Why Is Classical Music Called Classical Music?

Jan 4, 2017

Why do we call so much of the orchestral music we hear classical music? WRTI’s Susan Lewis suggests that  the masters of history’s classical period, from 1750 to the early 1800’s, may have branded the art form forever.


[MUSIC: Haydn's Symphony No. 84, "Surprise"]

Susan Lewis: Giants of the classical period wrote music that survived the centuries.

Jeffrey Siegel: The two greatest composers of that time were Haydn and Mozart.

SL: Pianist Jeffrey Siegel

JS: Haydn believed Mozart was the greatest composer of the age, and Mozart believed Haydn was the greatest.

SL: However serious we think them now, both aimed to entertain.

JS: Haydn once said he wanted, above all, for his music to raise the spirits of the listener.

SL: And Mozart tuned into sounds popular at the time, such as Turkish military bands.

JS: Big bass drums would emphatically whack out the rhythm, and Mozart imitates that.

[MUSIC: Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 11, Movement 3, "Rondo alla turka," and Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14, "Moonlight"

SL: Just fourteen years younger than Mozart, along came Beethoven, who would write 32 piano sonatas, six concertos, 16 string quartets, a great mass, an opera, and nine great  symphonies, providing a framework and raising the bar for those who came after.

JS: It’s hard to think of a composer who was not inspired or guided by any one if not all three. I think of Tchaikovsky’s sheer admiration for Mozart. And Chopin, of course. There are all sorts of connections.

SL: Their fame endured as well as their works, thanks also to a modern publishing industry. Beethoven’s music was a bridge to the romantic era—which led to 20th century, modern, and contemporary—all of which we now fondly know as "classical music."

Pianist Jeffrey Siegel performs his Keyboard Conversation on Keys to the Classics— Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on Monday, January 9, 2017.