Rococo Music: Period & Style

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Music reflects a lot about the world it was created in. In this lesson, we'll see how Rococo music reflected changes in European society and set up changes to come.

Classical Music and the Rococo

To some, Classical music is old, outdated, and not at all exciting. And what exactly is Classical music? This is a term people throw around a lot, but one that relatively few people can define. When we talk about Classical music, we're actually talking about a very specific time period and style, emerging in the late 18th century, not just any old music. Classical music is rich and complex, with textured harmonies and technically difficult melodies.

So, where'd this style come from? It began as a rejection of a mid-18th century musical style called the Rococo. Rococo music was light and elegant, and also somewhat superficial. But, such were the times. For aristocrats, particularly of France, life in the mid-18th century was a party, making Rococo music Europe's first hit party music. Who said old music is boring?

History of the Rococo

To understand Rococo music we need to understand the Rococo era of arts, which lasted from about 1720-1770. It all starts with the death of Louis XIV in France in 1715. Louis XIV was a powerful monarch who ruled with absolute authority. He championed an artistic style known as the Baroque, which was incredibly ornate and decorative, but also solemnly regal and serious. Baroque paintings balanced dramatic shadows and poses with gilded frames, architects focused on sharp angles and monumental scale, and musicians created highly ornamental music that was full of trills but was still dark, serious, and powerful.

When Louis XIV died, he was succeeded by his 5-year-old son, so France was ruled by a regent. The French aristocrats took this chance to retreat from solemn courtly life and spend their time and money hosting lavish parties in their private estates. This meant they needed to redecorate, and thus the Rococo emerged first as a style of interior design. It was just as ornamental and decorative as the Baroque, communicating the wealth of the aristocracy, but carried none of the seriousness. Rococo art was light, airy, opulent, and whimsical.

Compare the dramatic Baroque painting of a religious scene on the left to the airy Rococo scene of an outdoors party on the right

Of course, the solemn Baroque music of the German composers Johann Sebastian Bach and George Handel didn't fit within this lighthearted and bright Rococo style. So, as the Rococo aesthetic spread from France to other parts of Europe, new composers arose to compliment it. In France, Rococo music was championed by Francois Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau, both of whom had been important Baroque composers. In Italy, Rococo styles were found in the works of Giovanni Pergolesi and Giovanni Battista Sammartini. In Germany, it was Bach's sons (both of who were actually more famous than he was at the time), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach who spread the Rococo sound.

Francois Couperin was a leading composer of Rococo sounds

Characteristics of Rococo Music

So, what exactly was this Rococo sound? Rococo art rejected the dark solemnity and texture of the Baroque aesthetic, while maintaining the ornamentation. It was light, airy, and whimsical. All of these traits are found in Rococo music as well. Rococo compositions dissolved the thick textures of Baroque music into direct and transparent melodies. Major themes were short and repetitive, and evoked a clear mood that could change throughout the composition. In brief, it was music that was easy to digest and had immediate appeal.

At the same time, these straightforward melodies were filled with ornamental trills and other elements that were decorative, but didn't add much in way of texture of complexity. It was ornamentation for the sake of ornamentation. Perhaps we can best understand the Rococo sound through variations of this style across Europe. In France, it was largely known as Style Galant, or the ''elegant style''. The Germany interpretation was called empfindsamer stil, or ''sensitive style''.

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