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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 8 The Comic Style
Richard Taruskin
Sociability Music

fig. 8-6 “French concert” (actually a salon). Engraving by Duclos after a painting by St.-Aubin.

Although it is notoriously easy to overdraw such matters, comparison of the sonata by C. P. E. Bach with that of his younger half brother shows up the two complementary sides of what might be called the “bourgeois” or “domestic” music of the mid-eighteenth century. Stylistically and formally they are similar enough, but “attitudinally” they contrast markedly. CPE’s is solitary, introspective, “inner-directed” music; JC’s is sociable, outgoing. The one explores personal, private, even unexpressed feelings; we easily imagine it performed for an audience of one (or even none but the player, seated at the clavichord), late at night, in a mood of emotional self-absorption. It implies a surrounding hush. The other is party music, implying bright lights, company, a surrounding hubbub of conversation. That about sums up the difference between Empfindung and galanterie, and it is no accident that the one word is German and the other French.

It was the spirit of galanterie—conviviality, pleasant “causerie” (another French word in international use)—that gave rise to what we now call chamber music in its modern sense. The first pieces of this kind, in fact, grew directly out of the keyboard sonata, and it happened first in France. The earliest composers to attempt the transformation of keyboard sonatas into sociable ensembles were a couple of forgotten Parisian violinists: Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711–72) and Louis-Gabriel Guillemain (1705–70).

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fig. 8-7 Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville, by Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

Their inclinations are well illustrated by the titles of Guillemain’s sonata sets: Premier amusement à la mode (op. 8, 1740), for example, or Six sonates en quators ou conversations galantes et amusantes (op. 12, 1743). (In light of these titles, it is irresistible to mention that, in the words of the sonata-historian William S. Newman, Guillemain was “a neurotic, alcoholic misanthrope, who could not bring himself to perform in public, squandered his better-than-average earnings, and finally took his own life.”17 In this case, anyway, the style was not the man.) These were still old-fashioned continuo pieces, but as early as 1734 Mondonville—whose wife Anne Jeanne Boucon was a well-known harpsichordist who had studied with Rameau—took a decisive and much-imitated step in the name of galanterie that completely reversed the textural perspective. He published as his opus 3 a set of Pièces de clavecin en sonates avec accompagnement de violon, “harpsichord pieces grouped into sonatas, accompanied by a violin.” What he offered merely as a piquant novelty quickly took root as a new musical genre. By the 1760s it had turned into a craze that finally marked curtains for the basso continuo style.

The “accompanied keyboard sonata” initiated by Mondonville was (in theory, at least) a fully composed, self-sufficient keyboard sonata to which an obbligato for the violin or flute could be added ad libitum. In theory this was something that could be done to any keyboard sonata, and there is evidence that accompanied sonatas existed for some time as a “performance practice” before the first expressly composed specimens saw the light. Indeed, we have already seen an instance—Couperin’s “Le rossignol-en-amour” (Ex. 6-12)—where a composer explicitly suggested turning one of his keyboard pieces into an ensemble piece by giving its melody part to a flute.

In practice, from the very earliest composed specimens, the “accompanying” part added something indispensable to the texture, turning the piece into a true duo, to which a cello or viol could be added to double and lightly embellish the bass line, making a trio. Unlike Guillemain’s continuo pieces, the result was a “conversation galante et amusante” for truly equal conversational partners, each with a melodic life of its own. As the excerpt in Ex. 8-7 from the minuet in Mondonville’s fourth accompanied sonata shows, even at this early stage the texture is quite different from that of J. S. Bach’s trio sonatas with obbligato harpsichord. There is no imitative polyphony, for one thing; the bass figuration shows Alberti-ish tendencies, for another; and for a third (possibly most crucial) thing, the texture is not so clearly laid out in contrapuntal “voices.” The two hands of the harpsichord frequently combine in parallel motion to become a single “voice,” and the violin (especially at such moments) is apt to dip beneath and take over the “bass.”

Mondonville’s earliest imitators were Rameau, his musical father-in-law (whose 1741 collection of Pièces de clavecin en concert for harpsichord solo and two obbligato parts contains a sarabande called “La Boucon,” dedicated to Mondonville’s wife), and Guillemain, who published a collection exactly modeled on Mondonville’s, and identically titled, in 1745.

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ex. 8-7 Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, Accompanied Sonata in C, Op. 3, no. 4

By the 1760s, accompanied keyboard sonatas were being written everywhere, and J. C. Bach and his London cohort Abel had become preeminent in the genre, of all musical forms and media the most quintessentially galant. In fact, JC published exactly twice as many accompanied keyboard sonatas (forty-eight) as unaccompanied ones, which gives an idea of the genre’s quick ascendancy, a rise that testifies above all to its social utility. Even CPE was moved to try his hand at this profitable genre, but half-heartedly; according to a famous quip of JC’s (like all such reported comments, possibly apocryphal), “my brother lives to compose and I compose to live.”18 It would be hard to come up with a better encapsulation of Empfindsamkeit vis-à-vis galanterie!

For a last mid-century sonata let us turn to the fourth item in Abel’s opus 2, a set of Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord with Accompaniments for a Violin or German [i.e., transverse or modern] Flute and Violoncello, published in London (with a dedication to the Earl of Buckinghamshire) in 1760. The style will be familiar from JC’s sonata, but the piece is shorter, simpler, more schematic. There are only two movements, a moderately “expanded” or maximized binary followed by a minuet. This is commercial fare par excellence.

The principle of contrast is taken to such an extreme at the beginning of the first movement (Ex. 8-8a) as to amount practically to a spoof—“ingenious jesting with art,” as Domenico Scarlatti, galant avant la lettre (galant before it had a name), might have said. The tonic is established with a deliberately over-pompous four-measure fanfare in orchestral style, thumped out with octaves in the bass. It is followed by a three-bar transition to a half cadence, after which the key, the texture, and even the scoring (thanks to the entrance of the obbligato) all change suddenly: a long, lyrical, legato melody in two distinct halves, accompanied by a counterpoint-dissolving Alberti bass.

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ex. 8-8a Carl Friedrich Abel, Sonata in B-flat, Op. 2, no. 4, first movement, mm. 1–11

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ex. 8-8b Carl Friedrich Abel, Sonata in B-flat, Op. 2, no. 4, end of second movement

The second half embarks on its journey from the dominant to the tonic with a reference to the opening fanfare—treating it, in other words, in the manner of a ritornello. Thus invoking or alluding to the concerto genre is another way of jesting ingeniously. This time the fanfare dissolves into a new melody whose job it is to lead (through some chromatic harmony and some asymmetrical phrase lengths) to the FOP, in this case D minor (iii), articulated by a reference to the second part of the lyrical theme introduced before the double bar.

The D minor cadence is followed unceremoniously by a brusque return to the tonic through the briefest of transitional motives in the bass. When the tonic arrives, of course, so does the opening fanfare (ritornello), and the movement proceeds to its conclusion through an only slightly abbreviated replay of the whole first half of the movement, the only differences being the omission of the no longer necessary transition to the dominant half cadence (mm. 5–7 in Ex. 8-8a) and the transposition of the long lyrical tune from its original pitching in the key of the dominant to the tonic. The second half of the piece could be described as containing virtually the whole first half, plus a bridging section devoted to harmonic caprice.

The minuet is about as ingratiating, unproblematic, and “popular” as the composer could have made it. The first half does not even leave the tonic; it consists of two parallel periods, the first ending on a half cadence, the second on a full—the sort of thing called “open” and “closed” as far back as the Middle Ages and still common in the eighteenth century in folk (i.e., “popular”) tunes, of which Abel’s minuet thus counts as a sort of sophisticated—or, in the etymological sense, “urbane”—imitation. Because the first half does not leave the tonic, the dominant can function in the second half as the FOP. There are no cadences at all on secondary functions, just an occasional whiff of chromaticism (including a lone diminished seventh) on the way to the last dominant cadence.

When the piece is effectively complete, the composer tacks on a 16-bar coda (Ex. 8-8b) over a satisfying tonic pedal, reasserting both tonal and rhythmic stability at maximum strength. The whole passage might as well have been written for the sake of this book, to provide a demonstration of phrase symmetry. The sixteen bars are really eight plus an exact repetition, and each eight breaks down to four plus four, in which the first four consists of a two-bar plagal cadence and its literal repetition, and the second four consists of the very same plagal cadence joined to an authentic one. More naively “natural” than this—as opposed to cunningly “artificial”—music could hardly get. (But of course to be this “natural” takes a lot of artifice.) It is in the second half of the minuet, by the way, that the harpsichord and the “accompanying” instrument get to engage in a bit of dialogue (the only imitative or even contrapuntal writing in the whole sonata), effectively precluding a performance of the piece as a straight keyboard sonata. It is genuine chamber music for actual chamber (that is, domestic) use, and its style and tone are wholly typical of the genre in its earliest stage.


(17) William S. Newman, The Sonata in the Classic Era (2nd ed., New York: Norton, 1972), p. 621.

(18) Quoted in Stephen Roe, “Johann Christian Bach,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. II (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2000), p. 417.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08005.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 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08005.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 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08005.xml