The melodic lines of the Baroque period were highly technical, deeply emotional and frequently ornamented and embellished, with the basso continuo dominating the frequent changes in harmony. With the age of the Enlightenment this became considered vulgar, excessive and distasteful. The classical period saw the development of much more linear and clean melodic lines with relatively little or no ornamentation. Melodies were generally conjunct and made up of scalic or arpeggiated passages with minimal chromiticsm. Whereas the Baroque period placed great emphasis on improvisation, particularly in relation to the performer’s ornamentation, the classical period kept improvisation relatively under wraps, preferring to stay within the realms of clarity and consistency.
Periodic phrasing really came to the fore during this time, in which an antecedent and a consequent phrase were presented as a pair of equal-length groups of bars, creating a sense of balance a symmetry. A simplified way to think of this is like a ‘question and answer’ group of bars. Through using periodic phrasing, composers could easily construct sections of a piece in typical classical form such as sonata form.
The harmonic changes in classical music are notably much less frequent than in baroque music. Whilst in the baroque era music harmony had a sense of continuous drive cultivated by the basso continuo, in which there were frequent changes of harmony, the classical period saw a slowing of harmonic changes. Harmony was governed not by the bass but by the periodic phrasing. Modulations were also less frequent and less exotic. A key device used throughout the classical period was the Alberti bass, named after the composer Domenico Alberti who used it frequently in his compositions.
The Alberti bass broke the underlying chords into an oscillating group of notes, usually quavers or semiquavers, which lightened the texture of the piece. What manifested was a discreet chordal background rather than a vertical chord accompaniment. This also aided the momentum and the gallant aesthetic that was so prevalent during the period. It was particularly common in works for keyboard and most classical composers of the time, including Mozart Haydn and Beethoven utilised this device a good deal.
Developments in instruments
The harpsichord and the clavichord were widely used during the baroque era but neither allowed the performer to change the tone quality or dynamic. The clavichord was quiet and faint in tone whilst the harpsichord was loud and nasal. Around the beginning of the eighteenth century, whilst composers experimented with using a range of emotional states and expressions of mood within one piece, there became the need to develop the tone qualities of the instrument. The developments that took place during this time gave birth to what we now call the modern pianoforte. The harpsichord is essentially a strummed instrument somewhat like the harp, where the string is plucked.
The pianoforte was developed not with a plectrum strum, but with a hammer hitting the string. This allowed the player to determine the sound quality and volume by how hard or soft they applied their finger pressure to the key. This was a major breakthrough in instrument technology, and allowed composers to experiment with more consistent and adventurous dynamics and mood changes very quickly within one movement; something the harpsichord could not achieve. The hammer-action allowed the note to sound far longer than the plectrum strum of the harpsichord, and with the development of the sustain pedal, performers felt less need to embellish and ornament the melodic lines, since it was now far easier to create linear lines. This went hand in hand with the new fashion to remove ornamentation and take music back to a much simpler, clean and pure aesthetic.
The development of the symphony orchestra
One of the key differences between orchestras of the baroque era and that of the classical era was the involvement and importance of the harpsichord. During the baroque era, all orchestral works were directed and led by the harpsichord player. The harpsichord and often a single violincello were called the continuo. The harpsichord itself was usually positioned at the front of the orchestra to enable to musicians to see and be directed by the harpsichordist and therefore, there was no conductor. As the baroque era came to an end, the harpsichord was no longer used in orchestral music. The string section got bigger with more individual players added to each section. In the woodwind section, clarinets and bassoons were more frequently added to the existing flutes and oboes. In the brass section, trumpets became commonplace and trombones and french horns were introduced. With the increase in numbers, and the removal of the harpsichord continuo, it became necessary for someone to lead the orchestra from the front. Whilst it was still common at this stage to have the concertmaster (the principal first violin leader) lead the orchestra, the conductor became increasingly important in orchestras of the classical period. Most importantly, the conductor did not play an instrument and was therefore there to oversee and direct the orchestra using a baton. It remains so to this day.