Eighteenth Century Music

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Period concepts and periodizations are constructions, or readings, and hence always subject to reinterpretation. Many recent scholars have privileged institutional and reception history over style and compositional history, and periodized European music according to the ‘centuries’; but these constructions are no less partial or tendentious than older ones. Recent historiographical writings addressing these issues are evaluated.

If we wish to construe the eighteenth century as a music-historical period, we must abandon the traditional notion that it was bifurcated in the middle. Not only did the musical Baroque not last beyond 1720 in most areas, but the years c1720–c1780 constituted a period in their own right, dominated by the international ‘system’ of Italian opera, Enlightenment ideals, neoclassicism, the galant and (after c1760) the cult of sensibility. We may call this the ‘central’ eighteenth century. Furthermore, this period can be clearly distinguished from preceding and following ones. The late Baroque (c1670–c1720) was marked by the rationalization of Italian opera, tragédie lyrique, the standardization of instrumental genres and the rise of ‘strong’ tonality. The period c1780–c1830 witnessed the rise of the ‘regulative work-concept’ (Goehr) and ‘pre-Romanticism’ (Dahlhaus), and the Europe-wide triumph of ‘Viennese modernism’, including the first autonomous instrumental music and a central role in the rise of the modern (post-revolutionary) world, symbolized by Haydn’s sublime in The Creation.

A tripartite reading of a ‘long’ eighteenth-century in music history along these lines seems more nearly adequate than either baroque/classical or 1700–1800 as a single, undifferentiated period.


1 During the final proof stage of this study Richard Will kindly brought to my attention the special number of Modern Language Quarterly (62/4, 2001) entitled Periodization: Cutting Up the Past, ed. Marshall Brown. Particularly relevant to my discussion are Brown's introduction, ‘Periods and Resistances’ 309-315 (with a welcome scepticism regarding the possibility of doing without periods); Srinivas Aravamudan, ‘The Return of Anachronism’, 331-353 (on Vico); and especially Robert J. Griffin, ‘The Age of “The Age of” is Over: Johnson and new Versions of the Late Eighteenth Century’ 377-391.