The Classical era was primarily a period of instrumental music. The major composers of the time focused on new instrumental styles and forms. Vocal music wasn't nearly as important as it had been in the past. The Lieder (songs) written by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are not considered to be as important as their instrumental work. The operas composed by Haydn to entertain the guests at Esterházy have vanished into history, and Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio. However, the age did have some significant and lasting achievements in the area of vocal music. Specifically, some of the large choral works of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, including many of Mozart's operas made lasting contributions to the body of vocal literature.
Vocal music example
Opera had been filling theaters in Europe during most of the 17th century and the early years of the 18th century. However, for all of its popularity, it still wasn't an art form that appealed to the masses. The librettos were usually ancient Greek or Roman in origin or based on some sort of obscure, heroic tale. Although the opera buffa, a form developed during the mid-Baroque period, had some success in bringing opera to every social class, it remained primarily an aristocratic form of entertainment. In the years leading into the Classical period, all of this changed.
Several factors led to this adjustment: First, growing numbers of middle class had enough disposable income to attend opera, but were bored by the haughty stories of the Greeks and Romans. Second, a few composers found ways to bridge the gap between the classic Italian form from which opera originated and the more popular folk-based form of opera that the public was demanding to see.
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The composer who was first able to bridge the cosmopolitan gap between French and Italian styles of opera was Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787). He was born in Germany, studied in Italy, and became famous in France. In the 1750s, a reform movement began in Italy. The primary aims of this movement were to find ways to speed up the action by smoothing the distinction between aria and recitative, and adding depth to the orchestral color.
In Alceste (1767) and his other mature operas, Gluck successfully combined the choral scenes and dances of French opera, the ensemble writing of comic opera, and the new instrumental styles of Germany and Italy. His works changed the direction of opera for centuries to come, particularly in France and Italy. In the following section we will look at Mozart, the next composer who would have a monumental effect on opera.
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