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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off
Richard Taruskin

As Lombardy-Venetia marked the Austrian Empire’s southern frontier, so the so-called Rhine Palatinate (now part of Bavaria in southern Germany) was its most westerly extension, bordering France. The name goes back to late Roman times, when the title Count Palatine was bestowed on the Emperor’s chief vassal in the region, and so it remained under the “Holy Roman” Empire, when the ruler of the region became known as the Elector Palatine, one of the foremost nobles in the whole Hapsburg hierarchy. In the early eighteenth century, the seat of this substantial court was unexpectedly moved from Heidelberg, a large city whose castle had been ravaged during the War of the Spanish Succession, to Mannheim, a small town on the right bank of the Rhine.

A new capital had to be established, which meant building a large palace and equipping it with all the attributes of majesty. The town had no opera house, and so court instrumental music—semiweekly “académies de musique”—suddenly became one of the Elector Palatine’s chief vehicles for displays of what sociologists call “quantitative luxury.” The court musical establishment grew accordingly by leaps and bounds, especially during the reign of the Elector Carl Theodor (1743–78), himself a musical amateur.

In the seventh year of his reign, there were sixty-one musicians on his payroll. By the last year, when Mozart visited Mannheim and described the place in an enthusiastic letter to his father, there were ninety, of whom no fewer than sixty (many of them famous virtuosos) were members of what was by then the largest, most famous, and by all accounts most accomplished orchestra in Europe. Dr. Burney, another visitor, wrote in 1772 that “there are more solo players and good composers in this than perhaps in any other orchestra; it is an army of generals, equally fit to plan a battle as to fight it.”1 Many of these musical generals—particularly the wind players (including virtuosos of the clarinet, the latest instrument to join the standard orchestral complement)—had been brought in from the easterly portion of the Elector’s realm, known as the Upper Palatinate, which bordered on or overlapped with Bohemia, the part of central Europe now known as the Czech Lands. The leader of the band under Carl Theodor, and its very exacting trainer, was a Bohemian violinist and composer named Jan Václav Stamic (1717–57, known in German as Johann Wenzel Stamitz or Steinmetz), whose son Carl (1745–1801) became even more famous than his father. (Carl toured the continent as a violin virtuoso and finally settled in Paris, where he became a favorite at the Concert Spirituel both as performer and as a composer specializing in symphonies concertantes, symphonies full of virtuoso solo passages for outstanding members of the orchestra.)

An Army Of Generals

fig. 10-2 Carl Theodor, Elector Palatine, who maintained the Mannheim orchestra at his court.

Under Stamitz senior and his successor Christian Cannabich (1731–98), a native Mannheimer whose conducting Mozart observed and admired, the Palatine orchestra became famous for its quasi-military discipline and the exquisite effects that such discipline enabled. “Its forte is a thunderclap,” wrote another visitor, the poet and musical journalist Christian Friedrich Schubart, “its crescendo a cataract, its diminuendo a crystal stream babbling away into the distance, its piano a breath of spring.”2 The composing members of this band became the virtuoso orchestrators of their day, exploiting all kinds of special effects that acquired nicknames: “rockets” (quick rising passages, often arpeggiated), “steamrollers” (crescendos over ostinatos), and of course the explosive beginning, known as the premier coup d’archet (“first stroke of the bow”). Needless to say, Mannheim became a major spawning ground for concert symphonies.

In his short career Stamitz produced about seventy symphonies, of which ten were written in three-part score and are sometimes called “orchestral trios.” The title page of Stamitz’s op. 1, a collection of six such works published in Paris in 1755, reads Six Sonates à Trois parties concertantes qui sont faites pour Exécuter ou à trois, ou avec toutes l’Orchestre: “Six sonatas in three solo parts that are made to be performed either as a trio or with the whole orchestra.” In their scoring alternatives these pieces occupied a middle position between chamber music (played, according to the modern definition, by one player on each part) and orchestra music (played with “doubling” of parts, especially string parts, by as many musicians as desired, and with the bass line doubled at the octave and joined by a continuo keyboard). They could be performed, in other words, either privately or publicly. That was true of many early symphonies, including the one by Sammartini with which we are already familiar, and it was almost always true, too, of works designated “divertimento” or “serenade.” Stamitz’s symphony or orchestra-trio in C minor, the third item in his posthumously published op. 4 (Paris, 1758), is a particularly distinguished yet fully representative example of his practice. All four of its movements are in binary form, and the sequence is similar to that in Sammartini’s symphony: a marchlike first movement, a slower lyrical second, and two suite dances. Stamitz has reversed the order of the concluding pair, so that a stately minuet precedes a rollicking gigue marked prestissimo, evidently meant (like many Mannheim finales) as a showpiece of precision execution.

Like many orchestral minuets going all the way back to the time of Lully, the one in Stamitz’s symphony is actually a pair of minuets, played da capo. This was a custom that originated in the aristocratic ballroom, where the full set of required dance steps or “figures” came to exceed the number of measures a single dance could reasonably provide. The second of the pair, in a related key and traditionally played by a smaller complement of instruments, was for that reason called the “trio.” The term is redundant in the context of Stamitz’s symphony, which is scored in trio texture throughout. But that just goes to show that it was truly a custom, like the pairing of dances itself. Like many customs, they persisted long after their practical necessity had been obviated and the reason for their existence forgotten.

The gigue finale is an impressively extended composition. Its tonal trajectory embodies a number of interestingly adventurous key relations, including a vagary into E-flat minor, in modern parlance the “parallel minor of the relative major.” Among its admirers, evidently, was Beethoven, who probably encountered Stamitz’s works during his formative years in Bonn, his native town, then another Electoral seat on the Rhine at the western extremity of the Austrian empire, where his father and grandfather before him had served as Electoral court musicians. As we will see in chapter 13, the third movement of Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony contains the same unusual modulation to E-flat minor and even contains a perhaps unwitting quotation from Stamitz’s work, the sincerest form of tribute (see Ex. 13-12ab on p. 719). Stamitz’s work had thus achieved “classic” status; it was a work worthy of study and quotation.


(1) Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands, and United Provinces (2nd ed., London, 1775), p. 95.

(2) C. F. D. Schubart, Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Vienna, 1806), p. 130 (describing a performance heard in 1784).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10003.xml