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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 6 Class of 1685 (I)
Richard Taruskin

To conclude this little study of the French Suite No. 5, two more comparisons are in order, one “internal,” and the other “external.” The internal distinction, of course, is that between the styles of the traditional “obligatory” dances and the galanteries. Putting the allemande next to the gavotte shows how radically they differ. The textural and harmonic richness of the allemande’s style brisé contrasts with the virtual homophony of the gavotte; the subtle spun-out phrases of the one with the square-cut strains of the other; the placid, equable rhythms of the former with the highly contrasted, vivacious rhythms of the latter.

These musical (“technical”) differences are symptomatic of a fundamental difference in taste, one that would eventually mark the eighteenth century as a kind of esthetic battleground. With Bach, the galant, while certainly within his range, is nevertheless the exceptional style—the sauce rather than the meat. With most of his contemporaries, the balance had rather decisively shifted to the opposite.

“Agremens” and “Doubles”“Agremens” and “Doubles”

ex. 6-11 J. S. Bach, French Suite no. 5 in G major, Gigue

Here is where the external comparison comes in. Consider another gigue to set beside Bach’s: the one that opens the fourteenth ordre, or “set,” of harpsichord pieces (published in 1722) by Bach’s greatest keyboard-playing contemporary, François Couperin (1668–1733), royal organist and chief musicien de chambre to Louis XIV (Ex. 6-12). Couperin’s is a “set” rather than a suite because, following traditional French practice, the pieces in it, while related by key, are too numerous to be played or heard in one sitting and are not placed in performance order. One fashioned one’s own suite from such a set ad libitum.

“Agremens” and “Doubles”

fig. 6-8 François Couperin (ex collection André Meyer).

Couperin’s gigue (Ex. 6-12a) is not identified as such by title. It is, rather, identifiable by its rocking meter. That is the normal gigue meter; Bach’s is a diminution, betokening a faster tempo than usual. That tempo, since it is conventional, can be conveyed by the notation alone, without any ancillary explanation. And indeed, none of the dances in Bach’s suite carry any verbal indications as to their tempo. Such indications were not needed. The name of the dance, the meter, and the note values conveyed all the essential information.

But the situation with Couperin’s gigue, one of his most famous pieces (and rightly so), is just the opposite. It is not called “gigue,” but Le Rossignol en amour, “The Nightingale in Love”! It is not really a dance at all, but a “character piece” or (to use Couperin’s own word) a sort of “portrait” in tones, cast in a conventional form inherited from dance music. The subject portrayed is ostensibly a bird, and the decorative surface of the music teems with embellishments that seem delightfully to imitate the bird’s singing. But since (according to the title) the bird in question is incongruously experiencing a human emotion, the musical imitation is simultaneously to be “read” as a metaphor—a portrait not just of the bird but of the emotion, too, in all its tenderness, its languorousness, its “sweet sorrow.”

Since the conventional tempo of a gigue contradicts tenderness or languor, Couperin had to countermand it with a very detailed verbal indication, directing the performer to play “slowly, and very flexibly, although basically in time.” At the stipulated tempo there is room for a great wealth of embellishment, all indicated with little shorthand signs that Bach also used, and that are (mostly) still familiar to piano students today. The first sign in order of appearance, which Couperin called the pincée (a “pinched note”) and which we now call a mordant, is a rapid alternation of the written note with its lower neighbor on the scale. The second, which Couperin called tremblement (“trembling”) and we now call a short trill (or, sometimes, a shake), is a rapid and repeated alternation of the written note with its upper neighbor.

“Agremens” and “Doubles”

ex. 6-12a François Couperin, Le Rossignol en amour (14th Ordre, no. 1), beginning

Such conventionalized, localized ornaments, called “graces” in English at the time, and agrémens in French, were learned “orally”—by listening to one’s teacher and imitating, the way instrumental technique has always been (and will always be) imparted. There were tables of reference, of course, and many composers compiled them. Couperin’s (published as an insert to his first book of harpsichord pieces in 1713) is shown in Fig. 6-9. For an even more intense or less conventionalized expression, one resorted to specifically composed embellishments.

“Agremens” and “Doubles”

fig. 6-9 “Explication des Agremens, et des Signes,” from Couperin’s first book of Pièces de clavecin (Paris, 1713).

That is what Couperin does in his coda or petite reprise, where he notes that the speed of the written-out trill is to be “increased by imperceptible degrees” for an especially spontaneous (or especially ornithological) burst of feeling. And then he follows the whole piece with a “fancy version” or double (Ex. 6-12b), in which the surface becomes a real welter of notes, and where it becomes the supreme mark of skillful performance to keep the lineaments of the original melody in the foreground. (Perhaps that is why Couperin recommends in a footnote that the piece be played as a flute solo, for the flutist can use flexible dynamic shading and a true legato, while a harpsichordist must “fake” both.) Agrémens are still used plentifully in a double, but they are supplemented with turns and runs that have no conventional shorthand notation. Bach’s most notable doubles are those he wrote for the sarabandes in his “English” suites (although he called them, a little incorrectly, “agrémens”).

Miniatures that display the kind of exquisitely embellished, decorative veneer Couperin knew so well how to apply are often called rococo, a kind of “portmanteau word” formed by folding together two French words: rocaille and coquille, the “rock-” or “grotto-work” and “shell-work” featured in expensively textured architectural surfaces of the period. Were the decorative surface stripped away from Couperin’s pièce, the simplest of shapes would remain: cadences come every four bars (the last one delayed by two bars of “plaintive iterations”), describing a bare-bones tonal trajectory of I – V/V–I. Nor is the emotion expressed one of great vehemence or intensity. Rococo art expressed the same sort of aristocratic, “public” sentiments (including the sort of amorous or melancholy sentiments that can be aired in polite society) that we have already identified as galant. The strong pathos of Bach’s B-minor fugue (Ex. 6-3b) would have been as out of place in such company as it would be in the music of Couperin.

“Agremens” and “Doubles”

ex. 6-12b François Couperin, Le Rossignol en amour (14th Ordre, no. 1), “Double de Rossignol”

There was a place for such emotion, of course, and for a style of embellishment that expressed it, in the Italian art associated with the opera; and although Bach wrote no operas, he was well acquainted with the music of his Italian contemporaries and much affected by it. By Bach’s time a great deal of Italian instrumental music aspired to an “operatic” intensity of expression; recall some of the “frightening” work of Corelli and Vivaldi from the previous chapter. And there was a concomitant style of instrumental embellishment, allied to, and perhaps in part derived from, the fioritura of the castrati and the other virtuosi of the Italian opera stage.

Italianate ornamentation was “free,” or so the story went. In fact it was governed by just as many rules or conventions as the French, but it was applied with a much broader brush—not to single “graced” notes, but to the intervals between notes, even to whole phrases. In effect it meant making up your own “double” on the spot. Such a deed required real composing skills—a ready “ear” for harmony and counterpoint at the least—and was therefore far more a creative act than French ornamentation. But of course the extent to which a fully embellished Italian instrumental solo was really a spontaneous invention, rather than a studied and memorized exercise, must have varied greatly from performer to performer, just as it did in the opera house.

Even more than the French, Italian ornamentation was a practice that had to be learned by listening and emulating. Such written guides as there are consist not of tables or rules but of models for imitation. The most widely distributed and influential publication of this type was an edition of Corelli’s solo sonatas issued in 1716 (two years after the composer’s death) by the Amsterdam printer Estienne Roger, in which all the slow movements were fitted out with an alternate line showing “les agrémens des Adagio de cet ouvrage, composés par M. Corelli, comme il les joue”: “the embellishments to the Adagios, composed by Mr. Corelli, just the way he plays them” (see Ex. 6-13).

The claim may be doubted. There was no guarantee in those piratical days that any composer had actually written what was published under his name, and it is downright implausible to think that Corelli needed to write such things out for himself. Nevertheless, even if these are not “Corelli’s graces” (as an English publisher who had pirated them from Roger called them), they fairly represented the going style, as attested by many other publications, manuscripts, and compositions in the Italianate manner.

Among the most telling such corroborating documents is the slow movement—marked “Andante,” but in style a true Adagio—from Bach’s Concerto nach italiänischem Gusto (“Concerto after the Italian Taste”), probably written at Cöthen but published in the second volume of his Clavier-Übung, issued in Leipzig in 1735 (Ex. 6-14). This bracing composition, usually called the “Italian Concerto” in English, is a tour de force for composer and performer alike. The compositional feat is the transfer to a single keyboard instrument of the whole complex Italian concertato style, with its interplay of solo and tutti. A single keyboard instrument, that is, but not a single keyboard: large harpsichords, like pipe organs, had double keyboards that controlled different sets (or “ranks”) of strings. By engaging a device called a coupler that made both keyboards respond to a single touch, Bach could achieve a solo/tutti contrast between keyboards. And so he did in the rollicking outer movements, cast in ritornello style.

In the slow middle movement, Bach reverted to the older ground bass format, over which he cast a lyrical (“cantabile”) line for a metaphorical Corelli who pulls out all the stops in embellishing a hypothetical “original” tune (suggested in an alternate staff at the beginning of the music as given in Ex. 6-14). Note that Bach throws in a few “French” ornaments as well, especially on entering pitches and melodic high points. These do not so much represent a mixture of styles (though as a German, Bach would not have balked at such a mixture) as they do a means of achieving the equivalent of a dynamic accent, unavailable on the harpsichord. (Indeed, when transferring cantabile lines from the harpsichord to other instruments, as in Le Rossignol en amour, even Couperin suggests leaving out some of the signed graces, suggesting that French ornaments may actually have originated as a way of compensating for the physical limitations of the instrument.)

“Agremens” and “Doubles”“Agremens” and “Doubles”“Agremens” and “Doubles”

ex. 6-13 Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata in D major, Op. 5, no. 1

Bach’s invigorating keyboard arrangement, so to speak, of an imaginary Italian violin concerto was preceded by many keyboard arrangements of actual concertos. While at Weimar, Bach arranged some nineteen Italian concertos (five for organ, the rest for harpsichord), including several that we looked at in the previous chapter, like Vivaldi’s for four violins and Marcello’s for oboe. Making these arrangements is undoubtedly how Bach gained his mastery not only of the trappings of the Italian style but of the driving Italianate harmonic practices that he took so much further than his models, marking him as not just an imitator but a potent and very idiosyncratic emulator.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06007.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06007.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06007.xml