Painting | Kettle Drummer
Paul Klee, Kettle Drummer, 1940

Ideas from this section are from Writers of the Western World, Hibbard and Frenz. This text was rewritten for a high school audience, and musical examples were modified. For the unedited text and accompanying musical compositions, visit Classic-Romantic -Modern on the Humanities Resources Page.

In Classical music, the form is clear. Composers stick to the rules and models inherited from earlier composers. The beauty of Classical music is first in its design scheme and elements of proportion. It can certainly express emotion or give a musical picture, but that's not a Classical composer's first mission. By Mozart's time there were several generally accepted forms which musical composition followed. One of the most important of these is the sonata form. (Note: don't get sonata form confused with the musical composition known as a sonata...that's a topic for another day.)

Sonata form is an expanded ABA pattern divided into an exposition, a development section, and a recapitulation. A movement in sonata form will begin with the statement of the principal subject, or musical idea. Here is the first musical idea in Mozart's 40th Symphony. This exposition may be of almost any length and nature as long as it provides opportunities for development. This is followed by a second subject designed as a contrast and written in a different key. If the first subject is rhythmical, the second subject may be more melodic; or if the first subject was announced by the brass, the second subject may begin with woodwinds for contrast. These two subjects lay the groundwork for the whole movement. The announcement of these two subjects will usually be followed by a brief section devoted to a considerably less important closing subject. This ends the "A" section of sonata form.

The middle "B" section is freer. Remember that the exposition of the symphony gave us two subjects to work with. Now the virtuoso musician experiments with all the possibilities presented by the exposition. The development section may even include new material. There are not many restrictions on the composer here. He must explore the possibilities of his themes and have a final cadence or closure leading back to the original key.

This last section is exactly what its name implies-- the final A section of the vastly expanded ABA form. It repeats the first, second, and closing subjects. The listener must know that this is not a section of further development, but a restatement and closure. In the simplest terms sonata form is (A) the statement of a first subject, a contrasting second subject, and a closing subject; (B) the development of this thematic material; and (A) finally its restatement.

What is the difference between a
Classical theme and a Romantic theme?

Classical music is absolute music--music, which is complete without words. A Classical theme is interesting as a composition. We enjoy its elaboration and development. A Classical theme may move us emotionally but that's not the first intent of the composer. A Romantic theme, on the other hand, is first about the expression of an emotion or a sentiment. Musical form or structure supports that emotion, but that isn't the main event.

Classical music leans heavily upon form and the titles often express the technical nature of the compositions. Once you're familiar with the structure of various forms you know what to expect and the music will be much more intelligible.

In music of the Romantic mood themes are more emotional, and sometimes have definite non-musical ideas associated with them. Often the names of Romantic compositions such as Wagner's Love Duet from Tristan and Isolde tell us that the works are not primarily formal compositions. In Beethoven's Fifth Symphony the idea of fate knocking at the door is frequently associated with the opening notes of the first movement. Much of Classical music appeals first to the intellect; on the other hand Romantic music plays to the emotions.

Beethoven may be regarded either as the last of the classicists or the first of the Romanticists; experts define his work both ways. In his most Romantic compositions there is still a profound feeling for form and structure and proportion. But the themes themselves and their treatment in a manner mark him as a Romantic. (Beethoven's Sixth Symphony) If we know Beethoven we have an understanding of what differentiates the Classical from the Romantic in music. He is, in a sense, the bridge between classicism and Romanticism. No one else displays so well the best Romantic qualities controlled by a discipline learned in the Classical school.

Music of the 20th Century parallels the diversity of its literary forms. The music of the realistic temper might be called "program music". It is not music for music's sake, but music which paints a picture or tells a story, either directly or by suggestion. Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is the musical reproduction of a group of paintings.

Experimentation is a hallmark of 20th Century music, and Debussy was one of the first composers of the century to break with tradition. (Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) He is usually thought of as the leading Impressionistic composer. Debussy was not so much concerned with telling a story or with emotional expression of sentiment as with delicate suggestions of tone color, with tone as tone, much as the Impressionists in painting were preoccupied with light as light. Debussy's music is about suggestion rather than depiction. He uses the instruments of his orchestra as another artist would use his brushes, and the melodies and harmonies which they play are like the colors of the artist's palette. He makes extensive use of a scale (whole-tone scale) which helps him create his atmospheric effects. He abandons form, as his predecessors knew it, entirely.

Ravel, another composer frequently called an Impressionist, is less truly one than Debussy, for the reason that his music is less "misty" or "atmospheric." (Ravel's Bolero) He based many compositions on writers like Mallerme, Verlaine, and other French symbolists, but his work is so much firmer and clearer in outline than Debussy's that he is less truly representative of impressionism in music.

The word "Expressionism" is associated with a school of German painters who stated that it was their belief that "the painter should attempt a direct expression of his emotions, or a direct reproduction of forms that have shaped themselves within his mind." In their painting they discarded all the rules, and it was natural that they should claim kinship with a composer who did the same thing.(Schoenberg Suite, Op. 29)

Why did the German Expressionists select Schoenberg as their musician? Perhaps like this strident group of painters, Schoenberg abandoned traditional rules and styles. He founded a new twelve-tone scale with no leading or tonic note and no internal relationship; this has been used in much modern music and produces what is known as the atonal style.

Related Web Picks

  • The BBC Music Timeline can be navigated chronologically, by theme, or by type of music. Listening samples and works of art beginning with ancient cultures accompany each musical notecard.
  • Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music. This site, designed and compiled by Robert Sherrane of The Julliard School, traces music history from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. Each web page links to detailed information on musical forms and composers. Companion works of art and architecture accompany notes on each historical period. This is a concise, readable, well-integrated look at music from a cultural and historical perspective.

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