Classicalism and Revolution

Classicalism and Revolution, Econospeak, Barkley Rosser

 For those of you of a branch of Orthodox Christianity still using the Julian calendar, such as the Russian branch, Merry Christmas! I am tempted to comment on the situation in Kazakhstan, but I think we do not know what is going on there yet, so not now.

Instead somehow I have been thinking about something that has something to do with economics, but I am going to look at it in other fields, namely the relationship between classicalism and revolution.  That this is complicated in that in economics we think of “classical economics” as something that is old and out date, the economics of Adam Smith, highly conventional if somewhat simplistic.  But then we usually identify Karl Marx as being a classical economist, but then he was also a revolutionary. However, modern neoclassical economists use this “classical” label to dismiss him as out of date, even as they retain the ideas of Adam Smith to some extent.

Anyway, I want to look at the use of this term in other disciplines and where it came from and how this curious relationship has operated. If one examines the origins of the term, it came from French, “classique,” with this connected to “class.” In older French something classique is of a higher class in some way, and thus presumably of a high quality. However from at least the 1620s in English the term also came to be applied to things that are from or inspired by the Greek and Roman civilizations. Most of this discussion in English at that time applied to literature, especially poetry.

Probably the earliest movement that sought to revive Greek and Roman models was in architecture and happened not long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  This was in architecture and started after 800 CE when Charlemagne founded the Holy Roman Empire, which indeed consciously attempted to revive the Roman Empire and its models. For the next 200 years what is known as Carolingian architecture dominated northwestern Europe, especially in Germany and France, which consciously imitated styles from the late period of the empire such as those found in Ravenna. A supreme example is the cathedral in Aachen, Germany, where Charlemagne is buried. It would be succeeded by the Romanesque style.

The Renaissance would see another round of this in architecture.  This was stimulated by the discovery of the writings of the great Roman architect, Vitruvius, whose ideas became the foundation for much of architecture from that period on. 

As it is the field where I see the dynamic between classicalism and revolution is in music, where none of this has anything to do with ideas from Greece or Rome, much as is the situation in economics. So what is called “classical music” is something very broad, the music that is not popular music, rock or jazz or country or whatever. In recent decades the divisions between these have at times been fuzzy, but we still generally know what is in what category. And even in the past when classical music was very clearly identified, classical composers would often draw on folk music or tunes as inspiration for their compositions.  But that is not the crucial issue.

Within classical music itself there is a subset of it that is called “the Classical school” or period. This is a style most prominently associated with Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart, who mostly composed in the latter part of the 18th century, with Haydn actually lasting to 1809 while Mozart died young in 1791. This style and period followed the Baroque period, whose most famous members were J.S. Bach and Handel, although it originated earlier in Italy with Arcangelo Corelli with Antonio Vivaldi also a leading part of it. The Classical school would be followed the Romantic school, led by Beethoven, a student of Haydn’s, who started out in the Classical style but moved on, with the Romantic style dominating pretty much of all the nineteenth century.

So Beethoven is seen as a revolutionary who modified and liberated music from a rule-dominated and formal school before him. Indeed, not just the Romantic school, but “modern” twentieth-century classical music and beyond went further, breaking more and more of the rules and structures that Haydn and Mozart followed, being in a key, certain numbers of movements in symphonies and concerti, and especially the use of the sonata allegro form within movements, with two themes and variations. This almost became Freudian, with Haydn being called “Papa Haydn,” whom all these later classical composers would rebel against, more and more, going to polytonality and atonal forms.

But then we have this other fact: in creating the Classical school, Haydn and Mozart themselves were revolutionaries who created new forms. Some of these were actual types of pieces or sets of instruments, such as the string quartet. Mozart, of course, was a star all his life, a prodigy who performed for royalty from age 5. But it is not well known that Haydn spent much of his career in obscurity at the Esterhazy estate in Hungary, toiling away on his composing.  It was actually fairly late in his life that he was really discovered, helped out ironically by Mozart when he was finally able to get to Vienna in the 1780s, with his real triumph coming in the 1790s when he spent time in London, on the verge of Beethoven’s beginning to undo the structure he and Mozart had established.

Ironically possibly the most revolutionary core of the Classical school came from somebody else, someone famous and successful in his day, but who has been if not completely forgotten, pushed way down with his important role not known by many. This was the person Haydn and Mozart called “Papa Bach,” the person who actually invented the sonata allegro form.  No, this was not the great Baroque composer, J.S. Bach, but the most important of his sons, Karl Phillip Emmanuel Bach. He was the actual revolutionary who founded the Classical school, with both Haydn and Mozart drawing off him. But he would become forgotten both because he was superseded by Haydn and Mozart, but also in the nineteenth century after Mendelssohn revived the father, J.S. Bach, Somehow between his father and his followers, the real revolutionary who created the Classical school of classical music has been largely forgotten.

Barkley Rosser