Marc-Antoine Charpentier Marche de Triomphe et Second Air de Trompette

Jean-Baptiste Lully Dances from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, comédie-ballet by Molière (1670)

Henry Purcell Hail! bright Cecilia Z. 328 (1692)

Louis XIV’s string band, Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi, was the most skilled and prestigious such group in the world and, in its experimentation with wind instruments and stable institutional structure, could well be seen as the first orchestra. Tonight prefaced by the kind of all-purpose music of jubilation and deference used to welcome the king into the theatre (Charpentier’s Marche de Triomphe), the orchestral dances presented here (written by the group’s tyrannical director Jean-Baptiste Lully) were woven into the fabric of Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a play that like much other French theatre of the age manoeuvres its action to find every possible excuse for ballet to take place within the plot. Through its central character of a vain, ignorant bourgeois desperate for the trappings of aristocracy and its displays of the other arts onstage the play makes a feature of spectacle-within-spectacle, author and composer perhaps intending their courtly audience to realise the illusory nature of the entertainments surrounding them, at once opulent and coercive.

The play itself, though, is not directly related to the dances; dance music could be recycled from production to production (and indeed reused functionally for social dance) and had little to do with the specifics of each scenario. The music is thus a window on the perpetual musical accompaniment to life at the Sun King’s Versailles. It is a music deeply bound up with the body: indeed, theorists recommended a rough equilibrium between a dance’s tempo and the pulse-rate of a dancer performing those steps. In typically French baroque fashion, the dance music balances strong releases of the passions with a Cartesian stress on reason: that the arms were purposefully never raised above the head – the seat of the sovereign intellect – in belle danse choreography is especially telling.  Given that the characteristic rhythms of each dance type formed the basis of most operatic numbers, the steps and rhythms also developed a close relationship with prosody and poetics. The schemata of French verse pervade this textless dance music: listen especially to twelve-beat phrases giving a sense of the Alexandrine, to ‘feminine endings’ derived from the language’s ‘mute e’, and end-accented verse engendering a stress on cadences.

In their various national and regional characters, the dance types were also heard as colourful local stereotypes; they flattered French egoism in juxtaposing Turkish burlesque (the marche), German rusticity (allemande) and Spanish profligacy (sarabande) with their own supposedly moderate, graceful temper. This was statecraft through music, just as the orchestra itself glorified its royal sponsor in its ostentatious display of expense and skill. The surface of the music, with its flourishes, stately dotted rhythms and noble, processional character also reveals the self-image of those who listened and danced to it. In another sense, though, such were the dance genres’ omnipresence in seventeenth-century life that they are better thought of as vehicles for compositional art and performative splendour than as significant in themselves. The most spectacular feature here was the orchestra itself, which in its ability to skilfully perform Lully’s novel effects of variety, nuance and ensemble, became the envy of Europe – and as a happy by-product of expulsions of some Protestant musicians from France, this style of composition and performance found its way to England.

London’s annual St Cecilia’s Day celebration, a society festival each November in praise of music’s patron saint, commissioned a different composer in turn to set an Ode. In November 1692 it fell to Purcell provide a paean to Cecilia for his fellow ‘Masters and Lovers of Music’, and his offering, Hail, Bright Cecilia, was performed twice with ‘universal applause’. The society responsible for organising the festival mixed amateur and professional musicians, Protestants and Catholics, and (comparatively) varied social classes – all in sharp contrast to France’s musical life, steeply tiered by wealth and status. The political parallels were irresistible to some: the conductor at the Paris Opéra was described in terms of royal absolutism while in England the violin director was likened to a constitutional monarch.

Purcell’s text, nominally by the Irish clergyman Nicholas Brady, is in fact a reworking of John Dryden’s 1687 ‘Song for St Cecilia’s Day’, structured along the lines of the Pindaric ode. Dryden’s and Brady’s odes, with their purpose of celebrating and glorying in the power of music, were apposite literature for one of the earliest works that can truly be called orchestral.  Baroque in its sensuality, the verse is loaded with imagery suggesting the sounds of particular instruments, a rich aural palette for Purcell’s imagination. The composer’s use of the very instruments referenced in the poem would have carried not only poetic vividness but also great novelty; it is one of the first English pieces, for instance, to ‘domesticate’ the trumpet, now removed from but still strongly connoting its more common martial and ceremonial uses. Purcell’s setting is also a compendium of compositional styles, synthesising the Italian sinfonias and elaborate vocal gestures of the Monteverdian nuove musiche, the French lexicon of dance styles and structures cultivated by Lully, and the English tradition of astonishingly daring counterpoint cultivated earlier that century.

Music in the text is represented as not only capable of stirring the passions but also as the ‘sister of number’ and ultimately divine. The central chorus ‘Soul of the World’ articulates this Pythagorean belief – music as the invisible force that binds the universe – shining a rationalist, materialist light on ancient music theory: the ‘jarring Seeds of Matter’ and ‘scatter’d atoms’ (set here to ‘scatter’d’ counterpoint in chaotic inversions and stretto) are then arranged in cosmic ‘harmony’ by the music of the spheres. The use of dance types is thus more than democratic, accessible text-setting; ‘Thou tun’st this world’, set to a French minuet, conjures a memorable vision of the ‘spheres above’ dancing in a ‘heavenly round’. This metaphysical drama, in tandem with the incorporation of Italian-style harmonic logic and sequence, shows Purcell as a child of the age of the Royal Society, art’s ideal purpose to be comprehensible and explicable.

Later in their odes, Dryden and Brady note how fallen man has exploited music to serve his baser nature (Dryden’s ‘what passion cannot musick raise and quell’): man can either use music to tune himself to the universal harmony (and God) or to abuse it and live a discordant life. They both imply that fallen man has so far taken the latter option, using it to incite to violence (‘The fife, and all the harmony of war’), and to stir up lascivious emotions. But the organ, Cecilia’s instrument, they note, can raise all souls into spiritual harmony: this proviso can be seen as a post-Commonwealth effort to rescue music from radical Puritans who saw it as morally suspect.

The early orchestra was experienced as overwhelming and strange, metaphorically compared by contemporary writers to armies, choirs of angels, giant musical instruments, civil society, chaos, the human body, nature and machines. Forced to confront the new institution, the Ode gazes in awe at its sonic possibilities: ‘Hark Each Tree’, a sarabande on a ground bass in inventive overlapping phrases, speaks of the material (wooden) origins of the accompanying instruments – recorders and violins. In ‘Wondrous Machine’, the bass soloist sings of the power of the organ and how the ‘warbling lute’ must yield before it. Purcell here sets up a mechanical-sounding ground bass, evoking the very materiality (and inorganic nature) of the instrument, its pipework and machinery. The oboes above it converse variously with the voice and the bass line below, caught between the human and the mechanical, thus conceptually breathing life into inanimate object – just as Cecilia does with ‘dead’ musical instruments. For a modern audience, for whom the diversity and power of the orchestra has become disenchanted through familiarity, Purcell’s Ode is a note from history reminding us of the wonder of instruments themselves.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Symphony No. 38 in D, K. 504, ‘Prague’ (1786)

Six German Dances, K. 571 (1789)

Divertimento in B flat, K. 137 (1772)

Symphony No. 36 in C, K. 425, ‘Linz’ (1783) 

‘A necessary evil (you’ve got to start with something) and during which one chats’ was one listener’s withering description of the symphony in mid-eighteenth-century Vienna. Inspired by Haydn’s already imposing body of work, it was Mozart who turned the form on its head with his last symphonies, raising it from functional, ceremonial curtain-raiser to the prestige genre of instrumental music. His D major Prague symphony, more than any other, is the piece that typifies this vastly widened scope and expressive range.

The city of Prague could not get enough of Mozart at a time when Vienna seemed to grow indifferent to his entrepreneurial ventures. Prague was the city that fell in love with The Marriage of Figaro, and the spirit of the opera’s original title in Beaumarchais’s source play, La folle journée (the day of madness) pervades the symphony – especially the last movement, which resembles a madcap opera buffa finale. But the really path-breaking movement is the first: after a slow introduction that (like the ensuing allegro) grows organically out of a provisional, abstract opening, the body of the movement is a tour de force of integrating elevated-style counterpoint into a symphonic sonata structure. It begins by calmly laying out its material, which is subject to ever more outrageous recombination and manipulation. But this music always retains architecture and balance, with a galant second theme an urbane foil to the contrapuntal madness of the surrounding areas. This revolutionary and expansive movement resembles the fugal finale of Mozart’s last symphony (No. 41), reaching for the sublime in its vistas of counterpoint that seem to invite a cognitive exhaustion.

The second movement begins with a tranquil pastoral scene, with the beautifully linear, vocal wind writing Mozart had learned in Vienna heightening the lush atmosphere. But the music undergoes twists and turns that seem to bring it closer to a fantasia: just as in Beethoven’s last works a few decades later, Mozart makes the music seem to lose confidence in itself, questioning its own formal foundations and inviting conflicting readings. Like so much of his great G minor symphony (No. 40), it is a window into the irrational and the subjective, a musical analogue of Rousseau and the sentimental authors rather than Voltaire’s rational, baroque honnête homme.

The enlightened Emperor Joseph II was on the Habsburg throne, and his democratic reforms in Vienna included putting crown holdings to public use – most profitably for Mozart, opening up the great ballrooms to all comers. His Six German Dances is one set of a huge volume of functional dance music he wrote throughout his life, a neglected body of work that reminds us of the reality of his life as a freelancer. The Deutsche Tanz is the immediate ancestor of the waltz – the primary middle-class dance of the next century and beyond – and a Viennese tradition connects Mozart’s segue succession of several pieces here to the waltz sequences in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier of 1911. The Deutsche Tanz evolved out of versions of the light, quick allemande and the related contredanse (country dance) imported from England; the latter was revolutionary in having aristocracy and bourgeoisie dance together, emphasising not individuals but the multitude of fellow revellers. The elite French court dances are superseded by a more easily learned technique, which prioritises the larger pattern traced by the spinning couple rather than elaborate footwork.

One can hear this in the music, with its strong first beat and revolving figurations, rather than any rhythmical nuance within the bar or scope for choreographic self-expression. This is music written expressly for use in the ballroom and not the concert hall, and for a public of untrained dancers at that – so there is no room here for the complicated syntax and phrase structures of, for instance, his symphonic minuets. At the time considered the most vulgar of dances, it has a refreshingly artless simplicity, putting it further at odds with the minuet – a powerful token of the Ancien Régime.

Many eighteenth-century works titled ‘divertimento’ (like those called ‘serenade’) suggest music for a public, outdoor celebration, replete with marches and fanfares. Mozart’s contributions (or possibly string quartet), though, resemble early symphonies in all but name, using the divertimento heading perhaps to imply that this is music intended to entertain rather than edify. It can be heard as a kind of pleasure garden of affects, with an abundance of fragrant musical materials, which makes no great claim to unity or lofty purpose. We can hear it as an early instance of a defining quality of later Mozart: much of the music seems so economical and perfectly formed that it all blends together and creates the illusion of springing from nature itself.

This quality of effortless grace finds classic expression in his Linz symphony of more than a decade later. Its refinement completely belies the circumstances of its creation: it was written (if we can trust Mozart’s letter to his father) in just three or four days for an impromptu performance in the provincial Austrian town of Linz during a stopover there as he and his wife Constanze returned to Vienna from Salzburg. In many respects this is the most Haydnesque of Mozart’s mature symphonies, full of games with the listener’s expectations. It unites a sophisticated sense of storytelling with quintessentially Mozartian qualities: the perfection of counterpoint and line, as natural in its course as gravity itself.

Long thought of as the ne plus ultra of abstract, ineffable art, recent scholarship has located Mozart’s music more firmly in its time and place, revealing a seething mimetic surface to the music, and it is interesting to consider the Linz symphony from this perspective. The principal topics of symphonic first movements, the martial and the lyrical, are explained by the symphony’s origin as overtures to opera seria, whose stories principally concerned love versus honour. Slower second movements were often pastoral, and in the Linz the opening is based on a rocking siciliana dance (from Sicily, the Italian Arcadia) beset by odd silences and uncanny rhetorical repetitions. The third movement (in stark contrast to the German Dances heard earlier), as is customary, has outer sections that remind us of the nobility and power of those who danced the minuet, and a central Trio that evokes the grace of the dance itself. The finale is an exhilarating parade of commedia dell’arte characters, from the humble comic opening to passages with a liturgical quality, all mixing together in one great imbroglio. According to Neal Zaslaw, ‘taken together, the heroic, the amorous, the pastoral, the courtly, the antic, and the rustic or popular, represent the themes most often found in eighteenth-century prose, poetry, plays and paintings’. The symphony was thus ‘a stylised conspectus of the eighteenth century’s favourite subject matter’ – suggesting that these pieces are perhaps better understood in dialogue with each other than each on its own terms.

Rewarding as it is to consider these pieces against the backdrop of their age, though, Mozart’s unmistakable voice never fails to shine through. One vital concern of his music is how it seems to touch simultaneously on ultimate profundity and ultimate banality, well encapsulated by Artur Schnabel’s comment that Mozart is too difficult for adults to understand, but too easy for children. The image of the composer as an otherworldly man-child survived through the nineteenth century; indeed, Constanze later remembered his constant practical joking and love of games, which can be seen as an extension of the same impulse as that which fuelled his composition. The quality of ‘play’ in these works, though, is not just a window into the composer’s psyche, but the democratic impulse of the Enlightenment engraved on the very fabric of the music. From the exalted, learned counterpoint of Prague to the doodling, popular finale of Linz, this is music that holds up a mirror to the world and social order around it.


Haydn – Symphony No. 44 in E minor, ‘Trauer’ (1772)

The minor-mode eighteenth-century symphony, which evolved as a discrete tradition in Vienna and Habsburg lands from 1760, represents a rare and wholesale questioning of the comic, providential musical universe of the Enlightenment. Often heard through the prism of the passionate, anti-rationalist literature of Lenz, Herder and early Goethe, one use of these pieces was as para-liturgical material for Holy Week, casting a shadow of penitence and sobriety rather than unfettered subjectivity. The present work is one of the most compelling of Haydn’s few experiments in the subgenre. In some ways, is a sounding image of the turbulent Counter-Enlightenment, a return to the Viennese Baroque with its Italian, Catholic associations: strict-style counterpoint, seventeenth-century textures and harmonic touches, Passion music, chant, and opera seria depictions of rage, storms and inferno.

This turbulent surface, replete with syncopations, driving rhythms, authoritative unisons, leaping melodies and lamenting semitonal figures are set in the context of structural deformities – long, tense silences, odd reappearances of prior movements like spectres, and sidesteps into tangential ideas. In the outer movements, long passages in the relative major at marked moments, a common procedure in these works, only serves as a foil to an ultimately tragic plot. These longed-for turns to the major are instant, not ‘earned’, since it didn’t have the same energetic, redemptive, post-Beethovenian associations as we now expect: in the Counter-Reformation culture of Austria, redemption was a gift of divine grace, not achieved through human struggle. Every moment is a forced reconciliation of outer form and subjective particulars: the finale is made up of homogeneous and impulsive ideas, driven onwards by its long chains of passionate invertible counterpoint and a stormy, motoric surface – the inward-looking mirror image of fashionable, courtly discourse.

But there are touches of irony: the minuet is complicated by an austere, two-part canon, itself beginning with a misplaced cadential figure, and chromatic development beyond the usual bounds of this polite dance. A reservoir of feeling and pathos is also tapped, particularly in the major-mode Adagio, which hovers between a set of variations and a meandering galant binary movement. Haydn’s apparent wish that this movement be played at his own funeral gives a very un-eighteenth-century autobiographical resonance to the music, and provides a window into the milieu of works in its mould: written to reflect profound moral concerns, and played for small circles of musical experts who listened attentively – no-one more so than Haydn’s patrons and players in Esterháza.