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Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are the three composers who epitomize music’s Classical period. In this lesson, we’ll explore their life stories and learn about the kinds of music they wrote.

What Is Classical Music?

Did you know that your local ‘classical music’ radio station has been misleading you for your entire life? We’re used to thinking of classical music as a general label for everything written a long time ago by people who didn’t know about electric guitars.

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Actually, the Classical period of music was a very specific and limited chunk of musical history: it lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century.The Classical period was a time when entertaining, tuneful music was trendy. Composers strove to write music that went straight to the heart, instead of challenging listeners with too much complexity.

The Classical period also happened to produce three of music history’s most famous composers: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.Their music defined the Classical style, and they were so celebrated by 19th century music historians that they’ve become poster boys for concert music in general. That’s why you have the adjective ‘classical’ attached to your local concert-music radio station!

Franz Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was the oldest of the three and a friend and mentor of Mozart and Beethoven.

Haydn grew up near Vienna in the Austrian countryside. At the age of seven, he embarked on a musical education, working as a choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Vienna was a musical epicenter during the Classical period, so going to Vienna to learn music was sort of like going to Hollywood to get into the movies.In 1761, Haydn started a job as music director at the court of a Hungarian aristocrat, Prince Paul Esterházy. During the Classical period, working as a court musician for a powerful aristocrat was one of the highest-profile jobs a musician could do. His job was to be the Esterházys’ family iPod: he wrote music and organized concerts for them as the leader of a large group of staff musicians.

He was known as a warm, kind director: his orchestra loved him, and nicknamed him ‘Papa Haydn.’Haydn spent 30 years working for the Esterh;zys, and the music he wrote for them gained him international fame. His works included instrumental music like symphonies and string quartets, as well as vocal music like operas and sacred pieces.

Haydn is also remarkable for being one of the funniest composers in music history. He loved to write gag pieces like the ‘Surprise Symphony’, a work that lulls its audience with gentle music only to freak them out with a sudden blast of sound.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Haydn’s contemporaries considered him the greatest composer of his time, but Haydn himself assigned that top slot to his younger friend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

Born in Salzburg, Austria, Mozart was an astonishing musical prodigy who could play the harpsichord and compose by the age of six. His father, Leopold Mozart, was eager to showcase his son’s talent; Mozart spent most of his childhood touring Europe with his father and sister, performing concerts for royalty and dignitaries.Before he was 20, Mozart was already working as a court musician for a powerful archbishop in Salzburg. Leopold Mozart was happy to see his son in such a respectable position, and he was not thrilled when Mozart quit his job in 1781 to move to Vienna and be a freelance musician. In Vienna, Mozart published compositions, concertized as a pianist, and had his operas produced. Between it all, he managed to create an unorthodox, but successful career.

Mozart enjoyed a happy marriage with the singer Constanze Weber, though his growing family caused him financial stress. Mozart also became buddies with Haydn; they played in a string quartet together on Haydn’s days off. Sadly, Mozart died of a sudden fever in 1791, just as he was starting to write operas and symphonies of unprecedented emotional power.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a passionate composer who mastered the elegant Classical style, then pushed it to its limit. Beethoven grew up in Bonn, Germany. His father’s debilitating alcoholism created a challenging childhood for young Ludwig: he had to provide for his mother and brothers from a young age.Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792, where he studied composition with Haydn and began working as a pianist and teacher for aristocratic patrons.

He gained a reputation around Vienna for powerful, moving piano playing, and for an incredibly nasty temper.The temper had a lot to do with the gradual hearing loss that began in his twenties. Beethoven’s deafness ended his career as a pianist, but it made him determined to express himself to the world through composition.

His 5th Symphony, composed between 1807 and 1808, is longer, louder, and more intense than any of Mozart’s symphonies. It portrays a dynamic musical journey from the dark key of C minor to the triumphant key of C major. Many think this symphony expresses Beethoven’s own determination to overcome his adverse fate.Through his symphonies, piano sonatas, and other works, Beethoven injected Classical style with a new level of dramatic intensity. His challenging life became as legendary as his music, and later composers looked to him as a model of a brand-new concept: the idea that music can express a composer’s own personal story.

Beethoven’s life and music helped inspire musical Romanticism, a style which dominated the mid-to-late 19th century. In Romanticism, composers use music to tell stories and communicate passionate emotion.

Lesson Summary

Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were the three most prominent composers of music’s Classical period, an era of music history that lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. Haydn was an Austrian composer who wrote symphonies, string quartets, and other works while employed by the aristocratic Esterh;zy family as court musician. Mozart was a child prodigy who grew up to write operas and symphonies of great power, working as a freelance musician in Vienna.

Beethoven was a German composer whose revolutionary symphonies helped create a new style in music, called Romanticism.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe music during the Classical period
  • Examine the accomplishments of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven
  • Explain how Beethoven inspired Romanticism

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