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Music on the Grand Tour

1.

The music formerly known as classical” is a slogan used by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for music most people call “contemporary.” Though BMOP’s purpose is to shake up entrenched ideas about new music and about “classical” and “popular,” the phrase, recast in meaning, could also refer to music of the eighteenth century. It could certainly be used for Daniel Heartz’s ambitious survey of music and musical trends from 1720 to 1780, a period that includes much of what we continue to refer to as “classical” music. Although the terms have become increasingly controversial, “classical” and the “classical period” are generally used to describe the style that took form in the eighteenth century and culminates in the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Heartz, who is a leading American specialist in music of the eighteenth century, is here concerned with developments that preceded these composers. But his book is part of a career-long effort to present an antitraditional viewpoint about musical trends and period divisions in the broad era from about 1685 to 1800. The book under review is a companion to Heartz’s 1995 Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School, 1740–1780. As he writes in the preface to that book, “As early as…1967, I have been venting my frustrations with the periodizations of eighteenth-century music and the use of such reductive terms as ‘Baroque’ and ‘Classic.’”1

Still, the term “classical” hangs on in music history, as we see in Charles Rosen’s standard work, The Classical Style, which was expanded and reprinted in 1997. Rosen presents a critical account of style and genres, which he begins around 1775 with the late works of Haydn and traces through Mozart and Beethoven. It is only in these composers, Rosen argues, “that all the contemporary elements of musical style—rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic—work coherently together.” Rosen identified this coherence with the late-eighteenth-century perfection of the sonata form, and its “feeling for a closed, symmetrical structure, the central position of the most extreme tension, and the insistence upon an extended and complete resolution, together with a newly articulated and systematized tonality.” Recent general surveys of various kinds, including those by Leonard Ratner, Julian Rushton, and Reinhard Pauly, use the words “classic” or “classical” in their titles with a roughly similar conception in mind.2

In contrast, a searching and tough-minded rejection of the term was put forth by James Webster in his path-breaking Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony and the Idea of Classical Style (1991), in which he argued that “classical” was unable to encompass or even suggest the progressive character of Haydn’s stylistic revolution. But even Webster had to admit that his proposed alternatives, either “something like ‘First Viennese-European Modern Style,’” or else “doing without style-period designations altogether,” are “impracticable.” Whether in libraries or record shops, the “classical” period is not about to disappear.

For the “Expanded Edition” of The Classical Style, Rosen wrote a new preface that lucidly engages Webster’s onslaught, and in particular his claim that Rosen had neglected the works of the young Haydn. Rosen insisted that

only with the symphonies of the 1770s and the quartets of op. 33 was Haydn able to accommodate both the modern hierarchy of melody and accompaniment that gave such clarity to his textures and the complex contrapuntal detail that gave new power to his work.

He stuck to his view that even if Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven “were not called classical until well into the nineteenth century…they were considered a coherent group at least as early as 1805, and they, and no others, defined Viennese classical style.” All this is true, and yet the permeability of the categories seems to be as old as the categories themselves. Consider, after all, that E.T.A. Hoffmann, in a celebrated review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in 1810, grouped Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as “Romantic,” a point made tellingly by the American musicologist Leo Treitler in an essay on Mozart some years ago.3

2.

For his new major survey of the middle decades of the eighteenth century Heartz prefers another term for the basic style, namely “galant.” He explains that he considered “several general concepts [which] compete for lending a name to the period 1720–80”: “Enlightenment,” from philosophy; “rococo,” from art history; and “galant,” from music history. Preferring the last, which was first applied to such composers as Benedetto Marcello and Alessandro Scarlatti, he shows in a section on “The Galant Style” that the term goes back to seventeenth-century usages of “gallant,” connoting “brave, high-spirited, or chivalrous” but that the French galant meaning “‘attentive to ladies, pleasing, elegant’…evolved in the course of the seventeenth century and by the eighteenth had eclipsed the older French meanings.”

Heartz pursues the varied meanings of the term in art and culture of the time, and shows that in the earlier eighteenth century it came to mean a “lighter kind of music,” as in the compositions of Giovanni Bononcini and Antonio Vivaldi, but soon became synonymous with “modern,” in opposition to traditional contrapuntal styles associated with earlier generations, down to and including Bach and Handel. Heartz observes that “galant” has meanings that “differ slightly…in the course of the eighteenth century. Yet it never means anything less than elegant, new, and fashionable.” This new style, Heartz suggests, was broadly characterized by a departure from the strict style of Baroque music, by the use of ornamentation as an end in itself, and by a freer use of rhythm, harmony, and dissonance.

Heartz’s account is concerned less, however, with defining a style than a cultural epoch. He presents a panorama of the new musical trends of the eighteenth century encompassed by the concept “galant,” organized primarily around a series of European musical centers. His tour starts with Naples and Venice, thus enabling him to put Italian opera and primarily opera seria in the foreground, for example, the operas of Leonardo Vinci (1696–1730). He then moves to the German centers of Dresden and Berlin, and on to Stuttgart and Mannheim; then to France, which here means Paris. For each city he describes characteristic forms of patronage amid the prevailing political conditions of the period and its prominent musical genres, and provides vignettes of the major locally active composers and their accomplishments.

His final chapters shift the focus somewhat to genres such as the symphony and French opéra comique, which gets a full chapter in which Heartz reviews the celebrated mid-century intellectual battle known as the “Querelle des Bouffons,” including Rousseau’s eloquent denunciation of French opera as frivolous in comparison with Italian opera. There follows an extended chapter on Gluck in his later years as French opera composer, and then Heartz winds up his tour with three far-flung cities and one composer in each: Johann Christian Bach in London, Giovanni Paisiello in St. Petersburg, and Luigi Boccherini in Madrid.

To cover all this ground effectively in one book is impressive enough; to combine the details into a larger narrative, even more so. In an epilogue, Heartz valiantly sums up the preceding thousand pages of history and critical commentary. He puts the basic origins of the new “galant” style squarely in the 1720s and in Neapolitan opera, its main progenitors, aside from Leonardo Vinci, being Giovanni Pergolesi and later Johann Adolf Hasse, who worked mainly at Dresden as a prolific and famous composer of Italian operas. He sees the new style in opera as coinciding with the refashioning of styles in instrumental music by Vivaldi and his Venetian contemporaries, a transformation that was also accomplished by about 1720. And then he traces the widening consequences of these innovations as they spread through Europe over the rest of the century, influencing Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Heartz’s narrative has Italian opera as its mainspring but he has plenty to say about instrumental music as well. His preferences for certain composers over others will not be universally shared, but they are consistent with his larger aim, to draw a ground-level map of what was “galant” in European music of the era and identify its main exponents. I was disappointed with his casual treatment of a few composers, as for example Georg Philipp Telemann and in particular Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757). As harpsichord virtuoso and composer of hundreds of keyboard sonatas, Scarlatti was in my view one of the foremost musical minds of the century. I note too that in The Classical Style Charles Rosen sees Scarlatti’s sonatas as a seminal influence on the dramatic sonata style of Haydn.4 But because Scarlatti spent most of his life in Spain during an isolated portion of its cultural history, he loses visibility in this telescopic sweep.

A major share of attention, on the other hand, goes to Boccherini (1743– 1805). Now Boccherini was admittedly a brilliant cellist and a prolific master of elegant and decorative instrumental works, above all string quartets and more than a hundred string quintets. But although his music was admired by contemporaries who found Haydn and Mozart too challenging for their ears, and was prominent in his time, it is hard to make out a case that he had any significant impact on later music.5 A broad consequence of Heartz’s effort to depict contemporary musical life, in all its ebb and flow, is felt at the end of his book, where we see that not all the elements of the Italian stylistic development with which he began his story are of equal importance.

3.

Heartz’s decision to concentrate on cities rather than musical genres has advantages and disadvantages. For Italy, the approach allows him to make strong portraits of the major civic institutions that fostered musical life. Of these the most important functioned as training centers for generations of Italian singers and instrumentalists, especially the conservatories of Naples and the ospedali of Venice. The four Venetian ospedali had been founded as orphanages for abandoned infants and poor children, and they continued such work even as they became internationally famous for their music. Starting with Antonio Vivaldi at the Ospedale della Pietà from 1703 to 1738, the rosters of their music masters include one well-known Italian composer after another. We also know about them from contemporary descriptions, such as one by the French jurist Charles de Brosses, in 1739:

The transcendent music is that of the ospedali…[in which] illegitimate and orphaned girls…are brought up at the expense of the state and trained solely to excel in music. They sing like angels and play the violin, the flute, the organ, the oboe, the cello, and the bassoon…. They are cloistered like nuns…. About forty girls take part in each concert.6

A drawback of Heartz’s approach is that certain important musicians appear only in relation to these major cities rather than in full accounts of their lives and careers. There are exceptions, of course, as when a composer’s career happened to unfold mainly in one of these places, like that of Johann Hasse at Dresden. But for some musicians the survey of urban centers restricts a broader biographical view, as in Heartz’s chapter on Gluck. Though he devotes more than eighty pages to Gluck’s later operatic career in Paris, including excellent discussions of his late French operas, he omits the earlier stages of Gluck’s life in Vienna. Yet if we look at Heartz’s earlier volume, his Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School, 1740–1780, we see that in that book he gave ample space to Gluck’s earlier career.

  1. 1

    Norton, 1995, p. xviii.

  2. 2

    See Leonard Ratner, Classic Music (Wadsworth, 1980); Julian Rushton, Classical Music: A Concise History from Gluck to Beethoven (Thames and Hudson, 1986); Reinhard G. Pauly, Music in the Classic Period, fourth edition (Prentice-Hall, 1999).

  3. 3

    See Leo Treitler, “Mozart and the Idea of Absolute Music,” in his Music and the Historical Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 176.

  4. 4

    A new book by W. Dean Sutcliffe, The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Keyboard Style (Cambridge University Press, 2003), reopens the question of Scarlatti’s place in music history and analyzes his keyboard sonatas in some detail.

  5. 5

    Though the book is on the whole beautifully produced, with many illustrations, music examples, and twelve color plates, I can’t resist commenting on one conspicuous error. The anonymous portrait of Boccherini given as Plate XII shows him playing the cello with his left hand holding the bow and his right hand on the strings, making him appear to be the first wrong-handed cellist in history. This must be a production mistake in which left and right were reversed; for a correct reproduction of what looks like the same picture, or a close copy, see the article “Boccherini” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, first edition (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 825.

  6. 6

    Quoted by Heartz, p. 180, from Charles de Brosses, Lettres d’Italie, edited by Frédéric d’Agay (Paris: Mercure de France, 1986), Vol. 1, p. 243.

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