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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off
Richard Taruskin

Among the other composers of concert symphonies whose works became early classics of the genre were two of J. S. Bach’s sons. Johann Christian Bach, a prolific composer of opera seria and, later in life, a concert impresario in his own right, naturally gravitated toward the genre as a spinoff from his primary activities. The interchangeability of opera overture and early symphony, both as genres and as terms, is well illustrated by J. C. Bach’s popular Symphony in B♭, op. 18 no. 2. It was originally composed in 1774 as the sinfonia avanti l’opera preceding Bach’s Lucio Silla. Publication followed seven years later in London, in a set entitled “Six Grand Overtures,” of which two others were actual operatic sinfonias and the remaining three were symphonies composed for concert use. The use of the word “overture” to refer to what we now call symphonies persisted in London to the end of the century.

Bach’s Lucio Silla was first performed in November 1775, at the court of Mannheim, which by then boasted a major opera house. (The libretto had already been set three years earlier by Mozart for performance in Milan.) The orchestra for which it was written, then, was the very same Mannheim orchestra whose feats of virtuoso concert execution had become legend. Bach’s symphony (or “overture”) can thus serve as an illustration of the fabled Mannheim style. The tempo marking, allegro assai, is already a mark of confidence in the band’s virtuosity. The scoring is rich, with ten wind parts including clarinets, a Mannheim specialty. The first sound heard, a loud tutti on the tonic triad rhythmically repeated four times, is the redoubtable premier coup d’archet. It is immediately (and typically) contrasted with a quiet or “charming” passage for the three upper string parts, after which the two violins reapproach the fanfare through a quick rising passage marked with a crescendo—in other words, a “rocket.” All of this is shown in Ex. 10-2b.

The festive fanfare mood is maintained throughout. (The ending—the “dernier coup d’archet,” so to speak—is an even more emphatic paraphrase of the beginning.) While clearly organized around the binary (tonic/dominant) axis, the form of the piece is somewhat nonchalant, with the “double return” preceding rather than following the main modulatory section. The latter rather unusually includes a cadence on IV (E♭), possibly chosen for the same reason it was often avoided by other composers: like the tonic and the dominant, the subdominant is another major triad, no farther away from the tonic than the dominant along the circle of fifths (but in the opposite direction). Thus it offers little in the way of variety or adventure, but in compensation it continually reinforces the festive fanfare affect (Ex. 10-2b). The piece is an unmitigated celebration (of the Electoral presence in the opera house, of the London customers in the stalls) and an unclouded entertainment. As well as any compositions of their kind, J. C. Bach’s symphonies (like those of Carl Friedrich Abel, his London business partner) uphold the ideal of high-class party music, transferred to a public occasion.

It is therefore especially interesting to compare them with the symphonies of his older half-brother Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Like his father, C. P. E. Bach never wrote an opera (hence never wrote a sinfonia avanti l’opera), yet he nevertheless contributed some twenty symphonies to the burgeoning orchestral repertoire, mostly rather late in his career. Many of them exhibit the stern and stormy, harmonically restless and unpredictable idiom identified in chapter 8 as the empfindsamer Stil, the “sentimental” or “pathetic” style—a style reserved, as CPE put it himself, f ür Kenner und Liebhaber (“for connoisseurs and amateurs” of the art), not for the average partygoer.

The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”

ex. 10-2a J. C. Bach, Sinfonia, Op. 18, no. 2, mm. 1–7

Six of Emanuel’s symphonies, scored for strings alone, were composed in 1773 on commission from Baron van Swieten, the Vienna antiquarian, who absolutely personified the connoisseur-amateur type. Another set of four, composed in 1776 when the composer was sixty-two, was dedicated to Prince Frederick William of Prussia, the nephew and eventual successor of Emanuel’s old patron, King Frederick the Great. The younger Frederick was an enthusiastic and skilled cellist who if it were possible would have outdone his flute-playing uncle in arts patronage.

The 1776 symphonies were published in Leipzig in 1780 with a curious title page that somewhat oversold them as Orchester-Sinfonien (“Orchestral symphonies,” as if there were another kind) and advertised the fact that they were scored mit 12 obligaten Stimmen, that is, in twelve instrumental parts, all of which take solo passages and hence cannot be omitted. In many early symphonies, including some by CPE, the wind parts were an optional harmonic reinforcement and filler that merely took over the function of the continuo keyboard, which it tended to replace until the orchestra, by the end of the eighteenth century, was generally continuo-free. That is why in the eighteenth century wind ensembles were often called “Harmonie,” as in the partita by Druschetzky encountered earlier on a Viennese concert program. In C. P. E. Bach’s “Orchester-Sinfonien,” the wind scoring is elaborately detailed and virtuosic, and there are many passages where the continuo “flügel” (keyboard) is explicitly suppressed. This was an extremely, indeed self-consciously modern style of orchestration, all the more remarkable in view of the composer’s age and his relative aloofness from the theater.

The first movement from the first of these symphonies shows off Emanuel’s singular symphonic style at full potency. The orchestra is handled brilliantly, and in a way that especially dramatizes the “symphonic binary” form. The solo wind writing is contrasted strategically with the continuoless strings. It is the latter group—two violins, viola, and cello without double bass support or keyboard—that get to play the rhythmically agitated and tonally inconclusive opening theme (Ex. 10-3a). (Note particularly the use of the C-natural, which turns the tonic into the “V of IV” before it has even had a chance to establish itself through a cadence.) A stressful tutti, erupting in diminished-seventh chords, makes a headlong dash to the contrasting (dominant) key; and when that key arrives, the solo winds enter with a placid, harmonically stable theme of their own, creating a maximum of contrast with the earlier music (Ex. 10-3b).

The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”

ex. 10-2b J. C. Bach, Sinfonia, Op. 18, no. 2, mm. 81–87

The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”

ex. 10-3a C. P. E. Bach, first Orchestral Symphony (Wotquenne. 183; 1776), mm. 1–19

The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”

ex. 10-3b C. P. E. Bach, first Orchestral Symphony (Wotquenne. 183; 1776), mm. 35–48

This strongly established contrast serves as a compass for the listener as the movement proceeds, since the composer’s efforts seem mainly bent on maintaining an impetuous momentum, and incorporating a maximum of surface diversity, deployed with fantasialike (that is, unpredictable) caprice. Although the form is recognizably binary, there is no double bar dividing the two sections, and no repeats. Instead, the opening theme (associated with the continuoless strings) serves as a formal marker, somewhat in the manner of a ritornello. It resurfaces in the dominant at the halfway point, to set the tonal trajectory on its complicated homeward path, and again when the home key is reached (m. 136), providing the crucial “double return.”

Although the recurrences of the opening theme thus provide an orientation point, its harmonic instability lends the whole movement a tonally precarious (hence emotionally fraught) aspect. The only points of harmonic repose are the contrasting wind solos, the first confirming arrival in the dominant and the second reconfirming the tonic. The obbligato wind theme is thus given a unique function in the movement’s unfolding. The rigorous contrast in timbres—solo strings versus solo winds—reinforces a thematic dualism that reflects and dramatizes the tonal dualism on which this movement, like any binary movement, is constructed.

Thematic dualism of this kind would eventually become such an important ingredient of standard symphonic procedure as virtually to define it. Textbook descriptions of “sonata form” would eventually identify thematic dualism as its procedural basis. As we can see from this example, however, thematic dualism arose as an epiphenomenon—a surface event—to mirror, and thus to dramatize (as well as clarify), the underlying harmonic basis of the form.

The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”The Bach Sons As “Symphonists”

ex. 10-3c C. P. E. Bach, first Orchestral Symphony (Wotquenne. 183; 1776), mm. 206–17

The most spectacular display of harmonic instability comes at the very end of the movement (Ex. 10-3c), when the D major tonic suddenly dissolves without warning into the dominant of E-flat, the key of the next movement. It seems a radical, tonality-defying effect—so radical, in fact, that we might easily forget its many precedents. Those precedents are found in the opera, particularly the comic opera with its introduzioni and finali, long sections that depend for their continuity on the ability to make many kinds of transition—abrupt or graded, as the situation demands—between keys. In connection with C. P. E. Bach’s symphony we might recall the end of the Don Giovanni overture, which dissolves in an almost identical way into the dominant of Leporello’s first aria.

Thus the opera continues, even in the hands of a non-operatic composer like C. P. E. Bach, to provide the concert symphony with its most important precedents. In its most elaborated form, the new genre was a veritable—or better, a virtual—instrumental drama.

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. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10004.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 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10004.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 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10004.xml