Music in the Eighteenth Century and Anthology for Music in the Eighteenth Century, by John Rice

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AnthologyRiceUSE18thCentRiceUSEMusic in the Eighteenth Century, John Rice (ISBN: 0393929188)
Anthology for Music in the Eighteenth Century, John Rice (ISBN: 0393920185)
From the series Western Music in Context: A Norton History (New York and London: Norton, 2013)

John Rice’s Music in the Eighteenth Century, the fourth volume of the Norton series Western Music in Context, offers not only a refreshing and engaging look at the period often referred to as the “Classical” era but also an innovative approach to teaching music history. Rice is an eminent scholar of eighteenth-century music, particularly in its “capital,” Vienna, with groundbreaking books on Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s operas, and Viennese court music under Empress Marie Therese (1792-1807). Compared to earlier books on the musical cultures of the eighteenth century (especially Philip G. Downs’s 1992 Classical Music: The Era of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven), Rice deemphasizes the development of style, forms, and genre, and is not too much concerned about the music of the “great masters” in relation to a few Kleinmeister. Instead, Rice foregrounds the importance of the social, political, and cultural contexts of musical compositions by organizing his book geographically. Fifteen out of the book’s seventeen chapters take the reader on a “Grand Tour” of various, predominantly European centers of the Western musical tradition and show how specific conditions in those centers influenced producers and consumers of music. As Rice points out several times throughout his book, this music-historical travelogue resonates with the international and sometimes also trans-continental journeys that people, including musicians, of the eighteenth century engaged upon with increasing frequency, partially due to the relative political stability in Europe after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713. I can imagine that such an approach might be quite engaging for present-day students, who likewise are entering into an ever-more interconnected global society, in which international travel is the norm. Apart from teaching students about new repertoires and composers (and new approaches to well-known composers), the book develops an appreciation both for the proto-global status of eighteenth-century European society and for geographical differences and regional specificities.

The textbook focuses on prominent centers of European culture in the eighteenth century, but it also takes the student-traveller off the beaten path (both by eighteenth-century and present-day standards). Although the text is quite successful in deemphasizing the focus on the Viennese triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, the city of Vienna and its cultural institutions still feature prominently in three chapters (8, 14, and 17) devoted to the periods of Empress Maria Theresia, Mozart, and Napoleon. The other two prominent European centers of eighteenth-century music, London and Paris, receive two chapters each. London is first depicted during the early to middle 1700s (Chapter 7), the time of ballad opera and post-Handelian Italian opera. The second London chapter (Chapter 16) deals with Haydn’s London and focuses on the composer’s concert and salon music written during his two trips to England in the 1790s. The Parisian chapters are distinguished not only chronologically, but also by their focus, on the one hand, on specifically French repertoire and composers active from after the death of Louis XIV until roughly the 1750s (Chapter 6), and, on the other hand, on the synthesis of foreign styles with French music in the output of foreign composers active in Paris (Mozart, Salieri, Gluck, and Cherubini) in the decades leading to and immediately following the French Revolution (Chapter 13).

The textbook also includes several intriguing chapters on previously overlooked centers of musical activity. The “Grand Tour” starts with a trip to Naples (Chapter 3)—although this was in many ways a cradle of the eighteenth-century musical style (the so-called “galant” style and the style of comic opera), the actual conditions that gave rise to that style (such as the brief Austrian rule of Naples in 1707 and 1734) are rarely discussed in textbooks. The Neapolitan visit is followed by equally exciting trips to Catherine the Great’s Russia (Chapter 12) and to various parts of the New World (the coast of Brazil, Mexico City, Jamaica, and the Moravian settlements in North America—Chapter 11). Other places that usually remain unmentioned in eighteenth-century music-history textbooks are the Bohemian capital Prague (Chapter 15) and the German city of Bayreuth under the Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia (Chapter 10).

The episodic approach allows Rice to present not only fascinating contextual viewpoints on famous composers but also portrayals of other agents involved in the production of eighteenth-century music, such as patrons and performers. Chapter 4, for example, uses the colorful biography of the soprano Caterina Gabrielli to illuminate the culture of carnival operas in Rome and Venice and the spread of that culture as far as St. Petersburg. Chapter 9, by contrast, focuses on the musical patronage of Frederick the Great in Berlin—in a gripping series of subsections Rice interprets Frederick’s own Flute Sonata in A Major and Carl Heinrich Graun’s opera seria Montezuma (1755) as reflecting the king’s passionate same-sex friendships and his turbulent relationship with his father.

In spite of the fragmented narrative, Rice returns to one concept throughout most of the chapters: the interaction between the more archaic and contrapuntal “learned” styles developed by composers born before 1700 and the more fashionable and simpler “galant” style. In Chapter 2, Rice contextualizes the emergence of the “galant” idiom by focusing on the political changes in France after the death of Louis XIV and the shifts in French art and architecture. A large portion of the chapter also discusses the musical distinctions between the two styles. Throughout the rest of the textbook, the investigation of the “galant” idiom in musical works created during the eighteenth century to some extent unifies the disparate chapters. This analytical aspect of Rice’s book as well as the travelogue format are to a large extent indebted to the magisterial studies of Daniel Heartz (particularly his Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-80), which Rice managed to transform into textbook format. I can imagine that students using the textbook in a course on the music of the eighteenth-century will develop an ability to discuss in a sophisticated manner the defining features of Classical music by focusing on the “galant” elements.

Apart from the focus on the “galant” style, discussions of stylistic and generic developments are quite episodic in Rice’s book; as a result, they acquire an engaging character and shed the soporific effect that overviews of styles and genres have on students in more traditional textbooks. Thus, for example, instead of a series of chapters on the development of opera seria and its stylistic features, Rice’s book provides several vignettes into the changing nature of the genre in different European locations throughout the eighteenth century. We start in Rome with the operas performed during the carnival season. The specific Roman laws prohibiting women from performing in theaters lead Rice to a discussion both of the musici (or, in a more derogative term, castrati) and the gender and sexual ambiguities of eighteenth-century opera. We follow the genre into Georgian London to explore the output of Johann Christian Bach and his tendency to suffuse the Metastasian plots of opera seria with “galant” musical language. Next stop is Vienna under Empress Maria Theresia, which affords us a glimpse of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s reformist operas. Rice then steers us to Frederick the Great’s Berlin and focuses on Graun’s Montezuma, with a libretto by Giampietro Tagliazucchi based on a sketch by the king himself. Rice delineates how the opera reflects the king’s personal musical tastes and points to the resonance between the unusually (for eighteenth-century opera) tragic fate of Montezuma and Fredrick’s own traumatic conflict with his father in early adulthood.

Unlike most textbooks on eighteenth-century music, Rice later follows opera seria to Russia under Catherine the Great, and presents Tommasso Traetta during his collaboration there with the librettist Marco Cortellini on Antigona, a reformist work that, similar to Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, combines French and Italian operatic styles. Rice also transcribed a famous mournful chorus from Antigone for the accompanying anthology, which stresses the importance of Traetta and of St. Petersburg as an important center of Italian opera but also makes a part of an important musical work available in modern edition. The final stop in the exploration of eighteenth-century opera seria is Prague. Rice focuses on the political circumstances surrounding the Prague commission of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito for the coronation of Leopold II as the King of Bohemia. He interprets the frightening ending of the first act (depicting a Roman revolt against Titus) as a cautionary statement about the dangers of the French Revolution, which shows the genre’s interaction with the shattering political developments in the late eighteenth century.

The textbook’s episodic, geographical structure also allows Rice to abandon the tedious life-and-works approach to individual composers that so often haunts music history textbooks. As a result, composers are presented as real people, living and working in specific places at different times and influenced by those places and by local cultural institutions. This approach is particularly refreshing in the case of Mozart. The composer and his works are first mentioned in Chapter 8, which deals with Vienna under Empress Maria Theresia. Mozart’s activities as a piano teacher and his Piano Concerto in E-flat Major (“Jeunehomme”), K. 271, are put into the context of keyboard music-making by Viennese women of the Theresian period. Exposing his readers to recent discoveries of Mozart scholars, Rice points out that the “Jeunehomme” Concerto was actually written for the Viennese pianist Victoire Jenamy, the daughter of the famous choreographer Jean George Noverre. The discovery allows Rice to connect the concerto to the world of Viennese musical theater of the period; he shows that in the second movement Mozart turned the pianist into an operatic heroine by having her “sing” tragic music that resembles the concert recitative and aria “Popoli di Tessaglia,” composed two years later, based on text from Gluck’s Alceste, and originally choreographed at the Vienna court theater by Victoire’s father Noverre. Mozart returns in Chapter 13, where he is shown interacting with the culture of the Parisian salons in his keyboard sonatas and with the Parisian public concert series, the Concert Spirituel, in his “Paris” Symphony (K. 297/300a) and his symphonie concertante-like Concerto for Flute and Harp (K. 299). Unsurprisingly, Mozart features prominently in the chapter titled “Mozart’s Vienna.” Once again, instead of focusing on stylistic development and an encyclopedic discussion of the major works from that period, the chapter shows how selected Mozart’s works refract social, political, and cultural conditions in the Habsburg capital during the “Mozart” decade.

Rice’s selection of Fiordiligi and Ferrando’s “love” duet “Fra gli amplessi” from Così fan tutte as the sample of Mozart’s Viennese opera buffa is interesting, though the text could explain exactly why it is exemplary. One reason why Rice omitted to explain the importance of the duet within the context of eighteenth-century opera might be pedagogical—perhaps his text is meant to prompt students to supply their own understanding of the duet’s significance. In fact, if one looks into the Author’s webpage that accompanies the textbook (see below), one finds, in the supplemental materials to the chapter on Mozart’s Vienna, that Rice asks the student to think about the musical and dramaturgical similarities between the fourth-act finale from Paisiello’s The Barber of Seville and the Fiordiligi-Ferrando duet from the second-act of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Rather than spelling out the fact that the duet closely resembles the procedures employed by opera buffa composers in multi-sectional ensembles, Rice here turns the students into active participants in the dissemination of knowledge.

As mentioned earlier, Mozart also figures prominently in Chapter 15, devoted to Prague. Besides introducing the specific conditions and history of the Bohemian capital, the Prague chapter, moreover, manages to contextualize and present in a meaningful way Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony (K. 504), the coronation opera La clemenza di Tito, and the 1787 commission of Don Giovanni for the Prague National Theater and its Italian opera company. One problem with the discussion of Don Giovanni in the textbook is that it does not relate the anthology selection (Leporello’s “Catalogue” aria) to the main text. The anthology essay explains that Mozart built on and surpassed similar buffo arias in earlier operas, particularly Figaro’s “Scorsi già molti paesi” from Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia—an opera first performed in St. Petersburg in 1782 and then in Vienna in 1783. Perhaps a reference to Paisiello reception in Prague would make the Bohemian context even more prominent; or Rice could have selected a part of Don Giovanni for the anthology that would be more closely reflective of the specifically Prague conditions—“Là ci darem la mano,” for example, would have nicely connected to the textbook’s discussion of Luigi Bassi, the first Giovanni, and the unexpressive Prague Zerlina (Caterina Bondini), whom Mozart had to unexpectedly seize from behind during the rehearsals of the first-act finale, so that she would scream properly in reaction to the Don’s advances.

Whereas the selection of the “Catalogue” aria for the anthology is curiously disengaged from the main text, other musical compositions discussed in the textbook are sometime treated too much as part of their immediate context, without an explanation of their larger significance. Returning to the discussion of Graun’s Berlin opera seria Montezuma, for example, it is not clear how exactly that work fits into larger developments of opera seria beyond the somewhat vague observation that it exemplifies “a mixture of innovation and tradition” (p. 132). This note is followed by the observation that Eupaforice’s aria “Barbaro che mi sei” plagiarizes an idea from an earlier opera by Hasse and that it also reflects the heroines changing emotions; how exactly this expresses the mixture of innovation and tradition remains unexplained. Similar vagueness plagues some of the other discussions of music in the textbook. Another example comes from pages devoted to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (Chapter 17). The famous opening of the first movement is interpreted as representing a hero in prayer, and the main theme is compared to the melody of a famous aria by Mikéli, the hero of Cherubini’s Les deux journées. Rice, however, does not provide any other insights into the heroic or narrative nature of the first movement.

Perhaps this slight tendency towards vagueness is the result of strictly following the motto of the series in which the textbook appears—“Western Music in Context.” Such an approach has the advantage of keeping complex musical discussion to a minimum and increasing the appeal of the textbook for students. Similarly, the essays in the accompanying anthology are quite brief and easily manageable, especially compared to the more extensive introductions to musical works in the other collections, such as the Norton Anthology or the Oxford Anthology. The episodic, context-heavy narrative of the textbook and the anthology, moreover, might be easily supplemented with readings from other histories that provide a larger perspective, such as the Taruskin Oxford History of Western Music. Suggestions for additional readings, resources, and discussion topics can also be found on the author’s webpage associated with the textbook1. This is a wonderful resource that contains study guides, links to relevant webpages, including blogs by eighteenth-century specialists, links to YouTube recordings and videos, extensive bibliographies, and discussion questions. Stressing the interdependence of performers and music historians, at one point (in the notes to Chapter 10) Rice also solicits music students for a recording of Gluck’s aria “Je n’aimais pas le tabac beaucoup” from the opéra comique Le diable à quatre, the melody of which Haydn used in the first movement of the “Evening” Symphony (No. 8).

Overall, Music in the Eighteenth Century is an excellent textbook that provides a solid backbone for a class on the Classical period. The textbook will keep students engaged and entertained by moving from one exciting location to another and by exploring how musical works were produced not by geniuses working in a creative vacuum, but rather by people in specific places interacting with specific social, political, and cultural conditions.


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Last modified on Thursday, 07/03/2019

Martin Nedbal

Martin Nedbal is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on eighteenth-century opera in Vienna, and his articles on Mozart and Beethoven appeared in The Musical Quarterly, Opera Quarterly, and Acta Musicologica.  

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