From time to time, I’ve gone back to highlight the work of composers who have been (un)fairly (depending on your point of view) neglected in this history. Today, I am pausing to recognize the important work of a group of 18th century composers who between, roughly, the 1740s and 1770s were part of the so-called “rococo” movement. While rococo might be seen as late-Baroque in most artistic forms, in music, it is the revolutionary bridge that paved the way for the Classical Period.
Bach’s son, CPE Bach, was instrumental (if you will pardon the pun) in developing this new style in Germany, while Francois Couperin in France and Antonio Salieri (first in Italy, then in Vienna) quickly embraced this new “gallant” style. These composers, stretched across Europe, began rejecting polyphony and embracing a more homophonic structure that more or less would carry Western music through to the 20th century. This isn’t to say that counterpoint was dead–far from it. But Western music, going forward, would be vested in a melodic line supported by a harmony comprised of an underlying chordal structure.
Abandoning polyphonic texture in favor of a single melodic line with accompaniment allowed composers to focus more on coloration, dynamics and phrasing. Rhythms also became more defined during this period, as opening fanfares and funeral marches further helped to define tone and color in music. Nowhere are these changes more evident than in the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck. Gluck, one of the most successful composers of his age, created crowd-pleasing spectacles by cutting away polyphonic layers (so characteristic of Bach oratorios) and focusing instead on harmonic modulation to convey dramatic changes in, and the emotional content of, the story. And that, in fact, is Gluck’s most important contribution to the opera genre. In Baroque opera, the story was chosen to support the music. Gluck flipped this paradigm on its head: Gluck’s music supports and reflects the drama on stage. This emerging Germanic view of opera, which would reach its apex with Richard Wagner in the following century, would ultimately prevail.
Opening fanfare? Clean melodic lines supported by a chordal structure? Music written to support the drama?
Behold, the glory of the Classical.
Christoph Willibald Gluck, Iphigenie en Tauride
While I always like to present opera visually, I have to recommend this recent recording–available on all streaming services–which really brings Gluck’s music to life.