Empfindsamer stil

In the 18th century, there arose a manner of composition which has come to be called the "Empfindsamer Stil."  The term can be translated as the "Sensitive Style" or the "Style of Sensibility," but however translated it must be interpreted as a style in which emotion is valued above all.  It was centered around the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam (Berlin) and its chief practitioner was Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach.

The sensitive style never aimed at the fashionable, broad audience of the "style galant."  It was a personal, subjective, eccentric style of angular melodies in which appoggiaturas stuck out like knobby protuberances, in which rhythmic hiatuses catch the breath, in which metrical oddities subject similar phrases to different emphases -- in which the only expectation is the unexpected.

Since it speaks so personally, its fullest expression is to be found in the sonata and other forms for keyboard solo.  Since it speaks so forcefully, its influence is best to be seen in the works of the Viennese masters later in the century.  One of the few outstanding masters of the style "Empfindsamkeit" is Jiri (Georg) Benda (1722-95).  In 1757 Benda published a set of six sonatas for keyboard, described by Charles Burney as "very elegant," as well as "in the style of Emanuel Bach."  This set is perhaps the smallest yet most comprehensive compendium of the sensitive style.

The composers using this style preserve complete flexibility in the creation of phrase structure, for while they occasionally resort to the short-breathed utterances of the style galant, they more frequently enjoy binding together longer melodies, often extending to six bars, sometimes to eight.  They delight in connecting odd lengths of note groupings to create asymmetry in which a phrase of six quarter notes is balanced by a phrase of eight.  They preserve the Baroque use of hemiola (three in the time of two).  They tend to write angular melodies in which there is greater than usual predominance of leaps over steps.

The style galant aimed at quality of grace that would complement the mannered world of the 18th century.  It remained an art of surface -- of appearance.  It could not avoid emotional content, but the range of that content was limited to those emotions which could readily be displayed in public and which were fashionable.  The "galanterie" avoided the tragic, the uncouth, the shocking, and the humorous.  The adherents of "Empfindsamkeit" possessed, and at times restricted themselves to, all the refinements of "galanterie," but their inclination lay in the expansion of music's means, and thus, in the development of music's power of expression.  Its echoes resound through the century, reemerging around 1770 under the guise of "Sturm und Drang" in the Viennese composers.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-84) is the third of the most important masters of the sensitive style, along with his brother Emanuel and Jiri Benda.  Despite his reputation and early success, Friedemann had few pupils of note.  Emanuel, on the other hand, exerted a most profound influence upon Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.