Classical music is a very popular and commonly used term, although it is sometimes confusing as it has more than one meaning. It can refer to a type of music whose defining characteristics are rooted in its orchestration and musical forms or to a period of time in the history of European music.
A Period of European Music History
The classical era in the history of music is relatively short and is roughly defined as 1750 to 1830. Many new norms of composition, presentation and style were established at the time: chamber music grew to include ensembles with as many as 8-10 performers, the symphony evolved into a musical form and the concerto was developed as a vehicle for display of virtuoso playing skills. The composers that are most closely identified with the classical period are: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Stamitz, Joseph Haydn, Johann Christian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert.
Classical Music for Children
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composed in 1782, a piece consisting of twelve variations on the French folk song ‘Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman’. Since then, the French melody has been widely used for well known English nursery rhymes and children’s songs, such as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ and ‘The Alphabet Song’.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ is one of the most beautiful pieces children are often introduced to in their first years of learning to play the piano. There is something very special about this sweet melody that urges young children to want to play the tune itself and therefore makes them interested in playing the piano.
Although not written during the classical era, the best-loved classical compositions for children are: ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ by Benjamin Britten (1946), ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1886) and ‘Peter and the Wolf’ by Sergei Prokofiev (1936).
My personal favourite of the three is ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’. Its original subtitle was “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell”. The theme is a ‘Rondeu’ written by Henry Purcell. Britten’s educational idea was to show off the tone colours and capacities of the various sections of the orchestra.
In the introduction, the theme is initially played by the entire orchestra, then by each family of instruments in the orchestra: first the woodwind, then the strings, the brass, and finally the percussion.
The music is colourful and full of surprises. I highly recommend listening to it with the kids!