Overview of Music
A Period of Greatness.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries European music underwent a series of dramatic changes. The beginnings of these transformations can be traced to a climate of experimentation that appeared in the later Renaissance, a time in which humanist intellectuals and musicians desired to revive the emotional power and force that they sensed had existed in the music of Antiquity. The experiments in new musical styles these figures helped to inspire produced the phenomenon of modern "classical" music—a repertory of serious works that are studied by well-trained musicians and which continue to be played before audiences. Opera and the tradition of public concert-going both trace their origins to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The modern orchestra—a collection of diverse, but complementary families of instruments—underwent a long period of maturation in these years as well. The development of the orchestra inspired new creativity in the writing of instrumental music, producing musical forms like the symphony and the concerto. Other instrumental ensembles, like the string quartet, nourished the development of smaller and more intimate forms of chamber music, forms that continue to have many admirers today. When modern listeners enjoy the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they find a sound that at once seems more familiar to them than the music of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. The sense that this era's music is at once more "modern" than that of earlier periods derives from the fact that much of the music written in this time has similar harmonic structures and uses a system of tonality or keys that continues to be dominant in Western music in the contemporary world. But the modern ear also feels at home in the world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because of the musical forms that composers used in these years to organize their compositions. These diverse musical genres—which stretched from the popular aria da capo form used in the opera to the stately and sophisticated outlines of the late eighteenth-century symphony—have continued to inspire music written in the last two centuries. Many of these forms provide Western classical music with its enduring appeal, an appeal that stems from this music's ready intelligibility, intellectual sophistication, and harmonic and inventive beauty.
Origins of the Baroque.
The forces that first produced a distinctive Baroque style began to appear in Italy in the years around 1600. The elements of the Baroque sound developed from the experiments of composers, musicians, and men of letters, many of whom were deeply affected by the culture of Renaissance humanism and its love of classical Antiquity. In Florence and other Italian cities groups of performers and intellectuals pioneered ways in which contemporary music might shape the human emotions, a power these figures realized had frequently been celebrated in ancient authors. Their experiments soon gave birth to a new musical style that became known as a "new" or "second" musical practice, in opposition to music of the "first practice"—music that derived from older Renaissance conventions. Music of this "second practice" was monodic; it consisted of a single melodic line set against a complementary accompaniment (often called the thorough bass or a basso continuo) that did not compete with the words that performers sung, but rather enhanced the emotional expression of the chosen text. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries music of this "second practice" continued to co-exist alongside older Renaissance traditions. Thus the term "Baroque music" generally refers to music from around 1600 until about 1750 that stemmed from either of these two practices. The "first practice," or the established tradition of Renaissance music, was mainly polyphonic in nature. A composition was made up of several musical lines or voices that sounded simultaneously but moved independently; with each line fairly similar in its importance to the overall sound of the composition. These voices would come together harmonically at key points in the work, called a cadence. The art of writing in this style was called counterpoint, since the composer's task involved placing one note against another. Contrapuntal style continued to develop during the Baroque era and it remained important well into the nineteenth century. At the same time, music of the "second practice" took vocal music as its standard. Inventors of this "second practice" helped to shape the early opera, an art form whose appearance around 1600 has often been said to mark the beginning of the Baroque period.
The Rise of Opera.
The form that we know today as opera first began to coalesce out of the experiments of late Renaissance musicians and composers to emulate the power of ancient music and drama. The first operas were staged in Florence in the years around 1600, but soon the genre spread to other cities, including Mantua and Rome. At first an elite form of courtly entertainment, the opera soon began to acquire many admirers outside the narrow confines of aristocratic society. In 1637, the first public theater for the performance of opera was founded at Venice, and within a few years the city had become home to a number of opera theaters. Like the courtly entertainments of the previous generations, these new public opera houses staged productions that included a healthy dose of spectacle. Lavish production standards, costly stage machinery, and other elements common to the theatrical world of the time soon found their way into the overheated commercial atmosphere of Italy's public opera houses, and helped to sustain opera's rising popularity. To make their performances pay, the troupes that performed in these houses often took their productions on tour, helping to establish a taste for opera in many Italian cities, and by the mid-seventeenth century, in many places in Northern Europe as well. Opera was at once the quintessential example of Baroque musical tastes. It elevated vocal music by supporting new high standards of solo performance and it expressed the Baroque age's preoccupation with emotional states and with music's power to shape one's internal spiritual experience. But as it traveled to new places in Europe, opera often acquired regional features. In France, for instance, Italian opera was initially resisted. But soon, Jean-Baptiste Lully, an Italian by birth but French in his tastes, adapted the form for French courtly audiences. To satisfy his audiences, he included a healthy dose of ballet in his works and relied on texts that fit with the country's elevated dramatic traditions. As opera spread elsewhere in Europe, other regional variations developed, but by the eighteenth century, the art form was still dominated by Italian customs and traditions. Although not the source of every musical innovation of the Baroque period, the world of opera supplied the Baroque musical world with many of its popular musical forms and conventions. In France, the dance suites and ballets that accompanied operas helped to fix the confines and conventions of Baroque instrumental musical forms like the suite and the French overture. In Italy, the sinfonia, an overture form consisting of parts that were played fast, then slow, and then fast, left its mark on the early development of the symphony. The writing for the human voice that opera pioneered also affected music written for instruments, as composers of music for the violin, flute, and other solo instruments frequently adapted the conventions of vocal music from the operatic world to instrumental forms. They drew on popular operatic forms like the air, or aria, to give shape to compositions written for woodwinds and strings.
Whatever its geographic origin, a great deal of Baroque music shared a rhetorical sensibility. Music of this period often displayed certain common traits of expression that were based originally in speech and drama. For many musicians and theorists throughout the Baroque period, vocal music was the highest expression of art. When many composers purported to write music in general it is often clear that in fact they had vocal music in mind. They agreed that a good musical setting for a text was one that respected the character of the language; that matched musical accents with those of the words; that followed the language's natural cadence; and that amplified the emotional content of the idea being expressed. Instrumental music of the Baroque era often shows a similar sensibility, with musical phrases constructed in ways reminiscent of verbal ones and voices that answered one another in a conversational sort of way. While speech was a very important model in Baroque music, other human activities were significant as well, most notably dance. Dance was such a central feature to much of court life, especially in France, that the patterns and rhythms of the dances of this era found their way into far more music than was ever intended for actual dancing.
Composers and Audience.
While the opera house represented a new commercial venue for musical performance, many of the settings in which Baroque music was performed remained unchanged from previous centuries. Churches, for example, were important sites for hearing major new compositions. The choirmaster or organist at a major church was a position of prominence and importance for a composer, and the hiring for these positions was very competitive. Johann Sebastian Bach and many other composers held church positions that required them to serve not only as composer but also as organist, choir director, and even schoolmaster. The confessional differences established during the Reformation remained in place, so that the religious music in Calvinist regions (where organ music itself might be frowned upon) differed distinctly from Catholic areas that kept Latin masses. Lutheran regions developed and kept their own traditions of hymn singing as well. Other sorts of performances, however, differed little between religious factions, such as court music. Major nobles, inspired especially by the examples of prominent royal patrons like Louis XIV of France (r. 1643–1715) or Frederick the Great of Prussia (r. 1740–1786), kept composers in full-time residence at their courts along with staffs of musicians. Given the increasingly high levels of education and social standing among composers of the era, many came to chafe under the restrictions of this kind of employment. Often court musicians were treated little better than domestic servants. When Johann Sebastian Bach tried to leave one court position he held early in his career to take another, his employer responded by having him jailed for a month. Similar cases of high-handed and arbitrary treatment of musicians by noble patrons abound in the annals of the age. The most successful composers—men like George Frideric Handel, Josef Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—found ways of gradually freeing themselves from the restrictions of their court positions. At the same time, court employment provided composers with both a secure salary and a high profile, and these positions continued to be highly sought after by musicians throughout the period. Other commercial venues besides the opera house were just beginning to appear for musicians during the eighteenth century. The selling of subscriptions to concerts of instrumental music, a practice that first appeared in London at the end of the seventeenth century, soon spread to more and more European cities in the course of the eighteenth. But for most performers, playing in an orchestral ensemble for public performances did not provide a steady source of income, as it does for many of the best musicians in the modern world. By contrast, much music was still performed by amateurs, and amateur musicianship, in fact, seems to have expanded dramatically during the Baroque era. This change provided a steady source of income for Europe's best composers. As Europe's ranks of amateur musicians swelled throughout the era, astute composers like Antonio Vivaldi, Handel, and Georg Philipp Telemann produced a steady stream of works that were intended, not only for students learning to sing or play instruments, but for amateurs who performed at home for themselves and their friends. An ever-expanding music publishing industry supported this appetite for music intended for amateur performers, even as it helped to spread knowledge throughout the continent of the latest changes in styles and innovations in musical genres and to sustain many composers.
The Age of Great Composers.
By the early eighteenth century, the various styles, genres, and career paths of the Baroque era were all clearly established, and in the course of the decades that followed, a number of composers rose to prominence that became masters of all the existing styles and forms of composition. George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), who moved from Germany to England, established himself as a fixture in the musical landscape of his adopted country. He serves as one of the most famous examples of the ways in which the great Baroque composers practiced their art. He is best known as a vocal composer, with a long list of notable operas, oratorios, anthems, and other vocal works large and small to his name; he also excelled as an instrumental composer. His works included various compositions for the new combination of strings and winds that was taking shape in the development of the orchestra. His contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), enjoyed a distinguished reputation during his life, but an even greater one some time after his death. He too wrote vocal music, at times producing a cantata each week. But he also produced music in nearly every form that was common in the period, with the notable exception of opera. Yet Handel and Bach are only two of the most famous examples of great Baroque virtuosi. In Italy, Antonio Vivaldi, known in his own day as the "red priest," produced some 500 concertos during his lifetime, as well as a cavalcade of highly successful operas, and works for the church, the keyboard, and small instrumental ensembles. Baroque audiences and patrons demanded a constant stream of "new" music, and the sheer output of Europe's composers in this era still manages to astound even musical specialists of the period. To satisfy the demands of musical commerce and patronage, composers were expected to work quickly, sometimes to produce an entire opera or oratorio in the space of only a few weeks. Certainly given these conditions not all music of the era was of a high standard, yet numerous great masterpieces continue to survive from these years in the modern repertory.
Changes in the Mid-Eighteenth Century.
In mid-eighteenth century Italy, and somewhat later in Northern Europe, new tastes began to produce changes in musical styles. Increasingly, composers began to experiment with both old and new idioms in ways that led to subtle or dramatic changes in music. At this time, for instance, Johann Sebastian Bach devoted significant attention to reviving the older musical practices of strict counterpoint. Although his attention in his later works to these traditional features of Baroque music has often been treated as a sign of his "old-fashioned" nature, the innovations and insights that he brought to these older styles was, in fact, one sign of the changing tastes of the mid-eighteenth century. By 1750, these changes meant that the Baroque period had largely drawn to a close. In the years that followed, Europe's composers split off in a number of distinctly different directions. Some developed a courtly style, a musical language that became truly international after 1750, and which has often been called the "Galant Style." This new way of composing compositions emphasized elegance and a light touch, and found a ready entrance into many aristocratic circles where Rococo fashions in architecture and the visual arts were also popular at the time. Other composers, like Bach's accomplished son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, developed a "Sensitive Style" that was intended to evoke a range of human emotions. Still others grew interested in the abilities of orchestral groups to produce a wide range of variations in loudness and softness (dynamic range) as well as tone color. The court of Mannheim in the German southwest became widely known in this era for its famous orchestra. Mannheim was one important center that favored music that made use of the new broad range of dynamic contrasts the orchestra now offered, and although it was a relatively small court, the compositions of its many accomplished composers exerted a significant influence over musical tastes throughout Europe. The features described by modern scholars as "classical" that soon appeared in this period also found appeal with many composer of the age. This classical style favored careful melodic lines, broken-chord bass (in opposition to the longstanding Baroque use of basso continuo) and attention to balance and symmetry in musical composition. Josef Haydn (1732–1809), after experimenting with the Galant and Sensitive styles, adopted this musical language, and his massive output of compositions created new standards of elegance, balance, and proportion in the music of the later eighteenth century. His efforts also helped to establish the symphony as one of the dominant musical forms of the age. The way that Haydn led was soon elaborated upon and perfected in the works of Mozart, who brought the Classicism of the later eighteenth century to its highest point of expression. Hadyn, Mozart, and the other composers who favored this "Viennese Classicism," as it has since become known, helped to forge a new international musical language that became accepted in many parts of Europe in the final years of the century.
End of an Era.
The equipoise (a state of equilibrium) that is brilliantly displayed in the great symphonies and concertos of the late eighteenth century, though, was to prove short-lived. Political and social changes touched off by the French Revolution after 1789 left their marks on the musical culture of the late eighteenth-century, disrupting in many parts of Europe the patronage of the nobility that had long been a significant spur to musical creativity. In Vienna and other European musical centers many composers began to experiment with new sounds and styles. These trends can be seen in the works that composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven wrote during the 1790s. Schooled for a time by Haydn, Beethoven soon broke free from the classical musical language of the age to exploit a great range of sounds and effects that the orchestra and the now popular piano offered. In contrast to the composers of the Baroque era, Beethoven's career also displays a key change in musical sensibilities at the very end of the eighteenth century. For generations, vocal music had been the standard by which music in Europe had been judged, and vocal music had served as a continual source of inspiration for many forms of instrumental music. Although figures like Beethoven wrote vocal music, it was their instrumental compositions that exerted a powerful hold over the imagination of the developing Romantic audience. The increasing importance of instrumental music arose from new ways of thinking about art, ways that held that human emotions could be best represented in music that was free from the longstanding tie to words and the human voice. Music, these new sensibilities taught, represented a realm of pure abstraction, a realm that might evoke the world of the spirit more effectively than poetic texts and the performance of a singer. The appearance of these ideas, and the forceful examples of composers like Beethoven who exploited them, helped to dissolve the classical era's aesthetic and to produce yet another major change in Europe's musical style around 1800.