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Chapter 7: The Classic Period

Don Giovanni

Mozart's Don Giovanni was composed for Prague in 1787. The libretto was penned by Lorenzo DaPonte, who had written the lyrics for The Marriage of Figaro a year earlier. Da Ponte adapted his Italian text from an early 17th-century Spanish play, El burlador de Sevilla y el convidado de piedra (The playboy of Seville and the stone guest) by Tirso de Molina. The Don Juan legend tells of an arrogant young Spanish nobleman who made a practice of seducing every woman he could, irrespective of nationality, size, age, or social status. Assisted by his procuring servant, he traveled Europe in search of prey. In many cases his seduction degenerates into trickery, and even rape.

Don Giovanni

Tassis Christoyannis as Don Giovanni - Mostly Mozart Festival, 2011

In the opening scene of the opera Don Giovanni kills the father of a young noblewoman he has just deceived by pretending to be her fiancé. Later he encounters the dead man's statue in a cemetery and mocks it. To his surprise the statue speaks to him and invites him to dinner. Brazenly reciprocating the invitation, Don Giovanni invites the statue to dine at his palace the following night. The statue accepts. In the meantime the young rake engages in more seductions, including his abandoned fiancée and a naïve peasant bride at her wedding.

The opera reaches a dramatic climax when, following a lavish ball in his palace, Don Giovanni is startled by a knock at the door. The stone guest enters and offers Don Giovanni an opportunity to repent. When he refuses, the statue asks for his hand in pledge of his honor. Fearless and unrepentant, the don gives his hand, and the statue pulls him down through the floor into a burning inferno.

Mozart wrote principal roles for three sopranos, a tenor, and three basses. All sing arias with beautiful melodies and impressive fiorituraInformation A type of ornamentation or embellishment of a melody common in the 18th century. calling for a large range and expressive delivery of the text. The action is advanced by recitative, a style of singing in speech rhythms over a harpsichord accompaniment. The characters range from aristocrats to servants, and Mozart's music accommodates them all. A particularly amusing example is the famous catalogue aria in which the don's lackey gives an account of all his master's conquests, ending every verse with the refrain, ". . .but in Spain 1003."

Mozart called this opera a dramma giocoso, suggesting a combination of serious and comic elements in the plot. His clever music adroitly presents both aspects, and despite the tragic ending there are many very funny scenes. This helps to explain why Don Giovanni has been produced thousands of times in opera theatres around the world and remains a staple of the repertoire today. It's a good show!

Back to Ancillary Readings
Ancillary Readings Opera Synopsis: Don Giovanni
The Classic Period is the shortest of the six style periods, spanning only 60 or 70 years, yet it lends its name to the whole realm of classical music. The most important musical activity takes place in the second half of the 18th century in and around the city of Vienna.

The primary composers are Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. All three excelled in the composition of the most important musical instrumental genres of the day: sonata, concerto, symphony, and string quartet.Information1. A chamber ensemble consisting of two violins, viola, and cello.

2. A composition, usually in four movements, for string quartet.
Hardly less important in their output are opera and sacred music, mainly mass settings.

Just as the development of the violin had influenced composition in the Baroque, so the development of the piano influenced the classical composers to a very large degree. Before about 1740, the primary keyboard instruments were the organ and the harpsichord. Organs were large permanent installations that required an assistant to play: the bellows had to be pumped. The practical, portable polyphonic instrument of Bach's day was the harpsichord, something like a harp turned on its side and fitted with a keyboard. Its strings were plucked by quills activated by a mechanical action.

The piano (short for pianoforte—loud/soft) offered something neither the organ nor the harpsichord had—a touch-sensitive keyboard. Players could control the volume of a note or a passage by the firmness of their touch. This technology spawned a whole new repertoire of solo keyboard music known as the piano sonata. All three of the major composers of the period, and a host of minor ones, contributed to the genre of the piano sonata. Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas are considered to be one of the most important collections of works in a single genre by any composer, and they constitute an important part of the repertoire of a concert pianist.

Sonata Form sonata form diagram

Working Composers Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are the three superstar composers of the Classic Period. All were active in Vienna in the second half of the 18th century, but none of them were born there. Haydn came from Rohrau, Mozart from Salzburg, and Beethoven wasn't even Austrian—he came from Bonn, Germany. All three confronted the challenges of trying to make a living as a composer, and all three succeeded in proportion to their ability to deal with patrons and sponsors.

Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Franz Josef Haydn
Haydn came to Vienna as a boy to sing in the choir at St. Stephens Cathedral, along with his brother Michael. They came from a poor village family in lower Austria, and the cathedral choir offered an education with room and board. When Josef reached adolescence and his voice began to change, he contemplated a visit to the surgeon to preserve his soprano voice but, choosing not to go that route, he found himself scrambling to make a living as a musician in the big apple. After a period of financial instability he was fortunate enough to secure a post as assistant Kapellmeister to Count Esterhazy, a rich Hungarian with an estate modeled on Versailles. There, Haydn had access to good singers and instrumentalists as well as time to compose. Though later promoted to Kapellmeister, he was still a servant and wore the same uniform as the footmen; but his creative abilities were valued, and he prospered. Married with no children, he produced an astonishing output of symphonies, string quartets, operas, songs, sonatas, sacred music, and other compositions. When he retired he was twice invited to come to London to conduct his symphonies. He was the most admired musician in Europe, and financially secure. He owed this all to his talent, his industry, and his ability to work for a demanding patron.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart may have been the most gifted musician in history. A child prodigy, he spent his youth touring Europe with his sister and father, a violinist, composer, and stage father par excellence. A frail child, he was often ill, yet he played for all the most important rulers in Europe. Once his parents had died he worked in a number of situations and composed in all the genres, but he never succeeded in securing a position like Haydn had. At one point he seemed to have landed a job working for the archbishop of Salzburg, but that fizzled when he went AWOL. When the irate archbishop fired him he literally kicked him out of his presence. Mozart was extremely productive but not very financially successful and died penniless at age 35. His lack of success can be directly attributed to his inability to meet the demands of a patron like the archbishop. Perhaps he would have found such a sponsor had he lived longer.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven came to Vienna at age 18 as a piano virtuoso. In spite of his less than attractive appearance and occasionally surly manners he conquered hearts with his performance at the keyboard. Politically, Beethoven was a child of the Revolution—a libertarian and an egalitarian. He had no desire for a patron who would limit his artistic and personal freedom. He accepted commissions, but he refused to be anyone's lackey. Without help from his friends he could not have survived in Vienna, yet he sustained an impressive output of work in all the major genres throughout his adult life. This was complicated by his hearing loss, which began when he was around 30 and progressed to complete deafness. But some of his greatest works, like the 9th symphony and the late string quartets were written after he became deaf. He died in poverty at age 57.

These three brief sketches illustrate the professional vicissitudes of a musician in the 18th century. Success depended on much more than talent and industry. One had to be able to function within the patronage system. Haydn embraced the system, Mozart failed to follow the rules, and Beethoven rejected it from the outset.

The remnants of that system remain in play today. Few composers can make a living writing music. Most have another source of income, often a position teaching at a university.

Sonatas were also composed for other instruments such as the violin, cello, flute, or trumpet. When the solo is a monophonic instrument, the piano is normally employed as accompaniment. So a piano sonata is for piano alone while a violin sonata is for violin and piano. Sonatas typically have three movements arranged in the order of fast, slow, fast tempos.

The first movement of a sonata is usually in sonata form, so the term is used to describe both genre and form. Sonata form, which is actually a complex binary form, is also used for the first movements of concertos, symphonies, and string quartets. Like many musical forms, sonata form (sometimes also referred to as "sonata-allegro" form) is characterized by its tonal resolution of thematic relationships. In the textbook model of sonata form, the first theme is presented in the tonic keyInformationThe tonic note is the most important in a key, the one which all other notes relate and which gives a sense of resolution, usually found at the end of a melody and composition. In solfeg, the tonic is 'Do'. The tonic key, then, serves the same purpose in a composition which may change keys. and the second theme is written in another key. Often times, the second theme will be be in the dominant keyInformationThe dominant is the fifth scale degree from the tonic, and is next in importance to it. In solfeg, the dominant is "So" to the tonic's "Do". or the relative keyInformationRelative keys are the major and minor keys that share the same key signature. Every major key has a relative minor, and likewise, every minor key has a relative major key. For example, the relative minor key of C Major is A minor (vise versa: the relative major key of A minor is C major). In a major key, the relative minor tonic is found at the sixth scale degree, or submediant. In solfg, the submediant is "La". In a minor key, the relative major is the mediant or the third scale degree. In solfeg, the mediant is "Mi". In a sonata-form composition in a minor key, the exposition generally modulates to the mediant (or relative major) instead of the dominant because so many notes are shared. A tonic 'a' minor chord is A-C-E, and the mediant is a C Major chord C-E-G. The resolution of this conflict occurs in the recapitulation when both the first and second theme are restated, but in this section of the sonata form the second theme will be presented in the tonic key. The structure soon became the most important feature of musical architecture of the Classic/Romantic Era (1750-1900).

Concertos are like sonatas with orchestra. If you took a violin sonata and orchestrated the piano part you'd have a rudimentary violin concerto. While this is simplistic, it is a pretty accurate description of an important genre. Remember that a concerto is a work for solo instrument with orchestra, and that the solo instrument could be any orchestral instrument or the piano. Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos and they are among his most charming works. He often appeared as soloist in performances of his piano concertos. The same was true of Beethoven. Although he only composed five piano concertos, they are among his greatest works, especially the last, called the "Emperor."

Although the word sinfonia had been used to describe instrumental works before, it was in the Classic Period that the symphony as we know it came to exist. Haydn, often called the father of the symphony, composed 106! Since a typical symphony has four movements, that comes to more than 400 pieces of music for the symphony orchestra. That would be an amazing lifetime output by itself, but Haydn also produced 26 operas, 68 string quartets, 14 masses, 47 piano sonatas, and other assorted compositions.

About half of Mozart's 41 symphonies are considered masterpieces of the genre. Beethoven composed 9 symphonies, all of which are considered masterpieces, but the odd- numbered ones are generally conceded to be superior to the even-numbered ones. Of course, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is universally regarded as one of the greatest art works of western culture, and its first movement is probably the best-known orchestral composition of all times. Everyone can name it after only four notes have been played!

The string quartet is a bit like a miniature symphony in that it, too, has four movements but is played by four solo musicians rather than a full orchestra. A string quartet is made up of two violins, viola, and cello. (There is no contrabass in a string quartet.) Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were all instrumental in the development of the genre, which is the paradigm for all chamber music. Beethoven's late quartets—written after he was totally deaf—are regarded as among the finest compositions in all of classical music.

Classic period opera is also very important to our discussion, and all three of the major composers wrote opera. Mozart is clearly the superstar of this genre. At least a half dozen of his operas are still in the repertoire of every major opera company in the world. Don Giovanni is regarded by some as the greatest opera ever composed. Haydn wrote more operas than Mozart, but none of them is now in the standard repertoire; I've only heard a few of them on recordings. Beethoven's Fidelio is a flawed masterpiece over which he labored and agonized for many years, obsessively revising it and composing no fewer than four different overtures for it. The three Leonora Overtures that he decided not to use have become standard concert repertoire for symphony orchestras. These overtures, originally intended as theatrical curtain raisers, are much like the first movement of a symphony.

While sacred music did not hold quite the important place it had in the Renaissance and the Baroque, composers continued to write liturgical music, especially masses. Masses by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and their contemporaries are typically scored for a quartet of vocal soloists, choir, and orchestra. They are longer and more impressive than 16th-century settings of the Ordinary. Many of them, like Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, are concert works with sacred Latin texts, much too long and expensive to produce to be practical for a worship service. Today you would be most likely to hear a work like this performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Chapter 7: Music for Listening