The Baroque period culminated in the masterpieces of J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel. In the middle of the eighteenth century, contemporaneous with the mature years of Bach and Handel, a new musical style developed that is known as Rococo or preclassical style. This style is most evident in keyboard and orchestral music, but it is mentioned here because it represented a transition from the Baroque to the Classical era, occurring between 1725 and 1770.

In the world of painting, Rococo style is characterized by delicate colors, many decorative details, and a graceful and intimate mood. Similarly, music in the Rococo style is homophonic and light in texture, melodic, and elaborately ornamented. In France, the term for this was style galant (gallant or elegant style) and in Germany empfindsamer stil (sensitive style). François Couperin (1668-1733), in France, and two of the sons of J. S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach (1714-1788) and Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), in Germany, were important composers of music in the Rococo style.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a reaction against Rococo style occurred. There were objections to its lack of depth and to the use of decoration and ornamentation for their own sake. This led to the development of Classical style.

The Classical period itself lasted from approximately 1775 to 1825. The name classical is applied to the period because in art and literature, there was keen interest in, admiration for, and emulation of the classical artistic and literary heritage of Greece and Rome.

Intellectually, this era has also been labeled the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu wrote of the value of the common person and the power of human reasoning in overcoming the problems of the world. This revolution in thinking inevitably led to conflict between the old order and new ideas. The French and American revolutions in the last quarter of the eighteenth century were stimulated by this new attitude.

The musical scene in the classical period reflected the changes occurring in the society in which the music was being written. This was the first era in music history in which public concerts became an important part of the musical scene. Music was still being composed for the church and the court, but the advent of public concerts reflected the new view that music should be written for the enjoyment and entertainment of the common person.

Unlike the Renaissance or Baroque eras, which included many important composers and trends, the choral music of the classical era was dominated by three composers: Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). For the first time, during the Classical period most of the important stylistic advances that occurred can be observed most clearly in the instrumental forms: the symphony, concerto, sonata, and in instrumental chamber music (e.g., the Beethoven string quartets). Church music tended to be more conservative than secular compositions, which also helps to explain why stylistic innovations were seen most clearly in instrumental music but were less prevalent in the choral music of the period.

Choral and instrumental forms overlapped during the Classical period to an unprecedented degree. Forms developed in the instrumental area were appropriated and used to good effect in choral music. Sonata allegro form, for example, often found in sonata or symphony movements, is also used in sections of classical masses. Beethoven included choral sections in two instrumental works, his Choral Fantasia and the Ninth Symphony.

This period in music history is sometimes referred to as "the Viennese Classic period," and it was centered in Vienna. Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, though none was a native Viennese, all worked in Vienna for significant periods in their careers. Although Vienna was the focal point for musical activity of the period, classical music is not parochial but universal in spirit and in style.

Important Forms

Important forms of choral music during the classical period included the following:

Mass. The mass continued to be an important form for each of the three primary Classical composers. During the Classical period, masses involved orchestra, soloists, and choir in a fully integrated work, utilizing organizational principles derived from instrumental forms.

Missa Brevis. This concise treatment of the mass text may consist of strictly delimited development, simultaneous setting of several lines of text, or the omission of certain sections of the mass.

Missa Solemnis. When choral musicians refer to the Missa Solemnis they are usually speaking of Beethoven's Mass in D Major, a milestone in the development of choral music. In a broader sense, however, the term refers to a more elaborate and extended musical treatment of the mass text than that employed in the Missa Brevis.

Oratorio. The Baroque oratorio tradition, begun by Carissimi and culminating in the works of Handel, was continued in the Classical period primarily by Haydn, who wrote two oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, which have remained an important part of the choral repertoire.

Requiem. Although many musical settings of the Requiem were composed during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the Classical period produced a setting by Mozart (completed by a student following Mozart's death) that has become a staple of the choral repertoire and two settings by Cherubini that are also often performed.

Vespers. Mozart wrote two settings of this service each of which includes psalms and the Magnificat, written for choir, quartet of soloists, and orchestra.

Choral Symphony. A symphony which includes sections written for choir and orchestra. The earliest and probably best known example of this is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, incorporating choir and soloists in the fourth movement.


Haydn. Franz Joseph Haydn was born in the Rohrau, Austria, in 1732. At age eight he was accepted as a choirboy at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. When he left St. Stephen's in 1749, he became an assistant to Nicola Porpora. In 1759, he worked briefly as musical director for Count Morzin, and in 1761 was employed as assistant music director and then music director for the Esterhazy family, residing at their estate. He remained with the Esterhazys for nearly thirty years, until 1790.

During the last decade of the eighteenth century, Haydn made two trips to London. He had been hired by Johann Peter Salomon to compose and conduct six symphonies for his first trip (1791-1792) and six for his second (1794-1795). Haydn's London appearances were highly successful.

Upon his return to Vienna in 1795, Haydn composed some of his most significant choral music. The six masses from this period, composed for Prince Nicholas Esterhazy (the son of Haydn's earlier employer), and his two oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, are his most significant choral works. Haydn's total choral output included twelve masses, three oratorios, a passion, two Te Deums, a Stabat Mater, and a few other smaller works.

In his later years, Haydn was a celebrity whose works were widely recognized and appreciated, in contrast to the decades spent in the relative isolation of the Esterhazy estate. He died in 1809 in Vienna.

Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1756. At the age of six, he could play the harpsichord and violin, compose, and performed in Munich and Vienna. Between the ages of six and fifteen, Mozart was taken on tours of Europe and England, organized by his father, Leopold Mozart, a Salzburg court composer. Although he was away from home more than half of the time, he produced a steady stream of compositions during this period.

In 1781, Mozart left Salzburg and moved to Vienna, teaching, concertizing, traveling, and continuing to compose constantly. In contrast to Haydn, who worked in the isolation and relative obscurity of the Esterhazy estate for many years and then became an international celebrity in his sixties, Mozart was thrust into international prominence as a child and encountered decreasing public acceptance of his music when he was an adult.

By 1791, Mozart's health was failing. He received a commission that resulted in the composition of The Magic Flute. He was also visited by a representative of a Count Walsegg, who commissioned a requiem. Mozart may have believed he was writing a requiem for himself. He died before completing the work, and it was finished by a pupil of Mozart's named Sussmayer, working from Mozart's sketches of the unfinished portion.

Mozart's choral output includes eighteen masses, the Requiem, two Vespers settings, and a variety of shorter choral pieces.

Beethoven. Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770. He came to Vienna in 1792, where he studied with Haydn and Albrechtsberger. His first public performances in Vienna as a pianist and composer came in 1795.

Beethoven protested against the patronage system that bound musicians to the service of an employer. Increasingly deaf, Beethoven eventually was forced to retire from public performance and to concentrate on composition. Unlike Mozart, who seemed to conceive of music in final form and who simply wrote down his conceptions, Beethoven's sketchbooks provide a record of his agonizing struggle to arrive at a composition he felt was satisfactory.

Beethoven was primarily a composer of instrumental music, and it is in his symphonies, piano music, and string quartets that the transition from Classic to Romantic style is most clearly discernible. Nevertheless, his choral music is an important part of the repertoire, and his Mass in D Major, the Missa Solemnis, is one of the monuments of Western musical tradition. Beethoven's choral output included two masses, an oratorio, two symphonic works with large choral sections and a few smaller pieces.

Classical Style

Music from the Classical period is distinctive in style from what preceded and followed it. Some of the questions related to performance practice in Renaissance and Baroque music are less complex because at this point in Music history we have much clearer and more explicit indications from the composer concerning the tempo, dynamics, and expressive qualities of the Music under consideration.

Moreover, there have been public performances of this repertoire from the time of its composition to the present. This is both a help and a hindrance in light of the fact that through the last two centuries, certain Romantic conventions have become an accepted part of the performance of this music, and they are not always appropriate to authentic Classical style (this same Problem of inappropriate performance conventions added during the Romantic period exists with Baroque repertoire and, to a lesser extent, music from the Renaissance).

Classical choral music tends to be more homophonic and lighter in texture than that of the Baroque. This lightness needs to pervade the choral lines. There is still rhythmic energy and drive, but without the weightiness of Baroque music.

The lighter quality of Classical music also is derived from its slower harmonic movement. Baroque music, with its emphasis on vertical structure and use of figured bass and basso continuo, is characterized by frequent harmonic changes, sometimes on every beat. Classical music changes chords much less frequently, giving it a more graceful sweep and lightness of phrasing than that created by the pulsating feel of a harpsichordist realizing a Baroque figured bass part, supporting the choral singing with rapidly changing embellished chords. During the Classic period, the keyboard player was no longer typically the composer/ conductor, but instead was simply one of the players in the orchestra. The keyboard part should be much less obtrusive and less highly decorated than that of a Baroque work.

The choral music of the Classic period is generally conservative, and therefore often contains sections of free counterpoint, fugue, and use of continuo, reminiscent of the Baroque. This is particularly true in the music written in the early part of the period.

The Classical era was an era of formality. The music was characterized by careful attention to form and by elegance and restraint. The formal structure was based on the use of thematic development and harmonic structure.

The music of the Classical era is characterized by objectivity. While emotion is an important aspect of all music, in the Classical period, emotions were carefully controlled. This control is evident in the use of dynamics and expressive differences within sections or movements of a composition. The Baroque notion of terraced dynamics, coupled with the expression of a single emotion in a given section of a composition, was replaced by the classical trait of varying the emotional content of a given movement, section, or even a measure of a piece. Dynamically speaking, this was accomplished through the use of crescendo and decrescendo.