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Music In The Baroque Era

Social and Cultural Influences

Peter Kun Frary


The word Baroque is used to denote the architecture, music and art of 17th and 18th century Europe, i.e., circa 1600 to 1750.

Origin of the Baroque Style

The Counter-Reformation was the Catholic Church's reaction to the Protestant Reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther in 1517. After suffering great losses in political influence and church membership, reforms were initiated in the Catholic Church to help recapture and retain parishioners. The Council of Trent (1545–63) decided art and music should express Christianity more directly and connect with the average worshipper emotionally. In other words, music should be understandable and attractive to the faithful. Thus, the Baroque style was born in early 17th century Italian Churches. Baroque arts are characterized by clear cut emotions, mannerism and ornate detail. This style eventually spread across Europe and became a vital part of both sacred and secular art.

Chiesa di San Agnese in Agone | Rome, Italy | The seamless merging of architecture, sculpture and painting is typical of Baroque church design. The lofty space and ornate art create an indelible impression of vastness and splendor. During mass, this visual magnificence mingled with the music of Italian masters such as Corelli and Vivaldi, a multimedia experience difficult to match even today.

Tuscan Colonnades | During the mid-17th century, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) designed Saint Peter's Square (Piazza San Pietro) and the Tuscan Colonnades under the patronage of Pope Alexander VII. The Rome churches and public works of Bernini are among the finest examples of Baroque architecture and sculpture.

I Musici (The Musicians) | Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610) | Metropolitan Museum of Art | Paintings by Caravaggio heralded the Baroque visual arts style and influenced generations of 17th century artists.

European aristocracy viewed flamboyant Baroque art and architecture as a means to symbolize opulence and power. Baroque palace designs were built around grand entrances: gardens, courts, staircases, and reception rooms of spectacular luxury. Hence, the word Baroque was initially a scornful term to describe excessively emotional, decorative and dramatic art and architecture. Of course, 17th century critics were comparing the Baroque style against the Classically inspired art of the Renaissance. Compared to Romantic or modern art, Baroque art seems restrained. Modern usage of the word Baroque is not derogatory. Baroque is simply the name of this stylistic era.

Finally, Baroque arts were often merged together into multimedia presentations. Baroque churches integrated architecture, painting and sculpture. Likewise, performing arts often fused multiple art forms: opera combined music, literature, dance, painting, architecture (set design) and acting.

St. Johann Nepomukkirche (Asam Church) | Munich, Germany | Note the smooth integration of painting, sculpture and architecture in this high Baroque church.

Social Backdrop of the Baroque

The 30 Years War, a power struggle between Catholics and Protestants, dominated the first half of the 17th century and delayed the arrival of the Baroque style by a generation in Germany. The church remained an important patron but the best jobs were at royal courts.  As in prior eras, the trend towards increased production of secular music continued.

The disintegrating Holy Roman Empire gave rise to new monarchies and nations. In Germany there were as many as three hundred territories, each ruled separately. Rulers demonstrated their status with lavish courts and entertainment. Music was often the highlight of court social activities and ceremonies. A large court typically employed an orchestra, opera company, chapel choir and music director. International competition for the best musicians was often fierce between royal courts.

Nymphenburg Palace | This Baroque palace in Munich, Germany, was the summer residence of the rulers of Bavaria. Franz, Duke of Bavaria, is the current resident.

Besides enjoying lavish entertainment--opera and ballet—many rulers were skilled performers and composers: Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, was a virtuoso flutist and composer as well as a great general. Louis XIV of France was an acclaimed ballet dancer and accomplished musician. Music was a necessary skill for all courtiers.

Louis XIV (1638–1715) | Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743) | The Baroque era monarch, Louis XIV, was known as the Sun King due to his starring roles in royal ballet productions. His palace, Versailles, is one of the most opulence examples of Baroque architecture. | Wikimedia Commons

Sarabande by Johann Anton Losy von Losimthal (1643-1721) | This hauntingly beautiful dance was written for 5-course Baroque guitar by Losy, a Bohemian count and courtier.

Intensive colonization and the resultant trade during this period created a large and wealthy merchant class in centers of commerce such as Venice, London and Hamburg. The merchant class aped the nobility in its desire for arts and entertainment. Soon public opera houses, concert halls and theaters—once only entertainment for nobles—made lavish entertainment available to anyone for the price of a ticket. Concert halls and theaters also meant musicians could freelance and were not wholly depend on the patronage of the church and nobles.

The merchant class saw music skills as a necessary social grace and were involved with amateur performance of keyboard, lute and chamber music. The demand for sheet music gave rise to publishing houses and provided an ever increasing revenue stream for musicians.

Mezzetin c. 1718–20 | Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) | Metropolitan Museum of Art | Mezzetin character playing a five-course Baroque guitar.

The Rise of Science

As the Church's influence diminished, science and learning became increasingly important. Musicians began applying scholarly inquiry to the techniques and materials of music. This systematic approach to music was reflected in the many books on music technique, composition and theory. Hence, there is a considerable amount of information about the theory and practice of Baroque music. The studies of music treatises and manuscripts by musicologists has led to highly accurate performances of Baroque music using replica instruments and period technique.


Baroque, Counter-Reformation, 30 Years War

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