

Most music of the mature classical style possesses a different form and style from other types of music.

“In place of the rich-sounding polyphonic music, with all the instruments adding to the melody, classical composers were more interested in the way music was put together, section by section, and the way it should sound. There was no longer background of harpsichord or organ tone, the Strings have taken their place as the orchestra’s solid basis. The violins were best at playing melodies, with violas and cellos adding harmonies. Woodwind instruments, flutes, oboes, bassoons, could take over from the strings and provide a contrast in tone. Horns, and sometimes trumpets and kettledrums, added their strong sound to moments of climax. But in writing symphonies, Mozart progressed, much like Haydn, from those that were similar to old operatic overtures, to the last three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41), which are models of the mature classical style, with their added depth of feeling and sometimes their grandeur. In his piano concertos, Mozart created a kind of ‘dialogue’, or passing of musical ideas, back and forth between the soloist and orchestra.” (Ratner, Leonard p.23)

Instrumentals also increased the high capacity and dynamic power for the characterization of drama.


Classical music, and indeed most other music genre can have a great effect on the mood and environment of a listener. Instrumental Classical music is commonly used for frightening and dramatic effects, and as soundtracks for various types of drama.

In the era of the mature classical style (1750-1820), convention and structure tended to take precedence over whatever expressive needs the artist may feel. The mature classical style has a hallmark of clarity, brevity, lightness, emotional restraint, and correctness of form. Instrumental composers of the classical era, though in the employ of aristocratic families, composed music for specific events. This trend, including the purpose of the music, the form of the music itself, and the target audience, changed with the entry of Beethoven

The mature classical style conveyed drama through purely instrumental means and suggests that orchestra is more important than vocals. The orchestra displays a marvelous tapestry of sound and highlights every aspect of a drama as it unfolds on the stage. Some instruments like the Wagner tuba can be used to achieve the exact sound effects intended by the composer. The mature classical music always tends to achieve a kind of dramatic climax and also does resolve the dramatic climax and will usually retain fairly consistent levels of dramatic energy right to the very end of a piece.


Barrett-Ayres, Reginald “Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet” Schirmer Books, 1974.

Cook, Nicholas “Analysis Through Composition: Principles of the Classical Style” Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1996.

Frye, Northrop “Sound and Poetry” New York: Columbia University Press. 1956.

Kerman, Joseph “The Beethoven Quartets” London: Oxford University Press. 1967.

Kivy, Peter “The Corded Shell; Reflections on Musical Expression” Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1980.

Lippman, Edward “A history of western musical aesthetics” University Nebraska Press. 1992.

Ratner, Leonard “Classic Music; Expression, Form and Style”. Web.

Rosen, Charles “The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven” London, Faber 1971.

Till, Nicholas “Mozart and the Enlightenment” Faber and Faber 1992.

Webster, James “Haydn’s Farewell Symphony and the Idea of Classical Style” Cambridge University Press 1991.

Will, Richard “The Characteristic Symphony in the Age of Beethoven” Cambridge University Press 2002.

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