The Eighteenth Century as a Music-Historical Epoch: A Different Argument for the Proposition

October 1, 1987

In the Autumn of 1966, my first term as a teacher, it fell to me to offer a graduate course on "Music in the Eighteenth Century." It was part of a two-year-plus sequence of courses at the University of Chicago, conceived as a comprehensive, if basically conventional, history survey. The first year, covering the thousand-odd years from the birth of Christian chant to 1600, was divided into three parts in accordance with traditional historical and compositional categories: medieval monophony, medieval polyphony, and music of the Renaissance. The remainder of musical history, though, was not similarly divided according to the well-established stylistic categories into courses on Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern music, but rather—largely as a matter of scheduling convenience—into more or less even slices of time as suggested by the calendar: with ten-week courses devoted, in turn, to the music of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. While this may not have made much difference in the case of the other style periods, the division into calendrical centuries certainly seemed arbitrary, even unnatural, in the case of the eighteenth century. For the central musical fact about the eighteenth century—as every music student knows (even before entering graduate school)—is that it was split almost precisely in half into two distinct, and virtually antithetical, "music-historical epochs."

It was possible, of course, to ignore the fundamental historiographical problem and simply treat the musical events that occurred between ca. 1700 and ca. 1800 as a chronicle, taking up, one after the other, the topics and issues associated with the music of the Late Baroque, Pre-Classical, and Classical periods. The syllabus attempted to trace the general stylistic history of the eighteenth century as well as could be done in ten weeks (i.e., twenty ninety-minute class sessions)—which inevitably was not well at all. To begin with, the repertoire was enormous, more composers (both amateur and professional) no doubt having written more music during the eighteenth century than in any other. Moreover, the century obviously bore witness to a disproportionate number of great composers and great compositions—arguably the most impressive such concentration in the history of music. This fact, in turn, made in necessary to consider two fairly distinct, parallel, repertoires: the "great works" that every informed musician simply has to know, as well as the historically important and "typical" works.

In outline the course was organized into categories and sessions as follows:



1. Opera and Secular Vocal Music
2. The Concerto
3. Chamber and Keyboard Music
4. Church Music



5. Bach—Church Music
6. Bach—Instrumental Music
7. Handel—Opera and Secular Vocal Music
8. Handel—Oratorio and Church Music



9. Opera Seria before Gluck
10. Gluck and Reform Opera
11. Comic Opera—Excluding Mozart



12. Empfindsamer Stil
13. Development of the Pre-Classical Sonata and Chamber Music
14. Development of the Symphony and Concerto



15. Haydn—Sonata and Chamber Music
16. Haydn—Symphony and Church Music
17. Mozart—Opera and Church Music
18. Mozart—Instrumental Music



19. Early Beethoven and Clementi


The twentieth session was actually the first: the introduction to the course. Besides explaining the nature of the assignments and apologizing for the breakneck pace at which we would be constrained to try to "cover" such a vast amount of material, I decided to take the opportunity provided by that initial session—and "inspired," as it were, by the bizarre chronological limits of the course I was stuck with—to entertain the following proposition:

That the time-span 1700 to 1800 was not an altogether artificial and arbitrary division of musical history: beginning before the end of one epoch and breaking off before the end of another;

that despite the apparently undeniable fact of a fundamental shift at some point during the course of the century (ca. 1720? ca. 1730? ca. 1750?) from a well-established and long-standing "baroque" style to something evidently quite different, an intellectually defensible case could be made nonetheless for regarding the period from 1700 to 1800 as a historical unit, or, as Carl Dahlhaus would put it some twenty years later: "a music-historical epoch."

I was therefore rather gratified as well as bemused, and of course greatly interested, to read the provocative introductory chapter by Carl Dahlhaus to the fifth volume of Das neue Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft: Die Musik des 18. Jahrhunderts, first published in 1985, and, in an English translation by Ernest Harriss, in the 1986 issue of College Music Symposium.1 It was gratifying to learn that no less a figure than Carl Dahlhaus was seriously pursuing—in his words, "daring to attempt"—a line of inquiry characterized as "contrary to the current historical consensus" that had more or less been thrust in my way by an accident of academic scheduling. But I was bemused—if that is the correct word—to read that, until the publication of the Dahlhaus chapter, "no one has dared to become involved with a radically different conception," from "the prevailing model for the music history of the eighteenth century" as it "was developed in its essentials by German musicologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [p. 1]." As I had never dared to publish my lecture notes of Autumn 1966, that claim would have to go unchallenged. Finally, I was naturally interested to compare the substance of Dahlhaus's case with my own.

The main elements in Dahlhaus's thesis are these: (1) The eighteenth century is defined as the period between 1720 and 1814, based on the assumption that there was indeed a "break in continuity" and that it "took place between 1720 and 1730 [p. 3]." (2) To be properly understood, the music of the period has to be approached not so much in compositional, technical, or stylistic terms but rather from the perspective of social and cultural history. In Dahlhaus's words: "the history of composition will not emerge from a mere bundling up of technical traits [p. 3]." (3) In adopting this point of view and eschewing the distorted bias inherent in the "history of heroes" cultivated by the bourgeois and nationalistic German musicologists of earlier generations, one realizes that "the essential musical institution of the eighteenth century was the system of Italian court operas that extended from Naples and Madrid to Saint Petersburg and from London to Vienna." The eighteenth century was "neither the 'Epoch of Bach' during its first half nor an 'Age of Haydn and Mozart' during its second half." "If one were to speak of the music in the aesthetic of the age, then what is meant is . . . opera, and indeed mainly opera seria [pp. 3-4]."

For Dahlhaus, "the prescriptive-historical fact that the works of Bach and Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were the ones that survived in the concert and opera repertoire while Metastasian opera fell victim to the 'fury of oblivion' (Hegel) is thoroughly inappropriate [italics added] and misleading as a point of departure for a music history that sets claim to historical truth or adequacy [p. 6]." Indeed, from his point of view, Dahlhaus is prepared to dismiss J.S. Bach altogether as a historically irrelevant "outsider," an "esoteric who knowingly withdrew from the world and drew the compositional consequences from that [p. 2]." Handel's name is barely mentioned in the essay.

While Dahlhaus's position could have served as a healthy corrective to the distortions inherent in the traditional "history of heroes," its formulation here is too extreme in its emphasis on a purely social and cultural reading of musical history. If the historical significance of the great figures is characteristically exaggerated in conventional accounts, it is unduly minimized here; if the cultural domination of the court and the aristocracy, epitomized by the opera seria, is often glossed over elsewhere, there is too little recognition here of the formidable cultural achievements of the rising bourgeoisie in the course of the eighteenth century. As for the opera seria: even if it was the major social fact of eighteenth-century music, it was by no means the century's principal artistic legacy. That distinction belongs to the creation and perfection of a viable instrumental music.

Dahlhaus's account, however, not only underestimates the historic role of the "heroes" (quite aside from their aesthetic achievement): it does not really do justice to the cultural or social facts of the time. Even granting that "the system of Italian court operas" was the "essential musical institution of the eighteenth century," it was by no means the only significant institution of the time. The theorists and commentators of the period certainly did not focus so exclusively on opera; they emphasized, rather, that art music was cultivated in three domains: the church, the chamber, and the theater, each with its own appropriate conventions, styles, and genres. Moreover, during the first part of the century they discussed music in terms of several national styles. Important music did not emanate from Italy alone. Contemporaries perceived, first of all, a bipolar hegemony shared by Italy and France. As for other nations, it was their mission—quite explicit in the case of the Germans—to effect some sort of reconciliation, or union, of the principal national styles with their own tradition.

The early fruits of this effort to create the "vermischter Geschmack" propagated by Quantz and others are evident in Handel's "coordination" and J.S. Bach's "fusion of national styles" (to borrow the apt descriptions of Manfred Bukofzer).2 By the second half of the century, the notion of a union or synthesis of national styles had matured into the idea of a universal musical style—of music as a universal language. The ultimate form of this universal musical language was rooted, admittedly, in formal conventions and procedures developed first in Italy—those manifested in the basically Italian sonata—but colored by folk music idioms imported from many national and ethnic traditions and enriched, finally, with sophisticated harmonic and contrapuntal techniques inherited from the Germans. I am describing, of course, the music of the Viennese Classical masters.

The telling point, however, is that these "heroes" were consciously aware of their historic and cultural mission. Gluck spoke in 1773 of his wish to write a music that "would appeal to all peoples" and "wipe out the ridiculous differences in national music." And he would have been gratified to read, a dozen years later, that his music represented "the universal language of our continent." And, as is well known, Joseph Haydn once remarked, "My language is understood in the whole world."3 It is simply a fatal distortion of the historical facts of the eighteenth century to drive the major figures to the periphery.

Equally pertinent is the fact that the crystallization of discreet and powerful national musical styles was complete by—and recognized by—the turn of the eighteenth century. One need only recall François Raguenet's Parallèle des Italiens et des Français, published in 1702, and the response by Le Cerf de La Viéville, Comparaison de la musique italienne et de la musique française, published in 1705.4 The phenomenon of national styles of music, and confronting the challenge posed by their existence, in fact constitutes one of the hallmarks (and basically a "stylistic-compositional" hallmark, at that!) of the eighteenth century as a "music-historical epoch." The entire century would be occupied first with the definition and description; then with attempts at their combination, coordination, and fusion; and ultimately with their transcendence and transformation into something perceived as ideologically and aesthetically far more desirable: a universal musical style. The duration of this process, incidentally, was approximately coterminous with the actual calendrical century.

One final word on heroes: It is symptomatic that the eighteenth century did not just produce an inordinate number of musical geniuses: it created the very idea of the musical genius—defined, that is, as a human personality rather than as a gift or talent one possessed. The conceit was evidently the inspiration of Diderot who, in offering Jean-Philippe Rameau as the symbol of this "genius" in his novel Rameau's Nephew, even introduced the necessary linguistic adjustment, replacing the hitherto normal usage avoir du génie with the new formulation être un génie.5

The major hallmark of eighteenth-century music, however, is again one of a distinctly technical character. The generation of composers who came to maturity ca. 1700 was the first born into the mature system of functional tonality—to inherit it, so to speak, as a native language—after it was first consolidated in the music of the Italian concerto composers of the preceding generation. Tonality, of course, was to prevail as the supreme system of musical syntax in Western civilization for the next two hundred years. But its gradual dissolution had begun, significantly, by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first seeds of this epochal development were sown, perhaps, by Joseph Haydn—in the "Representation of Chaos" that serves as an introduction to his oratorio The Creation, a work composed ca. 1798. And by the end of Beethoven's life almost all the "self-evident" principles of organization and coherence that underlay the tonal system had suffered at the least their first significant challenge.

The first and the principal benefits of the tonal system were to be derived not in the realm of opera, nor in vocal music at all, but in instrumental music—until the last two decades of the seventeenth century, a distinctly limited channel for the cultivation of ambitious musical invention. The establishment of the tonal system enabled the construction of autonomous, closed, instrumental compositions on a large scale for the first time in the history of Western music. The consequence was the rapid evolution and perfection of two impressive instrumental forms: the concerto and, soon thereafter, the sonata—the latter engendering in turn (still in the early decades of the new century) the early prototypes of the symphony and the string quartet.

It is hardly coincidental that the emergence and standardization of the solo concerto—as a three-movement work based on the principles of ritornello structure and solo-tutti thematic differentiation—took place in the compositions of Torelli and Albinoni dating from the 1690s and early 1700s. There was, as well, a notable shift of emphasis at just this time (signalled by Corelli's sonatas, Op. 5, published in 1700) from the trio to the solo sonata. It may or may not have more than nominal significance that the first use of the term "sonata" with reference to works for solo keyboard seems to appear in Johann Kuhnau's Biblische Historien, published in 1700; but it is certainly significant that in this collection Kuhnau not only transferred the Italian church sonata to the solo harpsichord but combined it with the largely French idea of programmatic instrumental music. The program, however, was something typically German and Lutheran owing to its religious theme. At just the same time—the 1690s—the Frenchman Couperin began to adopt the Italian sonata, as well, composing trios that he would later publish under the title Les nations. That is, both the coming of age of instrumental music and the interest in exploring and exploiting the distinctions between the national styles of music, mentioned earlier—what Couperin himself in another collection would call Les goûts-réünis—had begun in earnest just about the year 1700.

As for the social context of these developments: the courts, despite their passion—and even their preference, above all other things—for Italian opera, were by no means oblivious to the importance and attractions of the new instrumental music. Frederick the Great, after all, did not only engage Hasse and the brothers Graun to write operas for his theater but also Quantz and C.P.E. Bach to write concertos and other instrumental works for his chamber. Domenico Scarlatti certainly composed and performed his harpsichord sonatas for the delectation of a monarch; and Mozart's "Prussian" quartets, no less than Haydn's "Russian" quartets, were dedicated to, and no doubt commissioned by, European royalty.

It would be hard, though, to determine the relative importance of the courts and the bourgeoisie in cultivating the development of instrumental music in the eighteenth century. Commercial concert life was just beginning at this time; but middle-class subscription concerts such as Mozart's "academies" in Vienna were nonetheless increasingly important in stimulating and molding creative activity. Music publishing, in any event, was an emphatically middle-class business whose growth in importance during the course of the century had an overwhelming impact not only on the circulation of particular works and the making of individual reputations but also in transmitting and disseminating new styles and genres. One need only recall the impact and influence of the symphonies of the Mannheim composers owing to their publication in Paris in the 1750s and 60s.

Nor was the bourgeois influence by any means as negligible even in the realm of opera as Dahlhaus suggests. As early as 1728, after all, aristocratic opera seria was practically annihilated in London by that quintessentially middle-class phenomenon, The Beggar's Opera. The demise of the Royal Opera gave rise, however, not only to such arguably trivial entertainments as the ballad operas and their counterparts in France, Germany, and elsewhere. One of the most noble accomplishments of the age—the Handelian oratorio—was an immediate consequence of that event. It too, then, was a creature—a most popular one, at that—of middle class artistic will.

We must finally address the fundamental question about eighteenth-century music. Did, in fact, a "style-shift" ever take place at all? Or was it more apparent than real—the figment of a historian's imagination? And if such a thing did take place, when did it occur? Traditional music history, as Dahlhaus reminds us, posits a style shift around mid-century: the end of the "Baroque" era marked by the deaths of Bach and Handel, to be followed by around thirty years of a preparatory "Pre-Classic" style until the mature masterpieces of Mozart and Haydn in the early 1780s heralded the advent of the "High Classic" or "Viennese" Classical style. Dahlhaus himself asserts that "the stylistic break . . . falls between 1720 and 1730" and maintains that "the traits of the new style (homophonic texture, short-phrased melody, rhythmic squareness, and slow harmonic rhythm) are too striking to ignore or to dismiss as irrelevant [pp. 2-3]." In fact, they can be traced back even further: Edward Downes claims to have observed such basic features of the new style as additive structure and the repetition of sections and particles in Antonio Bononcini's opera Il trionfo di Camilla, first performed in Naples in 1696, i.e., when J.S. Bach was still a child.6 And such elements of the new style as mixed rhythms, homophonic textures, and periodic phrasing were a hallmark of instrumental music—specifically, dance music—throughout the seventeenth century and earlier. For these reasons, then, as well as those adduced earlier (the establishment of tonality, the emergence of expansive forms and genres of instrumental music, the crystallization of national styles) it is tempting to argue not only that the eighteenth century was quite decidedly a music-historical epoch but that it in fact began at just about the turn of the century—and not some twenty years later on.

As for the position of J.S. Bach in the larger context of eighteenth-century developments—clearly the most troublesome historiographical issue facing the musicologist—I would like to direct the reader to my own previously published thoughts on this issue.7 But the most thoughtful and compelling treatment of this question is to be found in an essay "On Bach's Historical Position" by Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht.8 Eggebrecht formulates the question this way: "How could Mozart be possible so soon after Bach?" His answer, in brief, is that the historical process did not go "from Bach to Mozart" at all. Rather, both masters belonged to, and indeed represented in each instance the historical culmination of, two separate lines of development: in the case of Bach the Protestant tradition of central and northern Germany, for Mozart the Catholic—really the secular—tradition that had its roots in the south, that is, in Italy.

There is still one last question remaining. Granted that the eighteenth century as a music-historical epoch began around 1700: when did it end? This is more difficult to say. Dahlhaus suggests 1814 but offers no justification for this year. To me the most plausible suggestions would be 1798, the year of Haydn's Creation, or 1803, the year of the "Eroica": both landmark works that confirm the arrival not only of new harmonic, tonal, and formal procedures but of a new musical aesthetic—indeed of a new musical ethos—as well.

1College Music Symposium 26 (1986):1-6. All citations from that chapter in the following are taken from the Harriss translation.

2Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era (New York: Norton, 1947).

3Citation in Friedrich Blume, Classic and Romantic Music (New York: Norton, 1970), 28.

4See the excerpts in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), 473-507.

5Herbert Dieckmann, "Diderot's Conception of Genius," cited in Edward E. Lowinski, "Musical Genius: Evolution and Origins of a Concept," The Musical Quarterly 50 (1964):335.

6Edward O.D. Downes, "The Neopolitan Tradition in Opera," Report of the Eighth Congress of the International Musicological Society, New York 1961 (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1961):279.

7See my "Bach the Progressive," The Musical Quarterly 62 (1976):313-57; and "On Bach's Universality," in The Universal Bach: Lectures Celebrating the Tercentenary of Bach's Birthday, Fall 1985 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1986), 50-66.

8Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, "Über Bachs geschichtlichen Ort," reprinted in Walter Blankenburg, ed., Johann Sebastian Bach, Wege der Forschung, vol. 170 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1970), 247-89.

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