Piano in the Classical Period

A painting of Beethoven in his home working at his piano
A painting of Beethoven in his home working at his piano | Source

What does the word Baroque really mean?

The word “Baroque” comes from a variety of sources including the Portuguese/Spanish barroco and the French baroque, and its general definition is that of a rough or imperfect pearl. It’s a term used to describe artwork that’s elaborate or highly ornamental. In the music of the time this can be seen through the use of various ornaments such as mordents, inverted mordents, trills, turns and so on, devices that became used more sparingly in the Classical period and beyond.

There is another point to remember about these decorative devices in terms of piano or keyboard music. During most of the Baroque era, when much of the music was written to be played on a harpsichord, for example, it would not have been possible to sustain notes for any reasonable amount of time. Rather than holding notes down, therefore, composers employed trills, turns and other ornaments to add interest to notes that would otherwise simply have faded quickly away or that would have seemed quite dull and boring from an audience’s perspective.

It was during the Classical period that the piano began to establish its place in the hearts and homes of everyday people. By the end of the Baroque period, the piano was gaining a steady reputation. Bach’s sons were writing for it, especially Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE) Bach. But there were three other composers - namely Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - who were destined to elevate the piano to its rightful place in history.

The Classical Period: 1750-1820

Each period of the arts represents a shift in attitude to the period before it. In basic terms, this shows itself as an emotional-intellectual see-saw, or, to put it another way, as romantic versus classical. Composers in the Classical period sought to bring a more intellectual approach to music in reaction to the grandeur and indulgence of their romantic Baroque counterparts. This is not to imply that the music of Mozart or Beethoven lacks any emotional connection, because that is certainly not the case. This see-saw effect merely serves to demonstrate the approach taken to composition – and to the arts in general – as each successive generation finds their own means of expression.

Lang Lang plays Schubert

Composers achieved this intellectualizing approach by anchoring their music in forms such as the sonata and the concerto; forms that originated in the Baroque era but which Classical composers developed and extended. It was during the Classical period that pianists first became star performers, playing along with complete orchestras and pounding out cadenzas to the delight of appreciative audiences. But the piano wasn’t just making waves in the concert hall.

A Typical Classical Piano

A Grand Piano built in 1781 following a design by the inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori
A Grand Piano built in 1781 following a design by the inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori | Source

Gathered Round the Piano

By the end of the Classical period a piano was a common sight in the front rooms of more fortunate families
By the end of the Classical period a piano was a common sight in the front rooms of more fortunate families | Source

A Piano in Every Home

Pianos became the must-have accessory for those who could afford one. Composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were employed by wealthy parents to teach their children, and many great pieces were written in an attempt to help the aristocracy master these new skills of playing the piano.

Early pianos had only four octaves, although we know that Mozart wrote for five-octave instruments and Beethoven for pianos with six octaves. As the range grew, so did the quality and versatility of the instrument. Eventually damper and una corda pedals were added, giving the increasingly popular piano even more depth of expression and extending its compositional possibilities.

Lang Lang plays Beethoven

Your Classical Piano Composer of Choice

Who's your favorite piano composer of the Classical period?

  • Mozart
  • Beethoven
  • Haydn
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The Piano Music of Mozart and Beethoven

Mozart’s piano music includes sonatas, concertos, fantasias and piano quartets. He continued to write piano pieces throughout his career, although his overall output shows a more eclectic range than that of Beethoven, for example. Such is Mozart’s appeal, though, that certain pieces - such as the Turkish March or the Sonata Facile K. 545 - are instantly identifiable. His music for piano includes:

  • 18 piano sonatas
  • 18 miscellaneous pieces found in Nannerl's Music Book
  • A number of fantasies and rondos
  • Variations
  • Minuets, suites, fugues and assorted other works
  • 30 piano conertos

Ludwig van Beethoven also wrote concertos, sonatinas, variations, chamber music and miscellaneous other works. He’s perhaps best known for one particular contribution to the piano literature, having written a cycle of 32 sonatas for solo piano. Known as The New Testament (to distinguish them from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the 48 preludes and fugues also called The Old Testament) these form the backbone of many a pianist’s early repertoire. They've become so universally recognized that even non-musicians can name at least one of them, such as the Moonlight sonata, the Pathetique or the Appassionata.

Mozart's Piano Sonata in C

The Influence of "Papa" Haydn on Classical Piano Music

Franz Joseph Haydn was a friend to Mozart and a teacher to Beethoven. He is recognized as the father of the symphony and of the string quartet, although he found time to write plenty of music for the piano as well. He is credited with the development and refinement of the piano trio, a chamber piece usually for piano, violin and cello.

The output from this Austrian composer was astonishing. His compositions include:

  • 107 symphonies
  • 83 string quartets
  • 45 piano trios
  • 62 piano sonatas
  • 14 masses
  • 26 operas

Haydn was born some 24 years before Mozart and approximately 38 years before Beethoven. He lived to the ripe old age of 77 and was lovingly referred to as Papa by musicians who worked for and with him. It was a term of respect for the older man's musicianship and his willingness to give advice to his younger compatriots, whether they were performers or composers. It’s no wonder that he had such a major influence on his successors and their approach to composition.

Making Music Round the Piano

An Italian family gathered round the piano making music together
An Italian family gathered round the piano making music together | Source

Fast Facts about Classical Composers

Beethoven was said to be so meticulous that he counted out exactly 60 coffee beans every time he made himself a cup.

Mozart reportedly wrote the entire overture to Din Giovanni on the morning of its first performance while suffering from a hangover.

Haydn was said to have cut off the pigtails of a fellow choir member as a practical joke.

It was Beethoven who ultimately bridged the gap between the Classical and Romantic periods. His later works are full of intensely personal expression, a truly Romantic ideal, and in some cases he stretched Classical forms to their absolute limits. There certainly seems to be a logical progression from his music through to that of Chopin and Liszt, for example, two of the big guns of the Romantic piano.

Haydn's Piano Trio in G Major - 3rd Movement

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Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 17 months ago from Northeast Ohio

John, this was very interesting to know about the greatest piano players in the classical musical period. Very informative to know that part of music history. Voted up for interesting!

JohnMello profile image

JohnMello 17 months ago from England Author

Thanks Kristen, for reading and for voting up :)

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    JohnMello397 Followers
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    JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

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