Posted in Project 1: Sonata Form, Uncategorized

Research Point 5.0: Classicism in the 18th Century

The task of this research point is to write 400 words about Classicism of the 18th Century and how it related to science, philosophy, politics and other fields, with the focus on the way it impacted the arts and music.

To begin, it is worth mentioning that the term Classicism itself refers to a network of ideas and attitudes, as well as different artistic traditions in the West through history. But perhaps the most important is its ethos “to construct an ideal vision and version of human experience that should inspire and instruct by its nobility, authority, rationality, and truth … and to provide convincing models for imitation.” (Greenhalgh, 2016)

This ideal was first taken by the ancient Greek and Roman artists, and in the subsequent generations, the term classicism came to signify those who admired, imitated or reused their antique artworks and literature, rediscovering the systems of measurement and proportion that have been used to achieve the main characteristics of beauty, including “harmony, clarity, restraint, universality and idealism”. (Britannica, 2018)

However, classicism doesn’t necessarily denote direct influences by the antiquity and can broadly represent ‘distant responses’ of the past in one’s contemporary culture: “Each generation’s classicism is cumulative – a data bank of ideas, forms, and motifs based on contributions made by previous centuries.” (Greenhalgh, 2016) Interestingly, although Western music was still theoretically somewhat influenced by the antiquity, in practice, however, it stood as an art form that has mainly accumulated the post-antique customs and techniques. As such, the 18th century music was marked as ‘classical’ not in terms of its relationship with the antiquity, but in terms of reaching a high ‘standard of excellence’ (Greenhalgh, 2016) that contrasted the preceding ‘baroque’ phase. In this sense, it was established by the German-speaking composers of Europe, including Haydn, Mozart, Gluck and the young Beethoven, as a new caliber of polished and refined music, allowing for the standardization of certain genres and musical forms, as wells as the structure of symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles. (Britannica, 2018)

In terms of the wider culture, while the Renaissance regarded the binaries of feeling/reason, humanity/nature, social/personal, generic/individual, church/state etc., as one harmonious whole, Classicism began polarizing and distancing them, evidenced in the rise of Enlightenment. This current of philosophical thought had its primary origin in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, with rationalism becoming its main doctrine, and it is often associated with the liberal political and revolutionary ideas, especially being linked to the French Revolution of 1789. (Bristow, 2017) The ideas of the structural clarity and objectivity from the philosophy particularly influenced the musical style as it switched to homophony and crafted the main sonata-form.


Greenhalgh, M. (2016) ‘Classicism.’ In: Grove Art Online. At: https://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000017983 (Accessed 20th Oct 2019)

Britannica (2018) Classicism and Neoclassicism. At: https://www.britannica.com/art/Neoclassicism (Accessed 20th Oct 2019)

Bristow, W. (2017) Enlightenment. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  At: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/ (Accessed 20th Oct 2019)

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