The Greatest Composers of the Classical Period

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.  However, Haydn and Mozart weren't alone in their pursuit of musical perfection, there are a handful of classical period composers whose contributions to classical music changed the course of music forever.  Without further ado, I would like to introduce you to the greatest classical period composers.

Franz Josef Haydn
Franz Josef Haydn, by Thomas Hardy (1792).

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." More »

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Did you know that nearly half of Mozart's life was spent touring the European continent? Born in 1756, Mozart was musical prodigy who began composing at the age of five. Shortly after his talent was discovered, his father was quick to take him on tours with his sister. Tragically, Mozart died at the young age of 35.  Despite his short life, Mozart greatly advanced classical period music, contributing over 600 compositions.  His compositional style is similar to that of Haydn's, only more flamboyant and, during his lifetime, often criticized for having "too many notes." More »

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Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)

Antonio Salieri
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 mostly known for his contributions to opera.  However, in 1804, Salieri abruptly stopped composing operas, and instead, wrote only music for the church.  Salieri was friends with Haydn and gave music composition lessons to Ludwig van Beethoven.

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Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Christoph Willibald Gluck
Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Thanks to Christoph Willibald Gluck, opera as we know them today could be radically different.  Gluck revolutionized opera by softening the contrast between recitatives (the dialogue between one aria to the next) 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.

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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 who went on to teach great composers like Chopin and Mendelssohn years later. Clementi's most notable body of work are his compositions for piano: Gradus ad Parnassum and three piano sonatas (op. 50).

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Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805)

Luigi Boccherini
Luigi Boccherini.

Luigi Boccherini lived at 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, sadly, he 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).

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Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
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 musical 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.

Ludwig van Beethoven
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 so special? I'll tell you.  It was Beethoven's 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. More »