“The music formerly known as classical” is a slogan used by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for music most people call “contemporary.” Though BMOP’s purpose is to shake up entrenched ideas about new music and about “classical” and “popular,” the phrase, recast in meaning, could also refer to music of the eighteenth century. It could certainly be used for Daniel Heartz’s ambitious survey of music and musical trends from 1720 to 1780, a period that includes much of what we continue to refer to as “classical” music. Although the terms have become increasingly controversial, “classical” and the “classical period” are generally used to describe the style that took form in the eighteenth century and culminates in the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Heartz, who is a leading American specialist in music of the eighteenth century, is here concerned with developments that preceded these composers. But his book is part of a career-long effort to present an antitraditional viewpoint about musical trends and period divisions in the broad era from about 1685 to 1800. The book under review is a companion to Heartz’s 1995 Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School, 1740–1780. As he writes in the preface to that book, “As early as…1967, I have been venting my frustrations with the periodizations of eighteenth-century music and the use of such reductive terms as ‘Baroque’ and ‘Classic.’”
Still, the term “classical” hangs on in music history, as we see in Charles Rosen’s standard work, The Classical Style, which was expanded and reprinted in 1997. Rosen presents a critical account of style and genres, which he begins around 1775 with the late works of Haydn and traces through Mozart and Beethoven. It is only in these composers, Rosen argues, “that all the contemporary elements of musical style—rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic—work coherently together.” Rosen identified this coherence with the late-eighteenth-century perfection of the sonata form, and its “feeling for a closed, symmetrical structure, the central position of the most extreme tension, and the insistence upon an extended and complete resolution, together with a newly articulated and systematized tonality.” Recent general surveys of various kinds, including those by Leonard Ratner, Julian Rushton, and Reinhard Pauly, use the words “classic” or “classical” in their titles with a roughly similar conception in mind.
In contrast, a searching and tough-minded rejection of the term was put forth by James Webster in his path-breaking Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony and the Idea of Classical Style (1991), in which he argued that “classical” was unable to encompass or even suggest the progressive character of Haydn’s stylistic revolution. But even Webster had to admit that his proposed alternatives, either “something like ‘First Viennese-European Modern Style,’” or else “doing without style-period designations altogether,” are “impracticable.” Whether in libraries or record shops, the “classical” period is not about to disappear.
For the “Expanded Edition” of The Classical Style, Rosen wrote a new preface that lucidly engages Webster’s onslaught, and in particular …