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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off

The Eighteenth-Century Symphony; Haydn

CHAPTER 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


In one or another linguistic variant, the term “symphony” (symphonia, sinfonia) has been in the European musical vocabulary since the ninth century. At first it meant what we now call “consonance,” a term that merely substitutes Latin roots for Greek ones meaning “together-sounding” (con = sym; sonus = phonos). By the turn of the seventeenth century, the term had resurfaced as a prestigious “humanistic” (pseudo-Greeky) cognate to the homelier concerto in the original meaning of the word, designating a composition that mixed vocal and instrumental forces over a basso continuo, as in Gabrieli’s (and later Schütz’s) Symphoniae sacrae.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the term had become attached to the Italian opera, where it designated what the French called the ouverture, or opener, the orchestral curtain-raiser. As we may recall from chapter 4, the Italian sinfonia avanti l’opera as employed by the theater composers of Alessandro Scarlatti’s generation was a short three- or (very occasionally) four-movement suite akin to what the string-players of Corelli’s generation might have called a concerto da camera (see Ex. 4-4). Being meant for the larger space of a theater rather than an aristocratic salon, it was usually scored for oboes and horns or trumpets in addition to strings. The brass instruments set limits on harmonic complexity.

But still the term, and the associated genre, would not stay put. By the end of the eighteenth century, 16,558 symphonies had been written (probably many more: the number is merely the sum total of items listed in the Union Thematic Catalogue of Eighteenth-Century Symphonies, c1720–c1810, compiled in the 1960s and 1970s under the direction of the American musicologist Jan LaRue). That is many times more than the number of operas. Symphonies were living a life of their own, as freestanding three- or four-movement orchestral compositions, and were being produced in unprecedented quantities.

Immense production, of course, implies immense consumption. A new pattern of consumption implies a new demand; and a new demand implies a change of taste (or “esthetic”). Such changes have social as well as esthetic causes. And that will be the key to understanding what the term-and-genre “symphony” came to mean over the course of the eighteenth century. For as Jan LaRue has pointed out, the term “symphony” was not uniformly associated with the genre that now bears the name. It only gradually won out over a welter of synonyms that included, in a fashion that can seem bewildering to today’s musicians who are used to hard-and-fast dictionary definitions, “overture” and “concerto,” as well as many terms no longer associated with orchestral music, such as “sonata,” “partita,” “trio,” “quartetto,” “quintetto,” and so on practically ad infinitum. Neither was the genre of free- standing symphony strictly distinguished from that of sinfonia avanti l’opera. Sometimes opera overtures were detached from their operas and performed as symphonies. Sometimes symphonies got attached to operas and were performed as overtures. Sometimes symphonies that never had any operas attached were called overtures out of habit, or because they opened concert programs.

But if we tend to rely on textbook or dictionary definitions for our idea of genres, eighteenth-century musicians and listeners identified them by their contexts and uses. For them, and so for us, a symphony will be any multimovement orchestral piece performed at certain kinds of social occasions. A crucial hint to the nature of the social occasions at which those thousands of free-standing symphonies were performed comes by way of some other early synonyms for the term in its new usage, including “divertimento,” “scherzando,” “serenata,” “notturno,” and “cassatione.” “Divertimento” comes from the Italian verb divertire, and means “entertainment music.” “Scherzando” comes from scherzare, to have fun. “Serenata” comes from sera, evening; “notturno” from notte, night. “Cassatione,” though disguised as an Italian word (suggesting an improbable derivation from cassare, to dismiss or rescind, or an even more improbable one from the French casser, to break) actually comes from the Austrian German noun Gasse, meaning street: hence, “street (or outdoor) music.”

To sum up, then, the free-standing orchestral symphony, produced in great numbers all over Europe beginning in the 1720s and 1730s, was originally a genre of entertainment music, usually performed in the evenings, sometimes out of doors. In short, the term meant aristocratic party music, which over the course of the century, responding to forces of urbanization and the economic empowerment of the bourgeoisie, became more and more available to public access. In the course of its becoming public it became more and more the pretext for the occasions at which it was performed, rather than their mere accompaniment. Thus, finally, the growth of the symphony paralleled the growth of the concert as we know it today—a growth that in turn paralleled a vastly increasing taste for esthetically beguiling or emotionally stirring instrumental music, sought out for the sake of its sheer sensuous and imaginative appeal, and listened to, increasingly, in silent absorption. This was indeed a momentous esthetic change, indeed a revolution. Its beginnings, however, were modest and artistically unpretentious in the extreme.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-10.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-10.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-10.xml