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Music In The Baroque Era

Social and Cultural Influences

Peter Kun Frary


The Baroque Era existed from approximately 1600 to 1750. The eastern United States was still a British colony, coffee was all the rage in Europe, and it was the heyday of mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). During the first half of the 18th century the Mughal Empire of India fell into decline, opening the door to invasion and colonization by the British Empire.

Chiesa di San Agnese in Agone | Rome, Italy | The seamless merging of painting, architecture and sculpture is typical of Baroque church design.

Origin of the Baroque Style

The Baroque style began around 1600 in Italy and is characterized by clear cut emotions, mannerism, exuberance and ornate detail. Within a generation these stylistic traits spread across Europe and became a vital part of both sacred and secular art.

The Counter-Reformation was the Catholic Church's reaction to the Protestant Reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther in 1517. After suffering losses in political influence and church membership, reforms were initiated in the 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 both attractive and understandable to the faithful. Thus, aspects of the Baroque style were encouraged by the Catholic Church, hastening it's spread.

Tuscan Colonnades | During the 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. Rome churches and public works of Bernini are among the finest examples of Baroque architecture and sculpture.

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.

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.

Finally, Baroque arts were often merged together into multimedia presentations. Baroque churches integrated architecture, painting and sculpture. The lofty space and ornate art created 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. 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 | Painting, sculpture and architecture are integrated into the design of this 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.

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

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.

Louis XIV (1638–1715) | Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743) | Musée du Louvre | Louis XIV was known as the Sun King due to his starring roles in royal ballet productions. His palace, Versailles, is an opulence example of Baroque architecture.

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

Intensive colonization and the resultant trade created a large and wealthy merchant class in centers of commerce such as Venice, London and Hamburg. The merchant class emulated the nobility in consumption of arts and entertainment. Soon public opera houses, concert halls and theaters—once 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 not depend wholly on church and noble patronage.

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.

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 considerable information about the theory and practice of Baroque music. Studies of music treatises and manuscripts by musicologists has led to accurate performances of Baroque music using replica instruments and period technique.

Portrait of Three Musicians of the Medici Court | Anton Domenico Gabbiani | Florence c. 1687 | Galleria dell'Accademia


Baroque, Counter-Reformation, 30 Years War

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