The movement away from the Baroque in classical music, after the deaths in the 1750s of Bach and Handel, reflected changes in society and culture emerging from the Enlightenment. In England, for example, the shared rule between the Aristocracy and the upper Bourgeoisie (the class of industrialists, owners, and some professionals) was well underway at the start of the eighteenth century, given the authority of Parliament and the increased power of industrialization. What language could help to unify and streamline communication among these contending parts of society? In the music of the new “Classical” era, the answer involved the appeal and usefulness of a more homophonic style, in which lines of music were not generally played against each other as in Baroque polyphony but, rather, placed more singly or together within simpler harmonic structures.
Two new forms were developed in this period. The sonata had existed before, but now it became the name of a new structure for instrumental music, particularly in the first movement; “sonata form” now meant that the melodic material of the initial theme occurred in the tonic, base key, and the second cluster of melody occurred in the dominant key, the nature of which drew it towards in part dramatic resolution in the tonic. In sonata form, the middle portion of the movement developed motifs from the statements of theme, sometimes exploring new combinations and harmonies but always returning to resolution in the tonic statement of the first theme in a recapitulation of the sonata’s beginning. At the core of this “classical” form is the capacity to project and then resolve dramatic tension between related keys and themes.
The second new classical form was the opera as drama. There had, obviously, been earlier operas (and the kindred masques and oratorios), but now the staging of dramatic story became foremost in classical opera, in which the individual voices of soloists fulfilled dramatic roles, clashing with each other and, often, with the community at large.
Both of these new classical developments of older forms emphasize cohesion and integration of the individual into the whole of society. In this way, music served to mirror the new modes of communication needed by the process of negotiation and debate among the contending parties in Enlightenment society. Such music was expressive, coherent, and harmoniously ordered as it both projected and connected individual voices to a communality. In the second half of the eighteenth century, classical musicians were supported – inconsistently, in Mozart’s case – by the stipends, roles, and commissions from aristocratic institutions and the upper Bourgeoisie, and yet partly as a result of its wordless nature or at its best, it was freed from the prosaic or didactic or explicit representation of the social order in the Age of Reason.
Mozart and Haydn were the most gifted composers in this period, and they excelled in different areas. Haydn was wonderfully productive and inventive in developing the new sonata style in over eighty examples of the string quartet, beginning in the mid-1770s, and over one hundred symphonies. His inventiveness involved continual experimental play with phrases, motifs, and conventions – always integrated into the classical mode of drama and resolution. Mozart’s scores of symphonies, concertos, quartets, and sonatas always present the music’s voices as engaged in sustained conversation whether in agreement or in contention, and always harmoniously resolved. While these ‘conversations’ also played with motifs and conventions, Mozart’s particular gift was to cast a light of beneficent acceptance on all he voiced, no matter how dark or disordered.
I’ll focus here particularly on Mozart. His music contains a wondrous emotional range, from joy and kindness to defiance or lamentation, like that found in his final work, the Requiem’s “Lacrimosa.” It was Mozart’s range of affect that was seen by early Romantic listeners as forecasting the ethos and music of their own period. His early productivity in his twenties included his beautiful violin concertos, a dozen piano concertos, and dozens of symphonies and sonatas. His richest productivity occurred in the decade from just before his marriage in 1782 to his death in 1791 at the age of thirty-six. These most powerful and beneficent compositions took the form of his dozen greatest piano concertos, ten string quartets (six of them dedicated to Haydn, the pioneer in the form), nearly a dozen symphonies, and five operas (conceived and composed in this period which saw the American and French revolutions, though as viewed by the Viennese from the distance of the Hapsburg Empire). “The Marriage of Figaro,” for example, dramatizes the relations of servant to master, of the sexual mores and work conditions within an aristocrat’s household – presenting situations of harassment and exploitation there but avoiding revolutionary rancor by negotiating a comic, humane, harmonious resolution.
It is “Don Giovanni” that most powerfully dramatizes the transition and tensions between the world of the Enlightenment and that of Romanticism. The original Don Juan was the figure of the Renaissance libertine, first appearing in a Molina play from the Spanish Golden Age and then in Baroque dramas and fictions. Now in 1787, Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, emphasized the collision between the vulnerable “normal” world (of couples and family, extending from the aristocracy downward, with their mores about women and money) and the world of the unique individual, a figure possessing an intensity, charisma, and energy. The opera’s Don Giovanni invades the ordinary world, affecting its emotions and behavior, investing them with new energy, and leading them to participate in his fiction, in his self-created world of passionate expression. In the Enlightenment, such a figure must be controlled, either integrated into the customary world or expelled from it. From the point of view of Romanticism, he is the figure of the Romantic Genius, inspired and inspiring, living beyond good and evil.
At key moments of the opera, we can see the dynamic tension between these two conceptions played out. In the Overture, there is the slow opening, forecasting the Don’s final fate, with minor-key evocations of danger and terror amidst powerful orchestral exclamations, and this is followed by the conventionally affirmative allegro racing beyond the evocation of danger though driven by a sort of unstoppable energy, partly in reaction to what Don Giovanni has or will bring into the more ordinary world. One of his early arias, “Fin Ch’han dal vino,” projects his insatiable appetite for women, wine, and song with the expectation of adding the names of new conquests from all social classes to his “list” (rather like a diabolical Enlightenment dictionary of his sex life). Soon in Act I there is the sung recitation of Donna Anna, whose father has been murdered by Giovanni upon interrupting the attempted seduction of Anna. At a key moment in the recitative, her singing becomes passionately sensual as she describes “twisting, turning, and bending” as she attempts to resist the seduction. In this way, Don Giovanni intrudes on and stirs the emotional capacities of the human beings around him. In Donna Elvira’s Act II aria, “Ah, taci,” the new seduction shows his ability to invest stock social gestures with lyric force, wit, and compelling energy, seducing her even as he uses his side-kick Leporello as a stand-in.
Leporello is an emissary from the mundane world that the Don invades, and this man of ordinary capacities and expectations is recruited and manipulated in ways that reinforce our sense of how comically vulnerable the ordinary world is to the force of Don Giovanni’s spirit. In the opera’s final movements, the statue of the murdered father, the Commendatore, comes alive to condemn him and send him to the underworld; the dead father’s music of communal judgment and certainty confronts the lyric force of Don Giovanni’s rebellion and the refusal to repent in his repetitions of “No!” as a fiery death descends on him. Such was the end of the opera as staged in the Romantic period, but as produced in its initial years during the late eighteenth century, the sextet of the remaining living characters – including Leporello – returns to the stage to celebrate the restoration of the community.
The Romantic conception and staging of “Don Giovanni” is described in a Tale from 1820 by E.T.A. Hoffmann: “Nature endowed [him] with all the favors she heaps upon her darlings. He received every gift which, tending toward the divine, raises a man above the…workaday world and its uniformly manufactured products…His was a powerful and magnificent body, a personality radiating that spark which kindles the most sublime feelings in the soul, a profound sensibility, a swift and instinctive understanding…Fired by a longing which seethed through the blood in his veins, he was driven to the greedy, restless seizure of all the phenomena of this earthly world.” Such is the figure of the Romantic Genius, with his gifts, his impact, and his driven, costly vision.
Beethoven is sometimes seen as this representative Romantic figure, but the complexity and depth of the composer and his music cannot be so readily pigeon-holed. Born in 1770, he experienced his musical education and early career during the Enlightenment, and the compositions he produced in this period were profoundly shaped by Mozart’s and Haydn’s Classical works; when he moved to Vienna in his twenties, there were competitions in improvisation in which he triumphed through his fierce inventive play with motifs and his extraordinary emotional expressiveness, ranging from the ineffably lyrical to the overwhelmingly powerful. Throughout his career, Beethoven improvised with the essential Classical conventions, and more and more ambitiously, he focused on stripping down their motifs to the essential elements and developing these basic musical germs organically; the idea of development itself was at the core of his music.
Beginning in the second period of this work (from 1803 to about 1811), the passages of organic development can grow to overwhelming proportions. This period also saw Beethoven’s increasing deafness, about which he wrote to his brothers in the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1803; it was as if his need for their help and his isolation from the ordinary production of music coincided with his powerful, profound, and freed development of classical art. In the Appassionata sonata of 1805, for example, the development section in the middle of the first movement keeps generating arpeggios of greater and greater power as it moves abruptly from one arpeggiated chord to another, harmony to harmony, creating a destabilizing blaze of dissonance with layer after layer of dramatic, destructive-sounding force. All of this climaxes with a recapitulation of the sonata’s opening, but now accompanied by the agitation of a constantly repeated bass note.
Sonata form has here let loose the force of organic development, central in Romanticism and expanded now to overwhelming proportions, which challenge the listener with its expression of power. In the changing culture in which the sonata was composed, the increasingly empowered Bourgeois audience is shaken as it confronts an expression of individual will and freedom dwarfing the petty accommodations, violences, and self-interest built into the society. In this way, the sonata’s seemingly unbridled power confronts the unexamined faith shaping early nineteenth-century art and life. Of course, the sonata is in truth not unbridled but an extension of classical form, though extreme and unimagined in the eighteenth century. Similarly, Beethoven employed the classical variation form to project an encompassing vision of growth from the most basic elements; in his late period’s Diabelli Variations for piano, for example, a vastly varied structure emerges out of the simplest tune and develops to include allusions to much of the great music which had come before him, with homages toward the end to Bach, Handel, and Mozart. Beethoven invested Baroque-style fugues with his own sense of organic beauty and implacable force, particularly in the last decade of his life, the last period ending in 1827.
Beethoven’s late compositions include his piano sonatas opus 109-111 and his string quartets opus 127 through 135. In them, there is a serene and even abstract acceptance of all musical conventions even as they are radically disassembled and reimagined; reconciliation in his music accompanies his most radical innovations, which challenge the audience’s complacent expectations of conventions. The risk of pursuing his deepest goals is to isolate himself from the world around him. Ironically, it is this last period which gave rise to ageless works of art. Particularly the Ninth Symphony of 1824, this world-encompassing innovative music, has been embraced by human culture generally. Experimental versions of the classical forms can be found throughout the symphony – sonata, variation, fugue, and most radically a chorus and soloists, as if the symphony were an oratorio, though a pantheist and romanticist one. Schiller “Ode to Joy” is the fourth movement’s sung text, and it joyfully proclaims earthly life as the source of transcendent meaning. After one loud climax in the movement, a soft, simple carnival march sounds out; the love and joy Beethoven is voicing here embrace both the lowliest human and the celestial heights and, in this way, establish a bridge to the Romantic Period.