Bach and the Style Galant: Progressive Elements in the Italian Concerto

By Maggie Lu
2020, Vol. 12 No. 12 | pg. 1/1


While the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is often characterized by elaborate Baroque counterpoint and a relatively conservative set of aesthetic principles, elements of the emergent galant fashion are exemplified in certain mid-to-late career compositions. The galant style, which increasingly took hold of European music during the central decades of the eighteenth century, represents a simplicity and clarity divergent from the rigorous compositional approach that Bach has become remembered for. One of the most substantial instances of this stylistic progressivity occurs throughout his Italian Concerto, BWV 971. Found in the first half of his 1735 Clavier-Übung II, the work for double-manual harpsichord is permeated by techniques distinctly employed as part of the galant movement. Through an analysis of the work via lenses of textural, harmonic, schematic, organizational, and melodic techniques, this paper sheds light on Bach’s conscious integration of the latest musical fashions into his own output. Though he never sought to abandon his fundamental Baroque values, works such as the Italian Concerto demonstrate the composer as one far from secluded against the newer musical idiom.

As one of the most preeminent composers of the early eighteenth-century, Johann Sebastian Bach is associated most strongly with the height of the Baroque Era. Intricate polyphony and harmonic complexity remained defining characteristics of his style even toward the end of his life – features that were at times the subject of criticism from his own contemporaries. However, despite the view that Bach remained firmly adhered to idioms of the past during the emergence of the style galant, opuses from the composer’s mid-to-late career suggest that he was both capable and willing to adopt elements of the new fashion into select compositions. An instance of this integration occurs in his acclaimed Concerto nach Italienischen Gusto (“Concerto in the Italian taste”), otherwise known as the Italian Concerto, BWV 971. Published in 1735 as the first part of the Clavier-ÜbungII, it is among Bach’s most performed works for the double-manual harpsichord. This paper presents an examination of the piece through the lens of the galant manner, analyzing its incorporation of key traits from this developing style. Such an investigation is contextualized with a discussion of the historical background surrounding the work, surveying evolving artistic trends as well as eighteenth-century attitudes regarding J. S. Bach, contemporary critical discourse, and the “newer” musical fashion. Through these explorations, Bach will be demonstrated as a composer who, though typically linked with conservative values, was aware and receptive to modern stylistic qualities when desired.

Widely used to refer to the eighteenth-century movement in the musical arts, the term “galant” originally stemmed from the French vernacular. By the 1700s, the word entailed a close association with the “French courtly manner,” with a particular “emphasis on social or amatory grace.”1 Contemporaries of Bach – and not only modern historians – were well-acquainted with using “galant” in reference to the musical realm. This practice is in contrast with the designations of “Baroque” or “Classical” as applied to music from the 1700s – nomenclature which was popularized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and used in retrospect for those respective eras.2 However, employing these terms to generalize musical development from approximately 1720 to 1780 suggests somewhat of an oversimplification, compartmentalizing the stylistic fluidity found throughout these decades. As Robert Gjerdingen analogizes, “to call the music of the great galant musicians pre-Classical is no more enlightening than to call George Gershwin pre-Rock or Elvis Presley pre-Hip-Hop.”3 As such, exploring the galant style serves an important role in understanding the vibrant mid-eighteenth-century musical scene, which included celebrated figures such as Johann Christian Bach (the “London Bach”), Giovanni Battista Sammartini, and Johann Adolph Hasse.

Initially popularized in Italian opera during the 1720s, the style galant is characterized by a set of aesthetic values influenced by the naturalistic philosophies of the Enlightenment movement.4 As opposed to the “old contrapuntal virtues” that featured dense polyphony, lengthy harmonic progressions, and interwoven dissonances, the newer style prioritized clarity, elegance, and the immediacy of appeal.5 These attributes were exemplified especially through the “menuet galant” – a genre of instrumental works in the mid-eighteenth century showcasing the increasing importance of noble and “charming decency … united with simplicity.”6 In particular, galant compositions upheld these aesthetic principles through the use of balanced, frequently cadenced phrase structures, thinner textures that prioritized a single melodic line with accompaniment, the integration of popular compositional schemata, as well as slower, aurally lucid harmonic progressions. This treatment of musical parameters signified a gradual shift away from the opaque complexities of the previous era, which was increasingly perceived as contrived and old-fashioned.

The compositional language that Bach is known for today, and which dominated much of his output, represents a contrast with the more “modern” fashions of the galant. His Art of Fugue, which remained unfinished at the end of his life, is one of the epitomal examples of this rigorous, highly intellectual manner of composing. As such, this work has been viewed as emblematic of Bach’s lifelong dedication to “the venerable skills of strict counterpoint, canon, and fugue.”7 While Bach was recognized as an accomplished composer (in addition to his widespread appreciation as an organist), his stylistic tendencies occasionally proved to be the subject of criticism. In 1737, music critic and theorist Johann Adolf Scheibe published a well-known reproach of Bach’s compositional style in the journal Der critische Musikus. He declared that Bach, “by his bombastic and intricate procedures” had “deprived [his music] of naturalness and obscured their beauty by an excess of art.”8 His view that Bach’s oeuvre represented an overload of contrapuntal complexity and artificiality was countered by Johann Abraham Birnbaum, initiating a debate that lasted through the late 1730s and early 1740s. This controversy is especially notable as an embodiment of the “clash of irreconcilable stylistic ideals” 9 that took place throughout Bach’s mid-to-late career. The 1735 Italian Concerto, however, served a pivotal role in compelling Scheibe to reverse his initial statements, reconciling the debate with a stellar review: “Who is there who will not admit at once that this clavier concerto is to be regarded as a perfect model of a well-designed solo concerto? … [it is] a piece which deserves emulation by all our great composers.”10

As evidenced by the Italian Concerto and beyond, Bach’s compositional career was far from stylistically one-dimensional. Throughout his life, he took inspiration from both stile antico traditions and stile moderno mannerisms while absorbing multiple international influences.11 In the 1730s and 40s, particularly, Bach’s desire to expand his artistic horizons was prompted by his dissatisfaction with his local Leipzig and a “heightened awareness of the excellent and varied musical life being cultivated in nearby Dresden.”12 The assimilation of galant traits is one facet of this stylistic synthesis – with notable examples including Cantata 201, Geschwinde, geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde (composed in approximately 1729), certain portions of the Mass in B Minor, and the Coffee Cantata (composed between 1732 and 1735), among others. As such, by the time Bach penned the Italian Concerto, he was by no means unacquainted with integrating elements of the galant style into his own works. Published in 1735, the work marks the beginning of the last decade and a half of his life, a period which demonstrated more “conscious gestures toward the style of a younger generation.”13 The incorporation of fashionable musical idioms in this piece makes further sense when considering its integration as part of the Clavier-Übung II – a publication compiled for widespread dissemination (especially the second and third movements, which were likely written specifically for inclusion in the volume).14 The pairing of the Italian Concerto with the French Overture exemplified Bach’s musical take on the clichéd rivalry of two prevalent styles of the time, both of which had developed in response to the increasingly popular galant style.15 While the music retains Bach’s contrapuntal affinity and sonoric subtleties, it is characterized by a lighter, more modern approach to writing than much of his earlier keyboard works.16 The constituents of the Clavier-Übung II, therefore, can be seen to deliberately showcase qualities meant to appeal – rather directly – to the contemporary forefronts of musical taste.

Throughout the Italian Concerto, elements of the galant style are evident in Bach’s structural, harmonic, textural, and melodic decisions. Phrasal and cadential organization, in particular, constitutes one of the most revealing aspects of Bach’s integration of the latest fashion. As opposed to the freely spun-out, lengthy, and often improvisatory method of expanding thematic material, Bach chose to utilize balanced, clear-cut, and aurally divisible musical segments. This approach is a distinct contrast to the fortspinnung style of the late Baroque, which favoured continuous musical drive characterized by asymmetry and extensive arabesques.17 The opening ritornello of the work presents a clear instance of the galant tendency for well-defined, proportionate phrase structure – the square, four-bar segment is immediately repeated a perfect fifth above, in measures 5-8 (see Example 1). Such distinctive motives, separated decisively by a quarter rest, represent a vivid embodiment of the arithmetic symmetry 18 and clarity sought after in the galant era. In the third movement – written in the popular ritornello form as the first movement – a similar organizational lucidity can be heard. This time, however, elements of progressivity manifest more strikingly on a larger, structural scale. Beginning at measure 155, for instance, Bach incorporates a “more thorough recapitulation of episodic material” that brings to mind the layout of the “through-composed sonata form common in galant concertos of the 1740s and later” (see Example 2).19 Recapitulatory gestures as such in the outer movements produce a heightened clarity in form that was emphasized in the newer style.

Furthermore, a remarkable balance can be seen from Bach’s phrase-to-phrase structural unity. A prominent instance is found at the very beginning of the Presto movement – each musical idea is presented in orderly, four-bar segments, linked together through an audible harmonic and motivic cohesion. The first twelve measures, beginning with the memorable F major scalar motive, is “answered” through the following twelve bars, creating a natural sense of symmetry (see Example 3). This symmetry is heightened when considering measure thirteen’s thematic material, mirroring the introductory idea precisely while forming a resolution to the half cadence of the previous measures. A perfect authentic cadence at bar 24 produces a definitive close to the section (see Example 3). Bars 1-24, then, can be holistically thought of as reminiscent of the structural implications of a parallel period – a formal technique exhibiting hallmarks of the style galant’s affinity for order, architectural elegance, and cadential punctuation.

A defining element of the galant lies in its modest usage of sonorities and a relaxed harmonic rhythm. Whereas Bach’s predominant musical style emphasized complex progressions and interwoven dissonances, the Italian Concerto features simplified harmonic trajectories and clarity when shifting tonalites. The rate of harmonic change is also slowed down, as typical of the newer musical trends.20 While these characteristics emerge throughout all three movements, they are especially woven into the musical fabric of the Andante. Bars 4-7, or the opening periodic theme, is based upon an underlying progression that returns throughout the movement (see Example 4). 21 This short, repeated harmonic underpinning consists of only three chords: i, iv, and vii°7 – a substantial reduction from the lengthy chordal trajectories found in more traditionally Baroque compositions. The harmonic rhythm associated with this recurring theme, furthermore, is at a consistently plodding one-change-per-bar, returning predictably to the tonic sonority with each iteration.

On a larger scale, Bach’s treatment of key-changes and cadences are likewise indicative of the galant manner. The tonicization of F major at measure 27, for example, is preceded by an extensive pedal point on the dominant from bar 19-25 – unambiguously foreshadowing the new key (see Example 5).22 This cadential preparation is a prime example of the galant practice of incorporating “long, expectant” passages leading organically toward “strongly-articulated … points of arrival.” 23 In this case, the well-defined arrival point is established through a formulaic perfect authentic cadence, landing satisfactorily in the relative major. Furthermore, Bach’s assimilation of the newest cadential practices can be seen through his incorporation of popular schemata. In particular, the mi-fa-so-do bass pattern to signify musical closure had become a “prototypical, standard clausula in galant music,” referred to as the cadenza simplice.24 This figuration features at the end of the first movement, from bars 191-192 (see Example 6), serving as a hallmark of the emerging galant idiom.

While counterpoint remains present in the Italian Concerto, Bach takes on a decidedly leaner approach to musical texture. Lightness and clarity in the galant style was favoured over fugal counterpoint; this is evidenced through a transparent divide between melody and accompaniment, as well as a shift towards homophony.25 The use of vertical chordal figures is especially prominent in the first and third movements, with harmonies being presented in a clear-cut, blocked manner from the beginning (see Examples 1 and 3). From measures 30-41, furthermore, Bach utilizes a texture highly representative of galant principles (see Example 7). Here, a sprightly, equally-proportioned melody unfolds over an accompaniment characterized by repeated dyads – a simple figuration emphasizing its role as a harmonic backdrop against a graceful melodic foreground. This thin, yet memorably effective passage is remarkably reminiscent of what could be found in an early Mozartian sonata, effectively embodying the light aesthetic values of the galant. In the Presto, though “the ritornellos are more contrapuntal than those of the first movement,”26 Bach often limits the density of his polyphony to a single voice for each hand. Bars 25-32, for instance, are composed of only two individual lines – a simplified polyphony that is easily heard as a melody with an accompanimental countermelody (see Example 8). The simpler melodic idea is marked forte by Bach (and not by a modern editor), “allowing it to be heard more clearly against the livelier filigree of the other part.”27 This indication is also made possible by the instrumentation of a double-manual harpsichord, allowing clear dynamic distinctions to be made between the manuals. Such a texture emphasizing aural clarity demonstrates the central galant ideal of “disentangling … from fugue, complication and laboured contrivance.”28

More than many of Bach’s other compositions, the concept of melody – as understood in the pre-Classical style – plays a central role in the Italian Concerto. This manifests through the composers’ choice of motivic and intervallic content, as well as a distinct sense of lyricism found particularly in the second movement. The melody of the Andante (see Example 9) is characterized by an expressive, textless melisma that is evocative of operatic arias from the Italian bel canto tradition: an art form perceived as an aesthetic “ideal” of the galant period.29 Moreover, Bach’s melodic writing exhibits a conscious use of succinct, motivic repetition in addition to prototypical schemata. Measures 91-96, for example, feature three iterations of matching motivic content, leading towards a descending Fonte-type gesture (where a brief musical idea in the minor is repeated one step lower in a major mode) in bars 97-98 (see Example 10). This type of configuration can be found in numerous Italian partimenti, and is classified by eighteenth-century theorist Joseph Riepel as a standard galant schema.30 Bach’s usage of “short motivic units”31 and repetition in this passage are further characteristic of the latest musical fashion (see Example 10). From a more microscopic perspective, this progressivity is also reflected in the subtle intervallic organization of the work. Bach deemphasizes “difficult” – and as Robert Marshall puts it – “poignant” intervals common in the Baroque vocabulary, in favour of intuitive, graceful motion and “sweet” vertical combinations such as parallel thirds and sixths. 32 These values are apparent in the ritornellos of the first movement, featuring stepwise parallel thirds (see Example 1), and the pervading, consonant octave-based flourishes in the third movement (Example 3).

While Bach’s compositional style was often viewed as conservative – even archaic – during the emergence of the galant style, certain works from his mid-to-late career demonstrate a capacity for elements of the latest fashion. The Italian Concerto of 1735 presents an exemplary instance of such an inclination, adopting the characteristic galant values of simplicity, elegance, and clarity. These principles manifest through various aspects of the musical fabric, and are evidenced through Bach’s periodic phrasal organization, textural lightening, and permeating harmonic and melodic choices. In addition, the incorporation of galant schemata represents a conscious, creative internalization of the newest musical prototypes. As such, the Italian Concerto sheds light on Bach as a multi-dimensional composer, absorbing idioms and influences from the increasingly popular style galant into his unique compositional language.

Musical Examples

Example 1. First movement, mm. 1-8.

Example 2. Third movement, measure 155 and onwards.

Example 3. Third movement, mm. 1-24.

Example 4. Second movement, mm. 4-7.

Example 5. Second movement, mm. 19-27.

Example 6. First movement, mm. 191-192.

Example 7. First movement, mm. 30-41.

Example 8. Third movement, mm. 25-32.

Example 9. Second movement, mm. 1-12.

Example 10. First movement, mm. 91-98.


Bach, Johann S. Italian Concerto, BWV 971, ed. Carl Ferdinand Beckner. Leipzig:Bach-Gesellschaft and Breitkopf und Härtel, 1853.

Garcia, Federico. “The Nature of Bach’s ‘Italian Concerto’ BWV 971.” Bach 36, no. 1 (2005): 1-24.

Gjerdingen, Robert. Music in the Galant Style. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Heartz, Daniel, and Bruce Alan Brown. “Galant.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 2001.

Marshall, Robert L. “Bach the Progressive: Observations on His Later Works.” The Musical Quarterly 62, no. 3 (1976): 313-57.

Nott, Kenneth. “‘Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden’: Observations on Bach and the ‘Style Galant’.”Bach 23, no. 1 (1992): 3-30.

Schulenberg, David. The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Wolff, Christoph, and Walter Emery. “Bach, Johann Sebastian.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 2001.


1.) . Daniel Heartz and Bruce Brown, “Galant,” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, 2001,

2.) . Robert Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 5.

3.) . Ibid., 5-6.

[4]. Robert Marshall, “Bach the Progressive: Observations on His Later Works,” The Musical Quarterly 62, no. 3 (1976): 329.

5.) . Heartz, “Galant.”

6.) . Ibid.

7.) . Marshall, “Bach the Progressive: Observations on His Later Works,” 343.

8.) . Christoph Wolff and Walter Emery, “Bach, Johann Sebastian” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, 2001,

9.) . Ibid.

10.) . Federico Garcia, “The Nature of Bach’s ‘Italian Concerto’ BWV 971,” Bach 36, no. 1 (2005): 5.

11.) . Marshall, “Bach the Progressive: Observations on His Later Works,” 342.

12.) . Ibid., 354.

13.) . Kenneth Noth, “‘Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden’: Observations on Bach and the ‘Style Galant’,”Bach 23, no. 1 (1992): 28.

14.) . Federico Garcia, “The Nature of Bach’s ‘Italian Concerto’ BWV 971,” 19.

15.) . David Schulenberg, The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach (New York: Routledge, 2007), 348.

16.) . Ibid., 38.

17.) . Marshall, “Bach the Progressive: Observations on His Later Works,” 330.

18.) Ibid.

19.) . Schulenberg, The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach, 351-352.

20.) . Marshall, “Bach the Progressive: Observations on His Later Works,” 330.

21.) . Schulenberg, The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach, 351.

22.) . Ibid.

23.) . Marshall, “Bach the Progressive: Observations on His Later Works,” 331.

[24]. Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style, 141.

25.) . Heartz, “Galant.”

26.) . Schulenberg, The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach, 352.

27.) . Ibid.

28.) . Heartz, “Galant.”

29.) . Ibid.

30.) . Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style, 61.

31.) . Marshall, “Bach the Progressive: Observations on His Later Works,” 353.

32.) . Ibid., 330.

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