Reflecting Back to the 18th Century

Our current tumultuous times cause me to reflect back on music from the 18th century’s period of Sturm und Drang. The sky here in Western Washington these days often matches the mood.

Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) began as a movement in German literature and music in the late 1760s–early 1780s in which individual subjectivity and, in particular, extremes of emotion were given free expression, in reaction to the perceived constraints of rationalism imposed by the Enlightenment. It took its name from the play Sturm und Drang by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger (1776), in which the author gave violent expression to difficult emotions and extolled individuality and subjectivity over rationalism.

Goethe’s sentimental novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774) — a story of the hopelessness, torment, and eventual suicide of a young man who loved his best friend’s wife — is the best-known example of literary Sturm und Drang.

The most prominent feature of Sturm und Drang in music was its use of minor keys, each of which was believed to have its own properties or “characteristics.”  (Minor keys stood out in a musical style that predominantly employed “happy” major keys.)

Today I’d like to explore the key of D minor, which was said by contemporaries to be “extremely melancholy and gloomy” (1796); “melancholy and horrible” (1827), “a ghost must speak in d minor” (1828), “brooding, passionate state” (1835), “melancholic depression and lament of the oppressed, though not powerless soul” (1837).

When Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) wished to deploy the Furies in his opera Orphée et Euridice (Paris, 1774), he chose the key of D minor, as well as the tempo of Presto, to scare the bejeebers out of his audience. The slashing strings (think of all those flailing pointed Baroque bows!) inflict cut after tortuous cut.

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra conducted by Paul Dyer

For his symphony entitled La casa del diavolo (The House of the Devil, Op. 12, No. 4, from 1771) Luigi Boccherini chose the same key. To create the majesty of Hades in the slow introduction of the third and final movement he used the dotted rhythm of the Baroque French overture. The movement’s Allegro con molto makes one wonder whether Gluck knew this work when he composed his Dance of the Furies.

Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss conducted by Johannes Goritzki
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FZ7vKqTJV0 (from 9:00 onwards)

(The entire Boccherini symphony is well worth a listen.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s use of key characteristics is already evident when he was very young. As he developed as a composer, his exploitation of keys as signifiers became more and more important to him — in the operas to describe dramatic situations in the plot, the characters’ personalities, and their emotions at particular moments.

Mozart, whom the writer, composer, and music critic, E. T. A. Hoffmann considered the first of the Romantic composers, employed the key of D minor frequently and effectively.

In the Fantasie in D minor, K. 397 (1782), Mozart begins in an improvisatory style, reinforced by the performer’s use of moderator pedal (at the opening), flexible tempi, extreme changes in dynamics, extra ornamentation, double dotting, and dramatic sweeping gestures. However, joy eventually triumphs over tragedy, as the piece closes with a dance-like/opera buffa section, with further ornamental additions by the performer, as was expected in the day.

Kristian Bezuidenhout, on a replica of an Anton Walter fortepiano, Vienna, ca. 1795https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xl5AzB9nhg

Repeating vs. thrusting soft strings, punctuated by sustained brass and woodwinds notes, yielding to sighs and then an outburst, create an ominous soundscape in the first movement of Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto. K. 466 (1785), into which the fragile solo piano enters with its own material, but soon is subsumed by the orchestra. In our performance the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan is joined by Robert Levin, who adds embellishments, accompanies the orchestra in adherence to continuo practices, and improvises his own wild cadenzas on the spot.


In Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787) D minor is the key of vengeance. Don Anna sings in this key, in mourning over the death of her father, the Commendatore, who is killed by Don Giovanni (in the first scene!) when he comes to the rescue of his daughter, whom Don Giovanni has been trying to rape. Appropriately, it is also the initial key of the opera’s overture and of the final scene, when a marble statue of the Commendatore from his grave comes to life to punish Don Giovanni, ushering him into hell as the Furies fly about.

Mozart called this opera a drama giocoso, a tragedy/comedy, and one hears this contrast with the major-key section of the overture.  Here is a performance of the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni by the Concentus Musicus Wien, conducted by Nickolaus Harnoncourt.


For the final scene of Don Giovanni we’ll abandon period instruments for a moment and turn to Milo Forman’s film Amadeus. The statue invites Don Giovanni to shake his hand, while Leporello, Don Giovanni’s “side-kick,” wisely hides under the table (which is where I’d be!).


(For further discussion of “Tonality in Mozart’s Don Giovanni,” see

In his Singspiel The Magic Flute, Mozart set the Queen of the Night’s aria “Der Hölle Rache” in D minor.

In Ingmar Bergman’s splendid film of this opera (in Swedish), the coloratura soprano Birgit Nordin nails it, in a scary, full-voiced performance with razor sharp high notes, as she beckons her innocent daughter, Pamina, to take a dagger and kill her father, Sarastro, who embodies all that is benevolent (philosophically, the superstitious Baroque vs. the rationality of the Enlightenment).

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro Todesschmerzen,
So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr:Verstossen sei auf ewig,
Verlassen sei auf ewig,
Zertrümmert sei’n auf ewig
Alle Bande der Natur.Wenn nicht durch dich Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört, Rachegötter, hört der Mutter Schwur!
Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart,
Death and despair blaze about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel the pains of death,
Then you will be, no!, my daughter nevermore:Disowned be you forever,
Abandoned be you forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature.If not through you Sarastro will turn pale!
Hear, gods of revenge, hear the mother’s oath!

D minor is also the key of the Requiem on which Mozart was working when he died. Here are the majestic fugal Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy on us) and the Hieronymus-Bosch-like Dies irae (Day of judgment).

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the Monteverdichor Würzburg, conducted by Matthias Becker
(start at 4:51 and 7:24, respectively)

I’m afraid my music this week has done nothing to beguile your cares, but perhaps has given welcome expression to our collective Sturm und Drang! In closing, now let me recommend a hopeful, calming work in the traditional pastoral key of F major, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, Op. 68 (1807–08), the Pastoral.  Here is the first movement, entitled “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside,” in a sprightly performance by Roy Goldman and The Hanover Band. Its repetitious motives lull us into its country mood, as do its droning “bagpipe” pedal points and piping woodwinds.