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Joseph Riepel and a very long hello

Joseph Riepel’s celebrated music theory treatise, Anfangsgründe zur musicalischen Setzkunstunfolds in a lively and witty manner. Most of its chapters are framed in the guise of lessons, presented as dialogues between a teacher and student. The teacher is a bit of a goofball who peppers the lessons with numerous sarcastic asides, often at the expense of mathematically oriented music theorists whose approaches he finds too dry and inartistic. The student is no mere pushover, and on numerous occasions challenges the opinions of the teacher. Through such means, Riepel suggests that the art of music is best learned not via scientific formulas, but through examining and questioning various compositional possibilities.

The opening of the treatise’s second chapter (first published in 1755) is emblematic of Riepel’s writing style. At the start of this lesson, the student declares an eagerness to forgo flowery salutations so to start the session without wasting time. As he puts it, “Greetings, Gutenmorgensagen (‘expressions-of-good-morning’), and Seitderzeitherimmermitleibundseelwohlaufgewesen­zusey­nanwünschen(‘wishesfromtimeimmemorial­forhealthofbodyandsoul’ [!]) are indeed all well and good—but mostly as empty courtesies; from now on let’s start by getting right down to business.” Ironically, while insisting that he desires to avoid wasting time with verbose preliminaries, the student inadvertently wastes time with a verbose preliminary!

The teacher wryly comments that the ornate, run-on word invoked by the student (“Seitderzeit…&c.”) is customary for the writing style of mathematical treatises—that is, the very style toward which the teacher emphatically turns his nose. In introducing this absurdly long word at the outset of the chapter, Riepel thereby also hints at something else to be avoided: namely, long streams of thought that are strung together without being properly clarified through punctuation. But as was seen in the student’s introductory remarks, avoiding such run-on thoughts is easier said than done. In music, as in language, arranging one’s thoughts in a focused manner requires training and skill.

The chapter’s ensuing discussions examine at length how musical works can be effectively organized with the aid of tonal articulations. To this end, the teacher and student explore how a proper ordering of such articulations can help structure compositions of various lengths, from short minuets to expansive symphony movements. They also discuss a number of expressive devices, such as the judicious use of contrasting themes, boisterous passages, and cantabile melodies that can help spice up a composition. The sample works that accompany Riepel’s treatise suggest that these types of expressive passages could be expected to appear almost anywhere within the middle of a movement.

The fluid formal placement of such expressive passages is well reflected in the music of the time—that is, the music of the so-called Galant era, which extended until around 1780. In contrast, toward the last two decades of the eighteenth century, the specific placement of thematic materials according to their character began to play a central role in the formal organizations of compositions. This new attitude toward musical form was recognized in a forward looking, though now largely forgotten treatise penned by Franz Christoph Neubauer around 1783. Instead of discussing form in relation to a series of tonal articulations, as did Riepel, Neubauer seemed to privilege the character of passages as a primary factor in shaping a movement.

Neubauer’s descriptions mirror what is now generally understood as the prototypical layout for sonata-form movements. The types of formal strategies he discussed were to become standard in many post-1780 works, by composers such as Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Eventually, these strategies would serve as the basis for discussions of sonata-form structure put forth by many subsequent generations of music commentators. Even works from the Galant era ultimately would be analyzed in the light of these more progressive formal concepts—albeit with decidedly mixed results. This is witnessed most notably in discussions of the music of Joseph Haydn, who is arguably the most famous Galant composer and whose treatment of form is frequently cited as being quirky.

To be sure, Haydn’s music is often quirky—but not necessarily for reasons that are often mentioned. If one views his music in reference to other pieces composed around the same era, however, and more in line with formal descriptions offered by Riepel and other theorists from around the same time, many of the supposedly odd features of Haydn’s formal treatment may actually be understood to be rather conventional. A proper understanding of what is stylistically normal in his music in turn can help better highlight those features in works by Haydn that are truly daring and innovative.

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  1. Donald

    Really nice article thank you

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