We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 6 Class of 1685 (I)

Careers of J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel Compared; Bach’s Instrumental Music

CHAPTER 6 Class of 1685 (I)
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The year 1685 is luminous in the history of European music, because it witnessed the birth of three of the composers whose works long formed the bedrock of the standard performing repertoire, or “canon,” as it crystallized (retrospectively) in the nineteenth century. In fact, the three composers in question—Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), and Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)—were for a long while the three earliest composers in active repertory, and so the number 1685 took on the aspect of a barrier, separating the music of common listening experience from a semiprehistoric repertoire called “early music” (or “pre-Bach music” as it was once actually termed), of concern only to specialists.

The contents, indeed the very existence, of this book show that this barrier has softened considerably, perhaps (some might argue) to the point of nonexistence. Concert life has been enriched by many performing artists and ensembles who confine themselves to music earlier than that of the class of 1685. Excellent recordings of such music abound. It is widely studied, analyzed, and critiqued. It has become familiar to a degree that would have been unthinkable even half a century ago. And yet artists who perform this music still specialize in it, and one aspect of the popularization of “pre-Bach” music has been an effort to reclaim the class of 1685 as specialist repertoire, which paradoxically means separating it from the “standard performing canon as crystallized in the nineteenth century” and placing it in the “pre-Bach” category.

Now we are apt to find Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti performed on the resurrected instruments of their time, not the standard instruments of today, by performers who have made a specialized study of the conventions that governed the performance practices of the early eighteenth century, and who are keen to emphasize the differences between those conventions and those to which “modern” listeners have become accustomed. The newfound familiarity of “early music” has led paradoxically to an effort to “defamiliarize” (or even “re-defamiliarize”) it. This is something that happened in the twentieth century, and so the reasons for it are best studied as part of the history of twentieth-century music.

The formation (or “canonization”) of the old performing repertory was something that happened in the nineteenth century, and so, it follows, the reasons for it are best studied as part of the history of nineteenth-century music. (The revival of Bach, whose music had temporarily fallen out of use except as teaching material, is an important and revealing part of that story.) And yet there were good reasons—“objective” reasons, one could argue—why the music of the class of 1685 became the foundation stone of the standard repertory once it was formed, and why even today their music (plus a few later rediscoveries like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) remains the earliest music that nonspecialist performers and “mainstream” performing organizations like choral societies and symphony orchestras routinely include in their active repertoires.

Theirs is also the earliest music that today’s concertgoers and record listeners are normally expected to “understand” without special instruction, partly because general music pedagogy is still largely based on their work. No child learns to play the violin without encountering Vivaldi, or the piano without encountering Bach and (if one gets serious) Scarlatti. As soon as one is old enough to participate in community singing, moreover, one is sure to meet Handel.

The main reasons for this were broached in the previous chapter. These composers were the earliest to inherit from the Italian string players of the seventeenth century, and then magnificently enlarge upon, a fully developed “tonal” idiom. From the same Italian virtuosi they also inherited a standardized and highly developed instrumental medium—the “ripieno” string band or orchestra, to which wind and percussion instruments could be added as the occasion demanded. The new harmonic idiom and the new instrumental media acted symbiotically to foster the growth of standard instrumental and vocal-instrumental forms of unprecedented amplitude and complexity, and these were the forms on which the later standard repertory rested.

It follows, then, that the works of the class of 1685 that loom largest in the standard repertory will be those that coincide with, or that can be adapted to, standard performing media and esthetic purposes. Those of their works that are apt to be familiar today will therefore represent only a portion of their outputs, and not necessarily those portions considered most important or most characteristic by the composers themselves or by their contemporaries. Opera seria, the reigning genre of their day, has long dropped out of the repertoire. Therefore much of the music that both Handel and Scarlatti regarded as the most important music of their careers has perished from active use, while a lot of music that they regarded as quite secondary (Scarlatti’s keyboard music, Handel’s suites for orchestra) is standard fare today. Bach, who never even wrote an opera, was an altogether atypical and marginal figure in his day. Seeing him, as we do, as being a pillar of the standard performing repertory means seeing him in a way that his contemporaries would never have understood.

Thus to see Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti as standard repertory composers is to see them in a historical context that is not theirs. It will be our job to view them in their own historical context as well as in ours. The most fascinating historical questions about their work will be precisely those that concern the relationship between the two contexts. The most surprising aspect of the comparison will be the realization that Bach and Handel, whom we regard from our contemporary vantage point as a beginning, were regarded more as enders in their own day: outstanding late practitioners of styles and genres that were rapidly growing moribund in their time.

It was their very “conservativism,” paradoxically enough, that later made them “canonical.” The styles that supplanted theirs were destined to be ephemeral. Meanwhile, Handel’s conservative idiom chanced to appeal to conservative members of his contemporary audience—and as we shall see, these members constituted the particular social group that inaugurated the very idea of “standard” or “timeless” repertory. It was logical that Handel’s music should have been the earliest beneficiary of that concept.

With Bach the situation was more complicated. He came back into circulation, and achieved a posthumous status he never enjoyed in life, because the conservative aspects of his style—in particular, his very dense contrapuntal textures and his technique of “spinning out” melodic phrases of extraordinary length—made his music seem weighty and profound at a time when the qualities of weightiness and profundity were returning to fashion (and, as we shall see, served political and nationalistic purposes as well).

A mythology grew up around Bach, according to which his music had a unique quality that lifted it above and beyond the historical flux and made it a timeless standard: the greatest music ever written and (ideologically far more significant) the greatest music that would or could ever be written. That myth of perfection begot in its turn a myth of music history itself. It was given an elegant and memorable expression by the great German musicologist Manfred Bukofzer (1910–55). “Bach lived at a time when the declining curve of polyphony and the ascending curve of harmony intersected, where vertical and horizontal forces were in exact equilibrium,” Bukofzer wrote, adding that “this interpenetration of opposed forces has been realized only once in the history of music and Bach is the protagonist of this unique and propitious moment.”1

There was indeed a unique moment of which Bach was the protagonist. It took place, however, not during Bach’s lifetime but in the nineteenth century, when the concept of impersonally declining and ascending historical “curves” was born. It was a concept born precisely out of the need to justify Bach’s elevation to the legendary status he had come to enjoy as the protagonist of an unrepeatable, mythical golden age and the fountainhead of the Germanic musical “mainstream.” The “equilibrium” and “interpenetration” of which Bukofzer wrote, and to which he assigned such a high value, were qualities and values created not by Bach but by those who had elevated him. The history of any art, to emphasize it once again, is the concern—and the creation—of its receivers, not its producers.


(1) Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era (New York: Norton, 1947), p. 303.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-06.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-06.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-06.xml