Oxford University Press has published Professor Robert Gjerdingen's book Music in the Galant Style. The 528-page book sheds new light on the work of composers in the time of Bach and Mozart. Gjerdingen details how, instead of being struggling artists alone against the world, composers were prosperous civil servants, adroitly managing their aristocratic patrons‚ musical enterprises and producing new music with an eye towards fashion. Gjerdingen also discusses compositional practices of the time, which were based on improvisation, and how these practices were taught and learned.

In the galant era, powerful courtiers played a major role in shaping both musical styles and musicians. Courtiers commissioned music to educate and entertain themselves as listeners and amateur performers, and to glorify themselves as patrons of the most sophisticated and fashionable music that money could buy. Composers were required to produce large quantities of music for immediate consumption, manage the performances and performers, and evaluate the reception of their work at court.

As boys, many composers had been trained in a form of improvisation, where they learned to extemporize complete pieces from single bass lines. The apex of this method was practiced in the conservatories of Naples. Graduates became the most sought-after composers in Europe, with even Mozart and his father traveling to Naples to study the method. Gjerdingen‚s book is the first to describe some of these Neapolitan techniques.

Just as knowing how to bow or curtsy was a requirement for a courtier, so a composer had to know the approved repertory of musical gestures and phrases on which to improvise. Gjerdingen reveals the repertory of phrases that served as the fundamental building blocks of galant compositions. For each model phrase, he outlines its characteristic melodic, contrapuntal, harmonic, and metric features, presenting cases of its use in actual compositions of the period, including examples that embellish or deviate from the stock pattern.


  • Robert Gjerdingen