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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 8 The Comic Style
Richard Taruskin

But whence this cult of the “natural”? And where, once and for all, did the style we have been tracking in this chapter originate? We still have not traced this very important river to its source, for all the hints and suggestions thrown out along the way. Far from solving the historical problem (the problem of the “black hole”) with which we launched this chapter, all we have been doing is restating it over and over again, da capo, with variations and embellishments.

As the very existence of the “Alberti bass” already suggests, there was a slightly earlier but mainly concurrent repertoire of sonatas by Italian composers who deserted the violin family for the keyboard. Their work may indeed be compared with the music of the Bach sons and their friends, and has often been cited as its main model. Besides Alberti himself, whose name mainly lives on thanks to the term associated with it, the most famous member of this group was the Venetian opera composer Baldassare Galuppi (1706–85), a major international figure, who left in addition to his stage works almost one hundred keyboard sonatas of which only a fraction were published, mainly in two books of six issued by the London publisher John Walsh in the late 1750s.

In style, Galuppi’s sonatas (and Alberti’s, too) are eminently galant (see Ex. 8-9): their textures are homophonic, replete with arpeggiated basses and similar figurations; they consist of two or three movements, almost uniformly in binary form; and the keyboardists proceed not by spinning out motives in great waves and sequences in the manner of the older violinists (or their best pupil, Bach the Father), but through short-breathed contrast and balance, and through lyrical, symmetrically laid-out and cadentially articulated melodies. Their evident model was not tireless bowing, but graceful singing. And what else would one expect from composers who worked mainly for the stage?


ex. 8-9a Domenico Alberti, Sonata in C, Op. 1, no. 3 (London, 1748), mm. 1–4.


ex. 8-9b Baldassare Galuppi, Sonata no. 2 (London, 1756), I, mm. 69–79

Once again we are returned to opera as source of it all; but now, having named Galuppi, we are in a position to make a more positive and specific identification of the operatic source. Beginning in the 1740s, Galuppi was the first major international protagonist of a new operatic genre, one that he and his main librettist Carlo Goldoni called dramma giocoso (“humorous drama”), but that took Europe by storm (and is now remembered) as opera buffa—from buffo, Italian for buffoon or clown. If the opera seria was a form of nobly sublimated musical tragedy, opera buffa was musical comedy—the earliest form of full-fledged comic opera.

Here at last is where the body, as the saying goes, is buried. Here is the great stylistic transformer of European music, the spark that ignited what Daniel Heartz called the “main evolution” that somehow managed to take place behind the backs of Bach the Father and Handel. In the comic opera lies the common source for all the musical styles we have been tracking, even the nominally melancholy empfindsamer Stil. And as we shall see, by the late eighteenth century, opera buffa would decisively replace (or more precisely, displace) the seria as the most vital—and even serious!—form of musical theater.

But to appreciate the role of “humorous drama” as a hotbed of stylistic transformation or a plugger of historical holes, which after all is what we have set out to do in this chapter, we must look beyond it to its own antecedents. Then we shall have a proper starting point from which to tell at least the beginnings of a coherent story about the musical eighteenth century, and its relationship to the general social and intellectual currents of the time. One more flashback is necessary.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08006.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 6 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08006.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 6 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08006.xml