Music-Making in the Classical Era: The Center of It All

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western culture, including both liturgical and secular music.

The Birth of Opera

It is difficult to say when exactly the first opera was born, but we do know that it was during the Renaissance period in Europe. This was a time when society was starting to become more interested in the arts and in entertainment. The first opera was likely a combination of music, acting, and dance.

The Camerata

In 1573, a group of intellectuals in Florence, Italy, came together to discuss the ancient Greek idea of music as a means of expressing emotions. They called themselves the Camerata, and their ideas would lay the foundation for what would become opera.

The Camerata believed that music should evoke an emotion in the listener, and they developed a new style of composition called monody that featured a single melodic line accompanied by chords. This was a radical departure from the polyphonic style of the Renaissance, which featured multiple melodic lines. The new style was quickly adopted by others, and by the early 1600s, opera had emerged as a distinct genre.

The first operas were short, simple pieces with plots based on classical mythology or ancient history. They were performed in private homes or small theaters, and their audiences were typically elite. Over time, opera began to take on a more popular form, with longer works and more elaborate productions. Meanwhile, new opera houses were built to accommodate the growing audiences. By the end of the 1600s, opera had become a widely popular art form in Italy and was spreading to other parts of Europe.

The Florentine Academy

The Florentine Academy was one of the most important institutions of the early classical era, not only because it was a model for other academies that would follow, but also because it produced some of the most important operas of the period. The academy was founded in 1589 by a group of wealthy Florentines who were passionate about music and wanted to create a center for music education and performance. The academy’s first production was an opera by Jacopo Peri called Dafne, which was performed in Florence in 1594.

The Florentine Academy quickly became the most important opera company in Italy, and its productions were highly influential. Many of the operas written for the academy were inspired by ancient Greek mythology, and these works helped to shape the genre of opera as we know it today. The academy’s influence also spread beyond Italy; several of its members, including Claudio Monteverdi, went on to have successful careers in other parts of Europe.

The Spread of Opera

Opera is a musical art form that originated in Italy in the late 16th century. The word opera means “work” in Italian. Opera is a drama set to music. It is usually sung in a foreign language. The first operas were written in the Italian language.

Opera in Venice

Venice, with its special position as a place of international trade and contact, became a particularly important center for the dissemination of opera in the seventeenth century. The first public opera house, the Teatro San Bartolomeo, was opened in Venice in 1637. This opening was followed by others: the Teatro Novissimo (1641), the Teatro Ducale (1642), the Teatro Grimani di SS Giovanni e Paolo (1646), and the Teatro San Salvatore (1678). The number of public opera houses in Venice rapidly increased to eleven by 1705, and a total of seventeen by 1740. This proliferation of public opera houses was paralleled by the development of private theaters for aristocratic patrons: between 1645 and 1700, at least fifteen such theaters were built in Venice. The overwhelming majority of these were located on the grand canal, so that viewers could arrive by gondola to watch the performance.

Opera in Germany

Opera in Germany during the classical era was markedly different from that in other European countries. Instead of being focused in the capital city, as was the case in Italy and France, German opera was spread throughout the country. This is largely due to the fact that many of the German principalities were small and lacked the resources to support a full-scale opera house. Thus, troupes of traveling opera singers became quite popular. This system had its drawbacks, however, as the quality of these performers was often quite poor.

A more significant issue was that German composers were rarely able to gain recognition outside of their home country. One notable exception is George Frideric Handel, who composed several successful operas in London during the early eighteenth century. However, due to language barriers and other factors, most German operas were performed only for local audiences. This meant that they often lacked the cosmopolitan appeal of operas composed in other European countries.

The Decline of Opera

The 18th century was a time of great change in the Western world. One of the most significant changes was the decline of opera. In the early 1700s, Italian opera was the most popular form of entertainment in Europe. By the end of the century, it was struggling to survive. There are a number of reasons for this decline.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution of 1789 not only overthrew the Bourbon monarchy, it also dealt a death blow to opera. Gone were the nobility who had been the mainstay of audiences, and with them went the composers who had depended on their patronage, like Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87) and Johann Christian Bach (1735–82). They were quickly replaced by a new breed of composer – often self-taught and from modest backgrounds – for whom opera was not an elitist entertainment but a means of communication with a wide public. The two most important early Romantic composers, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) and Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826), both wrote operas, although neither was very successful in this genre. It is significant that both men tried their hand at writing “singspiel” operas: that is, operas with spoken dialogue in the vernacular rather than recitative, which was still associated with the old order.

The Rise of the Piano

In the early years of the eighteenth century, the piano underwent a series of important changes that resulted in the modern instrument. Chief among these was the development of the mechanism that allowed the hammer to strike the string from below. With this improvement, which made for a more even tone and greater volume, composers began to write pieces specifically for the piano. The most famous of these early works is Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D Minor, K. 141 (L. 422), composed in 1738.

One effect of this new interest in writing for the piano was a decline in the popularity of opera. In part, this was due to a change in musical taste; as keyboard music became more fashionable, audiences lost interest in operas, which were much more expensive to produce. But opera also suffered from a number of economic and social factors. For one thing, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find singers with the virtuosic vocal technique required for eighteenth-century opera. Moreover, opera houses were expensive to maintain, and ticket prices were beyond the reach of most people. As a result, many opera companies went bankrupt, and by 1800 there were very few operational theaters in Europe.

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