A Short History of Long-Haired Music: The Classical Era, part 3


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Some people refer to it as the “Viennese Style.” Others, the “Viennese Classical School.” Whatever you call it, by the late 1700s, the Austrian capital of Vienna had clearly become the hot musical spot in Europe. It was in Vienna that Mozart studied with Haydn. It was in Vienna that Mozart was blown away by the talents of a very young Beethoven. And once word got out that the three long-haired geniuses were chumming around town together, everyone wanted live and work in Vienna.

And not just the bigwigs. Less important composer, too. Men with names such as Johann Hummel, Johann Stamitz, Muzio Clementi, and Friedrich Kuhlau. Composers I’ve only heard of because I just Googled: “Minor Composers” + “Classical Period.”

But the new Viennese sound these men were developing wasn’t just about translating stylish rococo fashions into music. One of the biggest contributions came from something we all take for granted: the piano.

Up until the Classical era, the harpsichord had been the primary keyboard instrument. But Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which we learned about earlier, remained the pinnacle of expression in terms of virtuosity, complexity and volume. No composer could outdo Bach because he’d already taken the harpsichord to eleven.[1]

But that was the old baroque. New classical expression demanded new technology. No matter how hard you pound on a harpsichord key, only one dynamic sounds: medium. That’s because a harpsichord string is plucked, not hammered. So both the heaviest and lightest touch produce the same volume. Not so with the piano, as anyone with a small child knows. The harder they slam their adorable little fists down on the keys, the harder the hammer hits the string. If they do it repeatedly, and long enough, they’re certain to succeed in clearing the room at any party, necessitating a time-out lasting anywhere from five to fifteen minutes, depending on who’s throwing the party.[2]

Back in Vienna, a sophisticated audience was on the rise and the greatest composers of the Classical era found their ear with sudden, dramatic shifts in dynamics throughout their compositions. The invention of the piano (or pianoforte as it was then called in Italian) was perfectly timed and well suited for the job with its ability to go from zero to sixty, or piano to forte, faster than you could say “smallpox vaccine” (finally invented in 1796).

Once, on a trip to Vienna, I took a tour of Beethoven’s house. What I recall most vividly about the visit is this: Beethoven bathed in a bathtub in the middle of the kitchen—either that or he was into preparing enough goulash for the entire town. And, even more surreal, from his piano, looking out the window, I saw some woefully familiar signage, which read: SUBWAY, eat fresh. Suddenly I pictured Beethoven, were he still alive, sitting at his piano, quill pen in hand, licking his chops thinking: I’ve gotta find an ending for this sonata so I can go get me one of those delightfully crunchy Veggie Delite sandwiches. It’s like a salad in a sandwich!


In addition to the already discussed rococo influence and inventions of the piano and smallpox vaccine, it’s impossible to discuss the Classical era without at least mentioning the Industrial, French and American revolutions.

Okay, there, I mentioned them.


[1]Another This is Spinal Tap reference. If you don’t know the movie by now, don’t even bother finishing this sentence until you’ve rented it and watched it at least three times.

[2] For parties thrown by close relatives (i.e. in-laws, cousins, etc.) less time will suffice. For parties thrown at my house, the longest-time-out-ever should be considered.

[Be sure to tune in next Wednesday for Part 6 of this series!]

If you missed our previous installments, check out A Short History of Long-Haired Music archives