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In the mid-1700s, there was a shift in the arts and in politics. The Age of Enlightenment (or just the Enlightenment) had taken shape in Europe, with more people supporting ideals such as tolerance and individual liberties. There was increased separation of church and state and opposition to absolute monarchy. In the arts, architects, designers, and painters favored symmetry over dramatic proportions and ornate details.


The same change was taking place in the music world – the pioneers of what we now call the Classical period (ca. 1750-1800) composed in stricter, more balanced forms. Franz Joseph Haydn was the perfect example of this. In contrast to the music of the Baroque era, music in the classical era featured a more specific compositional structure. A symphony, which is a piece written for orchestra, would be broken down into four movements (large sections with different tempos and contrasting moods or emotions). Each movement would be broken down into discrete sections, demarcated by pauses, or musical cadences. Each section would be broken down further into smaller sections, called phrases, which are short passages that evoke the same pacing and feeling as a spoken sentence.


So, generally speaking, each piece Haydn wrote can be viewed as a collection of phrases – “musical sentences” – strung together into larger structures. That is not to say that his music was uninteresting – it was in the details that Haydn created interest. Perhaps he repeated a phrase twice in a row, for emphasis; maybe one movement was in a different key than the one that came before.


The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, stating that all men have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This major historical event occurred during Haydn’s lifetime – we must remember he and the founding fathers lived in the same world. Just as white settlers in America wanted independence from England, composers like Haydn established themselves as artistic individuals who did not need the approval of nobility to be successful. He famously lived in London at the end of his life, writing music for the sake of creating art – not for the prince – and effectively changed the role of composers and musicians in European society.


Haydn wrote 106 symphonies and 68 string quartets (pieces for two violins, viola, and cello). Music written for these ensembles was essentially invented by Haydn, and this is one of many examples of Haydn’s adherence to structure as a man of the Enlightenment, but also his simplistic and playful personality as an artist.