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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 8 The Comic Style

Mid-Eighteenth-century Stylistic Change Traced to Its Sources in the 1720s; Empfindsamkeit, Galanterie; “War of the Buffoons”

CHAPTER 8 The Comic Style
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


“Bach is the father, we are the kids” (Bach ist der Vater, wir sind die Buben), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was once quoted, perhaps apocryphally, as saying.1 Only it was not J. S. Bach of whom he said it. “Old Sebastian,” as Mozart called him, was just a dimly remembered grandfather until the last decade of Mozart’s career, when (slightly in advance of the public revival described in the previous chapter) Mozart first got to hear the works of J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel, then virtually unperformed outside of the composers’ home territory—northern Germany in the case of Bach and Great Britain in the case of Handel. It was at the home of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a Dutch-born Viennese aristocrat who maintained a sort of antiquarian salon, that Mozart made their acquaintance. The baron commissioned from Mozart modernized scores of Handel’s Messiah and other vocal works for performance at his soirées. Although the works of Handel and Bach made a big impression on the van Swieten circle, the very fact that they needed to be updated for performance in the 1780s shows how far their works had fallen out of the practical repertoire.

The Bach whom Mozart regarded as a musical parent was old Sebastian’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714–88), who was indeed old enough to be Mozart’s father (or even his grandfather), and who along with his much younger half-brother Johann Christian (1735–82) was indeed regarded by the musicians of the late eighteenth century as a founding father. Their eminence has much receded, though, owing to the historical circumstances that attended the rise of the modern “classical” repertory and the writing of its history. That modern repertory (we still call it “standard”) began with the works of Mozart himself and his contemporaries, notably Franz Joseph Haydn. When J. S. Bach was revived in the nineteenth century, he was appended to an already-established “canon” of works and, along with Handel, was proclaimed its founding father. The work of his sons, however, was not revived.

Chapter 8 The Comic Style

fig. 8-1 Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, J. S. Bach’s second son, master of the empfindsamer Stil and author of the Essay on the True Art of Keyboard Playing.

The false genealogy thus implied, in which the generation of Bach and Handel was cast in a direct line that led straight to the generation of Haydn and Mozart, was responsible for a host of false historical assumptions. Because of them, the interest and attention of historians was diverted away from the music and the musical life of the mid-eighteenth century, when the Bach sons, along with the later composers of opera seria (with whom we are already somewhat familiar from chapter 4) were at their height of activity and prestige. The result has been something of a historiographical black hole. The earliest attempts to plug it amounted to assertions and counterassertions that this or that repertory formed the “missing link” between the Bach–Handel and Haydn–Mozart poles. First came Hugo Riemann (1849–1919), a great German scholar who identified a once-famous but chimerical “Mannheim School” as “the so-long-sought predecessor of Haydn.”2 The Italian musicologist Fausto Torrefranca (1883–1955) found the missing link in Italian keyboard sonatas;3 the Viennese Wilhelm Fischer (1886–1962) found it in the Viennese orchestral style; and so it went.4

Finally, in 1969, the American music historian Daniel Heartz blew the whistle on the game in an explosive four-page wake-up call of an article (“Approaching a History of 18th-Century Music”), and made the first comprehensive attempt at a new historiography in a magisterial eight-hundred-page book published twenty-six years later (Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School: 1740–1780).5 Heartz accounted for the notorious void by noting the fact—which many at the time found maddening to acknowledge—that the historiography of eighteenth-century music “has been done largely by, for, and about Germans.”6 But as he went right on to point out in a truly delicious passage, the Germanic historiography has affected everyone who conceives the history of eighteenth-century music in terms of the modern canon and its masters. The death of Bach in 1750, which seems so dramatically (and conveniently) to split the century into its early and late phases, Heartz observed,

has a sentimental meaning for all music lovers today. It meant nothing at the time. For all that the Leipzig master participated upon the European musical scene of his day he might as well have died a generation earlier. He did not take the extra step that made [the opera seria composer Johann Adolf] Hasse the darling of Dresden and of Europe…and thank God for that! With Handel the case is different. Had he remained in the North we should probably honor him now no more than we do a hundred other Lutheran worthies. Italy coaxed him beyond his originally turgid and unvocal mannerisms. Had he remained to bask in Southern climes he might have joined the Neapolitan thrust into the mainstream of 18th-century music. But he went instead to Augustan England. There, musical backwater though it was, he found himself in a land that led the world with regard to the freedom and dignity of the human spirit. To England, then, we owe thanks that Handel became one of the greatest of all masters. At the same time it should be borne in mind that Handel in London stood aside from the main evolution nearly as much as Bach.

We tend nowadays to recoil a bit from phrases like “mainstream” and “main evolution,” seeing in them the likely pitfall of substituting one sort of blinkered or biased view for another. Evolutions are only “main” to the extent that their outcomes are valued. Heartz’s “main evolution” is so described because of where it led—namely, to Haydn and Mozart. Meanwhile, the fact that Bach and Handel have returned to the canon in glory, and have exerted a potent influence on composers ever since their return, shows that the evolution from which they stood apart was not permanently or irrevocably “main.” “Main-ness,” in short is not something inherent in a phenomenon but something ascribed to it—inevitably in hindsight, and for a reason. But whether or not we wish to promote the slighted evolutionary line in this way, its reality must be accepted and coped with. Otherwise we have no history, if (to quote Heartz once more) history is an attempt “to seek the interconnection between events.”

So in this chapter we will try to fill in the picture a bit, although the full story is still far from tellable. No period is in greater need of fundamental research than the period that extended from the 1730s to the 1760s: the period, in other words, in which the composers born in the first two decades of the century dominated the contemporary scene. That period, long commonly known as “Preclassic” (and thus relegated by its very name to a status of relative insignificance, a sort of trough between peaks), has been until recently the most systematically neglected span of years in the whole history of European “fine-art” music.


(1) First reported (or invented) in Friedrich Rochlitz, “Karl Philipp Emmanuel Bach,” Für Freunde der Tonkunst, Vol. IV (1832), p. 308.

(2) See H. Riemann, Introduction to Sinfonien der pfalzbayerischen Schule, Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Bayern, Vol. IV, Jahrgang iii/1 (1902).

(3) See F. Torrefranca, Le origini italiane del romanticismo musicale: I primitivi della sonata moderna (Turin, 1930).

(4) See W. Fischer, Wiener Instrumentalmusik vor und um 1750, Vol. II, Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich, Vol. XXXIX, Jahrgang xix/2 (1912).

(5) Daniel Heartz, Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School: 1740–1780 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995); eight years later Heartz published a thousand-page sequel, Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720–1780 (New York: Norton, 2003).

(6) Daniel Heartz, “Approaching a History of Eighteenth-Century Music,” Current Musicology 9 (1969): 92–93.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-08.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 The Comic Style. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-08.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-08.xml