Performers, Performances, and Audiences

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Performers, Performances, and Audiences

Composers and Performers.

During the Baroque era Europeans heard music in a number of types of settings, and the music they heard might be produced by a number of different kinds of people. While unwritten popular or folk music existed in abundance, the formal music of the period, which includes most of the musical compositions that survive, was written down by a composer, who was generally not the same person who performed the music. Most composers and professional performers came from one level or another of the middling classes; many of them received specialized training in music at schools known as conservatories. Further, many professional musicians came from families of musicians who passed on their trade. The descendants ofJohann Sebastian Bach provide us with one of the most prolific examples of a family in which many members made their livelihoods from serving as court and church musicians. The Bach family, by the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, had already produced more than a dozen family members who pursued careers as professional musicians. Johann Sebastian Bach's own children kept this legacy alive, and their descendants continued to work as performers and composers into the nineteenth century. Fathers might train both sons and daughters for a life in musical service, as the Mozart family demonstrated. While women faced greater obstacles to pursuing a life as a professional musician, the church did provide employment for many female musicians. Often female vocalists were married to organists and composers, and they sometimes served in churches or at courts alongside their husbands. Both composers and performers might hold any of a number of types of positions during their career, including simply doing freelance work for a single performance. If they held a long-term position, they were often employed by people of higher social status. That is, musicians would be part of the staff of a court headed by a noble family, or they might be members of the staff of a major church. Therefore, Baroque composers wrote most of their major works because that work was commissioned by their employers for a special occasion, and not simply because the composer felt creative, as one might expect of artistic production today. Operas, for instance, were highly commercial works, composed under contract in a great hurry. The modern world is full of recorded music, so it is worth remembering that every performance of any kind during the Baroque era required a human presence. Thus paid musicians were present at more public and social occasions than is now the case; and those who wanted to listen to music in their private leisure time hired musicians if they were very wealthy, attended particular performances such as religious services or the theater, or produced the music themselves, perhaps with friends.

Music at Court.

During the seventeenth century, political developments in continental Europe heightened the power of the central ruler in many European states, and centralized authority in royal courts. The model for many of these centralizations of power was the French court of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715). His opulent court, founded at Versailles outside Paris, served as an ideal by the late seventeenth century and was imitated by many princely courts throughout Europe. These courts were often important sources of employment for musicians in those regions where cities were relatively few and small, particularly in Central Europe. In Germany, for example, a rich musical life developed throughout the countryside as princes and nobles competed against each other to develop court cultures that displayed their wealth and taste. Entering into the service of a prince as a court musician or a Kapellmeister ("Chapel Master") provided relative security. This last category of employment frequently included many duties, such as overseeing the prince's chapel choir and instrumental musicians, composing music for both sacred and secular occasions, and providing entertainment at court functions. Such positions usually provided a salary, a residence, and other allowances for one's upkeep. While some nobles and princes had little interest in music, many others had extensive musical educations. Some were very skilled amateur performers and composers who often tended to their court musical establishments with particular care. The small court of Cöthen in central Germany is a good example of the ways in which court orchestras sometimes grew. Cöthen was a relatively modest court by German standards that had no court musicians until 1707, when its young Prince Leopold convinced his mother, then the regent, to appoint three professionals. As Leopold matured and traveled throughout Europe in the years that followed, he gained a musical education; when he returned home in 1714, Leopold took over the reins of Cöthen's government. He used his newfound power to found an orchestra that had eighteen musicians by 1716. In these years Leopold took advantage of the disbanding of the court orchestra at Berlin, inviting its Kapellmeister and many of its musicians to take positions in his newly expanded musical establishment. In 1717, this director resigned, and Leopold appointed Johann Sebastian Bach as his new Kapellmeister. At Cöthen, the young composer flourished for more than four years in an environment in which performance quality and the ensemble's professionalism were both of a high standard. He was expected to provide music for Leopold's church services and court entertainments, and he seems to have developed a close relationship with his amateur employer. He even accompanied the prince with a small ensemble on a trip to the spa town of Carlsbad. Yet the circumstances that surrounded Bach's departure from Cöthen also reveal a darker dimension of court musical life. In 1721, Leopold married his cousin, Friderica, who had little interest in music, and in the months following the wedding the prince's ardor for his musical establishment waned. Soon Johann Sebastian Bach left Cöthen for another, more attractive position. While employment as a Kapellmeister was generally secure, it was still subject to the vagaries of a princely patron's tastes, his continuing devotion, and the health of his purse.

The Church.

The Church was also another venerable source of employment for professional musicians and composers in the Baroque world. Music was common in all the churches of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, although the Protestant Reformation had affected the use of music, producing very different kinds of musical forms in Protestant Europe than those that flourished in Catholic countries. By the seventeenth century the kind of music that was heard in churches varied according to religious confessions. In Catholic churches priests regularly chanted the mass and other liturgical services. Catholics might hear an organ as part of religious services, and on special occasions, more elaborate performances with choirs and other instruments. Lutherans kept the basic order of the traditional mass in the local language in their churches, adding hymns or chorales sung by the whole congregation and led by a choir. The scope of Lutheran service music was often quite impressive, and in the largest churches of Germany, organs and other instruments often accompanied the singing of choir and congregation. By contrast, the religious reforms of Calvinists generally downplayed ritual and shunned too great a reliance on religious music in church services. Calvinists focused instead on psalms sung to simple tunes that kept attention on the text. Yet even though religious considerations continued to shape the music that was performed in church, neither a noble interested in hiring a musician for his court chapel, nor a city church making an appointment to one of its important musical positions, typically hired only those who shared their religious beliefs. A Protestant noble might well hire a Catholic composer or vice versa, but the composer would write music to suit the religious observance of his patron rather than himself. Thus the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries present us with numerous examples of Catholic composers who created music intended for performance in Protestant churches, as well as the reverse. For example George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) had a position early in his career as organist at the Calvinist cathedral in Halle, although he was a Lutheran. A few years later he moved to Rome and wrote oratorios for Catholic performances there; whereas in England, where he spent most of his professional career, Handel wrote oratorios and other works to be presented in Anglican churches.


introduction: The career of a composer might include a number of different types of gainful employment, including organist, choirmaster, and courtier. Each kind of position brought unique advantages and unique burdens. When Johann Sebastian Bach accepted his position at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, he undertook responsibility not only for rehearsing the choirs and composing music for them to sing, but also many other tasks particular to the running of a school. Here is the agreement Bach signed, accepting his new responsibilities.

Their worships, the Council of this town of Leipzig, having accepted me to be Cantor of the School of St. Thomas, they have required of me an agreement as to certain points, namely:

  1. That I should set a bright and good example to the boys by a sober and secluded life, attend school, diligently and faithfully instruct the boys.
  2. And bring the music in the two chief churches of this town into good repute to the best of my ability.
  3. Show all respect and obedience to their worships the Council, and defend and promote their honor and reputation to the utmost, and in all places; also, if a member of the Council requires the boys for a musical performance, unhesitatingly to obey, and besides this, never allow them to travel into the country for funerals or weddings without the foreknowledge and consent of the burgomaster in office, and the governors of the school.
  4. Give due obedience to the inspectors and governors of the school in all they command in the name of the Worshipful Council.
  5. Admit no boys into the school who have not already the elements of music or who have no aptitude for being instructed therein, nor without the knowledge and leave of the inspectors and governors.
  6. To the end that the churches may not be at unnecessary expense I should diligently instruct the boys not merely in vocal but in instrumental music.
  7. To the end that good order may prevail in those churches I should so arrange the music that it may not last too long, and also in such wise as that it may not be operatic, but incite the hearers to devotion.
  8. Supply good scholars to the New Church.
  9. Treat the boys kindly and considerately, or, if they will not obey, punish such in moderation or report them to the authority.
  10. Faithfully carry out instruction in the school and whatever else it is my duty to do.
  11. And what I am unable to teach myself I am to cause to be taught by some other competent person without cost or help from their worships the Council, or from the school.
  12. That I should not quit the town without leave from the burgomaster in office.
  13. Should follow the funeral processions with the boys, as is customary, as often as possible.
  14. And take no office under the University without the consent of their worships.

And to all this I hereby pledge myself, and faithfully to fulfill all this as is here set down, under pain of losing my place if I act against it, in witness of which I have signed this duplicate bond, and sealed it with my seal.

Given in Leipzig, May 5, 1723

source: Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach. Trans. C. Bell and J. A. Fuller-Maitland, III (London, 1885): 301–302.

Amateur Musicianship.

The music most people heard in their own homes was music that they produced themselves. The ability to sing or to play for oneself and one's friends had long been seen as a mark of a lady or a gentleman. Many musical instruments were quite expensive, such as the lute or keyboard instruments, so owning one was a mark of some prosperity. A few of Europe's greatest political leaders, such as Frederick the Great of Prussia (r. 1740–1786), were well known for their devotion to music. Though Frederick could and did hire professional performers and composers, he became a skilled performer and gave concerts at court for his own enjoyment, just as the youthful King Louis XIV of France had once publicly showed off his skills as a dancer in ballets. One undeniable trend throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the rise of musicianship among the middle classes. In these decades more and more middle-class people studied and played music as a leisure pursuit, enough that their love for it led to the use of the term "amateur." Printed music added to the expense of amateur musicianship, but thanks to advances in printing technology, it became less expensive during this era. More people could afford to buy sheet music of the latest works of popular composers, and perform them at home for themselves and with friends. Composers sometimes wrote smaller works with this amateur market in mind, and music publishers made some of their money this way as well. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a number of works intended for sophisticated amateurs to perform on keyboard instruments as well as the lute, one of the most common instruments in European households. Similarly, Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) continued this tradition in the later eighteenth century, publishing reams of works for keyboard and small ensembles that could be performed both in great houses and in the more modest confines of middle-class homes.

Paid Performances.

Although amateur musicianship points to the rise of an increasingly educated and discriminating musical public, the Baroque era also saw the development of the system that we know today of public performances before paying audiences. This innovation stood in contrast to the private performances that were organized at courts before audiences of invited guests. During the early decades of the opera's development, works had by and large been commissioned by noble patrons and had been performed in the palaces of Italy's princes and aristocrats. By the mid-seventeenth century, though, commercial opera halls had begun to appear. The first of these new venues, the Teatro S. Cassiano, was founded in Venice in 1637 to perform musical spectacles before paying patrons. At the time of its founding, the Teatro S. Cassiano was a risky venture, but one that soon paid handsome dividends for the entrepreneurs who invested in the scheme. By the early 1640s eight professional productions were being performed in the house each year. Such opera halls soon were built in other parts of Europe, first in France, and then in the German-speaking world. Outside Italy, though, many of these institutions could not flourish commercially without princely support, and although these halls were open to a paying public, they generally had a wealthy clientele. One exception to this trend, however, was the Theater am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg. Unlike the royal opera houses of Paris, Vienna, or Stockholm, the Hamburg theater was founded as a commercial venture by a group of local citizens that desired to promote the writing of operas in German, an innovation at a time when most of the operas performed in the German-speaking world were composed in Italian. By 1700, operas performed before paying audiences were an established feature of the musical life of many large European cities. In the next decades, paid public performances of instrumental music appeared in many European cities as well. London seems to have been in the vanguard of those eighteenth-century cities that developed a vigorous concert-going tradition. At the end of the seventeenth century a number of amateur musical societies in the English capital began to offer concerts before paying audiences, and by the early eighteenth century the best of these groups were selling weekly subscriptions. The price of these subscription tickets was high in order to attract an exclusive crowd. Within a few years the most successful of these groups had taken up residence in concert halls, where they performed throughout the season. George Frideric Handel proved to be one major force on the development of these ensembles, and his sense of his audience's expectations helped to raise the professional standards of these concerts. Performing in one of London's instrumental ensembles was still not a full-time occupation, as it is in the modern symphony orchestra. But these new public performances provided professional musicians with a way to augment their income. Pleasing the public, not only a few noble patrons, thus became important to the careers of more and more musicians. Although London's concert scene was among the most precocious in Europe, public performances and concert halls were by the mid-eighteenth century becoming a fixture in many European cities.


Lorenzo Bianconi, Music in the Seventeenth Century. Trans. David Bryant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Lorenzo Bianconi and Giorgio Pestelli, Opera Production and Its Resources. Trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Ellen Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley; Oxford: University of California Press, 1991).

David Schulenberg, Music of the Baroque (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).