(This is part 2 of the GetIntoClassical blabber-free guide to the classical musical eras. You can see all the parts here.)
Ahh, the Classical era of classical music could we get any more confusing than that?
Its really unfortunate that the whole genre got lumped with the title of one particular fifty year stretch in its history. Not only is it inaccurate, but it can be ultra aggravating for newcomers trying to understand what the heck they are even listening to. Its inaccurate because there are actually only two truly Classical (in the sense of the era; watch the capitalization!) composers you are likely to ever listen to: Mozart and Haydn, and youll have to listen to them for quite a while before you can even tell them apart.
Classical-era music was an antidote to all the ornateness and complexity of the Baroque era. The goal of the classical composers was to produce music which was simple, witty and elegant. Instead of the twisting complexity and stacked melodies of Bach, they went in for clean melodic lines, and more standardized musical structures (although the Classical pioneers, Mozart and Haydn, helped to define what those standards were).
And they werent just doing this for the aesthetics. Both Haydn and Mozart did a lot of work on commission, i.e., they were employed by rich people to come up with background music for their social events, and didnt get as much of chance to really explore what they wanted to do. That legacy has hung over the era through to the present day: watch any movie with a bunch of rich people at some social event and theres an even chance that Mozarts Eine Kleine Nachtmusik will be being played by a string quartet. Thats unfortunate, because that really biases most peoples opinion of what classical music (and big-C Classical music) is like.
By far the most important classical composers were Mozart and Haydn.
Sample piece: Mozarts Symphony No. 40, 1st movement
Mozarts last two symphonies, No. 40 and 41, are his most famous. Interestingly, people have interpreted the 40th as being everything from exceptionally light and graceful, to dark and full of emotion. Which just goes to show that you should consider the music totally on your own terms!
Lorin Maazel & New York Philharmonic – DG Concerts – Mozart: The Last Symphonies
Sample piece: Haydns Symphony Hob. 94 Surprise, 2nd movement
This one has an apt name. Turn up the volume you want to experience the full force of it. This piece demonstrates one of the key differences between Mozart and Haydn: while they are both witty, Haydn is more in your face, down-to-earth knee-slappingly funny. It must be his hearty country upbringing.
Wiener Philharmoniker & Leonard Bernstein – Haydn Symphonies