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Music History Review





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CLassicPictureClassic Music History Review

General Background on the Classic Era

The Classic Era (c1750-1820) is referred to both as "The Age of Reason" and "The Age of Revolution." On one hand, it was a vital period of scientific discovery, learning, and philosophical "Enlightenment"; on the other, it was marked by bloody social conflicts that ravaged much of Europe and the American colonies.

The quest for greater order and understanding in this era led to scientific breakthroughs such as the first vaccine, the discovery of oxygen and hydrogen, the invention of the steam engine and electric motors, and the start of the Industrial Revolution in England. Classic writers and philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant and Jefferson proclaimed the necessity for social equality and believed the surest path to social enlightenment was through mass education. This widespread thirst for knowledge led to the publication of the first "how-to" books and the first encyclopedias (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1799).

As the lower classes increasingly questioned the norm, civil unrest intensified into major conflicts. The two most famous revolutions of this era saw the American colonists win their independence from Britain, and the French lower classes overthrow the French monarchy. The victorious generals—George Washington (USA), and Napoleon Bonaparte (France)—both set their common countrymen free and subsequently became the first freely-elected heads-of-state of their respective countries. For Napoleon, however, this was not enough: In 1803, he betrayed his people by crowning himself Emperor, then over the next twelve years he attempted to conquer Europe piece by piece. Even the powerful Holy Roman Empire, centered in Vienna, was threatened by rebellion from within; however, when Napoleon began to attack, the people begged the Austrian Emperor for protection, leading to the institution of intense censorship that remained in place until the 1860s (and which had a noticeable impact on the arts of that era).

Some Musical Considerations in the Classic Era

In the Classic period, the Baroque aesthetic of dramatic contrast was replaced by debate (direct conflict between opposing ideas for the ultimate purpose of resolving that tension and unifying the structure). Whereas a Baroque movement portrays a single mood, a Classic movement relies on contrasting melodic themes and key centers within the same movement. Clarity and balance are essential aspects of the Classic style:

The Interactive Timeline on Classic Music

You may begin your chronological review of Classic music by clicking the "Interactive Timeline" link on the left index.