The Classical period lasted approximately 90 years, from 1730-1820AD, falling between the Baroque and Romantic eras. Art during this time looked back to the ideals of Classical antiquity and ancient Greece in particular. In keeping with this, music became simpler and more elegant, with a focus upon clear, singable melodies with neat, balanced phrases. As a result, many of the era’s beautiful melodic themes are still familiar today.
By the way, it is worth clarifying that “Classical music” (capitalised) refers to this specific period that we are discussing in this article, whilst “classical music” (lower case) refers to the whole tradition of Western art music, thus including the Romantic and Baroque eras as well, for example. As we look at ten of the greatest composers from the Classical period, with a recommended piece for each one, we’ll encounter key musical developments like the invention of the piano and the birth of the string quartet. Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven are the most famous figures of the era but, as we’ll see, there were a number of other composers who wrote impressive and significant works.
Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)
C.P.E. Bach emerged from one of Western music’s most impressive musical dynasties as the fifth child of Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps the Baroque era’s greatest composer.
What’s more, George Phillip Telemann, another major Baroque figure, was his godfather.
Building upon the influence of his father, he became an innovative stylist in the new Classical vein, writing in a more expressive manner that was known as empfindsamer Stil (meaning “sensitive style”).
A harpsichord virtuoso, he was employed in Berlin at the court of Frederick the Great, before succeeding Telemann as the musical director of a number of churches in Hamburg.
In addition to composing keyboard sonatas, concertos and religious music including Passions and Masses, he also wrote an influential text on keyboard technique and was one of the first composers to write autobiographically about his own life and experiences.
He influenced Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart, who said of him: “Bach is the father. We are the children!”
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)
Opera had developed as an artform during the Baroque era, but it was during the Classical period that it really began to flourish.
Gluck, who wrote first in Italian and then French, was one of the main architects of this; he felt that the form needed to be stripped back, so pioneered a new style in which drama was at the forefront, with elements such as music, dance and staging all subservient to this.
His Orfeo ed Euridice is based upon the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus.
The “noble simplicity” of both its plot and music would influence Mozart’s famous operas, as well as late Romantic works by Richard Wagner.
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)
While harpsichord and organ had been the dominant keyboard instruments of the Baroque era, one of the Classical period’s more significant technological developments was the invention of the piano.
Clementi, who was born in Italy before moving to England as a teenager, composed 110 piano sonatas and was one of the first composers to write keyboard works specifically for the new instrument.
Accordingly, he has been called the “Father of the Piano.”
A virtuoso player himself, he famously took part in a piano competition against Mozart for the entertainment of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who declared a tie.
Clementi also possessed a keen business sense, running both a piano manufacturing company and a music publishing house from London.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
The symphony is an extended, large scale orchestral piece made up of three or four movements, while the string quartet follows a similar musical structure in a classic chamber music format of two violins, viola and cello.
Both the symphony and the string quartet would remain staples of Western art music over the following centuries, being tackled by virtually every major composer, and both forms were pioneered by Joseph Haydn.
One of the most popular composers of his day, the Austrian had a keen musical sense of humour, as demonstrated by his use of numerous false endings and the famously shocking loud chord in his “Surprise Symphony”.
Meanwhile, his “Sturm und Drang” period in the 1760s and ‘70s saw him writing in a more deeply emotive and individualistic manner.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)
Joseph Buologne, or Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born the illegitimate son of a black slave and a white plantation owner in Guadeloupe, making him the first known classical composer of African heritage.
As well as serving as a colonel in the French army during the Revolution, he was a champion fencer and a virtuoso violinist and conductor, leading Paris’ top symphony orchestra.
Working as a composer in the court of Marie Antoinette, he wrote operas, symphonies and sonatas, as well as pioneering the symphony concertante, a new form that combined the symphony with the influence of the concerto grosso, a piece for multiple soloists that was popular in the Baroque era:
Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)
In Amadeus, the 1984 film about Mozart’s life, Salieri is imagined as a jealous villain plotting to kill his great rival, with the idea of this animosity between the two men first popularised in an 1830 Alexander Puskin play, in which Salieri murders Mozart onstage.
In fact, evidence suggests that, although they may have competed over certain jobs and positions in Vienna, they probably promoted each other’s work, with a feeling of great mutual respect existing between the pair.
Salieri was born near Verona, later becoming one of the most important figures in Italian opera of his day, composing for opera houses around Europe and working in the court of the Habsburg monarchy.
He was also an extremely influential teacher, counting Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Mozart’s son amongst his pupils.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
One of the most beloved composers of all time, Mozart’s name has become virtually a byword for precocious musical talent.
Famously, he began composing at just five years old, by which point he was already proficient on multiple instruments.
A versatile composer, he wrote over 600 works, including symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and an unfinished Requiem, his pieces filled with sublime, elegant melodies, many of which remain familiar today.
He built upon Gluck’s developments to write The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, some of the most popular operas of all time.
He died, aged just 35, having never achieved financial security, despite his huge musical renown.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Another towering figure in the Western art world, Beethoven is a transitional composer whose music spans the Classical and Romantic periods.
His early style was influenced by Mozart and Haydn as he studied the tradition and honed his craft, but later on began to anticipate the Romantic era with large scale works, such as his choral Ninth Symphony, with its famous “Ode to Joy” theme, which was one of the first works to include a choir and vocal soloists alongside a symphony orchestra.
He also expanded upon the previously strict rules surrounding form and structure, writing adventurous and increasingly emotive music.
His works are among the most performed in all of classical music.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schubert is another “transitional” composer who spans the Classical and Romantic eras.
Despite only living to the age of 31, he was remarkably prolific, writing more than 1500 pieces, as well as possessing an incredible gift for melody, with works like his Trout Quintet featuring extremely memorable themes.
He was an innovator in the realm of Lieder – art songs that set German Romantic poetry to music – as well as writing orchestral works, including his famous Unfinished Symphony and lots of other chamber music.
The Classical period is sometimes referred to as the era of Viennese Classicism because Schubert, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven were all based in Vienna for extended periods.
Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840)
Paganini, the most acclaimed violinist of his time, would compose his own works to showcase his virtuosity, and the Italian’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin are among the cornerstones of the violin repertoire.
Perhaps the most famous of these is the Caprice No. 24 in A minor, which is considered one of the most difficult violin pieces ever composed, and which has had dozens of variations written upon it:
Thanks for reading our guide to the most important composers of the Classical period, an era of beautiful simplicity that saw the popularisation of new forms like the symphony and the string quartet, and technological developments such as the invention of the piano.
We’ve covered household names, like Beethoven and Mozart, as well as some fascinating figures who are a little less well-known, so we hope you’ve enjoyed discovering some wonderful new music.