A Rococo period existed in music history, although it is not as well known as the earlier Baroque and later Classical forms. The Rococo music style itself developed out of baroque music both in France, where the new style was referred to as style galant (“gallant” or “elegant” style), and in Germany, where it was referred to as empfindsamer Stil (“sensitive style”). It can be characterized as light, intimate music with extremely elaborate and refined forms of ornamentation. Exemplars include Jean Philippe Rameau, Louis-Claude Daquin and François Couperin in France; in Germany, the style’s main proponents were C. P. E. Bach and Johann Christian Bach, two sons of J.S. Bach.
The word “galant” derives from French, where it was in use from at least the 16th century. In the early 18th century, a galant homme described a person of fashion; elegant, cultured and virtuous. The German theorist Johann Mattheson appears to have been fond of the term. It features in the title of his first publication of 1713, Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre, oder Universelle und gründliche Anleitung wie ein Galant Homme einen vollkommenen Begriff von der Hoheit und Würde der edlen Music erlangen. (Instead of the Gothic type rendered here in italics, Mattheson used Roman to emphasize the many non-German expressions. Mattheson was apparently the first to refer to a “galant style” in music, in his Das forschende Orchestre of 1721. He recognized a lighter, modern style, einem galanten Stylo and named among its leading practitioners Giovanni Bononcini, Antonio Caldara, Georg Philipp Telemann, Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel. All were composing Italian opera seria, a voice-driven musical style, and opera remained the central form of galant music. The new music was not as essentially a court music as it was a city music: the cities emphasized by Daniel Heartz, a recent historian of the style, were first of all Naples, then Venice, Dresden, Berlin, Stuttgart and Mannheim, and Paris. Many galant composers spent their careers in less central cities, ones that may be considered consumers rather than producers of the style galant: Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel in London, Baldassare Galuppi in Saint Petersburg and Georg Philipp Telemann in Hamburg.
This simplified style was melody-driven, not constructed, as so much classical music was to be, on rhythmic or melodic motifs: “It is indicative that Haydn, even in his old age, is reported to have said, ‘If you want to know whether a melody is really beautiful, sing it without accompaniment’ ”. This simplification also extended to harmonic rhythm, which is generally slower in galant music than is the case in the earlier baroque style, thus making lavish melodic ornamentation and nuances of secondary harmonic colorings more important.
The affinities of galant style with Rococo in the visual arts are easily overplayed, but characteristics that were valued in both genres were freshness, accessibility and charm. Watteau’s fêtes galantes were rococo not merely in subject matter, but also in the lighter, cleaner tonality of his palette, and the glazes that supplied a galant translucency to his finished pictures often compared to the orchestrations of galant music.
‘Being galant, in general’, wrote Voltaire, ‘means seeking to please’. All the composers gathered here sought to fulfil Voltaire’s dictum in their own ways. The concertos abound in grand opening tuttis which draw back the curtain for the solo instrument to sing as if on the operatic stage – an important origin for the ‘galant’ style as these composers understood it – and to engage the ensemble in lively and brilliant discourse. Second movements are often gentle Romances, never less than charming and, in the case of Clementi and Stamitz, for example, more profound than that. The finales are cast as Rondos, finishing off with a flourish and handfuls of brilliant figuration for the hard-working soloist.