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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 8 The Comic Style
Richard Taruskin

To see another side—a more direct and “purely musical” side—of opera’s stylistic impact on instrumental music, we need to examine the work of a composer who wrote both operas and sonatas. And that means examining the work of one more son of JS Bach—the youngest one, Johann (or John) Christian (1735–82, henceforth “JC”), the half brother of WF and CPE, who by the end of his life was far and away the most famous of the eighteenth-century Bachs.

Unlike his elder brothers, and as we may remember from chapter 4, JC followed a career completely at variance with his father’s. In some ways, in fact, it resembled Handel’s—in its restlessness, in its worldliness, and even in its geographical trajectory.

The London Bach

fig. 8-4 Portrait of J. C. Bach by Thomas Gainsborough.

His main teacher was his half brother CPE, with whom he went to live in Berlin after their father’s death. In 1755, aged nineteen, he made the fateful trip to Italy. He took some additional instruction in Bologna from Giovanni Battista Martini (known as “Padre Martini”), a priest who was also a legendary music pedagogue; he found himself a patron in a Milanese count; and in 1760 he became an organist at Milan Cathedral, having first converted to Catholicism in order to qualify for the job. During the same year he wrote his first opera seria, Artaserse, to Metastasio’s libretto (see chapter 4). From there he was summoned to Naples, the very nerve center of the opera seria, and in 1762 received an invitation to compose for the King’s Theatre in London, Handel’s old stamping ground.

Just as in Handel’s day, music in London was to a larger extent than anywhere else a public, commercial affair. JC’s career followed the ups and downs of the market. Squeezed out of the opera scene for a while by a jealous rival, he got himself appointed music master to Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of King George III. Not only did this gain him a royal stipend, it also gave him a privilege to publish his works. The most lucrative prospects for printed music lay in keyboard and chamber music for domestic use (“such as ladies can execute with little trouble,” to quote Dr. Burney, an admiring friend of the composer).15

In another entrepreneurial venture, JC joined forces with Carl Friedrich Abel, a composer and viola da gamba virtuoso whose father had been the gambist at the Cöthen court during J. S. Bach’s tenure as music director there, and who was also by chance living in London. Together they founded the British capital’s most successful concert series, the “Bach-Abel Concerts,” which lasted until JC’s death. At the same time he maintained his ties with the opera stage—ties as much personal as professional, since he married an Italian soprano, Cecilia Grassi, the prima donna at the King’s Theatre. His fame brought operatic commissions from the continent—notably from the famously musical court at Mannheim, in the Rhineland, and even from Paris, where he set some ancient librettos that had previously served Lully.

All in all, John Christian Bach was the most versatile—and for a while, the most fashionable—composer of his generation, turning out music in every contemporary medium and for every possible outlet. Like Handel, he could boast of being a self-made man. But unlike Handel, he did not die a wealthy one. His last years were marked by several reverses in fortune and the declining popularity of his music. He died so deeply in debt that it took the queen’s intervention to get him decently buried and enable his widow to return home to Italy.

The London Bach

fig. 8-5 Portrait of Carl Friedrich Abel by Thomas Gainsborough.

John Christian Bach’s first set of six keyboard sonatas was his opus 5 (“for the Piano Forte or Harpsichord” as the title page stipulates), printed in London in 1768. The second item in the set, sampled in Ex. 8-6, is in D major, a brilliant orchestral key in which strings and brass alike were at their most naturally resonant. The sonata catches a bit of that brilliance. It sounds like a transcribed orchestral piece—more specifically, like a transcribed operatic overture of a kind JC had composed by then in quantity. (It was literally child’s play for the fifteen-year-old Mozart, already an experienced composer—and who had already met John Christian Bach in London during one of his early concert tours as an infant prodigy—to “restore” the sonata to full orchestral dress a few years later in the guise of a piano concerto.)

In style the sonata is in the purest “galant” idiom, witty and ingratiating. The balanced phrases and short-range contrasts that we have observed in the sonatas of JC’s half brothers have become even more pronounced, to the point where they were regarded as J. C. Bach’s personal signature. “Bach seems to have been the first composer who observed the law of contrast as a principle,” wrote Dr. Burney in his History, exaggerating only slightly.16 “Before his time, contrast there frequently was, in the works of others, but it seems to have been merely accidental,” he went on (exaggerating a bit more, perhaps, in his enthusiasm), whereas Bach “seldom failed, after a rapid and noisy passage to introduce one that was slow and soothing.”

And so it certainly is at the outset of JC’s first movement (Ex. 8-6): two bars of loud chordal fanfare followed immediately by two bars of soft continuous music, followed next by a balancing repetition of the whole four-bar complex. Contrast and balance operate in other dimensions as well: the loud bars describe an octave’s descent, for example, while the soft ones describe an octave’s ascent; the loud bars are confined to the tonic harmony, for another example, while the soft ones intermix tonic and dominant. Meanwhile the texture is the work of a composer who seems (despite his surname) never to have heard of counterpoint. It is, throughout and in many different (contrasting) ways, the kind of texture we nowadays call “homophonic,” consisting of a well-defined melody against an equally well-defined accompaniment.

The London BachThe London BachThe London Bach

ex. 8-6 J. C. Bach, Sonata in D, Op. 5, no. 2

In overall form the sonata meets what by now must be our expectation: all three movements are binary structures. But the ways in which that same “there and back” structure is delineated differ very tellingly each time. The first movement, by far the longest, manages to cram a huge amount of finely contrasted and balanced material into its generous yet orderly unfolding. How that orderliness is achieved despite that abundance is the fascinating thing to observe. It is what made J. C. Bach the greatly influential figure that he was. Notwithstanding all appearances of profligacy, the movement is a study in economy and efficiency.

The arresting fanfare idea heard at the outset, for example, is heard only once again (not counting its “automatic” repetition as part of the unwritten sectional repeat)—namely, at the “double return” (m. 73). Despite its small share of the movement’s running time, its strategic placement lends it an enormous structural importance, for it serves both to launch the movement’s harmonic trajectory and to signal its completion. It thus plays the defining role in articulating a musical form that is equally the product of thematic and harmonic processes. The shape of the movement depends on our recognition of significant melodic and harmonic goals, and on our noticing their achievement. The “fanfare” theme is there to facilitate that recognition, and that makes it the movement’s mainspring.

A similar functional efficiency characterizes all the other themes and melodic ideas in the movement. It is as if the older motivic (and “affective”) prodigality we noticed and admired in the work of JC’s brother WF—short-range contrast as its own reward—had been sorted and organized by JC into a higher and more energetic unity by assigning roles to each component. Thus the new idea—arpeggios in the left hand accompanied by tremolandos in the right—that follows at m. 9 introduces an unbroken span that lasts an asymmetrical ten bars until the next silent beat or caesura, and that seems to have as its assigned task the progressive introduction of new leading tones (first G♯, then D♯) along the circle of fifths so as to accomplish the “there” of the “there and back” on which all binary forms depend. On its completion, it is the quarter rest or caesura (a term borrowed from poetry, where it means an empty foot) that serves to mark the arrival at the new tonic, A, in m. 19. Silence plays as important a role in articulating the form of a piece like this as the notes ever do.

We have seen this “modulatory” maneuver countless times by now, in arias, concertos, suites, and sonatas; but we have never before seen anyone make such a look-Ma-I’m-modulating production of it as here. From this point (m. 19) to the double bar, the music is stably in the key of A major. Stable tonality implies stable (that is, symmetrical) phrase structures, and so we are not surprised to find at this point a new, full-blown melody—the longest self-contained musical “section” in the piece so far—whose tuneful abundance is artfully organized into balanced “antecedent” and “consequent” phrases.

Its opening section, four bars ending with a caesura at m. 22, can be broken down into two sequential halves, the first ending with a piquant “lombard” rhythm, the second with a half cadence (i.e., a cadence on the dominant). Phrases ending on the dominant, requiring continuation, are “antecedents”; their balancing “consequents,” as here, often begin like repetitions (compare the beginnings of m. 19 and m. 23), creating “parallel periods.” The four balancing bars (mm. 23–26) also end with a half cadence, requiring yet another phrase to reach the (local) tonic.

This requirement is met—or (alternatively) this function is supplied; or (yet another way of putting it) this role is played—by a new eight-bar phrase (mm. 27–34), itself full of contrasts and balances, to balance the first. Its first four bars consist of two quick (one-measure) upward sweeps balanced by a slow (two-measure) undulating descent. The concluding four, which also break down into 1 + 1 + 2, finally bring back the A-major triad in root position, which alone can mark a “closure.” From here on it’s confirmation all the way: a pair of contrasting two-bar phrases, immediately repeated for a total of eight measures, that regularly reapproach the (local) tonic, reinforcing the sense of arrival and, finally, of closure (for which purpose a witty reference is made to the opening chordal idea).

To sum up the contents of the first half of the movement: it does what all such binary openings do, but does it in a newly dramatic and functionally differentiated way. Four main melodic/harmonic “areas” can be distinguished, which contrast and balance one another just as they are themselves made up of internal contrasts and balances:

  1. 1. The first eight measures, in which the tonic and dominant of the main key are introduced and alternated, provide the harmonic launching pad.

  2. 2. The next ten measures (asymmetrically divided 7 + 3) accomplish a “bridging” or “modulatory” function; the fact that their purpose is basically connective is equally apparent from their harmonic instability and from their melodic asymmetry. The two factors are always interdependent.

  3. 3. The next sixteen measures reestablish harmonic stability (in a new area) and melodic symmetry: the first eight are a parallel period that ends on a half cadence. They are balanced by eight bars ending on a full cadence.

  4. 4. The last eight measures, which contrast two-by-two and balance four-by-four, confirm arrival and effect closure. Now it is time to come “back” via the FOP. Again the familiar process unfolds through a remarkable diversity of material, but an equally remarkable functional organization.

The first thing heard after the double bar is anew melody (m. 43) over a characteristic arpeggiated accompaniment (three-note chords broken low-high-middle-high) that has been known ever since the eighteenth century as the “Alberti bass” after Domenico Alberti (d. 1746), an Italian composer who famously abused it. At first the new tune seems to be a stable melody in the dominant, but it makes its cadence after a telltale five measures, and its lack of symmetry is enhanced by the way the expected caesura is elided at its conclusion. Another obviously “modulatory” phrase of four bars impinges at that moment (“obviously” modulatory because it is modeled on the bridging material from the first half). It leads through a bass A♯ to an eight-bar melody (m. 52) consisting of a loud four-bar phrase and its echo that fully establishes a cadence on B minor (vi), the expected FOP.

And just as a four-bar bridge and a brief but full-blown symmetrical melody had led away from the dominant to the FOP, the same melodic complex leads from the FOP to the “double return.” Note particularly how A, the dominant pitch, is sustained as a pedal through the whole eight-bar melody (mm. 65–73) that immediately precedes the return, creating a harmonic tension demanding especial relief. The double return palpably impends, creating the kind of suspense we associate with drama. Once again we may say that a familiar form is being newly “dramatized.”

From the double return to the end of the movement, the music consists entirely of material introduced in the first half. Indeed, except for the shrinking of the bridge material (since it is no longer needed for modulatory purposes), the music is a veritable replay of the first half, with all the tunes stably confined to the tonic key, thus creating a sense of structural balance, of melodic invention governed by harmonic function, at the very longest possible range.

What we have just traced could be described, then, as a “maximized” binary form, in which harmonic departures and arrivals are dramatized and elaborated by drawing on a seemingly inexhaustible melodic well. The melodies draw on a common fund of figures and turns: note, for example, how the “new” material immediately after the double bar employs a skipping “lombard” heard previously (compare m. 20 with m. 43). But the dominant impression is one of maximum variety of material organized by the overriding harmonic motion into a maximum unity of concept.

The remaining movements of the sonata, like most sonata movements of the “Bach’s sons” generation, are also cast in binary form—but not in the “maximized” version that gives the first movement (like most first movements, beginning with J. C. Bach) its special preeminent character. The second movement reverts to a procedure much closer to that of Bach the Father: the two halves closely mirror one another melodically as they trace the customary tonal progression, beginning and ending similarly though with reversed harmonic poles, and differing chiefly in the middle, where the second half makes its customary deflection toward the FOP—no actual cadence this time but just a chromatic color: an augmented-sixth harmony over ♭VI (E-flat).

The last movement, while also cast in a seemingly familiar traditional form—a pair of minuets (old-style galanteries), the second (marked “Minore”) in the parallel minor—actually displays an interestingly novel feature. Like the first movement (and unlike any actual binary dance movement we have as yet encountered) both minuets sport “double returns” in their second halves. The functional association of theme with key has truly become a standard form-defining feature. Another feature that has (or will shortly) become standard is the substitution of III (the so-called relative major) as opposite harmonic pole for pieces in the minor mode, such as the second minuet.


(15) Burney, A General History of Music, Vol. II, ed. F. Mercer (New York: Dover, 1957), p. 866.

(16) Burney, A General History of Music, Vol. II, ed. F. Mercer, p. 866.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08004.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08004.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08004.xml