Music Styles: Rococco

THE ROCOCCO: 1730 - 1780

Perhaps the least well known of any of the tonal eras in music, the Rococco is characterized by a sense of completion and of radical experiment.

This era, bridging the Baroque and preparing the Classical, overlaps both periods; however, it has distinct characteristics of its own.

As conclusion to the Baroque, it speaks to the final gasps of the hyper-florid in terms of ornamentation and embellishment, especially in keyboard literature. At the very end of the Baroque sensibility, an extreme had been reached beyond which no rational composer would proceed further. Even the great Bach would not waste time with thirty-seven-part fugues, for example; there are natural and logical limits to all this. Rather, at the height and in the best of the Rococco, we may discover the outer limits of counterpoint and its textures; of fugal procedures and their elaboration; and, beyond all, of an extremity of ornament that would create new patterns of dissonance and resolution considered previously unimaginable.

The term itself derives from the field of decorative art, and has been applied analogously to music of the mid-eighteenth century. It expanded to architecture, and largely across the world, with appearances even in China. In Germany, this influence can most famously be seen in the astoundingly ornate court and opera buildings of Mannheim and Stuttgart. These are structures well known to the musicians of the era.

It must be acknowledged that some scholars, notably Wiley Hitchcock, argue that the Rococco in music is at most "a sort of enclave in the Late Baroque rather than its successor." Others see it as a signal and fascinating bridge between two great eras. Such composers as Pergolesi, Fran├žois Couperin, Daquin, Leclair, and de Croix represent -- in certain music and specific regards -- the peak of this curious movement. However, one composer has come to be identified, at least in some of his keyboard and symphonic literature, with the Rococco at its most tasteful and daring. He was, of course, one of the greatest of the Bach family.

Karl Philip Emmanuel Bach (1714-1788)

The third son of JS, and the second to survive, KPE (or, often, CPE) Bach became known later in life as the "Berlin" or "Hamburg" Bach. He studied with his father at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, and later studied law at the universities of Leipzig and Frankfurt an der Oder. He returned to music and Berlin in 1738, and two years later was appointed as Chamber Musician to Frederick the Great, a musically enlightened monarch seated in Prussia.

In March 1768 he became cantor in Hamburg, and soon served as music director to the five major churches of that important regional center, holding those positions until his death.

KPE Bach was herald of the end of the polyphony so magnificently mastered by his father, and was largely the creator of the new "Empfindsamkeit" or "intimate expressiveness" style of keyboard writing, the North German counterpart of the French Rococco.

Anyone looking at his music -- and everyone should -- will concentrate particularly on the six Hamburg symphonies of KPE Bach, known to musicologists as WQ182. These six are dedicated to one of the great patrons of the time, Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Indeed, his name is frequently attached to the works themselves, and in time became no less attached to the court music of Vienna and to the lives of Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven. (Filmgoers will remember the Baron's appearance in Amadeus.)

KPE Bach's six symphonies are bold and daring masterworks of the new style, probing widely and experimenting intriguingly -- most especially in the fields of harmony and modulation. They are scored lightly, for strings and basso continuo only, but in their blazing animation offer a thrilling insight into this new style, and into the realms of surprise and alarm that Beethoven would soon make his own.