Though this word has been used to distinguish serious art music from ‘popular’ music, it is used more specifically to identify music composed between c1750 and c1820. Stylistically, music of this period uses the same Italianate conventions of the Pre-Classical/Early Classical period. However, composers are now able to sustain greater complexity and expressive depth within these forms and conventions. The mature works of Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven are commonly considered the masterpieces of this age.
The simplicity and poise of the early Classical period is raised to a new level of sophistication. In opera, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni create an unparalleled sense of reality, unifying elements from the comic Opera buffa and the more historical Opera seria styles. Whether these sophistications were appreciated by the audiences of the time is another matter: opera was a prime opportunity for card-playing, eating and flirting! . The concerto begins to lose its Baroque principle of ‘contrast’ and becomes more Symphonic, though the notion of soloist and orchestra in competition is still a feature of concerto writing until the Romantic era.
The Symphony continues to flourish under Mozart and, in particular, Haydn who wrote over 100 examples. Haydn claimed he was ‘forced to be original’ as most of his symphonies were written for the same patron, Prince Esterhazy! The string quartet also becomes a major genre for compositional expression, with Haydn and Mozart again setting the example for Beethoven to follow. It is the figure of Beethoven, and to a lesser extent Schubert, that stands astride the Classical and Romantic periods. His music is both the culmination of the Classical ideal and the starting point for musical Romanticism.