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4.1: Introduction and Historical Context

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    This brief introduction to the Baroque period is intended to provide a short summary of the music and context in the Baroque Era, which lasted from about 1600-1750. This period includes several composers that we now hear on so-called “classical” music stations. You are probably familiar with such names as Bach, Handel, and Pachelbel, whose Canon is used in many modern weddings. You have almost certainly heard snippets of these composers on TV shows, commercials, or movies. In this section, we will add some context and history to these and many other personalities from the Baroque Era.

    It’s appropriate that we hear Handel and his contemporaries in commercials today considering the Baroque era was essentially the first age in which music be- came a commercial commodity. Opera in the seventeenth century was the entertainment equivalent of movies today. The biggest opera stars in 1720 were followed around by paparazzi and gossiped about just as are, say, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. You’ll encounter more on that when you get to the opera portion of this learning chapter.

    The term “Baroque” has an interesting and disputed past. Baroque ultimately is thought to have derived from the Italian word barocco. Philosophers during the Middle Ages used this term to describe an obstacle or veerings from schematic log- ic. Later the term came to denote or bring attention to any contorted idea, obscure thought, or anything different, out of the ordinary, or strange. Another possible origin is from the Portuguese term barrocco, in Spanish barrueco. Jewelers use this term even today to describe irregular or imperfectly shaped pearls: a baroque pearl. The baroque period is a time of extremes resulting from events stemming back to the renaissance. The conflict between the reformation and counterreformation, and the influence of Greek/Roman culture as opposed to medieval roots are present throughout the Baroque era.

    In art circles, the term baroque came to be used to describe the bizarre, irregular, grotesque, or anything that departs from the regular or expected. This definition was adhered to until 1888 when Heinrich Woolfflin coined the word as a stylistic title or designation. The baroque title was then used to describe the style of the era. The term “rococo” is sometimes used to describe art from the end of the Baroque period, from the mid to late eighteenth century. The rococo took the extremes of baroque architecture and design to new heights with ornate design work and gold gilding (see figure of a rococo church). Historical events and advances in science influenced music and the other arts tremendously. It is not possible to isolate the trends of music during this period without briefly looking into what was happening at the time in society.

    4.3.1 Science

    Sir Isaac Newton and his studies made a great impact on Enlightenment ideology. In addition to creating calculus, a discipline of mathematics still practiced today, he studied and published works on universal gravity and the three laws of motion. His studies supported heliocentrism, the model of the solar system’s planets and their orbits with the sun. Heliocentrism invalidated several religious and traditional beliefs.

    Johannes Kepler (b. 1571-1630), a German astronomer, similarly re-evaluated the Copernican theory that the planets move in a circular motion in their orbits around the sun. In utilizing Brahe’s records, Kepler concluded that the planets move in ellipses in their orbits around the sun. He was the first to propose elliptical orbits in the solar system

    William Harvey conducted extensive anatomical research concerning the circulatory system. He studied the veins and arteries of the human arm and also concluded that the blood vessel system is an overall circle returning back to the heart while passing through the lungs.

    4.3.2 Philosophy

    Descartes (1595-1650) was a famous philosopher, mathematician, and scientist from France. He is arguably considered to be one of the pioneer modern philosophers to make an effort to defeat skepticism. His opinions on the relationship of the body and mind as well as certainty and knowledge have been very influential. He laid the foundation for an analysis and classification of human emotions at a time when more and more writers were noting the powers of music to evoke emotional responses in their listeners

    John Locke (1632-1704) is regarded as the founder of the Enlightenment movement in philosophy. Locke is believed to have originated the school of thought known as British Empiricism, laid the philosophical foundation for the modern idea of limited liberal government. Locke believed each person has “natural rights,” that government has obligations to its citizens, that government has very limited rights over its citizens and, in certain circumstances, it can be overthrown by its citizens.

    4.3.3 Art

    Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was a famous Italian sculptor of the Baroque era. He is credited with establishing the Baroque sculpture style. He was also a well-known architect and worked most of his career in Rome. Although he enjoyed the patronage of the cardinals and popes, he challenged artistic traditions.

    Screen Shot 2020-05-26 at 8.54.17 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Michelangelo’s David by Jörg Bittner Unna. Source: Wikimedia
    Screen Shot 2020-05-26 at 8.54.24 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Bernini’s David by Galleria Borghese Official Site. Source: Wikimedia

    His art reflects a certain sense of drama, action, and sometimes playfulness. Compare for instance his sculpture of David (1623-1624) with the David sculpture (1501-1504) of Renaissance artist Michelangelo. (Figures 4.1.1 and 4.1.2)

    Where Michelangelo’s David appears calm- ly lost in contemplation, Bernini’s David is in the act of flinging his slingshot, jaw set and muscles tensed. We see similar psychological intensity and drama in music of the Baroque period.

    Elaborate formal Baroque gardens indicating man’s control over nature were used to demonstrate the owner’s power and prestige. France was a major contributor to the development of these highly ornamental gardens. These gardens became associated with autocratic government. The de- signs of these elaborate gardens were from “Cartesian” geometry (science and mathematics) while drawing the landscape into the composition. Look at the Leonard Knyff oil rendering of the Hampton Court Baroque garden.

    Screen Shot 2020-05-26 at 8.54.36 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Hampton Court Gardens by Leonard Knyff. Source: Wikimedia

    license | Public Domain

    4.3.4 literature

    Literature during the Baroque period often took a dramatic turn. William Shakespeare (1564-1616), playwright and poet, wrote the play Hamlet and many other great classics still enjoyed by millions of readers and audiences today. Music composers have long used Shakespeare’s writing for text in their compositions; for example, his Hamlet was used as the basis for an opera. Shakespeare’s writings depict an enormous range of human life, including jealousy, love, hate, drama, humor, peace, intrigue, war, as well as all social classes—matter that provides great cultural entertainment. For more information on this topic, go to: stitutional-Access/Spotlight-on-Shakespeare/

    Jean Racine (1639-1699) wrote tragedies in the neoclassic (anti-Baroque) and Jansenism literary movements. Many works of the classical era utilized rather twisted complicated plots with simple psychology. Racine’s neoclassic writing did just the opposite, incorporating simple and easy to understand plots with challenging uses of psychology. Racine is often grouped with Corneille, known for developing the classic tragedy form. Racine’s dramas portray his characters as human with internal trials and conflicting emotions. His notable works include Andromaque, Phèdre, and Athalie.

    Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) was a Spanish playwright, poet, and novelists. Don Quixote is his most famous work and is often considered the first modern novel from Europe. It was published in 1605 and portrays the traditions of Sevilla, Spain. Legend has it that the early portions of Don Quixote were written while the author was in jail for stealing.

    Other Baroque-era authors include John Milton (1608-1674), author of the epic Paradise Lost; John Dryden (1631-1700), dramatist and poet who wrote several semi-operatic works incorporating music by contemporary composer Henry Purcell; Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) an Anglo-Irish essayist and proto-novelist, poet, and cleric who authored Gulliver’s Travel;, and Henry Fielding (b. 1707-1754) a proto-novelist and dramatist who authored Tom Jones.

    We will find a similar emphasis on drama as we study Baroque music, especially in the emergence of genres such as opera and oratorio.

    4.3.5 Politics

    In politics, three changes that started in the Renaissance became defining forces in the Baroque period. First, nation-states (like France and England) developed into major world powers, ruled by absolutist monarchs. These absolute monarchs were kings and queens whose authority, it was believed, was divinely bestowed upon them. They amassed great power and wealth, which they often displayed through their patronage of music and the other arts. With the rise of this system of absolutism, the state increasingly challenged the power base of the Church. In the case of Germany, these nation-states were smaller and often

    unstable. Second, Protestantism spread throughout northern Europe. Places such as England, where Georg Frideric Handel spent most of his adult life, and central Germany, where Johann Sebastian Bach spent all of his life, were Protestant strongholds. J. S. Bach wrote a great deal of music for the Lutheran Church. Third, the middle class continued to grow in social and economic power with the emergence of printing and textile industries and open trade routes with the New World (largely propelled by the thriving slave trade of the time).

    4.3.6 Exploration and Colonialism

    The 1600s saw the first era of the Colonization of America. France and England were the most active in the colonization of America. The quest for power in Europe, wealth/economics and religious reasons energized the colonial progression. Hudson explores the later-named Hudson River (1609); landing of Pilgrims at Plymouth (1620); Manhattan bought from Native Americans (1626); Boston founded (1630); Harvard University founded (1636).

    4.3.7 Musical Timeline

    Events in History Events in Music

    1618-1648: Thirty Years War
    1623: Galileo Galileo publishes The Assayer

    1642-1651: English Civil War
    1643-1715: Reign of Louis XIV in France

    1649: Descartes publishes Passions of the Soul

    1687: Isaac Newton publishes his Principia

    1740-1846: Reign of Frederick the Great of Prussia

    1597: Giovanni Gabrieli writes his Sacrae Symphoniae

    1607: Monteverdi performs Orfeo in Mantua, Italy

    1678: Vivaldi born in Venice, Italy

    1685: Handel and Bach born in Germany

    1741: Handel Messiah performed in Dublin, Ireland

    1750: J. S. Bach dies

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