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As with the beginning of most epochs, two dandies didn’t wake up one morning in London and have the following conversation over breakfast:
Bertram: I’m tired of the same old Baroque rigamarole day in, day out. Let’s call everything from this day forward, The Classical era.
Oswig: I say, that does have a nice ring to it Bertram… Heavens!
Bertram: What is it Oswig?
Oswig: Look at the front page! Another smallpox outbreak.
Likewise, there was no one event in 1750 that signaled the dawning of a new musical style. The Classical era can’t claim the equivalent of the now famous July 4, 1976 concert by the Ramones at the Roundhouse in London, which put punk rock on the musical map. Perhaps this is because Johann Sebastian Bach never came up with a catchy song title like "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” If he had, maybe things would’ve been different. (Though, to be fair, he did compose a chorale, punkishly entitled, Es ist Genug!—which is German for “It is Enough!” Clearly a man well ahead of his time.)
But like the punk rock movement, the Classical era was rooted in rebellion. In punk rock’s case, artists like The Sex Pistols and The Clash were fed up with songs like “Hotel California,” with their really really long guitar solos and elaborate chord structures. They’d seen enough of Peter Gabriel prancing around stage dressed in a giant sunflower costume, leading Genesis through songs that sometimes occupied the entire side of a record.
Likewise, around 1750, musicians and composers began to move away from the heavily ornamented baroque style made famous by Bach. Young composers, including Bach’s own sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedmann, began to mimic the esthetics of ancient Greece, resurrecting the bygone culture’s clean, uncluttered style.
For the next seventy-five years or so, the music of the day became more about simplicity, beauty, and balance. Composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart considered form and proportion just as important as melody and harmony. The birth of rococo art and architecture, which coincided with the birth of one of the period’s most talented composers, Franz Joseph Haydn, had an influence, as well.
The rococo style began in France under the reign of King Louis XV, who ruled from 1715 until his death in 1774 from smallpox. Louis’s mistress, Madame du Pompadour, had an enormous influence on his aesthetics, as did Philippe, Duc d'Orleans. Between the two of them, the young king was led away from the monumental grandeur of his predecessor, Louis XIV, toward a lighter, more delicate and refined look.
At Versailles, rooms were made smaller and new furniture brought in. This seemed to be the trend at Versailles every time different king took the throne. Each successive Louis felt the need for a complete palace makeover. Had reality TV existed back then, the producers of Queer Eye for the Royal Guy surely wouldn’t have wanted for material.
Louis XV’s new rococo-for-cocoa-pops style was inspired not by the instant chocolate milk it created afterward but by decorative tree branches, flowers, coral, seaweed, and seashells. That’s where the term rococo comes from. In French, rocaille means “rocks and shells.”
In the rococo paintings of French artist Antoine Watteau, there’s a similar return to simplicity. Inspired by Classical Greek and Roman art, Watteau sought a more whimsical look reminiscent of the old wine, women and song days. Scantily clad mythological gods and goddesses pranced through open fields. Rotund ladies lounged along riverbanks, laughing, no doubt, at each other’s thunder thighs. Men cavorted about idyllic country settings in powdered wigs, a sensuality to their expressions that stood out in sharp contrast to the seriousness of the heavy religious subjects fashionable under the previous Louis.
Not unlike a new Banana Republic spring collection, Louis XV’s new look was all about fun and frivolity using soft, muted pastels and light neutral colors. From France, the zippy rococo style spread throughout Europe faster than a smallpox epidemic. When it arrived in Vienna, composers quickly figured out how to translate it into music.
[Be sure to tune in next Wednesday for Part 5 of this series!]
If you missed our previous installments, check out A Short History of Long-Haired Music archives.