“Music begins when the possibilities of language end,” said Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, J.S. Bach … the list of titans of classical music could fill an entire concert hall. While their music continues to entertain our ears and invigorate our spirits 200 years later, it is vital to understand how it served as the backdrop to the development of Western civilization and perhaps the greatest experiment in human history: The United States of America. So, what influence did classical music have on the West?
The Classical Period (1730 to 1820)
Legendary author Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome.” The music of these ancient societies may be lost to modern ears, but centuries later people would look back on the founding of the West and seek to emulate it.
In the middle of the 18th century, Europe embraced the romantic elements of ancient Rome and ancient Greece, from philosophy to architecture. Music, moving on from the Baroque era, entered the Classical period, implementing a lighter and less complex texture and tone.
Moreover, this 90-year period featured several types of compositions that became integral to the musical genre.
- String quartet
- Solo concerto
Even though it was fashionable to gain inspiration from the ancient world, it was still true that as Western civilization evolved, so did art and culture.
What makes this era of classical music fascinating is how it coincided with what was occurring in America. As musical geniuses were refining and perhaps revolutionizing classical music in Europe, the foot soldiers in the Age of Enlightenment movement were fighting an empire and forming a new nation. Music was not as readily available in the 18th and 19th centuries as it is today. However, the Founding Fathers still had an appreciation and admiration for the likes of Mozart and Beethoven.
Founding Fathers’ Views on Classical Music
Many of the Founding Fathers were either trained musicians or had a love for classical music. Thomas Jefferson was a successful violinist and active player of chamber music. Jefferson had 6,500 volumes of sheet music that were later sold to the federal government to establish the Library of Congress. In his later years, Jefferson spent his time talking about music, collecting compositions, and playing his various favorite composers. Overall, Jefferson’s favorite pieces were George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah,” Franz Joseph Haydn’s solo cantatas, and music from emerging American composers.
Mozart never left Europe. His eminent symphonies were rarely played in the U.S., although many of America’s Founders had listened to his compositions. Benjamin Franklin met privately with Mozart during his visit to Paris. What’s more, Mozart produced a composition for the glass harmonica, a musical instrument invented by Franklin: “Adagio K. 617a.”
The White House had also featured European music from the likes of Hayden, Giuseppe Sarti, C.P.E. Bach, Niccolò Piccini, and Handel.
Does Classical Music Still Influence Today?
Is classical music still relevant in this day and age when Justin Bieber and Cardi B dominate the charts?
A recent Billboard/Nielsen study found that classical music had a 1% share of the U.S. market, ranking last out of the 12 genres. Classical ranked behind hip-hop, pop, country, and children’s music. It has been rough for the genre to survive in today’s world. But is classical dead?
A quick glance at YouTube will show that classical tunes yield thousands and even millions of views. So, there is still interest among the crowd – old and young alike.
Whether it is out of entertainment or a peek back in time, classical music is essential to appreciate the advancements that Western civilization has contributed to our world. Both the United States and Europe have given humanity so much beauty. It is time to sit back and enjoy this blessing.