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Music In The Classical Era

Social and Cultural Influences

Peter Kun Frary


The Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe marks the dawn of the late modern period in world history. The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and French Revolution (1789-1799) were Western milestones of this time. In the East, it was the Tokugawa era in Japan and the Mughal Empire (Persian) ruled much of India. It was also the heyday of explorer James Cook (1728-1779) and scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790).

In European art music, this time period was known as the Classical Era, extent from approximately 1750 to 1820. Like other period styles, there is a generation of overlap with the musical styles of previous and subsequent periods, i.e., the Baroque and Romantic eras.

The Loves of Paris and Helen, Paris 1788 | Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) | Louvre Museum | Light and elegant style of 18th-century neoclassical painting.

Patronage and Political Power

The eighteenth century saw the rise of monarchies with a strong centralized rule. Thus, smaller courts diminished in political and cultural influence except in northern Europe. German and Austrian courts had some independence, especially in artistic and social matters. These courts competed against one another with artistic and social rivalries.

Noble patronage of musicians dominated early in the eighteenth century. By the end of the century, aristocratic power and cultural influence was in decline. Church patronage of serious music all but disappeared in the Classical era. As the nineteenth century dawned, the growing bourgeois or middle class largely replaced royal and church patronage through marketing of concert tickets and music publication.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is a philosophic movement of the eighteenth century marked by questioning of traditional values and doctrines, individualism, emphasis on universal human progress, religious tolerance, the empirical method in science and free use of reason. The principles of the Enlightenment strongly influenced the French and American revolutions. Emerging concepts of civil rights and questioning of class privileges undermined the power of monarchies and helped establish parliamentary reforms and democratic style governments in Europe and the Americas.

The Classical Era also was an increasingly cosmopolitan Age. National differences became less pronounced due to increased travel and trade. Even monarchs were crown outside of their homelands: German kings in England, Sweden and Poland and a Spanish king in Naples.

Diana and Cupid, Rome 1761 | Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787) | Metropolitan Art Museum

Popularization of Music

As the middle class grew and the Enlightenment imbued citizens with dreams of equality, it was accepted that all people should be enriched by the arts, not just aristocrats. For example, eighteenth century comic opera was performed in public theaters using native tongues and spoken dialogue with stories about ordinary folk, rather than foreign tongues in private theaters with stories about kings and Greek gods.

Eventually the middle class market undermined noble patronage and musicians increasingly catered to popular taste. Composers learned to meet audiences on their own terms since the tastes of the noble connoisseur were not valid for the middle class.

The business of music continued to evolve with musicians marketed with bigger than life personas. Sales of sheet music "hits" was big business and roughly similar to modern sales of CDs and iTunes downloads.

Function of Music

With the rise of the middle class, music was mostly about public entertainment. And the masses liked elegant spectacles such as opera, symphony, concerto, and ballet. Social dance music was also an important market albeit not as artistically engaging as concert music.

Although the patronage of the cultured aristocrat was in decline, a small market for intimate and sophisticated salon or drawing room music still existed, especially solo song, piano solo and chamber music.

The Music Party, Paris 1774 | Louis-Rolland Trinquesse (1746-1800) | Alte Pinakothek | Amateur music making at home was an essential part of Classical Era music culture.

The market for printed music for amateur performance of piano and guitar solos, solo songs and chamber music was burgeoning. Home music making was both an important hobby and status symbol for both the middle class and aristocrat. Here's a little taste of music written for use in the homes of the bourgeois:

Andante from Duo Opus 55, No. 3 | Fernando Sor (1778-1839)


Classical Era, Enlightenment

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