How the idea of classical music came about

The music of the Classical Period, including the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, was written between about 1750 and 1830. The concept of "classical music" actually did not exist until later.

The Music of Aristocrats and Peasants

Before about 1700, a hierarchy of noble families headed by various kings and the Holy Roman Emperor dominated society. They owned all the land and collected taxes and rents from the peasantry, which made up the majority of society. Between these two classes, a middle class of merchants, bankers, skilled craftsmen, etc. gradually rose out of the peasantry and aspired to become as much like the nobility as they could.

Although some music probably appealed to every level of society, some appealed only to one class or another. Hardly anyone took notice of the tunes enjoyed only by peasants and villagers. They survive today, if at all, only as folk music.

Every generation had composers highly respected by the educated classes, whose music pleased audiences far from  home, but no one much kept listening to it more than about 20 years after they died. The middle class probably had no music of its own, but prized mostly whatever music the rulers, who often kept real novelties to themselves, considered suitable for public consumption.

Also, members of the nobility expected each other to receive a thorough education in music. As men and women of leisure, they had time to learn technically challenging music and sophisticated musical structures.

The Music of the Middle Class

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the middle class had grown in numbers and economic power, but not in educational opportunity.  They could afford to develop their own music. Opera companies and concert orchestras began to cater to them, and they could afford to acquire instruments and printed music to use in their own homes.

Because they did not have enough leisure time to acquire an aristocratic musical education, they wanted music somewhat simple in construction and technically easy enough for them to sing and play it without having to develop professional proficiency. By the 1780s, for the first time in history, the aristocracy adopted middle-class music as its own.

This role reversal had tremendous consequences. The first generation of composers in this new, simpler style (Giovanni Battista Sammartini, for example) met the same fate as generations of composers before them. People stopped listening to their music shortly after their deaths.

Although Joseph Haydn's first contract with the Esterházy family required that he compose whatever music the prince commanded and not allow anyone else to have copies of it, Prince Nikolaus, whom he served the longest, saw an advantage to having a famous music director. He allowed Haydn to accept commissions not only locally, but as far away as France and Spain. Publishers, not only in Vienna but also in Paris and London, sold his music all over Europe and in North America. Mozart and later Beethoven appealed to audiences over a scarcely smaller area.

These and other composers wrote music that appealed both to people who wanted easily accessible music for entertainment and to people who wanted artistic substance that took repeated hearings to comprehend. They provided what is surely the most listener-friendly body of music ever written. And yet all of it could have met the traditional neglect by future generations if the concert organizations in the major capitals had continued.

Art vs Entertainment

In fact, the French Revolution ended concert life in Paris for nearly 30 years. The Napoleonic wars that followed crippled concert organizations in Vienna and London, too. Concert orchestras survived only in cities with little more than local influence and no major music publishers.

Music publishers in the major capitals no longer had a market for symphonies and string quartets, but they could still sell songs and piano music. They aimed for a mass audience that preferred entertainment to art and novelty to artistry. In other words, they began to invent the popular music industry, selling to a public that didn't care if composers of songs knew how to read and write musical notation or if those who sang them publicly did not have well trained voices.

Composers of operas (like Rossini and Meyerbeer) and piano music (like Henri Herz and other now-forgotten people) appealed to this same audience with displays of dazzling technique over totally unsophisticated musical structures. Those who prized artistry found none in this music, which deliberately aimed at both a comfortable familiarity and superficial novelty.

Beethoven died in 1827 and Schubert the following year. They had no followers. The Classical Period had ended and there was not yet any of what we know as Romantic concert music. No living composers satisfied the tastes of that minority of both aristocrats and the middle class who wanted to hear artistically meaningful music. They had to keep listening to the music of dead composers, and fumed about how hard it was to find anyone playing it.

One French critic of the 1830s ranted that there were only two kinds of musicians: classicists and Rossinists. The idea of classical music as a repository of great works against which all else must be measured was born

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