The era from roughly 1600 to about 1750 has in retrospect been called the Baroque period in European history. The creativity among musicians during this age paralleled new ideas in science, politics and economics embodied in the Scientific Revolution. In art and architecture as well as in music, the Baroque began in Italy. Many great works of art had been made in Renaissance Italy, among them the Pietà sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica and the decoration of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and those created in the Vatican by Raphael.
The theatricality of the Baroque period’s art can be seen in the works of the Italian sculptor and architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), who served no less than eight popes in his lifetime. Bernini’s life-size marble sculpture of the Biblical David (1623) depicts movement in an entirely new way and hence looks more dramatic than Michelangelo’s masterly nude depiction David (1501-4). Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1645-52) in Rome is another of his greatest marble sculptures. His most famous architectural works include the design for the spectacular square in front of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Bernini was a deeply believing Roman Catholic who felt that the purpose of Christian art was to inspire the faithful.
The Aztecs, Incas and other American peoples had rich musical traditions of their own, with songs in a variety of styles and a wide array of instruments. Much of their music was associated with dancing and religious rituals. Catholic missionaries used this native interest in music to spread Christianity, and brought over the polyphonic music used in European churches. Spanish musicians moved to the Americas to serve as cathedral musicians there.
By 1600, the flood of silver and gold from its colonies in the New World had made Spain the richest country in Europe, and arguably the most powerful nation on Earth. Its empire included the Netherlands and half of Italy, Portugal (annexed in 1580) and Portuguese possessions such as Brazil, the Philippine Islands and most of the Americas. Yet her wealth was squandered on luxury goods and failed imperial policies and did not lead to the development of major industries. Spain held on to her Latin American possessions until the early nineteenth century, with the independence movement of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), but she had lost her dominant position within Europe itself by the mid-seventeenth century.
Bowed instruments may have originated in Central Asia and eventually spread to China and India and to Europe via the Middle East. The modern violin family consists of the violin, viola and cello along with the double bass. The violin emerged in Renaissance Italy, descending from the family of six-stringed viols. As the common “fiddle,” it was easily adopted for dance music, was small, portable and soon became popular. Italian instrument builders developed the art of violin-making to a peak that has never been surpassed.
Antonio Stradivari (ca. 1644-1737) from Cremona, Italy was a crafter of stringed instruments such as violins, cellos, guitars and harps and the most prominent member of a renowned family of Italian instrument-makers. He is often known to the general public under the Latinized version of his name, Stradivarius, or the colloquial “Strad.” He was possibly a pupil of Nicolò Amati (1596-1684), who came from another dynasty of violin-makers. During his remarkably long life, Stradivari made or supervised the production of more than 1,100 instruments, including harps, guitars, violas and cellos. More than half of these survive and are still being used today by some of the world’s leading string players. He was a careful craftsman and selected woods of the highest possible quality, but scientists are still struggling to explain exactly what set his instruments apart from others. His workshop was by the mid-eighteenth century engaged in a healthy rivalry with that of the Guarneri family, among them Giuseppe Guarnieri (1698-1744). As Norman Davies writes in his book Europe: A History:
“With the exception of Jacob Stainer (1617-78) in Tyrol, all the master violin-makers, from Maggini of Brescia to Amati and Stradivari of Cremona and Guarneri of Venice, were Italian. The art of violin-playing was greatly advanced by the development of systematic teaching methods, including those of Leopold Mozart and of G. B. Viotti. The Paris Conservatoire, from 1795, was the predecessor of similar institutions in Prague (1811), Brussels (1813), Vienna (1817), Warsaw (1822), London (1822), St Petersburg (1862), and Berlin (1869). A striking feature of violin-playing from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries was the marked predominance of East Europeans. The phenomenon may possibly reflect the traditions of fiddle-playing among Jews and Gypsies, and more probably the special status of music-making in politically repressed cultures. At all events, Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was for a long time the first and last of the ‘greats’ who was not either East European or Jewish or both. Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) of Vienna and Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80), a Pole from Lublin who helped launch the St Petersburg school, were founders of the magnificent line which ran through Kreisler, Ysaye, and Szigeti to Heifitz, Milstein, Oistrakh, Szeryng, and Isaac Stern. All played their ‘Strads’.”
The Italian Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) had an unparalleled influence on performers and composers alike. By 1675 he was living in Rome where he became a leading violinist and composer, enjoying the support of Queen Christina of Sweden and other rich patrons. René Descartes died of pneumonia in Stockholm in 1650 while teaching Christina, unaccustomed as he was with the cold Scandinavian winters and with getting up early in the morning. Corelli’s teaching was the foundation of most eighteenth-century schools of violin-playing. It is known that he met George Frideric Handel, who was in Rome between 1707 and 1708.
Another Italian composer and violinist who left a decisive mark on the form of the concerto and the style of late Baroque instrumental music was Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) from Venice. Vivaldi trained for both music and the priesthood, a combination that was not unusual at the time. He was a virtuoso violinist and one of the most original and influential composers of his time. The Four Seasons, a series of four violin concerti, is his most famous work today.
These developments in Christian Europe extended to Jewish music as well. Judaism was among the European faiths most bound by tradition, but the seventeenth century saw the introduction of polyphonic music into synagogue services in addition to churches. The Italian Jewish violinist and composer Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570-ca. 1630) published a collection of Jewish liturgical music (Hashirim asher lish’lomo, The Songs of Solomon) in 1623, which incorporated the influence of Monteverdi and other northern Italian composers of the time.
L'Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), first performed in 1607 in Mantua, was one of the earliest European works recognized as an opera. An opera (Italian for “work”) is a drama with continuous or nearly continuous music that is staged with scenery, costumes and action. The text is called a libretto (Italian for “little book”). The opera is a union of poetry, drama and music. It had its origins around 1600 and became the leading genre of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The association of music with drama goes back to ancient times, to the plays of Sophocles and Euripedes. Some of the plays of the Renaissance incorporated music, too. Opera consisted of a blend of already existing genres, but mixed in a new way. Another early opera composer was the German Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787).
According to Norman Davies, “Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo [was] ‘the first viable opera in the repertoire’. Since its origins in the court entertainment of late Renaissance Italy, the operatic genre, which combines music, secular drama, and spectacle, has passed through many phases. The opera seria, whose most prolific proponent was Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), author of 800 libretti, was devoted to classical and historical themes. Alongside it, the opera buffa launched a long tradition of light-hearted entertainment leading through opéra comique to operetta and musical comedy. Grand Opera, which starts in the late eighteenth century, reached its peaks in the Viennese, Italian, French, German, and Russian schools. Romantic nationalism became a prominent ingredient. The supreme laurels are disputed between the lovers of Verdi and Puccini and the fanatical acolytes of Richard Wagner. Modernist opera began with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), the precursor of a rich category including Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), and Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress (1951). The Orphean theme has provided recurrent inspiration. Jacopo Peri’s Florentine masque Euridice (1600) anticipated Monteverdi’s production in Mantua. Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (1762) opened the classical repertoire. Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (1858) is one of the most joyous of the standard operettas.”
Western European countries were at this time gradually expanding overseas and the Russian state expanded into Siberia, eventually reaching all the way to China and the Pacific Ocean. While the Portuguese and the Spanish had begun this trend, by the seventeenth century the Dutch, French and British were increasingly active. The English Civil War in the 1640s was primarily a battle for power between the king and Parliament but had religious aspects as well. Italy remained exclusively Catholic. Almost everywhere, the power of the state grew.
According to Justo L. Gonzalez in The Story of Christianity: Volume Two, the religious conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War constituted “probably the bloodiest and most devastating European war before the 20th century… The principles of tolerance of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) were not born out of a deeper understanding of Christian love, but rather out of a growing indifference to religious matters….Perhaps rulers should not allow their decisions to be guided by religious or confessional considerations, but rather by their own self-interest, or by the interests of their subjects. Thus the modern secular state began to develop.”
At the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, much of present-day Germany was ruined and impoverished. The Holy Roman Emperor was weak, and the empire encompassed almost three hundred more or less independent political units. This decentralized power structure held many problems compared to France, but rulers used patronage of scholars and musicians as a way of asserting their status. France had replaced Spain as the strongest power in Continental Europe, which increased the prestige of French language and culture. The “Sun King” Louis XIV (1638-1715), who built the magnificent Versailles palace, was the most powerful European monarch and the model for artistic patronage. The English, Germans, Russians, Poles, Austrians and others imitated French architecture and decorative arts.
From the 1660s on, French music was almost as influential abroad as was Italian music. Ballet emerged in the court culture of Renaissance Italy, but developed in the French court at this time. For three decades, Louis XIV’s favorite musician was Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), originally from Florence, Italy, who wrote music for ballets and religious services at the court but earned his greatest success with dramatic music. Lully created a distinctive French kind of opera and fostered the modern orchestra. There were several excellent French playwrights, too, among them Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière, and Jean Racine (1639-1699).
The tie or necktie, now worn by men all over the world, can also be traced back to this period. Croatian mercenaries in French service, wearing their traditional small, knotted neckerchiefs, aroused the interest of Parisians. More “modern” versions of the necktie spread from Victorian Britain, where the prototype of the modern suit emerged after 1860 as the “lounge suit,” but the first version of the well-known necktie dates back to the seventeenth century.
As Davies states, “The French word cravate, ‘necktie’, has been taken into almost every European language. In German, it is krawatte, in Spanish corbata, in Greek, gravata, in Romanian, cravata, in standard Polish, krawat, in Cracow, eccentrically, krawatka. In English, it acquired the special meaning of ‘a linen or silk handkerchief passed once or twice round the neck outside the shirt collar’….All sources agree that it derives from an old form of the adjective for ‘Croat’ or, as a Croat would say, hrvati. Exactly how an East European adjective became permanently attached to one of the commonest items of European clothing is a matter for conjecture. One theory holds that Napoleon admired the scarves worn by captured Hapsburg soldiers. This is clearly a misattribution, since Littré cites Voltaire using the word long before Napoleon was born….Louis XIV is perhaps nearer the mark. Croat mercenaries in the French service at Versailles are the likeliest source of the fashion which spread all over the world. At all events, people who deny the influence of Europe’s ‘smaller nations’ should remember that the Croats have the rest of us by the throat.”
The organ is one of the oldest instruments still in use in Western music. Its earliest history is so buried in Antiquity that it is difficult to reconstruct, but the first organ we know of was the hydraulis, or water organ, from about 250 BC, created by the innovative Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria, a pioneer in the use of compressed air. It was used for public entertainments and circus games in ancient Rome. The first recorded appearance of an exclusively bellow-fed organ was not until almost 400 years later. By the eighth century AD organs were being built in Christian Europe, and from the tenth century their association with churches had been established. By the seventeenth century all the essential elements of the instrument had been developed. It was during the High Baroque period that the organ reached its greatest popularity and found its greatest composer in Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
In the eighteenth century for the first time, many of the greatest European composers came from the German-speaking regions of the continent: Handel, the Bach family, Haydn, Mozart and finally Beethoven and Wagner. Britain, in contrast, became a virtual colony for foreign musicians, and largely remained so until the twentieth century. While the Italians and the French were proud and often resisted foreign ideas, German and Austrian composers blended the best from the native tradition with other traditions and created a very successful synthesis. German-speaking Central Europe continued to be divided among hundreds of political entities, from large states such as Austria and Saxony to tiny principalities and independent cities. Some of these local rulers followed Louis XIV’s example from France of displaying their power and wealth through patronage of the arts. Many aristocrats were also enthusiastic amateur performers who often became particularly generous patrons of music.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in the heart of Germany. He probably learned the violin from his father, who was a court and town musician, and later became fascinated with the music of Vivaldi. The Bach family produced a string of talented musicians for many generations, of which J.S. was just the most prominent. Johann Sebastian Bach composed primarily to fulfill the needs of the positions he held, as church organist and concertmaster. His first positions were as a church organist, beginning at Arnstadt in 1703. He worked in different cities, among them Weimar and Leipzig, and tutored students in performance and composition, including several of his own sons. Like other musicians of his time he was the subject of restrictions placed on him by his employers, even restriction of movement.
Although now considered one of the greatest composers in history, Bach was a modest man who regarded himself as a craftsman doing his job to the best of his ability. He gave God credit for his achievements; the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone be glory”) were added at the end of many of his scores. His church music was not confined to cantatas but included motets, passions, and Latin service music. His greatest works include the masterpiece The Art of Fugue and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, still one of the most popular works in the organ repertoire, The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Brandenburg Concertos, to name but a few of the highlights. When he died after a stroke, he left a small estate which was split between his nine surviving children and his wife, who died in poverty ten years later.
Bach composed The Art of Fugue in the last years of his life and kept at it even while lying in his deathbed. Because the published score leaves the medium undesignated, a strong prejudice would confine The Art to keyboard exposition, using a harpsichord, a piano or an organ, but it has appeared in many guises, from string-quartet arrangements to chamber orchestra and even full-orchestral realizations. As writer Thomas F. Bertonneau says:
“By the middle of the eighteenth century, Europe’s musical taste had turned away from Papa Bach’s ‘baroque manner.’ Bach’s sons, for example, tended to express themselves in the new and popular Style Galante, which reduced the dense polyphonic textures of fugue and chorale, with their layers of intertwining voices, to the simpler textures of incipient sonata form, with its emphasis on harmonic progression as a means of evoking emotional responses from the audience. Bach meant The Art to sum up the earlier musical ethos, but in the age of the rococo, the divinely serious play – the spiritual mathematics – of strict imitative composition failed in its appeal. Or the new audience failed in its duty to appreciate the old art. The lovely frivolity of Bach’s sons, of the Mannheim composers, and of the early Franz Josef Haydn furnished amusement for people (aristocrats and burghers) who preferred elegance to gravity and diversion to elevation. Haydn himself and Wolfgang Mozart, at the end of his life, both became interested in Bach and began reintroducing fugal textures into their instrumental music. Ludwig van Beethoven followed their example and one result is the finale of his Ninth Symphony. Felix Mendelssohn knew The Art.”
J. S. Bach was more famous as an organist than as a composer in his lifetime. Musical taste changed quickly in the mid-eighteenth century. When he died, his work was considered somewhat old-fashioned. Bach’s sons were influenced by him but went their own ways, and their fame, especially that of the musician and composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), for a while eclipsed that of their father. Yet his music was never forgotten and was studied with respect by Mozart. Bach’s reputation was restored to almost its present status during the nineteenth century, although the real Bach revival would not come until the twentieth century. Handel’s works never went out of fashion in the same way.
Georg Friederich Händel (1685-1759) originally came from Germany but spent most of his adult life in England, where he became known as George Frideric Handel. He was born in Halle, the son of a barber-surgeon at the local court who eventually let him study music. He moved to Hamburg and later to Italy, associating with the leading musicians of Florence, Naples and Rome. Except for a few visits to Continental Europe, Handel spent the rest of his life in England. In London, he enjoyed the lifelong support of the British royal family and other notables and became a revered figure. Handel was the master of all types of vocal and instrumental music. Unlike Bach he didn’t write for a church, a court or a town council; he wrote for the public. His Water Music premiered in 1717 with a concert on the River Thames in London, and his magnificent work Messiah premiered in Dublin, Ireland in 1742.
According to A History of Western Music, “Handel won international renown during his lifetime, and his music has been performed ever since, making him the first composer whose music has never ceased to be performed. Handel’s music was enormously popular. When his Music for the Royal Fireworks was given a public rehearsal in 1749, it attracted an audience of over 12,000 people and stopped traffic in London for three hours.” Because of this, “The English came to regard Handel as a national institution, and with good reason. He passed all his mature life in London, becoming a naturalized British citizen in 1727, and wrote all his major works for British audiences. He was the most imposing figure in English music during his lifetime, and the English public nourished his genius and remained loyal to his memory.” When he died in 1759, he was buried with public honors at Westminster Abbey.
Northern Italy, the Netherlands and Britain during the Renaissance and the early modern era prospered from capitalism, a new system where individuals invested their own money in businesses designed to make a profit. A crucial innovation was the joint stock company, which pooled the wealth of different individuals while limiting their risk. The capitalist system proved more economically efficient than concentration of money in the hands of the state or the privileged few, as was the case in Spain. Capitalism put money into the hands of individuals who could invest it locally, for instance building new opera houses in Hamburg or London. Among the long-term effects of this were the rise of public opera and public concerts and an increased demand in the upper and middle classes for musical instruments and lessons. Rulers, cities and prominent families supported music and the arts as a way of competing for prestige. In France, power and wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the king.
During the eighteenth century, public concerts arose in many cities alongside the private concerts and academies that had long been presented by wealthy patrons and clubs. Public concerts, by contrast, were usually money-making ventures for which tickets were sold, initially to the upper or upper-middle classes who could afford them. The English pioneered public concerts, which were social events as well as opportunities to hear music. In London a middle class interested in listening to music, a large number of excellent musicians in the service of the court and the theaters combined with the inability of the king to pay his musicians well encouraged the building of the first commercial concert halls, which flourished there in the late 1600s and early 1700s. This practice eventually spread throughout Britain and North America as well as Continental Europe.
The European market for books grew dramatically during the eighteenth century. There was something of a “reading revolution” where educated readers critically reviewed many texts that were constantly changing and commanded no special respect. Reading became an individual and silent activity. Prussia led the way in the development of universal education, inspired by the Protestant ideal that every believer should personally be able to read and study the Bible. In addition to a strong population growth there was a remarkable rise in basic literacy in many European countries between 1600 and 1800, accompanied by the growing circulation of newspapers and magazines as well as books. Europe now had a sizeable reading public. Women, too, were increasingly literate, although they still lagged behind the men.
The eighteenth century was the age of the Enlightenment, when leading intellectuals argued that human reason could solve all kinds of problems, both social and practical ones. Belief in natural law led to the notion that individuals had rights and that the role of the state was to improve the human condition. Among the most prominent French thinkers were François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, and Montesquieu. The Genevan philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose political philosophy influenced the French Revolution, also made contributions to music as a theorist and a composer. These philosophes were social reformers. Some of these ideas were incorporated into the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the other American Founding Fathers were as representative of the Enlightenment as the French thinkers were. The American and French Revolutions in the late eighteenth century spread new political ideas.
Britain, formed by the union of England and Scotland in 1707, increasingly had the most powerful navy in Europe and used it to wrest parts of India, Canada and several Caribbean islands from France during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). International trade expanded rapidly with the emerging Atlantic economy, as did unfortunately the transatlantic slave trade. Prussia became a kingdom in 1701. It soon developed one of Europe’s best-trained armies and emerged as a power to be reckoned with under the leadership of Frederick the Great (1712-1786). Along with Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) of the Austrian Empire, Frederick sought to expand primary education to all children, with partial success. Poland fell victim to its neighbors and became divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria.
Rulers patronized arts and letters and sometimes promoted social reform. Enlightened despots such as Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) and the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) wanted to expand education and care for the poor. Humanitarian ideals and a longing for a universal brotherhood were important factors in a movement known as Freemasonry, the teachings of the secret fraternal order of Masons. Founded in London early in the eighteenth century it spread rapidly throughout Europe and North America and numbered among its adherents kings (Frederick the Great and Joseph II), statesmen (George Washington), poets (Goethe) and composers (Haydn and Mozart).