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Top Classical Period Composers


Spanning seventy years, the classical period is a time when composers began pulling in the reigns of the many baroque period musical styles by creating strict compositional "rules and regulations."  Yet within their rigidity, great composers like Haydn and Mozart were able to create some of the greatest classical music the world has ever known, though they weren't the only composers responsible for superb classical period music.

1. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Andris Nelsons conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the program of Haydn and Brahms at Carnegie Hall.
Hiroyuki Ito/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Haydn was a remarkable composer, epitomizing the meaning of classical period composition, and though he wasn't as flashy as the younger Mozart, his music always stayed true to form.  Haydn, unlike most composers, had a "reliable and steady" job composing, directing, teaching, performing, and managing musicians from the royal Esterhazy family. During this time, Haydn composed many pieces of music for the courtly orchestra to perform. With a staggering body of work, including over 100 symphonies and 60 string quartets, he is often referred to as the "Father of the Symphony" or "Father of the String Quartet."

2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Did you know that nearly half of Mozart's life was spent touring throughout Europe? Born in 1756, Mozart began composing at the age of five. Shortly thereafter, he toured with his father and sister. Tragically, Mozart died at the young age of 35.  Yet during his short life span, Mozart greatly advanced classical period music with over 600 compositions.  His compositional style is similar to that of Haydn's, only more flamboyant and often criticized for having "too many notes."

3. Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)

Antonio Salieri

Salieri may have been envious of young Mozart's musical genious, however the rumors of Salieri poisoning Mozart are, in fact, simply rumors.  Salieri was a respected Kapellmeister who was most notable for his contributions to opera, but stopped composing operas in 1804 before composing only church music.  Salieri was friends with Haydn and gave music composition lessons to Ludwig van Beethoven.

4. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Thanks to Christoph Willibald Gluck, opera as we know it today, could be radically different.  Gluck revolutionized opera by softening the contrast between recitatives and arias by weaving underlying melodic themes and orchestral passages within the recitatives as they flowed into the arias.  He wrote his scores in line with the opera's text similar to how modern composers compose film scores, and also melded French and Italian operatic styles.  In the late 1760s, Gluck allowed Salieri to study with him and become his protege.

5. Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)

Muzio Clementi
As the "Father of the Pianoforte," Clementi was a strong and vocal promoter of the piano. Clementi was a master of many musical trades including a performer, composer, publisher, teacher, arranger, and even instrument maker. He traveled extensively throughout Europe, collecting and publishing music manuscripts including those of Beethoven's and selling pianos. He also taught students that went on to teach great composers like Chopin and Mendelssohn. Clementi's most notable body of work includes his compositions for piano: Gradus ad Parnassum and three piano sonatas (op. 50).

6. Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805)

Luigi Boccherini

Luigi Boccherini lived during the same time as Haydn. In fact, their music is so closely related, musicologists often refer to Boccherini as the "wife of Haydn." Unfortunately, Bocchernini's music never surpassed the popularity of Haydn's and he sadly died in poverty. Like Haydn, Boccherini has a prolific collection of compositions, but his most notable works are his cello sonatas and concertos as well as his guitar quintets. However, his most popular and instantly recognizable classical piece of music is his famous Minuet from the string quintet Op. 13, no. 5 (view a YouTube video of the famous Minuet).

7. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
The second of three sons born to the great composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (named in part to honor Georg Philpp Telemann, Bach Sr.'s friend and C.P.E. Bach's godfather), was highly revered by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. C.P.E. Bach's most valuable contribution to the classical period (and the music world as a whole) was his publication, An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. It instantly became the definitive for piano technique. To this day, it is still largely taught throughout the world.

8. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven
Many view Beethoven as the bridge connecting the classical period to the romantic period. Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies. Compare that to Haydn and Mozart, who, combined, wrote over 150 symphonies. What makes Beethoven special was his successful attempt to break the mold of the highly structured and refined rules of classical period composition. His compositions, especially the famous Symphony No. 9, opened the flood gates of composing with emotional abandon.

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