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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


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

Not that a great and practiced musical imagination could not work refreshing and fanciful changes on the new styles, and keep them fresh. Purcell in 1683 represented the first English adoption of the Corellian (or slightly pre-Corellian) style. It was the style itself that was then new. Merely using it, even at its most basic level, was an innovative act. In a later chapter we will take a long look at the work of George Frideric Handel, a naturalized Englishman who belonged to the generation of Corelli’s or Purcell’s sons and daughters, and who was one of the great representatives of the “High Baroque” style (as it is now so often called) that flourished, particularly in northern Europe, in the first half of the eighteenth century. It will be worthwhile at this point to have a preliminary look at Handel, who knew and played with the venerable Corelli during his apprentice years in Rome, to see what he did with the Corelli style in his set of “Twelve Grand Concertos,” opus 6, published in London in 1740 (more than a quarter of a century after Corelli’s death), one of the very latest major collections of Concerti Grossi.

The seventh concerto grosso from the set is dated 12 October 1739 on its autograph manuscript. By Handel’s day, and especially in England, the old distinction between church and chamber styles had become meaningless. The Anglican church service did not make room for sonatas or concerti da chiesa; instrumental chamber music was by definition secular entertainment. Handel’s concerto has five movements, of which the first two, a kind of prelude and fugue, are a clear echo of the church style. Just as clearly, the last movement, a dance in binary form, echoes the chamber style.

The third and fourth movements, paired slow–fast like the first two, are played without repeats but go through an elaborate harmonic “round trip” such as one finds in binary movements. The Andante, with periodic returns of a rhythmically catchy opening melody in different keys (yet without any interplay of solo and tutti) seems to be a hybrid, combining the characteristic features of the ritornello style, typical of arias or concertos, with those of the dance, typical of suites. The whimsical, diverting quality of the whole concerto is most obviously suggested by the adoption of an English national dance, the hornpipe (also known, fittingly enough, as the “delight” or “whim”) for the concluding movement (Ex. 5-13). As danced in the eighteenth century, the hornpipe was a “longways country dance,” meaning (paradoxically) an urban, genteel couples dance in which the dancers assembled in long files. The rather complicated steps were adapted from an older solo dance often done competitively by sailors; the rhythms, as in Handel’s adaptation, were often syncopated. Handel was surprising his English listeners and players with a delightful stylization of a dance they all knew “in situ,” extended delightfully (and somewhat ridiculously) to monumental length. Ex. 5-13 shows just the first half, allowing the first violin part and the bass to stand in for the four-part texture.

Handel and “Defamiliarization”

ex. 5-13 G. F. Handel, Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6, no. 7

The same whimsicality, the same aim to amuse, can be seen in the second, fugal movement of Handel’s concerto. Using a style that by then had long since become a standard procedure to which nobody paid much attention qua style, Handel subtly “defamiliarizes” it in order to produce the same kind of diverting piquancy Purcell could achieve simply by using the style when it was as yet unfamiliar. Consider first the one-note subject itself, a famous joke. The impression of mindless jabber, “put on” like a comic mask, is actually the means by which Handel exercises a subtle control over the texture of the fugue and keeps it lucid. The progressive rhythmic diminution from half notes to eighths that must run its course before the subject is allowed to quit its initial pitch, and the continuation of the eighth-note pulse into the sequential patterns of the countersubject insure that the subject’s rhythmic “head” in half notes will stand out against the eighth-note ground rhythm on its every entrance, wherever in the texture it may occur, and gives the composer an unusual freedom in placing or “voicing” surprising subject entries.

Another area of potential surprise is the timing of subject entries. We see an example of this within the first exposition (Ex. 5-14) in the little three-bar episode (on material derived from the countersubject) that breaks the implicit pattern defined by the second subject entry in mm. 9–11 and delays the third. Thereafter, the whole fugue consists of a game of hide-and-seek: when and where will the subject next turn up? The game is rendered all the more obviously (and amusingly) a game by the way episodes are made to “mark time” with static or obsessive repetitions (at times virtually denuded of counterpoint) of the four-eighths motif first heard in the second violin at the beginning of the countersubject (m. 5).

Handel and “Defamiliarization”Handel and “Defamiliarization”

ex. 5-14 G. F. Handel, Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6, no. 7, Allegro, mm. 1–22

So in the hands of its ablest practitioners, a style that derives its identity and its strength from the regularity of its patterns is subjected to calculated disruptions that honor the patterns (as the saying goes) “in the breach,” and that turn “form” into a constant play of anticipations and (dis)confirmations. This process of setting up and either bearing out or letting down the listener’s expectations has quite recently been termed the “implication/realization” model of musical form, and has been the focus of much investigation by psychologists, who regard it as a relatively pristine embodiment of the learning (or “cognitive”) processes by which humans adapt to their environment.4

In the instrumental music of the early eighteenth century, the listener’s interest is engaged by these abstract processes of “conditioned response” as if in compensation for the absence of a text as cognitive focus. They brought about a virtual revolution in listening, in which the listener’s conscious mind was much more actively engaged than previously in these processes of forecast and delayed fulfillment, and in which the form may even be said to arise out of the play of these cognitive processes. When it was new, such abstract yet intensely engaging instrumental music seemed to some listeners to be very aggressive both in what it demanded from them in the way of active perceptual engagement, and in its effects on them in the way of intense passive experience.

One particularly uncomprehending listener, an aged French academician named Bernard le Bovier le Fontenelle (1657–1757), who was used to the idea of music not as abstract intellectual process but as “imitation” of feeling, reacted to a bit of Italianate string music with the exasperated question, “Sonate, que me veux-tu?” which means “Sonata, what do you want from me?”5 He was not as uncomprehending as he thought. His indignation was aroused by his correct perception that the sonata wanted his active mental engagement. Music became a more strenuous experience but also a more powerful (and at the same time a more “autonomous”) one. And yet, as we have seen, the process of attending to such an autonomous musical structure can be endlessly diverting. Handel’s fugue, though far more sophisticated than Purcell’s, is also lighter—prankish rather than dogged.


(4) The term is Leonard B. Meyer’s; for the most extensive treatment see Eugene Narmour, The Analysis and Cognition of Basic Melodic Complexity: The Implication-Realization Model (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

(5) Quoted in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dictionnaire de musique (Paris, 1768), p. 452.

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. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05005.xml