During music’s Classical period, instrumental music was popular entertainment in both the concert hall and the home. In this lesson, we’ll look at four popular genres of Classical-era instrumental music: symphony, concerto, string quartet, and sonata.
What Is a Genre?
What’s your favorite movie genre? If you like sci-fi, you might watch a lot of time-traveling aliens or heroes saving the universe with technology.
Maybe you prefer watching things blow up in action films, or watching couples find, lose, and find each other again in romance movies. Every film genre has its own variety of story for filmmakers to play with.A genre is an art-form type that comes with a set of traditional conventions.
There are genres in music too, with their own sets of conventions. Musical genres are usually determined by what kind of instruments the composer selected, what the music’s purpose is, and how the music is organized.
Genres in the Classical Period
We’re going to look at four genres from music’s Classical period. The Classical period lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. It was a time when composers wanted music to sound natural, well-structured, and attractive to the average listener.During the Classical era, there was a boom of new genres in instrumental music, which is music for instruments only, without singing. Most of these instrumental genres were separated into three or four movements, that is, separate, free-standing sections.
You can think of a Classical-era instrumental piece as a three or four-course dinner, with movements for courses. Classical composers were like expert chefs who created tasty meals full of balance and contrast.
The Movements of a Symphony
During the 18th century, public concerts became popular for the first time. Before the Classical period, most concerts were private, invitation-only affairs hosted by wealthy aristocrats. But with the rise of the middle-class market in the 18th century, orchestras began to put on accessible concerts that were funded by selling tickets. The symphony is a genre for orchestra that came into its own during the public concerts of the Classical era.
A classical symphony has four movements. The first movement is usually fast, and written in a structure called sonata-allegro. Sonata-allegro form is structured around the interaction of two contrasting melodies.
It’s an exciting form that often challenges the brain a bit. The opening movement is the meat-and-potatoes of a symphony.The second movement of a classical symphony is called the slow movement because it’s (surprise!) slower than the first movement. Slow movements often sound lyrical and songlike, and they usually tug at an audience’s emotions. You could think of the slow movement as the symphony’s warming soup course.
The third movement of a classical symphony is the mid-tempo minuet and trio. It’s a stylized version of the minuet, a popular social dance from the 17th and 18th centuries. Just like rock music is fun because it uses a dance beat, audiences enjoyed the beat of a symphony’s minuet and trio, even though they didn’t get up to dance at concerts! You could think of the minuet and trio as a symphony’s refreshing salad.The last movement of a Classical symphony was often a fast one. Sometimes, composers wanted to end with a bang, and wrote a wild closing movement. Sometimes, they wanted to end on a serious or dramatic note, and wrote a grand finale in sonata-allegro form. Whether it’s fluffy like mousse, or substantial like apple pie, the fourth movement rounds out a symphony like a dessert.
The Concerto Genre
Classical-era audiences loved hearing symphonies at orchestra concerts. They also loved solo performances by musical stars. The concerto genre was a perfect way to combine both kinds of entertainment – it’s a genre for orchestra and featured a soloist.A Classical concerto is structured like a symphony, with a couple of important tweaks.
It has three movements, not four; it skips the symphony’s minuet and trio. The other difference is that a concerto features music for a soloist, intertwined with the orchestra’s music. The solo instrument could be a piano, a violin, or any instrument the composer chooses.
String Quartet and Sonata Genres
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go to a live concert whenever we want to hear music? Unfortunately, I can’t afford to do that, and neither could the middle-class Classical-era music fan.
Classical-era families often owned and played their own musical instruments, and domestic music was a popular pastime.For those who enjoyed the drama of a symphony, string quartet was a great genre to play at home with friends. String quartet is a genre for two violins, a viola, and a cello. A string quartet follows the four-movement structure of a symphony, with a sonata-allegro form first movement, a slow movement, a minuet and trio, and a fast closing movement.
There’s also a genre that’s great for introverts, or for loving couples: the sonata. A sonata is a genre for one or two instruments, for example, just a piano or a piano and flute. A sonata has three movements like a concerto: an opening fast movement, a lyrical slow movement, and an energetic finale.
During the Classical period, which lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century, there were four prominent genres of instrumental music. Each was structured in three or four movements. The symphony was a four-movement genre for orchestra, which usually opened with a sonata-allegro form movement. It also included a slow movement, a minuet and trio, and a fast closing movement.
The concerto was a three-movement genre for orchestra and soloist. Domestic music genres included the string quartet, a four-movement genre for two violins, viola and cello, and the sonata, a three-movement genre for one or two instruments.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to describe the main components of the four prominent genres of instrumental music that existed during the Classical-era.