The Eighteenth Century as a Music-Historical Epoch, translated by Ernest Harriss
Published online: 1 October 1986
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373817
Das neue Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft, edited by Carl Dahlhaus, takes its place alongside Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart and The New Grove as one of the monuments of musicology since World War II. In the introduction to volume 5 of the Neues Handbuch, Professor Dahlhaus, drawing on a most distinguished career of research and reflection, proposes nothing less than a revision of the prevailing model of eighteenth-century music history. His observations demand careful consideration by teachers and scholars.
The material translated here is from Carl Dahlhaus, introduction to Die Musik des 18. Jahrhunderts, Das neue Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft, volume 5 (Laaber: Laaber Verlag, 1985), pp. 1-8. Warmest thanks are due Professor Dahlhaus and Laaber Verlag for their generous permission to have this material published here, and to Frau Herma Pawlitzki of Hamburg for her expert assistance with the translation.
A historian may not without reflection presume as self-evident that there is a music of the eighteenth century as a whole (not just a music of the Baroque and a music of the Classical Period separated by a break in continuity). If, contrary to the current historical consensus, one were to dare to attempt to present music history between 1720 and 1814 as one continuous epoch demarcated from the seventeenth and from the nineteenth centuries, then one would be compelled to criticize the earlier view of music history. Before the presentation of detailed documentation supporting this perspective, an intellectual-sociological sketch will be provided that will reveal the provenance of some biases that have (subconsciously, for the most part) prevented or at least hindered an adequate description of the eighteenth century.
The prevailing model for the music history of the eighteenth century was developed in its essentials by German musicologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who were from the educated bourgeoisie. Some of its details have been modified in recent decades, but no one has dared to become involved with a radically different conception. The deficiencies from which the model suffers are easily explained by its provenance in terms of the sociology of knowledge. However, the recognition after a century that the assumptions self-evident to earlier generations are suspect provides no basis for intellectual arrogance. The parable of the dwarfs on the shoulders of giants (thus of those born later who see further though they are of less stature) should be in a historian's fixed stock of metaphors.
The musicological literature has been (without intending the expression pejoratively) a history of heroes. Contempt for this method (as displayed by theorists of history who postulate but seldom practice a sociologically-based historiography) has little justification, since mediating between aesthetic-normative and historical-descriptive categories remains an open problem. The resolution of this problem appears to be as urgent as it is difficult. One can reject the "history of heroes," but the problem for which it gave a solution is not thereby eliminated.
Johann Nicolaus Forkel's patriotically inclined biography (1802) had stylized the work of the overwhelming figure of Johann Sebastian Bach into a national monument. Such fascination with Bach seemed to suggest or even to dictate to music historians who "felt German" and were oriented to the concept of "greatness" that the year of Bach's death, 1750, marked a profound historical caesura. It separated the period then called "Old Classicism" (and later called Baroque) from Viennese Classicism. However, since one cannot speak of a Viennese Classicism in its strict sense until 1781/82, as Guido Adler recognized, historians forced the term "Pre-Classic" on the "intervening period." Obvious difficulties were concealed but not removed by using the terms "gallant style," "rococo," Empfindsamkeit, and Sturm und Drang from the methodology of intellectual history. Concepts borrowed from the history of art and literature only denoted partial tendencies of the epoch, the essence of which remained on the whole as difficult to understand as before. (Strictly speaking the term "Pre-Classic" would be justified only if one were to determine that one could interpret the jumble of divergent endeavors teleologically as mere pre-history of Viennese Classicism. This would be contrary to Leopold Ranke's postulate of understanding every period in terms of its own values and would thus deny the decades before 1780 the right to judgment on the basis of their own premises.)
The problem of Pre-Classicism is further intensified by the fact that the epochal year 1750 is a fiction. Bach did actively participate in and build upon the compositional-historical development that was current during his Weimar and Cöthen years, before 1723, and thus it was not without cause that Heinrich Besseler could speak of Bach als Wegbereiter (1955). However, as was first established with the emphasis the fact deserves in Jacques Handschin, Musikgeschichte im Überblick (1948), Bach became an "outsider" during his Leipzig years: the development of the then new music passed him by almost without leaving a trace. Also, the philological discovery around 1950 that all of Bach's Leipzig cantata cycles were written before 1730 revealed that his oeuvre after 1730 (except for some compositions for the Leipzig collegium musicum that cannot always be dated with certainty) was the late work of an esoteric who knowingly withdrew from the world and drew the compositional consequences from that. This makes the proposition of a music-historical caesura around 1750 fully illusionary. The end of the Baroque preceded Bach's death by decades. Further, there is no reason at all to be angry with Johann Adolph Scheibe's comparison of Bach with Lohenstein. First, Daniel Caspar von Lohenstein, whose dramas and novels were read into the 1760s, was considered a great poet. Second, the assertion that Bach's and Lohenstein's works were as significant as those left by the progressive Zeitgeist was no doubt more valid and appropriate than the nineteenth-century historical view that the decades between 1720 and 1750 were music-historically Bach's era.
Meanwhile the view that the stylistic break that divides the seventeenth century (whether one calls it a Baroque Era or not) from the eighteenth century falls between 1720 and 1730 has become the consensus of music historians. However, the more cautious still speak of a caesura around 1740 in order not to surrender completely the proximity with the earlier epochal year 1750, which remains popular among musical laymen. 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. Also, as soon as one draws back from a history of heroes, the lesser stature of the composers representing the New cannot be used as a historical argument. Whatever one's aesthetic judgment, it is the historical significance of what happens that is certain. (By way of analogy, the same stylistic change would have occurred around 1600 even without Monteverdi, though the music would generally have been less well composed after the turn of the century than before.) Besides, a more precise characterization of the history of composition will not emerge from a mere bundling up of technical traits. It will rather arise out of the grouping together of the aesthetic, social, stylistic, and technical concerns facing a composer around 1720/30.
However, if one assumes that the break in continuity took place between 1720 and 1730 (a fact that one might repress into the back of one's historical consciousness but cannot seriously deny), then the concept of a Pre-Classic or "intervening period" stretching over more than half a century (from 1720 to 1780) really seems absurd. This nomenclature is revealed as makeshift, demanding an inquiry into the uncertainty and perplexity that betray it as such.
The concept "gallant style," which has been suggested from time to time to fill the gap, provokes a tangential discussion (just as the term musica reservata has for decades in Renaissance research). Scholars did not (or did not desire to) recognize that its primary focus is not stylistic-compositional but aesthetic-social. The "gallant style" is the style of the galant homme. Its essence is that which a man of the world enjoys. One can indeed classify the music of the eighteenth century, in a manner consistent with the criteria of a galant homme, into acceptable and tasteless phenomena. (Analogously, it would be possible to explain certain traits in the music of the nineteenth century from the perspective of the educated bourgeoisie.) However, one should not think that the term "gallant" would adequately characterize the style of an epoch. First, the aesthetic judgments of the galant homme were selective. Thus one cannot speak of the expression of a Zeitgeist that characterizes the entire epoch. Second, between the beginning of the century when the concept arose and the French Revolution to which it and the other requisites of the ancien régime fell victim, these aesthetic judgments changed so often in musical content that it seems impossible, at least at first blush, to define the gallant style through a set of compositional-technical traits. It has nothing to do with a compositional technique explainable through a description of its compositional-historical premises and consequences. It is rather a complex of aesthetic criteria which have to be understood on a socio-psychological basis.
The galant homme represents a music culture with which the bourgeois historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were always on uncertain terms and which they distorted because of their own biases. They knew, but did not want to admit, 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. By cultural-historical criteria the century was neither an "Epoch of Bach" during its first half nor an "Age of Haydn and Mozart" during its second half. To the annoyance of the bourgeois-nationalistic historians, the music of the eighteenth century was courtly and international in its characteristic traits. If one were to speak of the music in the aesthetic of the age, then what is meant is not "pure, absolute instrumental music" (Eduard Hanslick) as in the nineteenth century, but opera, and indeed mainly opera seria.
The view that solely opera buffa was a progressive genre, compositionally as well as socio-historically, is questionable, despite the fact that the form of the large ensemble was first developed in opera buffa. It is questionable because the sources of phenomena and their consequences must be examined before a well-founded historical judgment is possible. At least as significant as the origin of new formal and structural principles in opera buffa is their assimilation into opera seria. The latter maintained its dominance precisely because it was able to adapt.
Moreover, the premise that because opera buffa portrayed bourgeois individuals it was therefore a genre embodying the bourgeois spirit is too simple to be convincing. The stylistic convention regarding rank that reserved a tragic fate to "kings and noblemen" (Hugo von Hofmannsthal) and tolerated the bourgeois on stage only as an object of comedy is unmistakably of aristocratic derivation. Bourgeois tragedy was the first genre to be bourgeois in the full sense of the word, but it scarcely appeared in opera before the French Revolution. The comédie larmoyante, as opera semi-seria music-historically a fringe phenomenon, consisted of a mixture of tragic and comic elements.
On the one hand, the bourgeois-nationalistic musicological literature was implicitly or openly hostile toward opera seria as an international court opera in the Italian language. On the other hand, scholarly preference was given to Singspiel in the national tongue. It was thus elevated to a significance that can be justified neither aesthetically nor historically. There is no doubt that this was ideologically motivated. Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) and Die Zauberflöte (1791) endowed the patriotic glorification of Singspiel with an appearance of legitimacy that vanishes as soon as one takes cognizance of the true paradigms of the genre in harmless, trivial works such as Johann Adam Hiller's Lottchen am Hofe (1767). In these works there are not "too many notes" to disturb mindless pleasure, as Emperor Leopold II complained in reference to Mozart's score.
Consequently one can scarcely speak of an aesthetic equivalence between German Singspiel and Italian opera. Moreover, the view motivating the propensity toward Singspiel (i.e., that the eighteenth century was music-historically a bourgeois period or at least one tending strongly toward the bourgeois) is exceedingly questionable on institutional-historical grounds. We should not allow the care with which the beginnings of bourgeois concert life have been investigated to mislead us. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the aristocratic-private concert stood alongside the bourgeois-public concert as a place where essential music-historical decisions were made through aesthetic agreement among the musically educated. The fact that Beethoven's Eroica (1803) was first performed in a nobleman's palace (and indeed with less of a shocking effect than later in the bourgeois public) is no exception but a culture-historically characteristic fact. One must not be misled to a false institutional-historical emphasis by the fact that published accounts about public concerts are by their nature more numerous than those about private ones.
On the one hand, historians' social biases combined with the problem of inadequately heeded sources to lead to an overestimation of the early developmental steps of the public concert (which essentially became what it is today only around 1850). On the other hand, the influence that the contemporary publicists exercised on later historical writing (thus the fact that journalists are promoted by historians to indispensable witnesses after their deaths though they are despised by them during their lifetimes) has also hindered unprejudiced judgment of opera history. Gluck's reform, as strikingly as it was presented, was actually only one among uncounted others through which Metastasian opera had been modified since the middle of the eighteenth century. (It is no accident that Gluck's Orfeo  and Alceste  did not have the slightest impact on the history of Italian opera.) Still, it was Gluck's works and not Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787) (in which the extent of music-historical innovation is by no means less) that were praised by historians as reform operas. On the one hand, this is because they were the object of intense and intelligent publicistic quarrels (which were unfortunately absent with Mozart's operas). On the other hand, it is because the model for eighteenth-century music history was developed during Richard Wagner's era, when reform opera meant an inversion (championed with literary verve) of the goal-means relationship between music and drama.
Gluck is included among the Viennese Classicists by many music scholars, although with hesitation. However, the generally accepted historical view was established by Guido Adler's assertion that Viennese Classicism extended from 1781/82 to 1814, thus from Haydn's String Quartets Opus 33 (1781) and Mozart's Entführung aus dem Serail and his quartets dedicated to Haydn until the end of Beethoven's "middle, heroic period." The real historiographical problem is not the dating of the period but the amalgamation of normative and descriptive criteria. A historical literature oriented toward a history of heroes found sufficient reason in the fact that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were outstanding composers to declare Viennese Classicism an epochal style defined by three names. As a result, historic-theoretical difficulties arose that seem virtually insoluble. First, the move from the concept of "the classic" to "Classicism" (thus from an aesthetic-normative to a historical-descriptive category), is precarious on strictly logical grounds and elicits a line of questioning which is as unavoidable as it is irksome. Why does one automatically refuse to number among the Viennese Classicists Adalbert Gyrowetz and Ignaz Pleyel, who speak the stylistic and musical language of Haydn? Second, the notion of Viennese Classicism (which was coined with reference to the Classicism of Weimar) contained nationalistic implications that were so self-evident that the question was never even raised why Antonio Salieri, a Viennese composer of stature, could not be considered a Viennese Classicist.
Hence the difficulties in which one is entangled as the heir of the historiographic heritage of almost two centuries seem nearly insoluble. There is the misleading relationship between Bach's greatness and the historical fact that he excluded himself from the stylistic change of 1720/30 and became an esoteric. There is the impossibility of passing off six decades as a mere "transitional period" or "fore-stage." There is the questionable view that the eighteenth century was musically a period that received its stamp primarily from the bourgeoisie. There is the contradiction between centering the epoch around Viennese Classicism (a view that has been frozen into something self-evident) and the fact that Italian court opera was dominant and considered to be the representative genre by contemporaries in all of Europe (outside of France). These problems are scarcely soluble, if at all, except by breaking away from the categories and criteria that, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, came to determine what effectively has been the operational history of the music written between 1720 and 1814. (Making oneself aware of the intellectual tradition in which one has grown up means not that one remains its captive but that one has the opportunity to separate oneself from it, at least in some measure). 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 and misleading as a point of departure for a music history that sets claim to historical truth or adequacy.
The problem of "Pre-Classic" is actually one of "Classic": a problem, namely, of the prejudice that those musical events that emerged so densely between 1781 and 1814 in Vienna, and which the backward-looking concert and opera public of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have regarded as of extraordinary significance, represented also in their own time the essence and substance, by European standards, of the whole of music history of the age. As absurd as it would be to denigrate or impugn the significance of Mozart, it would be no better for a historian proceeding empirically to ignore the fact that contemporaries (and indeed not only the Italians but also the Germans) felt more appropriately represented musically by Antonio Sacchini and Giuseppe Sarti, Giovanni Paisiello and Domenico Cimarosa.
But if one recognizes that "Viennese Classicism" is a (later-developed) concept of stature and not one of epoch (rooted in the awareness of contemporaries), and indeed a nationalistically tinged concept of stature shaped by the German bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century and imposed upon the rest of Europe through the prominence of German musicology, then it will be possible and necessary to describe European music history between 1720 and 1814 only partially (and not primarily or exclusively) in conscious or subconscious orientation toward the, for us, aesthetically towering phenomenon of Viennese Classicism. (It would be pointless to strive to transform the category "Classic" from a normative to a descriptive concept. Pleyel is not a "Classicist" at all, despite his stylistic dependence upon Haydn, whose forms and structures he in some measure translated into the popular.) Only when one ceases to allow the problems one addresses about the epoch as a whole to be dictated solely by the works of Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven can one possibly succeed in obtaining answers that do not distort the spirit of the age one seeks to describe.
Let us broaden the nationalistically-narrowed perspective to a European one; differentiate descriptive from normative categories (without doing the impossible in cultural history, strictly dividing them); appropriately emphasize the relationship between vocal and instrumental music as well as that between court and bourgeois music culture; permit Italian court opera to serve as the central musical or musical-theatrical institution of the epoch; and reveal the word-of-convenience "Pre-Classic" as a phantom term that was supposed to resolve the ostensible problem resulting from a one-sided fixation on Viennese Classicism. Within the bounds of our own prejudices (which will be evident only to later generations), all of these goals are attainable. A modern writing of music history that is skeptical of the biases of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can accomplish this as soon as the music history of the eighteenth century is no longer centered on the historically influential and aesthetically privileged concept of Viennese Classicism.
Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018