This 1984 film is a really interesting insight into the lives of Mozart and his contemporaries, especially the Italian composer Antonio Salieri. The film features a huge amount of music from the Classical era – orchestral, operatic and choral, as well as improvisations on the harpsichord and early piano. Much of the music was clearly designed to entertain (e.g. in light operas or at court); this style has a few common characteristics:

  • Simple harmonies, revolving around the tonic, dominant and subdominant
  • Melodies based on scale patterns
  • The tonic established very firmly at the beginning and end of the piece, often with an ascending or descending arpeggio
  • Phrases created out of repeated rhythmical patterns

The more serious music such as Mozart’s Requiem is much more subtle, with more varied and unexpected harmonies. The choral works are often also quite contrapuntal, each vocal part given its own independent melody. I love the slow movements in Mozart’s works, where long notes are sustained expressively over changing harmonies underneath. A great example is the beautiful Adagio movement of his Gran Partita, which in the film Salieri views as a sublime work of genius.  Mozart’s D minor piano concerto which features briefly towards the end of the film is also one of my favourites – the sudden change to a major key after the dramatic introduction is so unexpected.


Classical Composers

There is a huge list of Classical composers on Wikipedia – most of them I had not even heard of.  Many are Italian or German. The prominence of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven is even more striking when you consider just how many other composers were active during that era.  Here is a shortlist of some of the more famous ones:

  • Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) – second son of Johann Sebastian
  • Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787)
  • Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782) – youngest son of Johann Sebastian
  • Elisabetta de Gambarini (1731–1765)
  • Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805)
  • Antonio Salieri (1750–1825)
  • Muzio Clementi (1752–1832)
  • Friedrich Heinrich Himmel (1765–1814)


Luigi Boccherini was a virtuoso cellist and wrote a large amount of music for the instrument, including 12 concertos.  He also wrote many symphonies and chamber music works.  The composer was born in Italy and spent some time in the musical centre of Europe, Vienna, before moving to Madrid where like many composers he served the Royal court. The heritage of Spanish culture can be seen in his music, and he wrote a number of pieces for guitar.  He was known to have been strongly influenced by Haydn in particular, who was born a decade earlier. I have made notes on some of his pieces here.


I have come across the name of Antonio Salieri several times during my reading and research for this course – he was the director of the Italian Opera and had a big influence on the development of this genre.  He had a direct connection with Mozart, who was said to have been his biggest rival (they were of a similar age), and also became Beethoven’s teacher.  He wrote some sacred music, a small number of instrumental works, and 37 operas.  The works of both of these composers were not often played after the end of the eighteenth century, but have seen a revival more recently in the second half of the twentieth. I have made notes on some of his pieces here.

Antonio Salieri

Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Oboe

City of Verona Orchestra | Enrico de Mori | Chacra Classics 2014

The beginning of the first movement of this concerto sounds very Mozartian / Classical in style – elegant, balanced melodies, later with an accompaniment of repeated detached quavers.  About half way through the texture becomes more contrapuntal and reminds me a lot of Bach’s concertos.  The second cantabile movement takes advantage of the oboe’s expressive capabilities and is very lyrical in style – melodies are passed around the instruments and played simultaneously in thirds.  The final movement is a theme and variations, introduced first by the entire orchestra.  Again it has a very well balanced feel, based on pairs of phrases with the same rhythm, often ending either on the dominant or the tonic.

Operatic Overtures

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra | Michael Dittrich | Naxos 2000

This recording comprises a series of orchestral overtures from Salieri’s operas. Harmonically they seem quite simple, revolving mostly around the dominant and tonic. Some of them are quite dramatic, reflecting their role as operatic introductions. Cesare in Farmacus for example is announced by a timpani roll and has very sudden contrasts in dynamics.  They generally contain a lot of repetition, sometimes the same two-bar phrase being repeated four times in a row, or modified slightly to allow for some harmonic variation.  This style of music is very predictable, I find when I am listening to it carefully I can often guess what the next phrase is going to be!


Cello Sonata in C Major, G. 17

Michele Tazzari | Mara Galassi | Boccherini Cello Sonatas – Pan Classics 2012

This is a sonata in three movements written for cello and basso. Some passages in the first Allegro movement are very fast and I think quite difficult to play, requiring double stopped positions. The second movement is in C minor and has the feel of a lament – long sustained notes over a moving bass line and suspensions that are reminiscent of Baroque music. The final Rondo is again very fast, this time also requiring significant skill in the part of the accompanist as well as the soloist!  This movement has a passionate sounding minor section with split chords, which contrasts with the main, jovial theme. Overall the style of this piece seems to be somewhere in between Baroque and Classical; the texture in places is quite polyphonic and dense compared to the clearer melodies in Mozart’s works for example.

Op. 30, No 6: “La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid”

This was a well known piece in Spain during Boccherini’s lifetime.  I had to watch it on video as at one point the cellists put their instruments across their knees and play them like guitars!  It is a string quintet supposedly inspired by the streets of Madrid at night, and has a folk-style dance feel with simple harmonies and strong rhythms. Some Spanish influence is clear, with characteristic accents on the second beat of the bar and a passionate style of violin playing.

Haydn: London Symphonies

Haydn: Symphony 104 (“London Symphony”)

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra | Nicholas McGegan | Philharmonia Baroque Productions 2016

This is Haydn’s last symphony, and the last of the series known as the ‘London Symphonies’.  The introduction is a dramatic Adagio, starting with a tonic to dominant interval on all instruments including timpani, sounding very much like a question.  Dynamic changes from ff to pp occur in the space of a single bar.  In contrast, the main section of the first movement starts with quite a light hearted theme in D major.  The second movement has some lovely wind only parts, such as the Più largo section written for flute, two oboes (in thirds) and a bassoon, though these sections are quite short.  The menuetto has a characteristic strong upbeat, slurred to the first beat of the bar.  The Allegro spiritoso finale starts with a pedal note held by the horns and lower strings, and a simple folk-like melody played over the top by the violins.  This movement is in sonata form – however both subjects are based on the same theme, which is played first in D major and then in the dominant, A major.