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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 8 The Comic Style
Richard Taruskin

Before trying to solve the problem, let’s savor it for a while by making it “worse.” We can expand the scope of our comparison by noting that the new “teasing” techniques not only created a stylistic contrast with the old but an esthetic and psychological one as well. A composition by J. S. Bach or one of his contemporaries was nothing if not musically unified. There is usually one main inventio or musical idea, whether (depending on the genre) we call it “subject,” “ritornello,” or by some other name, and its purpose is to project, through consistently worked out musical “figures” or motives, a single dominant affect or feeling-state, writ very large indeed.

The melodic surface of WF’s sonata, as we have seen, presents not a unified but a highly nuanced, variegated, even fragmented, exterior. The many short-term contrasts, and their implicit importance, seem to undermine the very foundations of his father’s style in both its musical and its expressive dimensions. In contrast to the inexorable consistency of JS’s “spinning-out,” the only predictable aspect of WF’s melodic unfolding is its unpredictability. In place of a heroic affect, “objectively” displayed, there is consciousness of subjective caprice, of impressionability, of quick, spontaneous responsiveness or changeability of mood—in a word, of “sensibility,” as eighteenth-century writers (most famously, Jane Austen) used the word.

The German equivalent of sensibility, in this sense, was Empfindung, meaning the thing itself, or Empfindsamkeit, meaning susceptibility to it. It was a new esthetic, which aimed not at objective depiction of a character’s feelings, as in an opera, but at the expression and transmission of one’s own; and, being based on introspection, it was “realistic” in the sense that it recognized the skittishness and fluidity of subjective feeling. “The rapidity with which the emotions change is common knowledge, for they are nothing but motion and restlessness,” wrote the Berlin composer Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1718–95) in a famous treatise on music criticism.7

Yet while that rapidity was presumably as well known to the composers of theatrical and ecclesiastical music as it was to anyone else, it was not thought by them to be the most appropriate aspect of the emotions for musical imitation. Rather, they sought to isolate, magnify, and “objectify” the idealized moods of gods, heroes, or contemplative Christian souls at superhuman intensity, and use that objective magnification as the basis for creating monumental musical structures that would impress large audiences in theaters and churches. Composers of the empfindsamer Stil, composing on a much smaller scale for intimate domestic surroundings, sought to capture the way “real people” really felt. They sought to create an impression of self-portraiture in which the player (and purchaser) of their music would recognize a corresponding self-portrait.

The origins of artistic “sensibility” were literary. Its first great conscious exponent was the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803), who established the style with his odes (love poems) in the 1740s, and who lived in Hamburg beginning in 1770. The Hamburg connection is important to us because Klopstock’s neighbor there was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (henceforth “CPE”), who in 1768 assumed the post of cantor at the so-called Johanneum (Church of St. John) after almost thirty years of service to the court of Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, in Berlin and at the other royal residences. He and Klopstock were kindred spirits and quickly became friends. CPE set Klopstock’s odes to music and carried on a lively and sympathetic correspondence with him about the relationship of music and poetry. He was in effect a musical Klopstock and the chief representative in his own medium of artistic Empfindsamkeit. The term is now firmly, if retrospectively, associated with him, and with his keyboard music in particular. He took to an extreme the kind of wordless “expressionism” we have already noted in the work of his elder brother.

He did it quite consciously and even wrote about it (though without using the actual E-word) in his famous treatise, An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen), published in Berlin in two volumes (1753, 1762). (It was to this book that Mozart was supposedly paying tribute in the comment quoted at the beginning of this chapter.) CPE’s Essay is of course full of technical information—about ornamentation, for example, and continuo realization—that is of great value to the historian of performance practice. But it also deals in less tangible matters, and that is what was new about it.

“Play from the soul,” CPE exhorted his readers, “not like a trained bird!”8 And then, lending his novel idea authority by casting it as a paraphrase of a famous maxim by the Roman poet Horace:

Since a musician cannot move others unless he himself is moved, he must of necessity feel all of the affects that he hopes to arouse in his listeners. He communicates his own feelings to them and thus most effectively moves them to sympathy. In languishing, sad passages, the performer must languish and grow sad…. Similarly, in lively, joyous passages, the executant must again put himself into the appropriate mood. And so, constantly varying the passions he will barely quiet one before he rouses another.9


fig. 8-3 Frederick the Great performing as flute soloist (probably in his own concerto) at a soirée in Sans Souci, his pleasure palace at Potsdam. His music master, Johann Joachim Quantz, watches from the left foreground. C. P. E. Bach is at the keyboard; leading the violins is Franticek Benda, a member of a large family of distinguished Bohemian musicians active in Germany, who spent fifty-three years in Frederick’s service. Oil painting (1852) by Adolf Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel.

Although the author takes the point for granted, it is important for us to realize that he is describing not only a style of performance but a style of composition as well. The kind of mercurial changeability of mood he emphasizes, and the impetuous sincerity he demands of the player, would both be out of place in a work by his father or in a formalized aria by Handel. For practical examples of musical Empfindsamkeit we must turn to CPE’s own works, like the Sonata in F (Ex. 8-3), chosen for the sake of its outward similarity to WF’s sonata in the same key.


ex. 8-3a C. P. E. Bach, “Prussian” Sonata no. 1 in F (Wotquenne catalogue no. 48/1), first movement, mm. 1–4, 32–37


ex. 8-3b C. P. E. Bach, “Prussian” Sonata no. 1 in F (Wotquenne catalogue no. 48/1), second movement

This sonata is the first in a set of six, composed in Berlin between 1740 and 1742, as much as a decade before the death of J. S. Bach, and published with a dedication to Frederick the Great, for which reason they are called the “Prussian” sonatas. In style and texture the first movement is even simpler than WF’s sonata and even more mercurial. The second half, for example, does not begin with a direct reference to the opening material but rather a fascinatingly oblique one. The first measure is a kind of free inversion of its counterpart; the left hand enters the way it did in the first half, but there is a new countermelody above it in the right, and so on (Ex. 8-3a). Thus when the double return comes, it is the first time the opening melody has been heard in anything like its original form since the beginning of the piece.

The magic movement, however, is the second (Andante). There is nothing like it in WF’s sonata, and nothing remotely like it in the works of J. S. Bach. It is the kind of piece for which the term empfindsamer Stil was coined. The key is F minor, traditionally a key of tortured moods. But no key signature is used—not because the key is in any way unreal, but because the very wayward harmonic digressions from it would entail a lot of tedious cancellations of accidentals. Even before the digressions take place the harmonic writing is boldly “subjective” and capricious: in m. 2, for example, a sigh figure is immediately followed by a leap of a diminished octave.

After the half cadence in m. 3 the melody breaks off altogether in favor of something that at first seems a contradiction in terms: an explicitly labeled instrumental recitative! Even without the label, the texture and the nature of the melodic writing would have labeled it conclusively. The giveaways are the pairs of repeated eighth notes on the first three downbeats, representing the prosody of “feminine endings” (line-endings in which the last syllable is unaccented). A knowing performer would recognize the notational conventions of opera here and perform them like a singer, interpolating an accented passing tone (or “prosodic appoggiatura”) in place of the first eighth as indicated in the score.

The recourse here to a patently operatic style—and the style associated in opera with “speaking,” at that—suggests that the empfindsamer Stil communicates, as it were, an unwritten or unspoken text. An operatic recitative (or scena, to cite the type of scene in which recitative alternates, as it does in CPE’s sonata, with a rhythmically steady melody) is traditionally a “formless” style of music that follows the shape of its text—in this case its unwritten text. Without an actual text to set, the music comes, as CPE puts it in his treatise, directly “from the soul,” and communicates, inchoately and pressingly, an Empfindung that transcends the limiting medium of words.

Thus instrumental recitative, the signature device of musical Empfindsamkeit, implies a direct address from the composer to the listener, who is taken into the composer’s confidence, as it were, and confided in person to person. The impression created is that of an individual intimately addressing a peer—and CPE’s favorite instrument for creating such an impression was the clavichord, an instrument capable of dynamic gradations unavailable on the harpsichord, but so soft that one has to be as near the performer in order to hear it as one would have to be in order to carry on a private conversation.

Also inchoate and pressing are the harmonies that support this wordless recitative—chromatic harmonies that deliberately depart from the model sequences of “normal” music and, if anything, recall the vagaries of the latest, most “decadent” madrigals. If a G natural is interpolated as a prosodic appoggiatura in m. 8, then the first recitative section (like WF’s already rather empfindsamer modulations in the first movement of his sonata) contains every degree of the chromatic scale. While the wildest, most disruptive touch is surely the immediate progression of the chord of B♭ in m. 4 to the viio of B in the next measure, surely the most sophisticated progression is the enharmonic succession in mm. 7–8, whereby G♯ is transformed to A♭, reversing its tendency and smoothly restoring the original key.

CPE would not have called this style of his madrigalian, of course; nor, as already observed, did he himself use the word empfindsamer to describe it. His term for this inchoate, pressing idiom, with its rhythmic indefiniteness and harmonic waywardness, was the “fantasia” style. It was a style more often improvised than actually composed, as he tells us in his Essay, giving us a helpful reminder that the written music on which we base our historiography was still—is always—just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, the vogue for Empfindsamkeit lent improvisation a new prestige, CPE strongly implying that the ability to improvise is the sine qua non of true musical talent: “It is quite possible for a person to have studied composition with good success and to have turned his pen to fine ends without his having any gift for improvisation. But, on the other hand, a good future in composition can be assuredly predicted for anyone who can improvise, provided that he writes profusely and does not start too late.”10

A fantasia, then, might be characterized as a transcribed improvisation. J. S. Bach, a master improviser, wrote down only a few, notably a famous “Chromatic fantasia and fugue” in D minor. For him a fantasia was the equivalent of a prelude—not a fully viable piece in its own right but an introduction to a strict composition. CPE wrote down many more, especially in his later years, and was inclined, in the spirit of Empfindsamkeit, to regard them as freestanding, complete compositions. His most famous fantasia is the one in C minor, which he published as a Probestück, or “lesson piece,” to illustrate the Essay in 1753. Its beginning is shown in Ex. 8-4. Its many dynamic indications show it to have been conceived specifically in terms of the clavichord or the pianoforte, which was just then coming into widespread use.


ex. 8-4 C. P.E. Bach, Fantasia in C minor

The recitative style is again invoked at the outset, but a recitative sung by a supersinger with a multioctave range. There is a purely conventional signature denoting “common time,” but there are no bars and hence no measures to count, signaling (according to CPE’s instructions in the Essay) a restlessly fluctuating tempo. Approximately halfway through the piece, however, a time signature of will supersede the original signature, bars will be measured out so that the new tempo (Largo) is to be strictly maintained, and what amounts to an “arioso” will temporarily succeed the recitative. Here the power of dynamics to delineate quick emotional changes comes into its own; rapid-fire alternations of fortissimo and piano, with the fortissimos on the off-beats, amount to virtual palpitations. Once again, by casting the fantasia in a recognizable vocal form and employing an idiom that apes the nuances of passionate singing, an imaginary text is suggested, of which the music is the intensified expression, faithfully and “truthfully” tracking every fugitive shade of meaning and feeling.

So clearly does “empfindsamer” instrumental music aspire to the condition of speech-song in its emotional immediacy, and so convincingly does this fantasia conjure up an imaginary or internal theater, that in 1767 the poet Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg (1727–1823), a close friend of Klopstock and an acquaintance of the composer, was moved to furnish the fantasia with not one but two vocal lines that mainly doubled what was singable in the right-hand figuration. The first is fitted to a German translation of Socrates’s speech before committing forced suicide in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo; the second carries a paraphrase in fevered doggerel of the celebrated suicide soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”) from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These texts, the most searingly emotional outpourings Gerstenberg could find in all of literature, are overlaid to the beginning of the fantasia in Ex. 8-5. The Shakespearean travesty runs as follows:

Seyn oder Nichtseyn,

Das ist die grosse Frage.

Tod! Schlaf!

Schlaf! und Traum!

Schwarzer Traum!


To be or not to be:

That is the great question.

Death! Sleep!

Sleep! and dream!

Black dream!

Death dream!

(Trans. Eugene Helm)

Invoking Shakespeare was a particularly pointed commentary on the empfindsamer Stil. Gerstenberg was a leader in the so-called Sturm und Drang (“Storm and stress”) movement, a loose literary association that sought to exalt spontaneous subjectivity and unrestrained “genius” over accepted rules and standards of art. Shakespeare (discovered by the Germans in the 1760s, in translations by the poet Christoph Martin Wieland) was their hero, worshiped and emulated for the way in which his plays “freely” mixed prose and poetry, tragedy and comedy, elevated and lowly characters and diction in a manner that—compared to the “neoclassical” style of the French theater or the Metastasian opera seria—seemed to subvert all restraints in the name of unmediated passionate expression.

A style that combined the declamatory freedom of recitative with the concentrated expressivity of the new instrumental music and the semantic specificity of words would synthesize, and hence surpass, all previous achievements in drama and music, thought Gerstenberg. He certainly implied as much when describing his Shakespearean adaptation of CPE’s fantasia in a letter to a friend:

I assume, first, that music without words expresses only general ideas, and that the addition of words brings out its full meaning…. On this basis I have underlaid a kind of text to some Bach keyboard pieces which were obviously never intended to involve a singing voice, but Klopstock and everybody have told me that these would be the most expressive pieces for singing that could be heard. Under the fantasy in the Essay, for example, I put Hamlet’s monologue as he fantasizes on life and death. A kind of middle condition of his shuddering soul is conveyed.11

And Carl Friedrich Cramer, a professor of classics who edited a music magazine where he published Gerstenberg’s experiment in 1787, described it to his readers in terms that capture the very essence of Sturm und Drang, and that may even remind us of the theorizing that had attended the birth of opera two centuries before:


ex. 8-5 C. P. E. Bach, Fantasia in C minor with Shakespeare text overlaid by Gerstenberg

I believe that this eccentric essay belongs among the most important innovations that have ever been conceived by a connoisseur, and that to a thinking artist, one who does not always cringe in slavery to tradition, it may be a divining rod for discovering many deep veins of gold in the secret mines of music, in that it demonstrates in itself what can result from this dithyrambic union of instrumental and vocal music: an effect quite different from the customarily confined possibilities of self-willed forms and rhythms.12

But in an important and quite obvious sense both Gerstenberg and Cramer had missed the point. CPE Bach’s intention, in creating his empfindsamer Stil, was not to express texts, however finely. For doing that, needless to say, there was plenty of precedent. Rather, his aim was to transcend texts—that is, to achieve a level of pure expressivity that language, bound as it was to semantic specifics, could never reach. This transcendently expressive music of which CPE was the fully self-conscious harbinger was later dubbed “absolute” music. It marked the first time that instrumental music was deemed to have decisively surpassed vocal music in spiritual content, and to be consequently more valuable as art.

And yet, to compound the paradox, the means by which the new instrumental music would transcend the vocal were nevertheless all borrowed from the vocal. To Gerstenberg himself, CPE once wrote that “the human voice remains preeminent”13 as an expressive medium, and in his Essay he advises keyboard players to “miss no opportunity of hearing capable singers,” for “from this one learns to think in terms of song.”14 Only thus can one translate one’s ever fleeting, ever changing feelings into tones. And here at last we begin to get an inkling into the source of the tremendous metamorphosis in musical style and esthetics that took place over the course of the eighteenth century, ineluctably transforming the work of the Bach sons, along with everyone else’s, and ineluctably opening up a gaping generation gap. The ferment was caused by opera. That was the “main evolution” to which Daniel Heartz drew attention.

But if the empfindsamer Stil was the most obviously and consciously “operatic” instrumental style of the period (taking “operatic” figuratively to mean intensely passionate and grandly eloquent), it was rather one-sidedly so. It placed emphasis on the formally unstable aspects of opera, particularly on recitative—musical “speech.” (That is what can make it seem a throwback to the earliest days of opera, the days of the seconda prattica and the stile rappresentativo.) It was a kind of dramatic music that, as it happened, was practiced exclusively by composers who never wrote operas.


(7) F. W. Marpurg, Der critische Musicus an der Spree, no. 27 (Berlin, 2 September 1749), p. 215.

(8) C. P. E. Bach, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Berlin, 1753), p. 119.

(9) C. P. E. Bach, Versuch, pp. 122–23, trans. Piero Weiss in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., p. 230.

(10) C. P. E. Bach, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, trans. William J. Mitchell (New York: Norton, 1949), p. 430.

(11) Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg, letter to Friedrich Nicolai (1767), quoted in Eugene Helm, “The ‘Hamlet’ Fantasy and the Literary Element in C. P. E. Bach’s Music,” Musical Quarterly LVIII (1972): 279.

(12) Carl Friedrich Cramer, Flora (Hamburg, 1787), p. xiii; quoted in Helm, “The ‘Hamlet’ Fantasy,” p. 287.

(13) C. P. E. Bach to H. W. von Gerstenberg (1773); quoted in Helm, “The ‘Hamlet’ Fantasy,” p. 291.

(14) C. P. E. Bach, Versuch, p. 121, trans. Piero Weiss in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., p. 230.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08003.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 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08003.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 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08003.xml