The term “classical” in music defines a range of styles, periods and even attitudes. Taken at face value classical music spans a timeline from the medieval period around 500 AD to the present. In popular music culture however, most people consider Classical music as that of Bach, Beethoven, Handel and Mozart. These composers lived during the 1700s and 1800s. This then is the period of popular Classical music.
Following the Renaissance era in Europe, the Baroque period ushered in a century of overindulgence—in art, architecture, fashion, and even music. The Classical period responded with simplicity. In music this style was known as homophony, and it heralded a contemporary tone in high art music.
Classical artists like Beethoven and Bach were accorded the same fanfare as the current popular music celebrities. This was popular music in the late 1700s. Musical artists were composers as well as musicians and their lives were studded with as much controversy and drama as they are today. Operatic theater was the rage as well.
Bach stands alone in the canon of Classical music for his German organ music. His style remained ecclesiastical and church-centered in contrast to his contemporaries of the near future. The Baroque style is still apparent in his work in combination with newer musical inflections distinctive to the new Classical era.
Austrian court composer Joseph Haydn pioneered the string quartet style. He was highly revered for his contributions to the era’s new sound. Mozart, also from the Austrian region, was a younger contemporary and later collaborator to Haydn. In contrast, Mozart was much more the urban dandy and required a more public lifestyle. Most of his compositions center around the popular operas and his compositional contributions are standards in most symphonic canons. Mozart as a musician worked almost exclusively on a piano. In his later career he wrote his piano concertos, which remain examples of his most remarkable pieces.
By the time Classical composition reached the end of the 1700s the artistic tide had already begun to turn to an even more contemporary formula. When Beethoven arrived on the scene musical improvisation was even a part of most performances. The era on the whole introduced traditionally high class and courtly music to the masses. Beethoven’s virtuosity and attention to the piano served to launch the instrument into the mainstream. Perhaps one of the main reasons a piano ended up in many American homes.