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History Of Theory: 18th-Century Europe

YouYoung Kang (Scripps College), Chair

Embodying the Querelle des Bouffons: The Voice of the Royal Mistress and Music-Theoretical Dispute in Eighteenth-Century France

Callum Blackmore (Columbia University)


The Querelle des Bouffons, that vicious dispute between supporters of French and Italian music, occurred simultaneously with a parallel revolution in operatic style, occurring not on the official operatic stages of the Opéra, but at the Théâtre des Petits Cabinets, the private theater of Louis XV’s official mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour—who served as both its patron and prima donna. The Marquise oversaw a number of key musical innovations associated with the Italian style, including a greater degree of topical variety and a new emphasis on melodic simplicity. 

I suggest a new context for the Querelle: the vocalizing body of de Pompadour, a literal corps sonore. De Pompadour’s vocal lines contain an idiosyncratic system of musical notation, suggesting that the works that she commissioned were tailored to the limitations of her voice. I contend that the royal mistress embraced the more melodic Italian buffa style because it better disguised her vocal shortcomings, while also aspiring towards the stylistic prestige of French tragédie lyrique. Thus, the repertoire of the Petits Cabinets embodied the music-theoretical tensions of the Querelle, questioning the assumed dominance of harmony over melody and the incommensurability of French and Italian styles. 

I read this stylistic tension against the writings of the Marquise’s private physician, François Quesnay, who believed that the royal mistress should embrace a life of rustic simplicity to cure her vocal ailments. The body of de Pompadour thus became a gendered battleground in which music-theoretical debate was indexed onto Enlightenment discourses on nature and luxury. 

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater: Musical Debates and Nationalist Aspirations in Late-Eighteenth-Century Germany

Siavash Sabetrohani (University of Chicago)


Few composers sparked more controversy in the eighteenth century than Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. His short Intermezzo, La serva padrona, famously was at the center of the Querelle des Bouffons, which rocked France at mid-century. Less well known, though, was a controversy caused by his Stabat mater among German listeners, one that involved seemingly parochial issues of meter and text placement. By situating this debate within the cultural-historical context of late 18th-century music theory and aesthetics in Germany, particularly in Berlin, I hope to show that the issues at hand went far beyond surface questions of text setting and phrasing; the discussions betray deep-seated nationalistic sentiments.

The theoretical debate surrounding Pergolesi’s music in the eighteenth century was made possible by a new space of discourse that fundamentally transformed the role of music in society: the public sphere in which musical issues could be debated, particularly in periodicals. In various German periodicals through the end of the century German musicians such as Schulz, Marpurg, Dittersdorf, Forkel, and Spazier engaged in spirited debates over aspects of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater. For example, in response to Schulz calling the work “very erroneous and poor,” Marpurg accused Schulz of bias and ignorance regarding metrical feet in Latin. Marpurg then invoked and ridiculed Schulz’s notoriously conservative teacher Kirnberger. This drawn-out polemic provides a fascinating case study of the way that a seemingly limited problem of music theory can become a subject of discourse in the broader public sphere with larger aesthetic and even political ramifications.

Between Hamburg, Vienna and Paris: Anton Reicha’s Music Theory from the Perspective of his Early Manuscripts

Frank Heidlberger (University of North Texas)


Anton Reicha’s (1770–1836) music theory is commonly associated with his treatises that were published in Paris between 1814 and 1831. Besides this well-known corpus a considerable number of material exists that represent Reicha’s theoretical thinking of the period before he moved permanently to Paris in 1808. It consists of manuscripts for textbooks on harmony, but also of analytical writings and essays about musical expression and compositional aesthetics as well as “example compositions.” Their significance lies in their innovative and at times radical approach to theoretical aspects, along with an idiosyncratic empirical methodology. Aspects of chromatic modulation, irregular and compound meters, unusual phrasing and methods of motivic development are covered in a way that is very unusual for the time of their origin, around 1800. These aspects define Reicha as a composer and theorist who experimented with compositional features that became mainstream for a later generation of composers, such as his students Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt.

In my paper I will focus on the “24 Kompositionen für Klavier” that were accompanied by extensive analytical comments, called “Philosophisch-practische Anmerkungen zu den Beispielen.” I will analyze selected examples and contextualize them to show how they represent a theoretic thinking that was ahead of his time. This includes their possible influence on Ludwig van Beethoven’s compositional development.