Arts & Culture | Rococo | Classical Era | Classical

The dominant style in art at the start of the classical era was the Rococo (from rocaille, ‘shellwork’). Created in early eighteenth-century France, its leading figures in the graphic arts were Antoine Watteau and François Boucher. The closest musical analogue is not Mozart (as once was traditionally argued) but François Couperin (1668–1733) – the late Baroque generation, in fact, for the Rococo is essentially a breaking-down of the Baroque. Rococo ideas and mannerisms were exported, especially to southern Germany and Austria, and manifested themselves in, for example, the Munich court opera house, and in the elaborate shellwork and scrollwork to be seen in the otherwise Italianate churches of the region.

The decorative, mannered style had its musical counterpart, initially in Couperin’s ornamen­tation, but later too its influence can be felt in the figuration used in much galant music, for example the graceful cadence figures of Johann Christian Bach (1735–82), in the lines and flourishes of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s (1714–88) keyboard music (the empfindsamer Stil, ‘sensitive style’) and, even as late as the 1780s and 90s in the florid detail of Luigi Boccherini’s (1743–1805) chamber music. And in Mozart too: one Rococo-decorated church is St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg, where Mozart’s C minor Mass had its first (partial) hearing, and if the florid but expressively intense coloratura music of the ‘Et incarnatus’ was sung on that occasion in 1783, the consonance of idiom, the delight in luxuriant lines, between music and architecture must have been obvious.

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