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 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form
Richard Taruskin

There is another element, besides its harmonically driven form, that defines the new Italianate style. The use of the old-fashioned term “Canzona” for the second movement in Purcell’s sonata (Ex. 5-11) is adopted directly from Colista, as are the movement’s form and texture, somewhat more thorough goingly and conservatively contrapuntal than the Corellian norm. It is a very competently crafted fugue, worked out with the perhaps excessive regularity and rigor one might expect to find in a self-conscious (and still youthful) imitator. But since it is the first fully developed fugue (or to be painstakingly accurate, the first fully developed specimen of what would later be called a fugue) to be encountered in this book, it is worth studying in some detail. In the description that follows, the standard modern terminology for the fugue’s components and events will be employed (and set off in italics), even though—like the word “fugue” itself—they are not strictly contemporaneous with the piece at hand.

The Fugal StyleThe Fugal StyleThe Fugal Style

ex. 5-11 Henry Purcell, Sonnatas of III Parts, no. 3 in D minor, mm. 1–37

A fugue is like a single extended and colossally elaborated point of imitation from the older motet or canzona. There is a single main motive or theme, called the subject, on which the whole piece is based. In the opening section of such a piece, called the exposition, the subject is introduced in every voice. In the present example, this has been accomplished by the time the downbeat of the seventh measure is reached. First the subject is heard alone (though doubled by the organ continuo) in the first violin. Then the second violin plays the subject “at the fifth” (meaning a fifth up or, as here, a fourth down); when played at this transposition, it is called the answer. The counterpoint with which the first violin accompanies the answer (here, a chain of syncopations/suspensions) is called the countersubject (CS). Next to enter is the cello, playing the subject in its original form, though down an octave; hence the entering voices continually describe a quasi-cadential “there and back” alternation of tonic and dominant to lend the newly important sense of tonal unity to the exposition. When the third voice to enter plays the subject, the second voice shifts over to the CS (suitably transposed), and the first voice plays a second CS that harmonizes with both the other melodies. These fixed components of the texture are given analytical labels in Ex. 5-11: S (for subject, or when transposed to the “fifth,” the answer), CS1 for the syncopated CS, and CS2 for the second one.

By now, with all the voices in play, the exposition has performed its function and could end. But this fugue, as already noted, is very demonstratively, even compulsively worked out, and the composer is determined to display his complex of three voices in every possible permutation (for which reason this kind of extremely regular and thoroughgoing fugue is sometimes called a “permutation fugue”). Up to now the subject has always been found in the lowest sounding voice. And so in the seventh measure, still inexorably alternating subjects with answers, Purcell brings it back in the highest voice while keeping the two countersubjects as before.

The texture is now inverted, with subject above countersubjects rather than below. Thus, Purcell announces, this fugue is of the especially rigorous variety known as double fugue because it is written in “double”—that is, invertible—counterpoint. (As any student who has taken counterpoint knows, in order for counterpoint to be invertible it must conform to especially stringent rules of dissonance treatment.) This “double exposition” does not end until the subject (or answer) has circulated through the texture three times and been in every possible juxtaposition with the other voices. It is in fact a triple exposition.

The exposition ends in m. 19 and is followed by what is called an episode, which simply means a stretch of music during which the subject is withheld. Even the episode is contrapuntally complex in this very determined fugue: a three-beat phrase in anapests (short–short–long) that on its repetitions cuts across the four-beat bar and is capriciously alternated with its inversion. Also playful (and welcome, in compensation for the dogged regularity of the exposition) is the episode’s asymmetrical five-bar length.

The subject reappears in m. 24, still whimsically accompanied by the episode figure, now extended and continuous. When the answer comes in at m. 26 (top voice) Purcell pulls one last contrapuntal stunt: the other voices now pile in with overlapping entries on the subject and answer, so that every part is eventually playing some part of it at the same time. This foreshortening device is called the stretto (Italian for “straitened”—tightened or made stricter) and is a common way of bringing fugues to a close. (Strettos have to be worked out in advance while the subject is being cooked up; not every subject will produce one.) Another conventional touch is the concluding passage (or coda, “tail”) over a sustained dominant in the bass: the latter is known as a pedal, or “pedal point,” because the device originated in organ music, where the player produces it by literally planting a foot on the rank of tone-producing pedals with which large built-in church organs are equipped. It is during the pedal point, which projects the cadential harmonic function so forcefully, that Purcell again goes playful, this time with chromatically inflected lines that give a tiny, perhaps nostalgic, whiff of the expressive harmony so endemic to the older English style exemplified in his own fantazia of a few years earlier (cf. Ex. 5-10).

It is interesting to compare the “canzona” in Purcell’s sonata with the other fugal movement, the fourth (Allegro), which bursts in upon the sarabande-like third movement without pause (Ex. 5-12). Its subject descends from the fifth (dominant) degree of the scale to the first, which calls for a “tonal answer” that in effect transposes the subject (once past the first note) up a degree, so that the V-I descent will be balanced by a complementary descent from I to V (covering a fourth, not a fifth). This movement, too, has a first countersubject in syncopations, producing suspensions. But whereas the suspensions in the second movement resolved the old-fashioned “intervallic” way (sevenths resolving to sixths over a stationary bass), the suspensions in the last movement are channeled—as in the newer, Corellian style—through the bounding circle of fifths. The sense of harmonic purpose, of activity at once more intense and more directed than ever before, was as great a stylistic breakthrough for Purcell as it was for every other composer who took it up.

And yet to us, at the other end of its history, it can sound, paradoxically enough, like a step backward. “Those weaned on Purcell’s great Fantasias of 1680,” a recent commentator has observed, “with their superlative juxtaposing of archaic longings and innovative yearnings, might all too easily dismiss the composer’s sonatas as formulaic and fashion-bound.”2 But the familiar “tonal” formulas and patterns were what struck late seventeenth-century ears as innovative, just as the harmonic vagaries that can sound so delightfully unexpected and personal to us—even “other-worldly,” to quote the same critic—struck contemporary ears as familiar, hence entitled to what familiarity breeds.

Purcell was highly conscious that he was “advancing” the music of his homeland by bringing it into contact with the latest emanations from the continent. He underscored the point by retaining “a few terms of Art” from his Italian sources, namely the vocabulary of tempo and expression marks that are familiar to all musicians in the European literate tradition to this day.3 It was Purcell who in his preface to the 1683 Sonnatas first defined words like Adagio, Grave, Largo, Allegro, Vivace, and Piano for English-speaking players.

The Fugal Style

ex. 5-12 Henry Purcell, Sonnatas of III Parts, no. 3 in D minor, m. 98–110


(2) Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, review of Purcell, 12 Sonatas in Three Parts (L’Oiseau-Lyre CD 444 499-2OH), Gramophone, April 1996, p. 67.

(3) Henry Purcell, preface to Sonnatas of Three Parts: Two Violins and Bass, to the Organ or Harpsecord (London, 1683); reprinted in facsimile in Purcell, Works, Vol. V (London, 1983).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 13 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05004.xml