The Age of the Baroque and Enlightenment 1600-1800: Music

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 5. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Origins and Elements of the Baroque Style

Dating the Baroque

In music, the period of the Baroque has long been dated between 1600 and 1750, chronological boundaries that are arbitrary, but nevertheless useful in conceiving of the changes that occurred in Western music in the early-modern world. At the beginning of this period, new models of composition began to appear in Italy that were informed by the experiments of composers like Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), Jacopo Peri (1561-1633), and Giulio Caccini (1555-1618) as well as by the discoveries of Renaissance humanists concerning the drama and music of the ancient world. These innovations produced new harmonic structures, compositional techniques, and genres like opera. While music informed by earlier Renaissance models persisted throughout Europe, the innovations of the early Baroque also spread outward from Italy. As these new styles were studied and accepted elsewhere in Europe, the new Baroque styles of composition and performance mixed with native traditions, producing regional variations that were very different from Italian models. Thus two characteristics are at once notable when considering the history of music during the Baroque. First, Europe’s musical languages became increasingly differentiated along national and regional lines during the Baroque years. Second, the music that was consumed by aristocratic and urban elites was transformed by the development of new musical genres, new instruments, and new performance practices. It was during these years that many new musical forms appeared, forms that European composers have continued to rely upon until the present. In vocal music, the rise of opera was also accompanied by the appearance of the oratorio and the cantata. Developments in instrumental music were no less innovative. New musical genres like the sonata, the suite, and the concerto have their origins in the Baroque, as do instruments like the oboe, the violin, and the transverse flute. During these years many of the customs of modern performance developed as well. At the beginning of the period, much of music was still firmly under the control and patronage of the church and the aristocracy. Religious music remained vital throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as did aristocratic patronage for musical composition and performance. At the same time the rise of opera houses in the early Baroque and the emergence of the subscription concert at the very end of the period provided new venues for performance, venues in which Europe’s growing class of bourgeoisie were able to indulge their tastes for music. Domestic performances by amateurs were important throughout the era, and traditions of amateur musicianship became even more important over time.

The Renaissance and the Revival of Ancient Music

Many of the Baroque period’s features emerged as a result of a climate of experimentation that can be traced to Italy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This new climate of innovation owed a great deal to the intellectual life of the later Renaissance and to its steadily intensifying search to understand Antiquity. During the years after 1550 musical theorists and historians working in several Italian cities had become increasingly fascinated with examining ancient writings on music in order to revive some of its performance practices. From the texts of ancient authors like Plato and Quintilian, Renaissance intellectuals understood the high regard in which the ancients held music. The art was credited with possessing the power to transform the soul and to shape the human emotions, and many legends contained in ancient texts granted music an enormous ability to perform feats of transformation on the human personality. An oft-quoted legend, for instance, credited one of Alexander the Great’s important victories to the effects of a stirring tune played right before battle. As they reflected on the music of their own age, many later Renaissance thinkers judged their own art wanting since they found it had little power to shape the emotions in the ways in which the ancient art had done. The efforts that soon developed to recreate ancient music, though, were always piecemeal and incomplete, since no actual compositions had survived from Greece or Rome. While Renaissance artists were able to examine the many artifacts that survived from the ancient world, no such reliable body of evidence survived as a guide for composers interested in recreating ancient music. Knowledge of the tuning systems, instruments, and ancient musical modes was similarly fragmentary. Thus as they tried to recreate ancient sounds, most composers of the time were forced to adapt the incomplete knowledge that they had of antique music to forms that already existed in their own day. In this way the expanding, but nevertheless imperfect knowledge that intellectuals possessed of the ancient art shaped the performance practices and compositional styles of the later Renaissance and early Baroque. It was in Florence, a city in which a number of musicians and men of letters studied ancient Greek musical treatises, where the attempt to understand the role music had played in ancient drama developed most decisively. There a picture began to emerge in the later sixteenth century of a musical tradition that was very different from that of the sixteenth-century world.

Florence and Early Opera

The development of opera best demonstrates the transition between Renaissance and Baroque music. The Florentines who studied musical drama in Antiquity became interested in creating their own dramas in ways that recalled, without attempting directly to copy, the features they had come to admire in ancient Greek drama. Key figures in this group were the Florentine aristocrats Count Giovanni de Bardi (1534-1612) and Jacopo Corsi (1561-1602), both humanist-trained intellectuals who were close to the court of the Medici Grand Dukes, Florence’s ruling family. Bardi patronized a number of musicians, and his house was often filled with scholars. Later the cultivated circle Bardi helped to create at Florence was to become known as the Camerata, although at the time in which its discussions occurred the group was an informal one that deliberated upon a broad range of issues, including music, drama, literature, and even astrology, a popular fascination of Renaissance intellectuals. During the 1570s the discussion of the Bardi group were enriched through Vincenzo Galilei’s correspondence with Girolamo Mei (1519-1594), then Italy’s greatest authority on ancient Greek music. From this correspondence, Florence’s intellectuals derived much of their theories about ancient music and the ways in which it had been used in Greek drama. The conclusions that they drew from this scholarship helped to inform, not just the practices of the early opera, but Baroque music generally. Florence’s theorists argued that the lines of ancient drama had been sung and not simply spoken, and that the choruses of these works had included dance or stylized movements that accompanied the sung lines. In addition, they realized that unlike the polyphonic music that was so popular in their own day, ancient Greek music had been monodic—that is, Greek music had used only a single melodic line. Thus the Florentines introduced a new style of singing that they called stile recitativo or “recitative style.” In this style, the singer sang a line made up of standard musical pitches, but in a very simple melodic line intended to imitate the inflections and rhythms of speech. A bass line and a few simple chords accompanied the singer.

Experiments in Early Opera

Following several small-scale attempts to perfect the new art of recitative as a vehicle for setting poetry to music, Jacopo Corsi commissioned an entire drama in the style, Dafne, which was performed in Corsi’s palace in 1598. Corsi, a generation younger than Bardi, had recently risen to a position of prominence in Florence’s musical world, and as one of the city’s most important patrons, he desired to use his position, not just to discuss musical theory, but also to put into practice some of the insights gained from recent scholarship on ancient Greek drama and music. He was himself a composer, but his influence proved to be most lasting through the patronage he gave to other musicians and composers as well as his efforts to encourage Florence’s Medici dukes to support the development of a new kind of musical drama. Among those he supported were Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) and Giulio Caccini (1551-1618). Peri was a singer and composer who wrote the music for Dafne in 1598, the work that has long been called the “first opera.” Caccini, on the other hand, was also a composer who helped to spread knowledge throughout Italy of the basso continuo style of accompaniment through his popular collections of printed songs. Through Corsi’s encouragement several other sung dramas were also staged in Florence in the years immediately preceding 1600, some in his own house, but most in the Medici family residence, the Pitti Palace. Many of these first efforts in the developing genre of opera took their story lines from ancient dramas, myths, and historical events. The story of Orpheus, whose singing was said to charm wild animals and his efforts to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the underworld, was one popular subject. Chief among these path-breaking treatments of the myth was Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1607, which was first performed in Mantua, and is often revived today. The theme of Orpheus fit with one of the chief aims of musical theorists and composers of the time: their efforts to revive ancient music’s power to speak to and influence the emotions, a key aim that was also to be shared by many Baroque composers. These early operatic experiments were, by and large, paid for by Italy’s nobles and performed before their courts. The Medici court in Florence proved to be among the most avid supporters of the new art, but aristocratic households at Mantua and Rome were also important centers of early opera production. In this early period of opera’s development the art form was largely an expensive entertainment mounted in these courtly households to impress guests. Elaborate sets, lavish costumes, special effects, and a generally high level of theatricality and spectacle soon became hallmarks of the early operatic productions.

Monteverdi and The “Second Practice”

Even as opera was continuing to develop as a new musical genre in the years around 1600, new compositional techniques were transforming vocal music and its relationship to the text. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was chief among the figures that contributed to this new climate of innovation. Monteverdi was one of the greatest musicians of the late Renaissance in Italy, but he also made important contributions to the new Baroque style. As a consequence, it has long proved difficult to classify this visionary artist. Whether he is best considered as a composer of the late Renaissance or of the early Baroque continues to be debated today, although it is clear that Monteverdi made major contributions to the music of both periods. Monteverdi and those who championed his new compositional techniques wanted to focus the listener’s attention clearly on the singer’s words and the feelings they expressed. To do this, they simplified the style of composition, and helped to codify the new techniques that were developing at the time. They minimized counterpoint and wrote instead a single musical line for the singer, along with a bass line and enough notes in between to accompany the voice but not compete with it. Often they wrote out only the bass or lowest part of this accompaniment, and simply indicated with numbers the harmonies above that line for the accompanists to add as they saw fit; they began to call this practice “figured bass.” Since this bass line also ran continuously throughout the piece, it was also described by many as “basso continuo,” or “thorough bass.” In order to express emotion, these composers were willing to let their works move through harmonies usually considered jarring, if that seemed to them to help express the line of text they were setting to music. In an early publication of a book of madrigals in 1605, Monteverdi referred to this style of composing as a new practice, or a “second practice.” Two years later, his brother and fellow musician Giulio Cesare Monteverdi (1573-1630), explained in print that in this new practice, the text is mistress of the harmony. Other composers soon followed suit, continuing to develop this new practice. The new style then spread gradually across Europe. Other regions strove to hire Italian musicians, and Italian styles, composers, and performers dominated Europe in the Baroque era that followed. It is the birth of the new or “second practice,” that is seen as the starting point of the Baroque era.

The “First Practice” Survives

While music written in the “second practice” gained in popularity throughout the seventeenth century, older Renaissance styles of composing also continued to exist side-by-side with the new methods. This older style, or the “first practice” that was continuous with Renaissance musical practice, was contrapuntal, with a number of distinct lines or voices sounding together at the same time. It continued to look back to the great composers of the middle sixteenth century for inspiration, especially to the writings of the Roman composer Pierluigi Palestrina (1525/6-1594) because of his skill at making these independent voices blend well together. Throughout the Baroque era composers continued to write complex works of counterpoint, works that require and reward careful listening. Thus this “first practice” needs to be understood as a central part of Baroque music. Perhaps the most noted advocate of this older style of composition was Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who wrote many works of counterpoint toward the end of the Baroque era. Counterpoint was an essential musical language to many composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it even outlived the Baroque. The tradition of the “first practice” survived even into the nineteenth century when figures like Ludwig van Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn studied techniques of counterpoint and used them in their composing. The “first practice” was so fundamental to the music of the Baroque era that musical theorists of the later Baroque eventually abandoned the distinction that had once seemed essential between music composed in the “first” or “second” practices. Instead they classified compositions according to the setting and environment in which the music was to be performed. Hence, music was sorted into categories such as church music, chamber music, and theater music.

Harmonies Major and Minor

Whether written in the new style or the old, the first practice or the second, music in the Baroque era came more and more to use major and minor keys, rather than the system of modes used in earlier music. A key uses an eight-note scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do). “Do” is the “home” note; the fourth and fifth steps (fa and sol) also help give shape to the piece. Harmonies are built using triads, or chords of three notes, made up of notes that are a fifth and a third above the foundation notes. Major scales differ from minor ones especially by the pitch used for “mi.” This system of scales and triads is still in use today, so Baroque music sounds more familiar to modern listeners than does the music of earlier times. Music written in modes, by contrast, may seem foreign to modern ears. The ways that instruments were tuned, especially keyboard instruments, also helped to determine which keys sound best. A number of tuning systems came to be used throughout Europe during the Baroque period. Some favored the use of a few keys, such as G and C; music played in those keys would sound better in tune than if it were played with our modern tuning systems, but music in other keys would sound worse. One of these tuning systems was called “well tempering,” which allowed a keyboard to play in a wide range of keys. Johann Sebastian Bach, who was very interested in the construction and tuning of keyboard instruments of all types, wrote a set of pieces, called The Well-Tempered Clavier. The work included pieces in all 24 keys used in composition and thus brilliantly showed off the advantages of the new tuning system.

Implications of These Changes

By the mid-seventeenth century the innovations of Italian composers like Monteverdi had begun to forge a distinctive Baroque sound characterized by the basso continuo, monody (music consisting of a single melodic line), and the use of harmonic keys. These innovations had developed, in large part, as a result of the late Renaissance’s fascination with ancient drama and the attempt to recover the emotional power that scholars, composers, and musicians felt reposed in ancient music. At the same time the contrapuntal techniques of the Renaissance continued to survive throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and were to inform much composition in the Baroque. The persistence of both styles proved to be one of the enduring characteristics of music throughout the period.

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 of Johann 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.

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.

Italian Opera in the Seventeenth Century

Origins and Development

The musical dramas known as “operas” today trace their origins to the experiments concerned with recreating the drama of the ancients that occurred in Florence in the late sixteenth century as well as to older forms of intermedi and intermezzi—musical interludes that were performed as short works between the acts of comedies and dramas or within other larger musical entertainments. By the final years of the sixteenth century, these kinds of works were themselves becoming the center of theatrical performances, and they quickly became a new staple of lavish entertainment and spectacle. Florence was the site of the first “opera” performance in 1598, but similar musical dramas were being staged in Rome and Mantua within a few years. Several stages have been observed in the history of seventeenth-century Italian opera. In the earliest period between 1600 and 1635, opera remained the preserve of Italian court nobility, and it flourished in the cultivated humanists circles that were common in the great aristocratic households throughout the peninsula. A new phase began in 1637, however, with the founding of Venice’s Teatro S. Cassiano, the first public opera house that catered to an urban clientele. At this time opera was referred to as dramma per musica, or “drama in music.” By 1650, the new opera house styles of productions common at Venice had become increasingly common elsewhere in Italy, and the art form spread north to France and other cultural centers throughout Europe in the decades that immediately followed. During these years opera became increasingly laden with lavish spectacle, and regional centers of production began to display many tendencies adapted from their own local theatrical traditions. Finally, as the seventeenth century came to a close, a reforming impulse began to affect the genre. These reforms emanated from France and the Arcadian Academy of Rome and they advocated greater purity and simplicity in the genre, an elimination of comedy and spectacle, and a concentration on ancient myths and pastoral themes. Despite the intentions of French composers like Jean-Baptiste Lully or the Italian Arcadian reformers, opera remained a popular form of entertainment, and the taste for lavish productions never completely disappeared from the genre. This brief snapshot, though, does not suggest the wealth of creativity that existed in the genre in seventeenth-century Italy as a new and enduring art form appeared within the brief space of a generation or two. To understand the great range of operatic productions that existed in seventeenth-century Italy, we must consider some of the most important milestones in operatic production.

Monteverdi’s Operas

In 1607, Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo had set a new standard for operatic production. For his subject Monteverdi and his librettist Alessandro Striggio had chosen the ancient myth of Orpheus, the god who was able to shape the outcome of history through his musical powers. Monteverdi’s earliest opera did not break completely from the tradition of staged intermedi that were still popular in his day. These musical interludes had long been staged between the acts of Italian dramas or they had been inserted into court spectacles intended for the entertainment of honored guests. But in his Orfeo Monteverdi made use of the new types of music that were to become increasingly important to composers of operas and instrumental music during the Baroque era. His work was composed of a mixture of recitative, arias, choruses, and instrumental music, and the drama was preceded by a prologue that made use of a toccata theme played by the orchestra’s trumpets, an innovation that laid the foundation for the overtures that were later to become common at the beginning of operas. In contrast to the virtuosic skill that was necessary to perform many arias written later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the arias of Monteverdi’s Orfeo were relatively simple, conceived in much the same way that Giulio Caccini had advocated in his Le nuove musiche. In Orfeo Monteverdi’s arias make modest demands upon the singer, and they present the poetic text in a relatively simple and straightforward way. The composer conceived of his arias as songs that set to music in a verse style each of the strophes or stanzas of the poetic text. Each stanza of the aria was preceded by a ritornello, a refrain or instrumental passage played by the orchestra. The composer quickly followed the success of this work with another production, Arianna, in 1608, a work that was even more widely admired at the time than Orfeo. Unfortunately, only small portions of Arianna’s music have survived, and thus, Orfeocame over time to be the more influential composition. Published in its entirety in 1610, it was widely studied by Italian composers in the first decades of the seventeenth century and helped to shape many later productions. For his part, Monteverdi continued to write operas for another 35 years, most of them based on antique themes, legends, and ancient historical incidents. In 1642, though, he produced another definitive masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea). Written when the composer was 75 years old, the work brilliantly displayed the maturation of Monteverdi’s style. It treated a famous incident in ancient history: the success of the aggressive Poppea in supplanting Nero’s wife Octavia and her subsequent rise to become empress of Rome. Throughout the work Monteverdi relied on recitative to propel the action forward, but he also made use of musical imagery to draw his characters. The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, Nero’s tutor, is portrayed using musical lines that are calmer and serene, while Nero himself is portrayed as a nervous soprano. At the time his character was played by a castrato, an adult male singer that had been castrated before reaching sexual maturity. Monteverdi’s use of the castrato was thus an early instance of a practice that was to become increasingly popular in the later Baroque operas of Italy. Throughout The Coronation of Poppea Monteverdi succeeded in rendering the brilliant libretto that the poet Gian Francesco Busenello had written for the work into a seamless dramatic spectacle. The Coronation of Poppea thus helped to establish a new standard for the integration of music and text, although few of the later Italian composers of the later seventeenth century were to approach its masterful blending of drama and music.

From Court to Theater

By the time Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea was performed in Venice, opera had already begun to emerge from its early history as a humanistic court entertainment nurtured in Italian courts. The earliest operas had often been lavish and expensive spectacles performed before invited guests or at the marriage festivities of important nobles. In 1637, however, the patrician Tron family in Venice experimented with allowing a Roman troupe of operatic performers to mount a production in a theater they owned in the city. The performances were staged before a paying audience, and the success of this and other productions soon convinced other theater owners in Venice to convert their theaters into opera houses. By the early 1640s, Venice had four theaters that regularly performed operas during the six-week season surrounding Carnival. The number of opera houses in the city continued to grow, and by the end of the century musical drama had become a big business in Venice. To mount these productions, the families that owned the city’s theaters often approached a new category of showman known as the impresario who was charged with gathering the singing talent and the stage-design know-how to pull off such complex productions. At other times the family theaters entered into commercial ventures with troupes that rented their facilities, staging a season of operas there. As Venice’s commercial opera grew in importance, the complexity of orchestrations, costuming, and staging rose. In the early years of the 1640s, productions had often been relatively cheaply produced, and had had few of the expensive stage sets and theatrical machinery that had been common in the court operas of the previous decades. Claudio Monteverdi had written three operas for the Venetian houses during the years immediately preceding his death in 1643, and these works, together with those of his student Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) helped to establish the conventions of later seventeenth-century Venetian productions. Between 1639 and 1669, Cavalli wrote more than forty operas for the city’s theaters; the most successful of these works was his Giasone (Jason), which was first performed in 1649. The work was typical of many of the commercial operas of the period. It included many subplots, lavish staging, the frequent use of dance, and scenes of comic relief set amidst a story that was of a generally serious moral tone. Cavalli’s chief competitor in writing for the Venetian operatic scene was Piero Antonio Cesti (1623-1669), who wrote more than 100 operas in his brief life, only a small portion of which have survived.

Transformations on the Venetian Stage

As the competition heated up between the city’s opera houses, lavish spectacle and the intermingling of comic and serious elements that Cavalli and Cesti displayed in their works became increasingly common. The quality of singing also became more important to audiences, and operas now filled up with arias that were written to showcase performers’ talents. In contrast to the relatively straightforward songs that had been inserted into the art form in the early years, the aria now emerged as a central focal point of the genre. They grew longer and more complex, and eventually reflected the taste for the da capo style, (a form that used the musical scheme “ABA”). As these changes were occurring, critics of the Venetian stage attacked the reliance on improbable plot twists and the intermingling of comic and tragic impulses in these productions, elements that seem to have been widely popular. In the final quarter of the seventeenth century two events transformed the operatic stage in Venice. First, in 1674 one of the city’s houses, the Teatro S. Moisè, slashed its ticket prices, forcing other theaters in the city to follow suit. This move dramatically expanded yet again the audience for opera in the city, while at the same time, placing most of the theaters on a tighter shoestring that limited the money available for spectacle and opulence. At about the same time, Venice’s Grimani family opened a new theater, the Teatro Grimano a San Giovannia Grisostomo, that charged high ticket prices in exchange for operas with lavish production standards. Thus as the seventeenth century drew to a close, Venice’s opera houses had become divided into two classes: those that served a broad popular audience and a small minority of houses that catered to the expensive tastes of the city’s patricians and wealthy merchants.

Opera Spreads

As Venetian opera emerged as an important force on the Italian cultural landscape, its customs and production methods spread first throughout Italy and then beyond the peninsula to Northern Europe. A key element in the diffusion of Venetian opera to other regions was the touring companies that impresarios gathered to perform operas in various cities throughout Italy. Of these early producers Benedetto Ferrari (c. 1603-1681) was instrumental in setting a standard that later impresarios followed. Ferrari himself was a librettist, composer, and musician, who had mounted the first opera productions with a touring troupe at Venice in 1637. During the 1640s he toured with a company that made major stops in Bologna, Modena, Genoa, and Milan, and a decade later he staged the first operatic productions before the imperial court in the Holy Roman Empire. By this time touring companies had already established a foothold for opera in Naples, then a territory that was a Spanish possession, and by 1651, the popularity of the genre there had given birth to an opera house similar to those of Venice in the city. By the end of the seventeenth century Naples was Italy’s second capital of opera production. In France, the first productions of the new Italian operas occurred in the years between 1644 and 1652, and the familiarity of the audience with the new Italian innovations soon gave birth to attempts to produce a native art form that was independent of southern examples. Elsewhere the new art form penetrated European regions unevenly. Spain and England remained relatively untouched by the new Italian genre during the seventeenth century, while in Germany, Italian opera inspired a genre that imitated Italian forms for almost a century. As opera established a permanent commercial presence in Venice, throughout Italy, and somewhat later throughout Europe in the years of the mid-seventeenth century, the artistic possibilities of the genre expanded opera’s range of dramatic expressiveness and artistic techniques.

Arcadian Reforms

Still, not everyone approved of the lavish taste for spectacle and the confused mixture of plots and subplots that sometimes found their way onto the new opera stages of Europe. During the last quarter of the seventeenth century, critics at Venice and from throughout Europe began to attack as absurd the crowd-pleasing productions that had grown increasingly common in previous decades. The foundation of the Teatro Grimano a San Giovanni Grisostomo at Venice in 1677 was one development that pointed to the increasing impatience of elites with the popular confections they believed were all too common in the city’s opera house. The theater’s express purpose had been to elevate production standards in the city and to appeal to a more educated clientele. In France, initial experimentation with the production of dramma per musica soon gave way to criticism and spawned an attempt to create an operatic style more in keeping with the traditions of the country’s drama. These criticisms did not go unnoticed throughout Italy, and in 1690 the foundation of the Arcadian Academy at Rome aimed to reform the country’s poetry and drama. In its efforts, the Arcadian Academy imitated the Académie Française that had been founded by Louis XIII’s prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu, in 1634. Richelieu’s organization had served to establish stylistic canons for the reform of French drama along classical lines. Similarly, the Arcadian reformers advocated a return to classical restraint in opera and drama and they encouraged librettists to make use of pastoral themes and heroic tales from Antiquity. While not all writers of text for the opera championed the movement’s aims, the Academy had a broad influence on the operatic world in Italy in the several decades following 1690. A number of librettists, including Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio, began to produce texts for operas along the lines advocated by the Arcadian reformers. The effect of these reforms eventually shaped the opera seria, or serious opera, of the eighteenth century. Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) were among the most important composers of the early eighteenth century to set this new style of classical poetry to music. Thus while the reforms of the Arcadian Academy had not succeeded in transforming opera into a more restrained and coherent art form by the end of the seventeenth century, the forces were gathering strength for an important reform of opera in the eighteenth century.

Opera In France

From Italy to France

During the first half of the seventeenth century conditions in France improved after the violence that had been widespread in the country during the French Wars of Religion (1562-1698). A tentative stability returned to the country, and the state’s economy and its political and cultural institutions revived. Under the control of powerful ministers like Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Mazarin, and Jean Baptiste Colbert, France’s royal government played a key role in administering the country’s economy and in shaping developments in the arts. Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) had been a particularly vigorous supporter of the development of French drama, but his successor Cardinal Mazarin was Italian-born and nourished Italian art forms at the French court, a controversial policy that did little to endear him to many of the French nobility. Between 1645 and his death in 1661, he commissioned Italian troupes to stage a number of operas at the French court. Mazarin had been named chief minister of France just before the death of Louis XIII in 1643, and during the long minority of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) he played a vital role in shaping French state policies. Mazarin raised money for his elaborate productions of Italian operas by means of new taxes, and this did little to promote a love of Italian opera among the French. During the series of rebellions known as the Fronde, Mazarin’s support of Italian opera was widely criticized in Paris as one cause of the state’s fiscal weakness, and for a time, the Cardinal, the Queen Mother, and Louis XIV were forced from the capital into exile. Mazarin’s Italian artists, including many who had participated in the operas staged at court, were also threatened with imprisonment, and many fled Paris. Eventually, Mazarin succeeded in quelling the Fronde, and as he returned to a position of security, he continued to nourish the development of opera in Paris. Yet while his efforts to support the new art form continued until his death in 1661, they were always controversial. While some admired the music of the new Italian art form, many rejected it because its conventions ran counter to the styles of performances that were then fashionable in the French aristocratic society. The French court already enjoyed drama, particularly elevated tragedies of the kind that Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) was writing at the time. A popular song form of this era in French court production was the air de cour. These airs were written in verses or strophes, and used a lute or another instrument as accompaniment. Airs de cour figured commonly in France’s most elaborate court entertainment, the ballet de cour, a lavish spectacle that mixed dancing, poetry, and music to present loose narratives drawn from antique legends and myth. These ballets featured elaborate costumes and sets that made use of the most up-to-date theatrical machinery of the time. Their music and choreography was highly developed by the early years of Louis XIV’s reign, and the king himself and many of his nobles danced in these productions. Louis XIV grew up to be an excellent dancer, and he enjoyed his roles on stage. His title of the “Sun King” developed, in fact, from the role he played as Apollo, the Sun God, in the 1653 production of the Ballet de la nuit (The Ballet of the Night).

Characteristics of the Early Opera in France

Since the late sixteenth century ballet had been a central preoccupation of the French court, and so it is not surprising to see that the earliest productions of Italian operas Mazarin patronized included a more notable role for dancing than had been the case in Italy. Three-act Italian operas were stretched to five to make room for generous interludes of dancing between the acts. In his efforts to try to nourish the development of the genre in Paris, Mazarin also imported several set designers and theatrical architects, and he spent enormous sums on stage machinery to produce spectacles he hoped might capture the imagination of the French court. As his power grew during the 1650s, he spent ever more lavishly on his efforts to promote Italian opera in France. Shortly before his death in 1661, Mazarin secured the services of Francesco Cavalli, then Venice’s greatest composer of operas, to write an opera to commemorate the marriage of Louis XIV to the Spanish princess. Cavalli came to Paris for two years, and Mazarin brought the Italian stage designer Gaspare Vigarini to Paris to build an elaborate theatre with the most up-to-date stage machinery. But neither the theater nor Cavalli’s opera was completed in time to celebrate the king’s marriage. Another of Cavalli’s Venetian operas was substituted at the last minute, and was performed in a makeshift hall in the Palace of the Louvre. When two years later both the new theater and Cavalli’s commission, Ercole amante, were completed, Cardinal Mazarin was already dead, and little interest seems to have existed in the production of the work. Ercole was staged nonetheless because enormous sums had already been laid out for its production. Performed in Cardinal Mazarin’s vast new theater, the Italians complained that Vigarini’s stage machinery had been tampered with, while the audience found the theater’s acoustics wanting and were unable to hear the music. The focal point of the lavish production was its ballets, staged by Jean-Baptiste Lully, a rising star in the French court. Together with Cavalli’s musical drama, the production of Ercole amante lasted more than six hours, and those who commented upon it at the time focused more attention on the work’s dances than they did on its drama. The work thus proved to be the last of the Italian operas staged in France. Francesco Cavalli returned to Italy, resolved never more to write for the theater, a resolution he soon broke upon his return to Venice. In Paris, the experience seems, too, to have soured French composers from any more experiments with the genre. It would not be for another decade that the king’s composer and musical superintendent, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) turned to compose opera, and although an Italian by birth, Lully was to mold the original Italian art form to suit French tastes.

Lully’s Opera

Although Lully had originally been born and raised in Italy, he had come to France early in life to serve as a dancer and violinist in the home of a relative of the king. Lully had been forced to flee Paris in 1652 during the Fronde, but when he returned his reputation grew, and he was soon given a position at court. During the 1650s he choreographed and wrote music for the ballets de cour and on occasion even danced beside the king. By 1661, he had been appointed superintendent of the court’s music and a court composer. Other honors followed, but in the years immediately following Mazarin’s death and the ill-fated productions of Cavalli’s operas at Paris, Lully dedicated himself largely to providing light entertainments for the court. Until 1671, he collaborated with the great French playwright Molière on a number of comedy ballets, a French genre that mixed dialogue, dance, and song. In 1672, Lully purchased a royal monopoly to produce operas in Paris, and he founded the Royal Academy of Music, an institution that became known over the next century merely as the Opera, and which until the French Revolution possessed the sole right to produce French operas in Paris. Over the next fifteen years, Lully produced a series of beautiful operas that molded the Italian form to native French traditions of drama, music, and dance. His works came at a time when the tone of the French court was growing more serious, as Louis XIX abandoned his youthful frivolity under the influence of his pious second wife, Madame de Maintenon. Lully developed a style of recitative that adapted its Italian features to the traditions of French theater and drama. His solo songs resembled the airs de cour that had been popular in the ballets de cours. His operas featured ornate costumes, sets, and stage machinery, as well as many ballets and other dances. Most of them told stories based on mythological subjects, as can be seen in the titles of such works as Proserpine, Psyché, and Alceste. Others were based on medieval and Renaissance courtly romances, such as Roland and Amadis. They used a five-act format, a style derived from Aristotle’s discussion of the ideal dramatic form. In contrast to the many plots and subplots typical of Italian dramma per musica of the time, Lully chose his librettos carefully, favoring works by the accomplished French poet Philippe Quinault. The productions he mounted were tragedies that conformed to the French canons of dramatic performance outlined in the laws of the unities. These rules were derived from sixteenth-century French humanist interpretations of Aristotle and had been established as canonical in the spoken tragedies favored by the Académie Française since the 1630s. These rules stipulated that all action in a drama should be confined to treating a single plot that occurred in one place and time. Like French tragedies of the seventeenth century, Lully’s operas were thus conceived of as edifying and morally uplifting dramas, although many of their heroes referred in some way to Louis XIV, and thus served a role as royal propaganda. Lully also developed the form for the overture that introduced and began the opera. By the time of his death in 1687, the great composer’s considerable operatic production had left France with a set of works that was largely to be considered “canonical” over the course of the next hundred years.

French Opera after Lully

Lully’s monopoly on opera production during his lifetime kept rivals at bay, and kept Paris as France’s operatic center. After his death, several composers carried on Lully’s traditions. Chief among his immediate successors was Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), a composer who slipped into a centuries-long obscurity soon after his death. Charpentier’s works have recently been revived, studied, and performed. His Medée has now been restored to its rightful place as a masterpiece of the French genre. Influenced by Lully’s pattern of composition, Charpentier’s Medée and two other operas he wrote for the Royal Academy have been seen as having their own individual voice, and providing a rich font of compositional invention. As in Lully’s time, most of the plots of French opera still came from Greco-Roman Antiquity, though some were based on tales from medieval or contemporary literature and the Bible. In their emphasis on classical themes and on the avoidance of subplots, Lully and his successors’ works influenced the Arcadian reforms that were underway in Italy in the years around 1700. Those efforts, centered in the Arcadian Academy of Rome, argued for a reform of Italian opera to remove subplots, comedy, and other crowd-pleasing innovations that aesthetic theorists judged were not in keeping with the serious moral tone they argued should pervade the genre. Although many French operas of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries displayed a fondness for tragic stories, elaborate dance and ballet were more frequently incorporated into these productions than elsewhere in Europe. At the same time other dramatic musical genres persisted, and like Lully’s famous early collaborations with the playwright Molière in the production of comédie-ballets, later French composers wrote many works that combined singing, dancing, costumes, and a plot, but with lighter themes. These works, known as opéra-ballets and comédie-ballets, persisted throughout the eighteenth century.

Jean-Philippe Rameau

While a number of competent composers continued to write for the Parisian Opera in the generation or two after Lully’s death, none attracted the attention or controversy that Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) did. Rameau reinvigorated the French tradition of opera and his works helped to sustain its popularity until the later eighteenth century. The composer began writing for the stage relatively late in life, after he had already had a successful career as a music theorist. Despite his late start, he left behind an enormous opus of works in many different genres. While Lully’s works for the operatic stage had been largely tragedies, and had eventually discarded all comic elements, Rameau wrote tragedies, lyric comedies, operatic ballets, and heroic pastoral dramas. His works made use of some of the by-now canonical traditions of Lully—that is, they combined brilliant poetry and delicately created recitative with dance and choruses. But Rameau employed a broader range of themes than Lully, and his work reveals a generally lighter dramatic touch. He also adopted the most popular Italian innovations of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to the French stage. Among those influences he derived from Italian opera was the use of the da capo style of aria—that is, one in which the aria followed an “ABA” organization scheme. In other regards, too, Rameau tried to blend the best of new Italian opera with French style, and he fashioned carefully composed recitatives and arias that conveyed the character’s emotions. French audiences cared greatly about their opera and operatic traditions, and not everyone approved of Rameau’s innovations. These included a larger and more diverse orchestra; bold, new harmonies and dissonances; expressive rhythms; and richer orchestrations than those of the generally restrained operas of Lully and his followers. A whole party of critics declared itself supporters of Lully, and rejected Rameau’s new works as discordant, sentimental, and emotionally overwrought. Others praised Rameau and his new, thoughtful writing. Still others criticized any and all efforts to bring Italian styles into French music, arguing that French styles were far superior and could only be damaged by foreign imports. In this way French opera remained an arena both for great entertainment and for serious commentary and criticism about the very concept of cultural identity in France throughout the eighteenth century.

Opera in the Early Eighteenth-Century World


Perhaps the most notable feature of opera in the eighteenth century was its rapid spread throughout the European world. In the course of the seventeenth century, opera had been a performance phenomenon in Italy, in France, and in about twenty courts and cities throughout Central Europe. During the eighteenth century, opera houses were founded in some fifty additional cities and courts. Opera spread to the far corners of Europe, with new houses appearing in Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, England, and Moscow. The expansion, though, was most pronounced in Central Europe, particularly in the Holy Roman Empire, a region of the continent that had long been divided into many small states. Here rulers of both large and small territories found in opera an appealing art form to compete for cultural glory. As the eighteenth century progressed, the operatic world in Central Europe adapted itself to the demands of the Enlightenment, the great international philosophical movement that championed human reason and the abandonment of the fanaticism and superstition of the European past. Works that glorified the principles of this philosophical movement came to be performed in many of the new houses. At the same time the operatic world of the eighteenth century was extremely varied, and many of the new houses were court theaters that were heavily subsidized by princes. In these venues works with traditional themes drawn from Antiquity, legend, and history were performed alongside lighter fare that offered a more purely entertaining value.

Italian Opera in Central Europe

Although some of the theaters imitated the French styles of production pioneered by Lully, the opera houses in Central Europe, by and large, followed Italian examples. Italian impresarios brought their productions to the cities and courts of the region, and composers and librettists from the peninsula were lured to Vienna, Berlin, and Dresden with long-term contracts. In the century and a half following 1650, the German-speaking lands of the region provided a steady source of employment for Italian composers and musicians. During the seventeenth century Antonio Cesti (1623-1669), Antonio Draghi (c. 1635-1700), Marc’Antonio Ziani (1653-1715), and Antonio Bertali (1605-1669) were just a few of the Italians who found permanent employment at Vienna’s court opera house. In the eighteenth century Antonio Caldara (1670-1736) and the now famous Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) were just a few of the many figures that carried on the Italian tradition in the German-speaking world at this time. Vienna was by no means unusual, and for most of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries operas written by native German speakers were a rarity. As the eighteenth century progressed, more German-born composers began writing operas, although many of these figures were trained to do so in Italy. While there were occasional attempts to compose operas in German, most artists chose librettos that were written in Italian. One exception to this rule, however, was Hamburg’s Theater am Gänsemarkt, a theater founded by members of Hamburg’s merchant and commercial classes in 1678 with the express purpose of nurturing operas in German. Many of the works performed there, nevertheless, made use of librettos that had been translated from Italian. Hamburg’s Theater did have a major impact on the training of German composers to write opera, and it counted George Frideric Handel among the distinguished ranks of German artists who had written works for its stage.

Variety of Opera Houses

Great variety characterized the conditions of European opera houses in the eighteenth century, and a range of houses, from the modest to the luxuriant and palatial, was a fact of the age. The major houses of Venice and Naples sat at the apex of this world, as well as the great court theaters of Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and Dresden. These court operas were generally unable to survive without generous financial support from their royal patrons. Beneath these great theaters were a number of smaller court theaters and commercial houses. This last category was a thoroughly commercial affair charged by its investors with making a profit. These commercial theaters consequently economized on many productions, staging operas with scenery and costumes that were considerably more modest than those produced in the great houses of Venice, Naples, and Vienna. Theaters like this often shared productions with other houses, and scenery, costumes, and singers were carted around to perform a work in many different locations. Generally, the eighteenth-century season was made up of far more “new” operas than it was of revivals of older works, since the idea of an operatic repertory had not yet developed at this time and audiences craved novelty. Only in France were the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully systematically revived from generation to generation. It was far more normal throughout the rest of Europe for an opera to be written for a season, to be performed several times, and after being repeated a season or two later, to be largely forgotten. This fact of eighteenth-century production continues even now to lure modern performers and opera directors into musical archives in search of the discarded gems of the eighteenth century.

Italian Dominance

Many of the singers, composers, and librettists who worked in Europe’s opera houses first mastered their craft in the two great centers of Italian opera of the time: Venice and Naples. Venice’s rise to leadership in the operatic world had begun already in the 1640s, and the city continued to shape operatic tastes well into the eighteenth century. By that time, though, Naples was not far behind as a discriminating center of new productions, and in the course of the eighteenth century it would, in most connoisseurs’ minds, surpass Venice for its innovation. Operas written and performed in these Italian cities began to develop standard features. Not content with hearing a simple basso continuo supporting much of the recitatives, audiences began to expect to hear more from the orchestra during the course of an evening. The musical entertainment, in fact, became the center of attention, far more so than the plots of the stories themselves, which might on their own seem far fetched. In both cities people flocked to hear star soloists, and to hear them sing arias written especially to show off their star qualities. Traveling troupes often carried Italian opera, especially those from Venice and Naples, to the rest of Europe. These tours nourished the composition of Italian operas in places far beyond the peninsula in the course of the eighteenth century. At this time many European courts and urban opera houses began hiring Italian composers and librettists to remain in residence and write operas and librettos for them; thus, before long, an “Italian opera” might well be written anywhere in Europe. In planning a production, an impresario looked first, if he could, for his main singers. Then he would seek out a good libretto, perhaps one that had done well in another city—one that was well known elsewhere, and hence was in demand. Many musical scores belonged to the individual composer or impresario who first wrote or produced it and hence could not easily be copied so often a new one would be written on the spot by a local composer, using a pre-existing libretto. One of the most accomplished libretto writers of the eighteenth century was Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), who worked for more than fifty years in Vienna at the Hapsburg court opera. He tried to construct believable plots that were instructive as well as entertaining, and that conformed to the best principles of good drama. As much in demand as his libretti were, it was nonetheless common practice to edit them as local producers saw fit, adding or dropping arias, cutting a recitative here or adding one there, as seemed appropriate to the local production. The search for new material meant that many composers frequently scrambled to satisfy the demands of the companies for which they worked. Tales abound of composers left to work through the night, beset with demands from singers and impresario alike, finishing the music at the very last minute. Handel, for example, wrote the entire opera Tamerlano in less than three weeks in 1724. According to legend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did not complete the overture for his masterpiece Don Giovanni until the night before its first performance. In this overheated world, often governed by commercial demands and a taste for new stories set in lush and sometimes exotic surroundings, many composers frequently reused material from one opera to the next. The greatest stars of the opera world were itinerant, moving about the continent from place to place to make the most of the financial possibilities their skills offered. Singers were also expected to embellish the lines of a composer’s arias in order to show off their technique and musical personality. Thus an older aria, or its melodies, might have a very different effect when reused in a new production and sung by a different singer.

Rising Technical Demands

During the eighteenth century schools that specialized in training operatic singers appeared in Venice, Naples, and other Italian cities. Specialized training over many years was becoming increasingly necessary to support the technical demands that composers now made on singers; singers seem happily to have risen to these challenges in order to win adulation from their audiences. In Italy, a major preoccupation of technical training often involved the teaching of the methods that later became known as bel canto, or “beautiful singing.” In the years since the eighteenth century considerable dispute has raged among singers and music historians about the precise techniques that Italian singing teachers used in the eighteenth century. The evidence suggests that they spent a great deal of time perfecting a singer’s legato—the ability to sing a passage in a perfectly smooth manner. Attention was also directed at the initial stages of instruction to the singer’s ability to produce the messa di voce—a sustained tone that began softly and then built to a crescendo before diminishing once again. This exercise built incredible strength and self-control. In subsequent stages greater attention was concentrated on the upper registers, and the voice was expected to be kept light and agile so that it could perform brilliantly in coloratura passages—in the many florid embellishments of trills, roulades, cadences, and other vocal embellishments by which singers showed off their abilities on the opera stage. This training and its techniques were well suited to the opera houses of the period, which were generally small and intimate. Even the largest European houses, for instance, rarely accommodated more than about 800-900 patrons. Projecting the singing voice in these small spaces was not as much of a problem to eighteenth-century singers as it would become later. By the mid-nineteenth century, as opera houses were quickly doubling or tripling in size and orchestras were swelling to include an hitherto undreamed of number of instruments, new kinds of techniques became popular to ensure that a singer’s voice carried throughout the hall.

Brilliant Careers

Both men and women were expected to master the cornerstones of Italian singing methods, and the commentators of the period frequently reserved their most exuberant praise for male sopranos, that is, the castrati that were fixtures of the Italian opera world of the time. Of these figures, no one ever surpassed, by virtue of technique or achievements, the great Neapolitan male soprano Carlo Broschi (1705-1782), who was widely known as Farinelli. Accounts of Farinelli’s art suggest the great technical prowess that Italian eighteenth-century methods ensured. The German composer Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773), who had personally heard him, left one of the best accounts of his technique. Quantz stressed that Farinelli’s voice was perfectly modulated, able to execute the most technically difficult passages, and highly agile throughout the entire range of his voice. In the early stages of his career, Quantz observed, the singer’s range extended already from the A below middle-C to the D above high-C. Later, Farinelli acquired even lower tones, but was able to continue to reach the high notes with complete surety. Because of his enormous range, composers typically provided him with different kinds of arias in the operas in which he starred. One was almost always written in the range of a contralto, while several others showed off his abilities in the higher registers of a coloratura soprano. Farinelli, and other castrati singers like him, became European wide sensations. In the years following his Neapolitan debut, the singer toured Italy extensively before conquering the continent and then eventually making his London debut in 1734 in the company of George Frideric Handel’s chief rival, Nicola Porpora (1686-1786), Farinelli’s former teacher. Although Handel had negotiated with the artist, he had, much to his chagrin, been unsuccessful in securing Farinelli’s services, and in the three-year period in which Farinelli sang for Porpora, the singer helped to establish the company of Handel’s rival as a major competitor on the London scene. In 1737, the English capital’s love affair with the male soprano came to an abrupt end. Farinelli broke his contract and fled to Spain, where he accepted a position as a singer in the royal household. Having heard of his amazing vocal qualities, the Spanish queen sought the singer’s services as a way of treating the severe depression of her husband, King Philip V. As a condition of his contract at the Spanish court, Farinelli had to sing a number of arias to the king each night before he went to bed, a duty the castrato executed faithfully for the nine years before Philip’s death in 1746. For these and other services to the crown, Farinelli was knighted, and when he retired from Spain to his hometown of Bologna in 1759, he continued to live a comfortable existence for the rest of his life. In these years he received visits and letters from Europe’s greatest composers and political figures, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Christoph Willibald von Gluck, and the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph.

Fierce Competition

In a world in which technical brilliance was prized over the opera’s ability to dramatize, changes were sure to occur in the character of the opera. By the eighteenth century operas were filling up with arias, and singers were known to fight in rehearsals about who among them had the best ones. The best singers were able to demand that composers and librettists re-write works to improve their parts. As these singers traveled around Europe, they often brought with them “suitcase arias,” works that they had performed in other productions and which had often been written personally for them by a composer to show off their special talents. The most powerful singers were able to bargain to have these arias inserted into a production in a new city, a practice that conflicted greatly with a composer’s vision of how his work should unfold since arias that often had little to do with the dramatic needs of one production came to be interpolated into a work with very different intentions. In the late eighteenth century Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart satirized these operatic conventions and poked fun at the back-biting, competition, and intrigue that existed in the backstage world of the opera, a world that he knew only too well. At one hilarious point in his one-act opera, Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) two of the theater’s female singers engage in an hysterical dispute over which of them is the theater’s “prima donna” or “first singer.” Mozart’s brilliant satire summed up his impatience with opera’s star system and its egos, but the historical evidence of the time suggests that the situation that he mocked was only too real. At the same time, the world of fierce competition that undeniably existed in the theaters of eighteenth-century Europe provided one source of entertainment for the committed opera fan. Following the personalities of the operatic stage was, then, even as it is now, a preoccupation of those who loved the art form.

Aria Da Capo and Opera Seria

By the mid-eighteenth century the aria had increasingly become a vehicle for singers anxious to demonstrate their skills. In many cases, particularly in the serious operas that experts began in the later eighteenth century to term opera seria, these arias were written in the da capo format, that is, with an organizational scheme of “ABA.” At the opening of the aria, in other words, a performer sang a theme (the A section). This theme was usually repeated before the singer presented a second theme (the B section) and then returned to repeat the first section, usually twice, before a final cadence or series of cadenzas drew the work to a conclusion. The phrase “da capo,” meaning “from the head” or “from the top,” referred to the recapitulation or repeating of the theme that occurred at the aria’s conclusion. There were other types of organizational schemes used in the arias of the day. Some arias, notably the cavata or its shorter variation, the cavatina, were written in the form “AB,” rather than “ABA,” meaning that they lacked a final recapitulation. But the rise of the da capo form to popularity and obligatory use in opera seria or “serious opera” had become one of the conventions of the genre by the mid-eighteenth century. The opera seria was, in fact, a form that had experienced a long gestation. Its origins lay in the realities of the operatic world of Venice and other Italian cities at the end of the seventeenth century. Displeased with the crowd-pleasing spectacles that had become common in Venice’s houses, the patrician Grimani family had founded the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo in 1677 to cater to an elite clientele that craved works with high standards of production and literary and dramatic values. Within a few years, the writings of the members of the Arcadian Academy at Rome insisted that Italian opera needed to be rescued from the spectacle and comic burlesque into which much of the genre had fallen. Like Jean-Baptiste Lully and other French composers of the day, these Italian figures were concerned that opera be preserved as a tragic dramatic genre that would treat themes drawn from ancient myths, tales about heroes, and pastoral subjects. Many of the ideas of the Arcadian reforms were put into practice at the Grimanis’ Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo before they spread elsewhere in the operatic world. By 1720, the opera seria was firmly ensconced as a genre in many Italian opera houses. Soon it spread throughout Europe, where by virtue of its elevated themes, it became particularly popular in the great court theaters. Here stories about ancient heroes or gods could be either subtly or overtly modulated to praise the enlightened but despotic princes of the age. In the libretti for these dramas, cultivated poets like Pietro Metastasio frequently concentrated on the internal emotional turmoil of the central characters. Arias written in the da capo format provided one readily adaptable way to dramatize the torment that a work’s hero or heroine experienced, with the middle B section providing a dramatic contrast to the enveloping A theme. Still, producing an opera seria, a form that was composed of numerous arias, required considerable skill on the part of a composer. It was common in the course of an evening of opera seria for performers to move through 25 arias on the path to the work’s resolution or tragic ending. And so composers developed many variations on the form and relied upon it in tandem with other types of arias. At the same time the da capo form of aria was also favored by singers, many of whom dramatically embellished the A theme’s recapitulation, and who relied on these works’ concluding cadenzas to display their vocal firepower.

Opera Buffa

The most serious operas had serious subjects, mainly stories from myth and history. Yet by the eighteenth century, the opera-going public was broad enough that many audiences preferred light entertainment to enlightening and uplifting tales. Thus while librettists such as Metastasio succeeded in making “opera seria” a genuinely grand and serious matter, others helped fill a niche for lighter fare. If serious opera had its literary champion in the great poet Metastasio, the Italian comic dramatist Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) proved to be a shaping force in the history of lighter operas throughout Europe. Goldoni wrote both for the spoken stage and the opera house, producing eighty libretti for light operas that were widely set to music in the eighteenth century. Feeling that Italian comedy had fallen into decline through the stock improvisations of contemporary commedia dell’arte performers, Goldoni labored to rescue the genre. But if opera seria largely served as a commentary on the internal world of personal emotions, the libretti that Goldoni crafted for comic operas commented on problems that were inherently social in nature. His plots were classic comedies of manners that included generous helpings of cases of mistaken identity, mismatched lovers, and rival suitors, all with an edge of moral purpose in that they parodied the social conventions of the age. If Goldoni made a major impact on the genre of opera buffa’s lyricism, it was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) who helped to shape much of this eighteenth-century genre’s musical conventions. This short-lived composer wrote two works that have long been accepted as among the first comic operas, Lo frate ‘nnamorato (The Brother in Love), first produced at Naples in 1732; and La Serva padrona (The Maid as Mistress), staged one year later in the same city. Both works became tremendously successful, although the second enjoyed a particularly long life and was widely imitated throughout Europe. In truth, La Serva padrona was not an opera at all, but a light entertainment or intermezzo that had been commissioned to be staged during the intermission of one of the composer’s opera seria. In the years following Pergolesi’s death, both the libretto and music for La Serva padrona were performed in more than sixty opera houses throughout Europe. In Paris in the years after 1752, the work’s staging by a troupe of Italian buffo performers—that is, comic singers or “buffoons”—excited controversy, producing ranks of admirers and detractors that commented upon its light farce in newspapers and short tracts. Thereafter, its French champions began to use the work’s musical and poetic conventions to fashion shorter kinds of opéras comique (comic operas). Elsewhere in Europe, Pergolesi’s light confection inspired the works that became known as opera buffa. The form proved to be beloved and particularly long-lived, as nineteenth-century composers like Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) and Giochino Rossini (1792-1868) continued to satisfy audience’s cravings for this light fare well into the nineteenth century.

Oratorio and Cantata

The Rise of the Oratorio

The oratorio rose to prominence as a genre of religious vocal music performed outside of churches; the name came from houses of prayer built for devotional groups in Rome, in which these early works were performed. An oratorio is dramatic like an opera, and the form developed at nearly the same time as opera. One of the very earliest musical dramas, Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo in 1600, seems in many ways as much like an oratorio as an opera. An oratorio’s story line is normally religious, while that of opera normally is not. Another difference is the absence of acting; the singers in an oratorio do not act out their parts on a stage, so they do not usually use costumes or sets. Rather, they simply stand and sing, as do the rest of the chorus, and a narrator describes the action. Oratorios began to serve as substitutes for opera during Lent in Italian cities. Opera seemed too flamboyant for the penitential season; the religious subject matter of oratorios seemed more appropriate, yet audiences could still enjoy attending a performance that featured musical styles similar to opera. Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1704) was an important early composer of oratorios in Rome, helping to establish the genre’s characteristic features. Like operas, oratorios relied on a mixture of recitative, arias, and choruses, with recitative usually being used to narrate events and arias to highlight particularly important parts of the biblical stories on which the libretti were based. Choruses were usually more prominent in Carissimi’s oratorios than in operas, and such was true of the genre as it continued to develop in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Oratorios relied on all the musical styles popular in Italy at the time, but as the form spread to France and composers like Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) began to write them, they used styles developed from French opera as well. By the later seventeenth century, the German-speaking regions of Central Europe were adding the oratorio to their own long-standing traditions of presenting religious plays during Holy Week and Easter as well as at Christmas and other religious holidays. The oratorio became a particularly important form of music in Protestant as well as Catholic regions of the Holy Roman Empire, and Hamburg, a Lutheran city in northern Germany, became an especially important center for oratorios.

Handel and the English Oratorio

Thanks to the presence of the German composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), the oratorio also became a popular form of religious music in eighteenth-century England. Handel had worked in Hamburg when he was a young composer and in 1707 he had traveled to Rome. Although he was a Lutheran, he had composed two oratorios there in the Catholic style between 1707 and 1708. Returning to northern Europe in 1710, Handel spent most of the next thirty years as a composer of operas, musical dramas, and other choral works for the city’s churches and royal court. In these years he made only sporadic efforts to develop the composition of oratorios for English audiences. Toward the end of the 1730s Handel returned to the form, and he eventually developed it into a new genre that differed significantly from its Italian or continental European sources of inspiration.

In 1741, he presented two of his works in the genre, Samson and his great masterpiece Messiah, at concerts in Dublin. They were enormous successes, and were soon performed in London. Although the Messiah is the most widely known of these works, it was also the most atypical of Handel’s oratorio compositions because it relies on a libretto that is not dramatic. There are, in other words, no major events that are narrated in the work. Instead Handel chose a text for the Messiah that had been arranged by Charles Jennens from the Old Testament prophets and certain passages in the English Book of Common Prayer. The manner in which the work presents its message—that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy—was a departure from many of the oratorios of the past. The work does not, in other words, concentrate on the activities of Jesus’ life or on his Passion, but on the way in which his mission fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament. Despite this subtle and essentially non-dramatic approach, Handel’s Messiah still manages to treat the important events of Christ’s ministry through allusions to those events in the words of the Old Testament Prophets. In Handel’s other English oratorios, his approach was more fundamentally dramatic—that is, he served to narrate a biblical story—and his works were, like their Italian counterparts, essentially substitutes for operas. They adopt as their subjects incidents from the Old Testament and the books of the Apocrypha, which their librettists gave a theatrical cast that was often influenced by their understanding of Greek drama. Most of Handel’s seventeen oratorios are preceded by an overture that is usually written in the French style. In this form a lively fugue usually follows a stately introduction. One of the most distinctive and beloved features of Handel’s oratorios is their choruses, which display considerable vitality and variety. Some, like the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” from the Messiah, are conceived as mixtures of massive and strong chords with generous doses of counterpoint. Some are conceived of as fugues; others are influenced by the long-standing traditions of madrigal and motet writing, and are complex exercises in polyphony. And still others present a melody set against simple, and sometimes even haunting, harmonies. Handel’s example helped to establish a distinctively English form of oratorio that persisted in the country throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Cantata

The cantata was also developed in Rome and spread from there to the rest of Europe. Like the oratorio, it was sung but not staged, but it used any sort of theme and any number of voices, from one to many; for example, a secular cantata for two voices might use a man and a woman and have a romantic theme. A cantata also resembled an opera in that it combined arias with sections of recitative, and might in fact seem rather like a scene from an opera that simply stood on its own. Cantatas also became very popular in German Protestant regions as church music, particularly within the Lutheran Church. These sacred cantatas, or chorale cantatas, were often built around a familiar hymn or chorale. References might be made to the chorale throughout the cantata, and the chorus sang it at the conclusion in its traditional four-part harmony. The demand for cantatas from composers, many of whom served as church organists, was particularly great during the years of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and enormous numbers of cantatas were written at this time. Georg Philipp Telemann (1686-1767), for example, seems to have written as many as 1,700 cantatas during his life, of which 1,400 survive today in printed and handwritten versions. Telemann was atypical, but his output illustrates the almost insatiable appetite for cantatas in the Lutheran church during the first half of the eighteenth century. Many of Telemann’s cantatas were composed while he was musical director of the court of Saxe-Eisenach, and in the cities of Frankfurt and Hamburg. It was a common requirement of these positions that composers like Telemann regularly compose a new cycle of cantatas for the church year, which were then revived and performed at later dates. These cycles demanded at least sixty independent compositions for the weeks of the year, and the other feasts that were commemorated with music in the church. During Telemann’s time in Eisenach, he was expected to finish a cycle of cantatas and church music for the city’s churches once every two years. In Frankfurt, the town demanded that he produce a new cycle every three years. But in Hamburg, where the composer spent the years between 1721 and his death in 1767, he was expected to provide two cantatas for each Sunday as well as a concluding chorus or aria for the service. Despite this punishing schedule, a schedule that was also crowded with the demands of directing the city’s opera and its choral school, Telemann proved more than able to produce the necessary music. During these years he also managed to write 35 operas and other works for the city’s theater and to take on commissions for occasional music for Hamburg’s wealthy citizens and nobles elsewhere in Germany. Telemann, who was ever open to the commercial possibilities his talents offered, was able in Hamburg to publish several of his cantata cycles, a relative novelty at the time. The composer’s cantatas were widely performed throughout the Lutheran churches of Germany, and by the second half of the eighteenth century, they were among the most commonly sung works in the German Lutheran church.

The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach

While he did not outdo Telemann in quantity, the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach rank among the most widely revered composition of the Baroque period. The great German composer wrote cantatas throughout his entire life in every court and church position in which he served. Bach’s cantatas used both sacred and secular texts, although far fewer of his secular cantatas have survived than his sacred ones. Of the works written for the celebration of Sunday and holiday services, it is estimated that forty percent have not survived. Like other composers of the day, Bach reused much material, sometimes adapting melodies and arias composed from his early days in Weimar and Cöthen to the needs of his position in Leipzig. It was in this last city where Bach spent the greater part of his creative career. His position as organist of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and city musical director was one of the most respected musical positions in Germany, and in it, Bach was expected to provide new music for the choirs of the city’s major churches.

At the small Calvinist court of Cöthen where Bach had been immediately before beginning his tenure in Leipzig, the role of service music in the court chapel had been relatively limited. As Bach began his tenure in the new position in 1723, he evidenced enormous ambitions to develop a new kind of sacred music for the celebration of weekly services. During his first year at Leipzig he completed a cycle for the liturgical year consisting of sixty cantatas. Given the press of time and his other duties as music master at St. Thomas’s boarding school, Bach was forced in these early years to rely heavily on compositions he had already written in other positions. Despite these pressures, the first cycle that he composed in 1723-1724 includes an enormous amount of new material, and was conceived of as a “double” cycle—that is, it included two cantatas for each Sunday, one for before and one for after the sermon. He followed this first series of cantatas with a second cycle written in 1724-1725, a third between 1725-1727, and a fourth between 1728-1729. A fifth cycle was likely written over many years during the 1730s, although only fragments of these cantatas survive. Unlike the cantatas written in Central Europe to this time, Bach’s works were truly innovative and designed with an intellectual program that was coherent and readily intelligible. He relied on similar organizational schemes in many of these works, often alternating choruses with recitatives followed by arias and in many cases including a French overture to precede the entire work. In the earliest Leipzig works he relied upon texts of previously developed cycles that included a large amount of sacred poetry. Later he relied more firmly on the biblical texts from the lectionary of the particular Sunday. Many of the Leipzig cantatas, too, can be distinguished by opening movements, which are often conceived in a grand and stately style with rich orchestral accompaniment. These works, too, often conclude with a chorale or hymn sung by the entire choir. In his Leipzig years, Bach also wrote cantatas on secular themes and subjects, although the press of his church obligations there meant that he produced fewer of these kinds of works in this position than he had at earlier times in his career. Of the secular cantatas written during this period one of the most famous is his “Coffee Cantata,” a comical work about a girl who loved drinking coffee. As in Bach’s other works, the “Coffee Cantata” displays a wealth of fertile invention.

Baroque Instruments

Idiomatic Composition

Baroque composers often wrote music for particular instruments, taking into account their special sounds and qualities—that is, their tonal and harmonic possibilities, their distinctive voice, and range of pitches—to produce works that often have been described as “idiomatic.” Composers became increasingly prescriptive about the instruments upon which their music should be played. Hence, the music of the Baroque era differed fundamentally from the medieval and Renaissance periods that had preceded it. In those earlier eras the choice of particular instruments had largely been left up to musicians themselves, who were free to choose from all the available possibilities to perform a particular piece. Many Baroque composers, by contrast, became especially famous for their writing for specific instruments. Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), for example, was widely known for his compositions for the harpsichord. Scarlatti himself was a virtuoso keyboard player, and his published works for the harpsichord became widely used exercises for students. These works showed off the full range of tonal possibilities and effects that could be gleaned from the best playing on the instrument, and they influenced many later composers’ works for the harpsichord. What Scarlatti helped to accomplish for the harpsichord, Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) came to do for the pipe organ, creating works that have remained since their time among the most brilliant and accomplished compositions for that instrument. Numerous examples might be cited of new repertory that came into being during the Baroque, which was written for the specific abilities woodwind and string instruments now offered.

Keyboard Instruments

By the seventeenth century composers had a number of different kinds of keyboard instruments to choose from when they wrote their works, and each of these had its own distinctive characteristics. The chief keyboard instruments of the Baroque were the organ, harpsichord, clavichord, and at the end of the period, the pianoforte. Although the organ is played by virtue of a keyboard, its sounds are produced by wind rushing through pipes. Among keyboard instruments it is unique in its ability to sustain a particular tone so long as the organist holds down a particular key. The organ can also make a wide variety of sounds, depending upon the construction of its pipes. Baroque organs steadily grew in size and complexity and they came to offer the possibility of playing an independent musical line with the feet on a pedalboard. Use of the pedals was particularly advanced in the Baroque period in northern Germany, and this region of Europe had developed a number of organ virtuosi, including Buxtehude and Bach, by the early eighteenth century. Often a town’s pipe organ was, like its clock or glockenspiel, a matter of intense pride, and the instrument was added onto, remodeled, and modernized to fit the changing tastes of the era. Figures like Bach supplemented their incomes by evaluating the organs of other churches, and suggesting to town and parish councils ways in which the instrument might be improved. Massive pipe organs, though, were hardly household instruments, although smaller scaled units were sometimes found in wealthy homes and the palaces of the nobility. By and large, the chief domestic keyboard instruments of the era were the clavichord and harpsichord, which produced their sounds by striking or plucking strings. Musicians and composers often used the clavichord, considerably smaller and less expensive than the harpsichord, as a practice instrument. It is a difficult instrument to play since it requires strength and dexterity of hand, and produces a much quieter sound than a modern piano. Later Baroque musicians often relied upon it to build technical strengths that they could then apply to harpsichord and pianoforte playing. Unlike the harpsichord, the instrument provided a considerable dynamic range, and when struck vigorously it produced a much louder tone. Few Baroque composers, though, exploited the instrument’s strengths, with the exception of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), one of Johann Sebastian’s sons, who wrote a number of works for the clavichord in the later eighteenth century. The harpsichord was more popular with composers, and since the mid-seventeenth century this instrument had been undergoing constant technical innovations. At that time the harpsichord had become popular as an instrument for solo performance and for accompanying singers. It was favored in part because its sound was not unlike that of the lute, which in both the Renaissance and early Baroque periods was the most common domestic instrument in use throughout Europe. Like the lute, many keys could be struck on the harpsichord simultaneously to play chords, and for this reason the instrument played a key role in many of the orchestras and ensembles of the Baroque era. The harpsichord, like the organ, provided a ready source of continuous accompaniment to other instruments. It was also widely used in the theaters of the time as the instrument favored to accompany operatic recitatives. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, its limited dynamic range—that is, its inability to play loud and soft—meant that it was to become increasingly replaced by the fortepiano once such dynamic range became a prominent feature of composition and performance. A relative newcomer among the keyboard instruments of Europe, the fortepiano was invented in the early years of the eighteenth century. Rather than its strings being plucked, they were struck by hammers, and a player was thus able to produce great dynamic contrasts. It was for this reason that that instrument was originally known as the clavicembalo col piano e forte, or a “loud and soft harpsichord.” Few Baroque-era composers explicitly stipulated the pianoforte’s use in their compositions, since its popularity did not gain ground until the second half of the eighteenth century.

String Instruments

The violin, along with its related stringed instruments played with bows, rose to great prominence during the Baroque era, in part because its sound has so much in common with the human voice, and composers of the era valued vocal singing highly. Some composers became especially well known as composers for the violin and other stringed instruments, such as Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). The violin had begun to appear in Europe in the fifteenth century, about the same time as the family of instruments known as viols had developed. Violins were distinguished from viols by the fact that they were held at the chin, while the viols were usually held in the lap or between the legs. While both viols and violins persisted throughout the Baroque period, members of the viol family like the viola da gamba were generally unable to compete with violins in dynamic range, and by the mid-eighteenth century they had begun to fade in popularity. Today the violin family consists of the violin, the slightly larger and lower-pitched viola, the cello, and the double bass. While these instruments are related to those of the Baroque period, violins differed regionally in Europe during the era, and there was considerable change and development over time in construction techniques throughout the period. Most pieces written for string ensembles concentrated on lines written for the violin and the viola. The undeniable rise in the violin’s popularity in the seventeenth century can be seen in the appearance of a number of centers of violin production throughout Europe. By the early seventeenth century the Italian towns of Cremona and Brescia were already famous for their violins, and Cremona was eventually to produce the two makers, Antonio Stradivarius (c. 1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744), by which quality standards have been judged in modern times. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, many other makers and regions were known for the quality of their violins. The instruments of Jacob Stainer (1617-1683), a producer from the Tyrol in Austria, were widely admired throughout Europe, as were those produced at Mirecourt and Paris in France. Regional variations in musical composition and practices tended more and more to produce differences in the style of violin playing throughout Europe. By the end of the seventeenth century, for example, there was a recognizable “French style” of violin playing that was characterized by greater control over bowing and precision in rhythm and the use of ornamentations, a style that derived from the use of the violin in France to accompany operas and ballets and in the playing of the French overtures. By contrast, the Italian style of composition for the violin concentrated on showing off a player’s virtuosity through brilliant passages of ornaments, runs, and trills.


Wind instruments had a variety of uses. Some, like horns and trumpets, were often used outdoors for fanfares, processions, hunting, and military occasions. They were more often used in groups, and seldom served as solo instruments. On the other hand, some woodwinds became so popular that instrument makers helped adapt and change them in order to make them better solo instruments, though woodwinds continued to serve in ensemble performances as well. By the later seventeenth century, the flute and the oboe had begun to compete with the violin as solo instruments that could be as expressive as a singer. During the Baroque period flutes were produced in two different varieties: the recorder and the transverse flute. Recorders are played by blowing air through a hole in their end, while the transverse flute is held sideways. Until about 1740, composers wrote music for both instruments, although after this date the transverse flute came to be favored almost everywhere. Instrument makers worked to extend their range of pitch, similar to the changes in the era’s keyboard instruments; they also sought to improve the quality of sound throughout that range, so that the new baroque flutes and oboes could play two octaves and more. The king of Prussia, Frederick II (the Great; r. 1740-1786) was known for his excellent skills in playing the flute. In 1740, Frederick invited the noted flautist and composer Johann Joachim Quantz to Prussia to serve as his court composer. Quantz supplied a generous out-pouring of compositions making use of the transverse flute, Frederick’s own instrument. He was also a noted flute maker, and he produced a number of flutes for the king and for use in the royal household. A number of other eighteenth-century composers wrote works for solo flute or oboe, such as sonatas, much as they wrote for the violin, among them Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (who worked for Frederick the Great for a number of years) and Georg Philipp Telemann. As the concerto form developed in the later Baroque and classical eras, the flute and the oboe moved into solo roles here as well, to be joined at the end of the century by the newest wood-wind, the clarinet. The clarinet has a similar pitch range to the flute and oboe, but both its particular sound and its great dynamic range made it appealing to composers in the later eighteenth century, and it soon became a standard musical instrument both for ensembles and for solo performance.

Baroque Keyboard Music

A Music for Professionals

For much of the Baroque period keyboard instruments like the organ and harpsichord were the preserve of professional musicians. Organs and harpsichords were expensive instruments that were not readily available to many amateurs. The organ was, by and large, an instrument used in churches, while the harpsichord, although sometimes present in the homes of wealthy merchants and city dwellers, figured most prominently in the musical establishments of Europe’s courts. Most often, professional keyboard players served as church organists, although some were also employed at court as harpsichordists. In these roles professional keyboard players were expected to accompany singers, other instruments, small ensembles and orchestras, as well as choirs and congregations. These tasks required the keyboard player to be able to improvise chords and basso continuo accompaniment and to be able to provide improvised interludes and preludes during the services of the church. Training on the keyboard thus stressed thorough knowledge of the basso continuo, improvisational techniques, and counterpoint. Printed music for the keyboard was extremely expensive in the Baroque era, more expensive than other kinds of published music since the multiple lines of keyboard music had to be printed by relying on an expensive engraving technique. As a result, most keyboard players kept a personal library of handwritten musical manuscripts that they added to throughout their lives. Many of these pieces they had composed themselves as exercises in improvisational and contrapuntal techniques. Although the keyboard music, particularly the organ music, of the Baroque today ranks as one of the period’s most readily recognizable sounds, solo music written for the harpsichord or the organ was rarely performed during the period in public. The thousands of toccatas, fugues, preludes, and inventions that survive were more an intellectual kind of music intended to train organists and harpsichordists in the skills that were necessary for them in their professional capacities.

Italian Keyboard Traditions and the Art of the Fugue

During the early seventeenth century several forms of keyboard music appeared in Italy that influenced the compositions of later Baroque composers for these instruments. Chief among those who concentrated on writing for the keyboard was Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who served as organist at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome after 1600. Frescobaldi was to have almost as great an impact on writing for the organ and other keyboard instruments in the later Baroque period as Claudio Monteverdi did on the era’s vocal music. Like Monteverdi, though, Frescobaldi’s compositions remained an amalgam of older Renaissance styles with those of the developing Baroque. He wrote many works for keyboard soloists that were intended to sound like improvisations and which also included stylistic elements of late-Renaissance polyphony. These include fantasias, toccatas, and variations, or, as Frescobaldi termed them, “partitas.” All three of these forms had precedents in earlier Renaissance music, although Frescobaldi’s genius opened up new horizons in their use. The word “toccata” comes from the Italian for “touch,” and works of this sort had developed in the sixteenth century to display a performer’s virtuosity on the lute or at the keyboard. It became common, in part through Frescobaldi’s published works for the organ, to pair these free, seemingly improvised pieces with a contrasting one in which the counterpoint was carefully worked out following strict rules. Frescobaldi used many terms to describe these contrapuntal movements, although in English they have come to be known as “fugues,” since the great German composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach, used that term to describe them. Thus in many later Baroque organ works we find a number of two-part works with names like “prelude and fugue,” or “passacaglia and fugue.” A fugue was a polyphonic work written in counterpoint that followed very strict rules. It had a set number of voices (often two, three, or four) and was based on a piece of melody called a theme. One voice began by playing through the theme; then, one by one, the new voices entered by stating the same theme while the others continued in counterpoint. Composers played with the theme in fugues by speeding it up, slowing it down, turning it upside down or backwards, putting it in one voice or another, and fitting the other voices with care, until the voices all come together in the conclusion. Listening to a fugue, like writing one, is something of a game and a challenge. Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of organ music in the Western tradition, excelled in their production, and he wrote fugues to be played on the organ and the harpsichord. Later in life, he also composed his instructional book, The Art of the Fugue, which developed the arts of counterpoint and polyphony to a very high level of intellectualism. In that work Bach explored the tonal possibilities the fugue form had to offer, including forms that had two and three themes and counter-fugues in which the themes gradually diminished and disappeared.

French Keyboard Music

In France, the tradition of organ building was well developed by the later seventeenth century, and inspired a distinctive school of organ composition in which compositions for the instrument were often inserted into the celebration of the mass. In contrast to the organs of Italy that featured a clear and smooth sound, French organs were generally larger and outfitted with a wide variety of pipes, many of which imitated the distinctive possibilities and colors of the woodwinds. As a result, French composers for the organ like Nicholas Lebègue (1631-1702) and Nicolas de Grigny (1672-1703) made use of these rich possibilities in the music they composed for the mass. A far larger repertory of French harpsichord music survives, however, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Much of this music was based upon the dances that were used in French courtly society and the theater, and by the early eighteenth century, the popularity of this kind of music had produced a distinctively French form, the dance suite, a set of dances that was played on the harpsichord in a specific order. In the years that followed, France produced two composers of genius in the field of harpsichord music: François Couperin (1668-1733) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). Today Couperin is sometimes compared to the great nineteenth-century composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin. The comparison is meant to draw attention to the ways in which both figures understood their instrument and its possibilities. Although Couperin wrote both for the organ and the harpsichord, his pieces for the latter instrument show a distinctive mastery of the harpsichord’s special tonal possibilities. Many of the pieces that he wrote for the instrument are short dances, their rhythms and melodies reminiscent of the gigues, courantes, and sarabandes that were played in French ballrooms at the time. Despite their small scale and relatively short duration, the composer still manages to endow these pieces with an appealing complexity that draws the listeners’ ears to their constantly changing subtle melodies, rhythmic schemes, and rich harmonies. Jean-Philippe Rameau, a musical theorist, became a successful composer of operas and ballets in his middle age, but also wrote music for the harpsichord throughout his life. Like Couperin, he made use of the organizational scheme of the dance suite, but his works were characterized by greater virtuosity. He drew inspiration from the brilliant passagework that was popular in the Italian music of the time. Rapid scales, arpeggios, and leaps characterize the most adventurous of Rameau’s works for the harpsichord, devices that might have shocked the more restrained Couperin. He was credited with introducing a technique for rapid hand-crossing at the keyboard, a technique that since then has become known as “Rameau hand-crossing.” While many of his pieces are extremely difficult and filled with brilliantly complex passages, Rameau was no less careful than Couperin to notate precisely all the embellishments that players of his pieces should make. Thus as most French composers of the time, neither musician left to chance or the musicians’ taste their piece’s ornamentation. This tendency of French music stood in marked contrast to the Italian music of the period, in which singers and players were both given considerable freedom to improvise and ornament their musical performances as they saw fit.

Theme and Variation

A final musical form, theme and variation, played an important role in the keyboard music of the Baroque period. The theme itself consisted of a melody and accompanying bass line; sometimes the melody was that of a well-known song. The work began with a single rendition of the theme and was then followed by any number of sections that altered it, sometimes ingenuously “hiding” the melody in the bass or another voice so that a listener was forced to “hunt” for it. Each section consisted of a repetition or statement of the theme, but with modifications that kept the theme’s basic structure while showing off the skills and talents of both composer and performer. While variations on themes had played an important role in demonstrating musical virtuosity since the sixteenth century, eighteenth-century composers in particular reveled in the form. Of the innumerable examples of this genre that were produced at the time, one of the most famous is Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” which the composer published in 1741 after visiting with his former student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, court harpsichordist at Dresden. Like many of his compositions, Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” are conceived of as a massive intellectual project and are arranged according to several different organizational schemes. By contrast, the harpsichord theme and variations of George Frideric Handel, written when the composer was young, display a considerably more playful side. Theme and variation, a form that could alternately be serious or mischievous, survived long after Bach’s time. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Franz Josef Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were just a few of the many composers of the classical era that continued to write variations in the later eighteenth century.

Baroque Music for Instrumental Ensembles

Development of the Orchestra

The Baroque era saw the survival of older ideas about the constitution of ensembles alongside newer departures. In France and Italy, the groups of players commonly used to accompany court dances at the beginning of the seventeenth century were string bands; that is, they were composed of groups of violins and viols at different pitches. This notion of a consort, inherited from the Renaissance, continued to be popular throughout much of Europe well into the eighteenth century, but it co-existed alongside newer kinds of ensembles, ensembles that, like the modern orchestra, were composed of families of several different kinds of instruments. In France, the number of performers in the Violins du Roi (“Violins of the King”), a court ensemble used to accompany dances and ballets, was fixed at 24 by 1618; this string band continued to perform at royal events until it was abolished in 1761. In the later seventeenth century the French composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, relied on these professionals to provide accompaniment when his operas and ballets were performed at court. When he required a particularly large sound to produce dramatic effects, such as in his overtures, Lully augmented the 24 members of the Violins du Roi with the eighteen members of the king’s Petite Bande, another string consort in the royal household. The result produced a 42-member orchestra, an extraordinarily large ensemble by seventeenth-century standards. The sonority of Lully’s experiments with a large string consort, as well as the discipline and uniform performance practices of his players, were much admired by visitors to Paris, and helped to popularize the growth of larger string ensembles in other parts of Europe. Nowhere, though, did such string bands grow to more than about two-dozen members during the later seventeenth century. In the German courts of Central Europe, the much smaller resources of the region’s principalities meant that courtly string ensembles often had only four to six members. Rarely were more than twelve string players employed in the largest aristocratic households of the region. Vivaldi’s instrumental ensembles in early eighteenth-century Venice might number between 20 to 24 strings, and included a harpsichord charged with playing the continuo, that is the chords and harmonies that underlay and supported the melodies and other lines played by the strings. While Vivaldi’s ensemble was fairly typical of that used in many early Baroque “orchestras,” other sounds were tempting composers to add new families of instruments to their performance ensembles. In this way, many late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century performing ensembles were beginning to acquire more of the features of a modern orchestra. Already in the 1660s, the French composer Lully was sometimes augmenting the large string ensemble used to accompany his operas and court spectacles with other kinds of instruments, including wood-winds, brass, and even timpani players recruited from the king’s cavalry. At first, Lully employed these players using the rationale of Renaissance consort playing. Woodwinds and horns, in other words, were integrated into court productions, but they played their parts separately at times different from when the strings played. By 1674, though, the composer had begun to integrate these instrumental voices more thoroughly into the overtures and other incidental music of his operas. Still, in deference to his singers, Lully continued to use only string accompaniment during the action of the opera, so as not to overpower the performers, and these players usually plucked their instruments rather than bowing them. Visitors to Paris were impressed by the sounds that Lully’s larger orchestra produced, and in the years following his experiments, larger and more varied ensembles began to appear in many cities throughout Europe.

Early Eighteenth-Century Developments

By the mid-eighteenth century the development of mixed ensembles, ensembles that a modern ear would recognize as being similar to an orchestra, had already become popular in many places throughout Europe. At this time the growth of large ensemble playing was most advanced in Italy and France, although the custom of combining numerous families of contrasting instruments was quickly becoming popular in German-speaking Europe as well as in England. These new ensembles included strings, but also flutes, recorders, oboes, horns, and bassoons, and a new novelty, the “double bass;” although the latter was initially used primarily as a curiosity; it has since gained an essential place in the musical literature of the orchestra since the eighteenth century. The rise of these new small orchestras soon came to have many implications, both in performance practice and repertory. Unlike the older Renaissance system of using consorts of similar instruments that performed separately, the new orchestras were integrated organizations in which the individual families of instruments sat together and each had their own leader. To balance the sound produced in the halls in which they performed, violins were usually divided and stationed on both sides of the group, with violas, cellos, and basses taking their seats in their respective sections. Two oboe players were common in most of these ensembles, and since the oboes did not usually play simultaneously with the flutes, many orchestras included players who were proficient in both instruments and could thus take on double roles. Bassoon, horns, and a harpsichordist who played the continuo were also obligatory features of the new Baroque orchestras; timpani and trumpets were also used, although not as frequently. This orchestral makeup was particularly popular by the mid-eighteenth century in the presentation of operas written in Italian, and it became increasingly common for composers to orchestrate instrumental music with it in mind. The development of such a large and diverse group of players also heightened the importance of the conductor, and a new emphasis on discipline and high performance standards emerged in these ensembles. The range of sound that these groups were capable of producing also inspired a flood of compositions that took advantage of the possibilities of sound and volume that such large groups offered. For inspiration for these works, composers turned both to older forms of suites and overtures and to newer genres of concertos and sonatas. Thus during the period in which the modern orchestra was experiencing its long gestation, a creative ferment was also occurring as composers and conductors experimented with ways to make best use of the new sound possibilities their enlarged ensembles offered.

French Overture and Italian Sinfonia

The origins of the French overture, a popular Baroque orchestral form, lay in the ballets and operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully and other French composers active in the mid-seventeenth century. Lully had largely fixed the canons of this form by 1660, having adapted older kinds of entrance music to serve as a prologue for several of his ballets and operas. In these works he first set out a stately theme with tempos that were slow, even grave. Contemporaries described this aspect of the overtures as “majestic” or “heroic.” Another feature of the first section included the use of dotted rhythms, that is, rhythms in which longer “dotted” notes are set against a much shorter note or a succession of short notes. A fast section, reminiscent of a fugue, followed this stately first part. Usually, these themes were introduced quickly, and sometimes the composer abandoned the fugue to return in the second section to music that was more homophonic, that is, in which the ensemble’s various melodies more or less move at the same pace and to the same effect. Often a brief restatement of the first part’s theme was recurred in a cadence at the very end of the overture as a way of drawing the entire piece to conclusion. In the years following 1660, the style was widely adopted in France by most composers as the obligatory form for fashioning a musical prologue to ballets and operas. It quickly spread throughout Europe, becoming particularly fashionable in Germany. George Frideric Handel often made use of it in his operas, as did Bach who used it as the form for overtures for many of his orchestral suites. In the early eighteenth century, a new Italian form of overture, the sinfonia, was increasingly competing against the popularity of the French overture. In a sinfonia, a fast section was followed by a slow one before another rapid section concluded the overture. This form of prologue became particularly popular in eighteenth-century Italian operas, and gradually eclipsed the once-widespread popularity of the French overture. By the 1740s far fewer French overtures were being written than sinfonias, although late eighteenth-century composers sometimes revived its use. As late as 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the overture to his famous operaDie Zauberflöte using the form of the French overture.

The Suite

Many Baroque composers wrote works in several genres that were made up of multiple sections, each one like a separate composition, that were intended to be performed together at one sitting, one after the next. One example can be seen in the many dance suites that were often constructed out of individual movements, each of which made use of the rhythms and characteristics of the ballroom dances popular at the time. During the Baroque period, hundreds of such dance suites were written for solo instruments such as the lute or harpsichord, for smaller ensembles, and for the larger orchestral groups that were becoming popular. The form and length of each dance, or movement, in a suite depended on the steps of the original dance itself. Suites such as these had already begun to appear during the late Renaissance, and had often followed a specific order. By the middle and later Baroque era, a dance suite often contained a standard set of dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. An allemande is duple, and moderate in pace, while a minuet is in three. A courante uses triple time and is livelier. Sarabandes are slower and more sensual, allowing for more development of a melodic line. A gigue is lively. Also common in dance suites was the rondeau; a rondeau has a basic tune to which it returns several times after an intervening passage, rather like the chorus to a song. Gavottes, chaconnes, minuets, and branles were also dances that often figured in the suites. Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks are two still-famous compositions that make use of the dance suite form. The Water Music was written for a royal barge trip up the Thames River in the summer of 1717, and was first performed on the water by fifty musicians traveling in a barge alongside the king. By contrast, the Music for the Royal Fireworks represents a late Baroque elaboration of the original idea of the dance suite, and it includes one of the most brilliant French overtures of the Baroque repertory. In this piece, Handel elaborated upon the earlier form to include a kind of battling duet between the ensemble’s trumpets. The premiere version of Handel’s Fireworks music was originally scored for a woodwind band and was later revised to downplay wind instruments and include a role for strings. Even the revised form in which the music is heard today is noteworthy for the many brilliant, high passages that it includes for trumpets.

The Sonata

Both the sonata and the concerto are forms whose importance lasted far beyond the Baroque era. They were both Italian forms introduced into both secular and religious music in the early seventeenth century. Originally, both terms were used as simple names for instrumental music, but eventually they developed into very specific forms. Early Baroque sonatas and concertos were scored for a basso continuo (a harpsichord or another instrument that played the bass line) and one or more instruments. These early examples relied on any compositional form for the individual movements. Such descriptions are indeed vague, but the original meaning of the word “sonata” (from “sounded”) referred simply to any piece of music that was written for instruments, rather than performed by singers. Thus early Baroque compositions given the name “sonata” might have nearly any form. Before long, however, composers also began to use the term to describe groups of pieces of varying tempos like the popular dance suites of the time. As the sonata became more popular, it gradually acquired a standard shape so that by the eighteenth century, it was a group of three pieces, or movements—two faster ones with a slower movement in the middle. All sonatas, though, continued to be written for instruments. An amazing variety of instrumental pairings flourished in the sonatas of the early eighteenth century. Particularly popular was the trio sonata, which included independent melodic lines for two high-voiced instruments like the violin set against the bass lines of a continuo, which might be played by a harpsichord or more than one lower pitched instrument. For most of the seventeenth century sonatas were written primarily by Italian composers, many of who became aware of the commercial possibilities that existed in their publication. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Tomasso Albinoni (1671-1751) were two of the Italians composers that continued this tradition into the eighteenth century. By that time, however, the sonata had been avidly adopted and imitated by Austrian and German composers and the genre was also becoming increasingly popular in France, a region that had initially resisted it. Thousands of sonatas were now published or circulated in manuscript form, and the genre was one of the most common staples of the instrumental music of the period. In the classical period after 1750, the term “sonata form” also appeared to describe a specific movement, usually the first movement, within a symphony or concerto. At the same time instrumental sonatas for one or more instruments retained their popularity, surviving as an important form of chamber music into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Concerto

A similar line of development can also be seen in the history of the Baroque concerto, a term that was initially used in a vague and indistinct way, but which eventually described a standardized musical genre. The phrase from the first referred to a concert of instruments together. Many Baroque concertos, especially later ones, consisted of three movements, like sonatas, although the concerto became a standard form only later during the classical and Romantic periods. In a given movement, passages featuring solo performers or groups of performers alternated with those scored for the ensemble. Concertos were often performed at courts, where large numbers of musicians could be kept on staff, and they became prominent during the later Baroque era. Antonio Vivaldi was perhaps the single greatest force in popularizing the concerto format in the early eighteenth century. He wrote more than 500 of them; they circulated throughout Europe, and their popularity helped to standardize many of the conventions of the genre in the eighteenth century. Like other Italian musical forms of the period, Vivaldi’s concertos placed great emphasis on brilliant passagework that showed off a player’s virtuosity. The composer also developed the already existing tendency of Italian composers to insert a ritornello—that is, a repeating refrain into his movements—so that the soloist and ensemble appear as if they are speaking back and forth to one another. Almost half of Vivaldi’s enormous output of concertos was written for the violin; he wrote most of the others for the cello, flute, oboe, and bassoon. A number of these works were written as double concertos, that is, for two solo instruments with similar sounds. While Baroque concertos, like those of Vivaldi, increasingly highlighted the virtuosity and distinctive musical idiom of a particular instrument, another less popular form of concerto, the concerto grosso (meaning, “great concerto”), still remained popular. In these compositions the playing of a large group of instrumentalists was contrasted against passages of a small ensemble. Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) had developed this form in the seventeenth century, and both George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach made use of it in the eighteenth century. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721 in hopes of attaining a position in his court, are perhaps the greatest surviving example of the concerto grosso from the Baroque.

Music during the Rococo

Changing Tastes

In the years following the death of Louis XIV, new fashions among the French aristocracy emerged. In architecture and the visual arts, a new appetite for lighter, less ponderous spaces and interiors soon became evident in the years of the French Regency (1715-1723), and continued to spread during the later epoch known as the Rococo. A new emphasis on privacy and intimacy and on refined social graces came to be embodied in the development of salons, which were cultivated meetings of intellectuals, in Paris and other French cities. In these circles distaste grew for elaborate late Baroque styles, including the period’s interior design, art, architecture, and even its music, theater, and opera, now criticized as contrived and pompous. To many listeners, the elaborate counterpoint of late Baroque music, its intricate passagework, and rich ornamentation seemed increasingly outmoded. In several important musical centers new styles of musical composition began to emerge in the mid-seventeenth century. These new movements were both international and regional in nature. Many new styles emanated from Italy before being adopted elsewhere in the courts and chief musical centers of the continent. Elsewhere, particularly in northern Germany, other new patterns of composition emerged that held a more limited regional appeal and which were different from the prevailing Italian tastes of the age. The sum of all these new stylistic movements eventually led to the abandonment of many of the Baroque era’s compositional techniques and laid the groundwork for the emergence of the classical style that dominated musical composition in the later eighteenth century.

The Galant Style

The name for one of the new styles that captivated eighteenth-century composers and audiences alike, style gallant, is French, although many of its original sources of inspiration derived from Italian composers of the mid-eighteenth century. It became one of the most international of musical languages in Europe at the end of the Baroque period. As it was used in France at the time, the word galant implied a fashionable attention to current trends and the ways of court societies. A galant man was someone who was well aware of contemporary aristocratic fashions, who knew how to dress well, and how to act in civilized society. Composers who adopted this new suave and urbane style abandoned the complex counterpoint and chromatic harmonies of the high and later Baroque era in favor of clear melodies with an accompanying bass, elegant phrasing, graceful ornamentation, and small musical turns of wit and charm. These figures also tried to combine the undeniable melodic interest that was to be found in Italian musical styles of the time with the restrained elegance of French ones. Because of its lightness and charm, the new style was particularly suited to secular music, and as a result its greatest development was in the operas and instrumental music of the mid-eighteenth century. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) was among those who provided a source of inspiration for those composers who wished to write in the new Galant Style. Although he died very young, Pergolesi’s comic one-act opera, La Serva padrona, produced in Naples in 1733, was frequently restaged throughout Europe during the rest of the eighteenth century. A brief work, it was often mounted as an intermission entertainment, and its simpler but polished musical textures helped to establish a taste for elegant melodic arias in the opera world. In instrumental music, the taste for refined yet less complex works also had an immediate appeal in many musical circles, where the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and other late Baroque composers was now seen as overly complex and “unnatural.” It is interesting to note, though, that the fashion for the far simpler and less virtuosic compositions of the Galant Style appeared at a time when amateur musicianship was increasing dramatically throughout Europe. The works of the new style appealed to this audience, in part, because of their relatively light performance demands and their straightforward use of melody.

Georg Philipp Telemann

One of the most fertile exponents of the new Galant Style was Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), who was considered by many in his day to be the greatest living German composer. A contemporary of Bach and Handel, his music was often considered more appealing and accessible in the eighteenth century than works by his now more famous competitors. Telemann, like Antonio Vivaldi, ranked among the most prolific of all Baroque composers. During a relatively long life, Telemann composed scores of instrumental works, three dozen operas, more than one hundred orchestral suites, another hundred concertos, and more than 1,500 sacred cantatas and pieces of religious music. Telemann was not a virtuoso performer like Handel and Bach. Yet he exerted considerable influence over musical tastes in Germany and beyond, particularly after his appointment as musical director in the city of Hamburg. That appointment offered him the opportunity to direct the city’s opera, one of the most important in the country at the time. Telemann also wrote much of his music for the expanding amateur market, selling his publications of relatively simple and readily performable instrumental and ensemble music through subscriptions. The evidence of these editions shows his steadily increasing reputation throughout Europe. When in 1733, the composer made available his Musique de Table (in German,Tafelmusik; English: Table Music), more than a fourth of all subscriptions were bought by musicians outside Germany. The best of the composer’s many works manage to capture the changing tastes of the age and at times display his considerable skills as a composer; many more were competent works that appealed briefly to the fashions of his time. In 1737, Telemann made a journey to Paris, where he stayed for eight months and came in contact with the developing musical tastes of the Galant Style. In the years following his return to Hamburg he produced a number of works that helped to popularize the Galant fashion in German-speaking Europe and elsewhere. These included his six Paris string quartets, published in 1738 and sold by subscription. Unlike the highly structured and developed genre of the string quartet of the later eighteenth century, these works were perceived much like the instrumental suites popular throughout the Baroque era, although they were written for a smaller ensemble. Yet to this longstanding genre, Telemann brought a new sense of rhythmic invention and a gaiety and grace derived from his Parisian experiences as well as livelier strains of melodic invention from his knowledge of Italian operatic and instrumental writing of the period. Like music of the Baroque period, Telemann’s quartets show a persistent attempt to appeal to the emotions and to manipulate listeners’ moods. Yet it is interesting to note that he became increasingly definite about the precise moods that these Galant pieces were to evoke. Each piece commences with a description of the emotion that its playing should evoke, including such terms as “gay,” “graceful,” and “distraught.”

The Sensitive Style

In the decade following Telemann’s forays into the Galant idiom, many northern German composers experimented with the style, eventually producing a regional variation that was to have an important impact on the development of later instrumental and vocal music. These composers wanted to make the Galant Style even more emotionally expressive. They believed that a good composition should express a constant change of mood; its emotions should flicker like a candle whose flame is pushed by breezes one way, then another. They wrote the melodies of their compositions in short phrases full of nuance, and were especially interested in varying the loudness and softness, or dynamics, of a performance. This variant of the Galant Style became known as the empfindsamer Stil or “Sensitive Style.” Among its greatest exponents was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), the great Johann Sebastian’s second son. Emanuel Bach, as he was widely known, was one of four of Bach’s sons who became composers, and all of these experimented with the new Galant Style. Emanuel’s works, though, were particularly important to the development of later eighteenth-century chamber music and the symphony, the most distinctive contribution of the classical period to orchestral music. Much of Emanuel Bach’s career was spent working at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, where he was little appreciated and severely underpaid. In 1767, when his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann died in Hamburg, Emanuel replaced him in the important position of musical director of the city. Here he spent the last years of his life, and developed a distinctive musical language that was to have an important effect on other composers of the time. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach notated his compositions with particular care, using dynamic indicators like “p” and “pp” (piano and pianissimo, or soft and softer) or “f” and “ff” (forte and fortissimo, loud and louder) that were only just making an appearance in music composition and publishing at the time. In so doing, he helped to establish dynamic markings as an important tool of the composer’s trade. His works abandoned the complex contrapuntal techniques that his father had favored. His father is said to have supported these developments, recommending the works of certain Galant composers to him as appropriate sources for him to emulate. At the same time Emanuel Bach’s works made use of the complex and expressive harmonies and rhythmic sophistication that earlier Baroque composers had developed. His opus remains a highly personal expression of the forces that were available to composers as the Baroque was fading in favor of new, less intricate musical forms of expression.

Sturm und Drang

In the years after 1750, new literary movements in Germany, Austria, and other regions of Europe began to favor dramatic expressions of emotion, both on stage and in fiction. This movement was to become known in the German-speaking world as Sturm und Drang, or “Storm and Stress.” Artists, particularly writers, began to see these tumultuous emotional states as a necessary precursor to creativity. The developing sensibilities of the movement were to come to full flower in the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, which embraced the notion that little great artistic creation occurred without suffering. The German literary figures that embraced Sturm und Drang drew their ideas from many Enlightenment philosophers, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) and his new celebration of nature as the basis for artistic creation. They also were avid readers of Denis Diderot (1712-1784) and his Encylopédie. The articles of that voluminous work offered literary, musical, and artistic criticism on an incredibly broad range of subjects, and although it did not present a single point of view, many of its aesthetic critics attacked Baroque standards of taste as outmoded, contrived, and artificial. Of all the Sturm und Drang authors who were active in the German-speaking world, no one surpassed the creativity and influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe over the movement’s aesthetics. Two of his works—his play Götz von Berchlichingen in 1773, and his novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) in 1774—featured heroic figures that suffered great torment. In the case of Werther, the hero ends up committing suicide because of his unrequited love for a married woman. Goethe’s novel was to have a profound and lasting impact on German culture; it continued to be read by many nineteenth-century Romantics, and to inspire theatrical and operatic adaptations. Around the same time that Goethe’s important Sturm und Drang works were appearing, composers sought to do similar things with music. The first signs of this Sturm und Drang musical style can be seen in the operas and ballets of the period, where composer’s like Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787) created works that aimed to observe the effects of a broad range of emotional states. Gluck’s ballet Don Juan, first performed at Vienna in 1761, inspired many late eighteenth-century imitations. The work’s spectacular and horrific conclusion served as one source for Mozart’s famous finale to his opera Don Giovanni in 1787. Quick, dramatic changes; use of percussion; unaccompanied, emotional lines for singers; and rapid dynamic contrasts appear in the operatic productions inspired by Sturm und Drang as well. Composers in all the new styles that were becoming popular at the time thus preferred musical instruments that could articulate these phrases, and especially produce the dynamic contrasts, that their music demanded. In the realm of purely instrumental music, music for larger groups of players added or subtracted players as needed for a passage. Many composers became at this time very interested in the piano, or as they called it then, the fortepiano or pianoforte, because of its dynamic range. Of the many composers that experimented with these new concerns with volume and contrast, Josef Haydn (1732-1809) has been seen as one who developed a distinctive style that has often been called “Sturm und Drang.” Elements in his symphonic and vocal compositions in the years between 1768 and 1772, in particular, point to the influence of the literary and theatrical movement upon his works at this time.

The Reform of Opera

The Rising Status of the Composer

The experiments with new dramatically expressive kinds of music that the Galant and Sensitive styles fostered, and which were also found in the Sturm und Drang’s movement’s influence upon music, soon had an important effect on the operatic world of the eighteenth century. Opera was the place in which drama and the emotions had long found one of their most profound platforms for expression, and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a distinguished lineage of brilliant composers, including Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and George Frideric Handel, had developed the form in ways that heightened music’s ability to give dramatic expression to the subtlest shades of human emotion. In the century after 1650, though, few operas were performed in precisely the ways their composers had originally envisioned them. Opera was a business that, by and large, served audience tastes. Lully and the Arcadian reformers of Italy had envisioned forms of opera in the late seventeenth century that might rise to the level of the art of tragic antique plays. But the operatic world was driven by financial forces and by impresarios and singers who often were at odds with such elite ideals. Even in the serious operas of the period, artistic unity had frequently been sacrificed to singers’ demands to display their virtuosity before adoring crowds. Arias piled on top of one another in performances so that the various members of a cast might have a chance to show off their particular skills. After each, torrents of applause or, in more unfortunate circumstances, boos rained down upon the singers on the stage, thus suspending the action, often for long intervals before the drama could proceed once again. In this increasingly heated and competitive climate, singers traveled with their own arias, which they demanded be frequently inserted into the action of the particular piece they were performing in, often injuring a work’s story line. By the 1760s, some composers had grown increasingly impatient with such conventions, and they now longed to create an art that would have greater dramatic integrity. By the end of the century the effects of a gifted lineage of artists transformed opera, weaning it away from its once common performance practices and creating a new genre that might stand beside the theater for the quality of drama it offered. The effect of these transformations was to raise the status of composers as the defining figure in an opera’s creation. This process was long, and continued after 1800 as singers and impresarios battled to see that their ideas and contributions played a role on the operatic stage. But in the operas of figures like Christoph Willibald Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the groundwork was being laid for a distinctly modern conception of opera as a creation of a solitary musical genius, a creation that makes visible the composer’s artistic vision.

The “Reform” Operas of Gluck

The forces that were to revolutionize opera in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries first became evident to contemporaries in the “reform” operas of Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Gluck’s ideas for the reform of the genre were hardly revolutionary, since many Italian dramatists, librettists, and composers in the decades before Gluck began to stage his productions in Vienna had advocated similar reforms. Rather Gluck was the first to display the potential that might exist in an operatic art form in which drama and music were more closely integrated. One key figure in shaping Gluck’s ideas had been Pietro Metastasio, the accomplished librettist and poet who had long been a fixture of the Viennese court theater. Metastasio’s librettos, written mostly for the opera seria productions popular in that city from the mid-eighteenth century onward, had employed elevated verse and had displayed their author’s unusually keen dramatic sense. In the hands of impresarios, singers, and composers, though, his dramatic vision had often been subverted to take account of the realities of the opera house and its audiences. Metastasio had criticized these tendencies, arguing that the opera was filling up with arias that were little more than “symphonies for voices.” Ironically, the poet’s vision for an opera that might have greater dramatic unity was shared by his great enemy, Ranieri Calzabigi (1714-1795), who worked as Gluck’s librettist during the 1760s. Calzabigi’s libretti were characterized by a direct and forceful use of language rather than the elevated poetry common to Metastasio’s. In 1762, the team produced its first opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, a work that broke new ground in the integration of text and music and which set new dramatic standards that other composers would soon try to imitate. In Orfeo Gluck returned to the tale that had long spawned creativity in the operatic world, but he did so in a way that brought new insights to bear on how the tale should best be dramatized. Drawing much of his inspiration from French operatic traditions, he tried to integrate the chorus, spectacle, and dance into Orfeo and his subsequent productions. His compositional techniques blurred the gap that had long separated arias from spoken recitative. Further, in all respects of his production Gluck tried to balance the demands of the music against the drama. In particular, Gluck banished the incessant ritornellos, or orchestral refrains, that had grown common in the Italian opera of his day. Instead he aimed for a seamless dramatic portrayal, in which music and words marched hand in hand to a common goal. The success of Orfeo in the 1760s and 1770s was followed by a number of similar works, most of which successfully achieved Gluck’s reform-minded aims.

Other Changes in Opera

Although today Gluck is sometimes single-handedly portrayed as the great reformer of eighteenth-century opera, he was only one of several figures whose influence was transforming the genre at the time. In Stuttgart, another center of innovation, the Italian composer Nicoló Jommelli (1714-1774) was experimenting with similar changes in operatic production. And throughout Europe, the opera was acquiring a greatly expanded repertory of themes and plots. At this time the novel was acquiring great popularity as a literary form almost everywhere in Europe, providing a body of literature upon which librettists could draw for dramatizations. In addition, the theater itself was experiencing the birth of the form often referred to as “bourgeois drama,” that is, works that treated themes from the everyday life of the European middle classes. In the decades between 1760 and the 1790s, these themes began to make their way into the operatic world as well. Among the works that made use of the fashion for “middle-class” themes were two of the greatest operas of the age: Mozart’s Le nozze di figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) in 1786 and his Cosi fan tutte (The School for Lovers) in 1790.

The Rise of Classicism and Romanticism

Defining the Period

The music of the later eighteenth century has often been described as “classical,” a term that is problematic for several reasons. Like the composers of the later Renaissance and the early Baroque, the great commanding figures of this classical era, Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the youthful Ludwig van Beethoven, did not imitate the music of classical Antiquity since little ancient music survived for them to emulate. Rather the use of the term “classical” to describe their music developed in the nineteenth century among those who saw in these composers a musical language that expressed harmony, balance, and an idealized sense of beauty, values that were at the time seen to be very different from the more emotional and rebellious spirit found in the works of the early Romantics, the movement that was long seen as replacing the “classical” style after 1800. The term “classical,” in this sense, thus came to summarize the differences between the music of this brief era and the Baroque period that preceded it, as well as the Romantic era that soon followed it. Such an easy generalization has proven difficult to sustain on closer inspection, since more recent research has shown that many European composers in the later eighteenth century did not completely abandon the techniques and forms that Baroque composers had long relied upon. Nor did all adopt the elegant simplicity and balanced poise typical of the works of Mozart or Haydn. This classical style was common only among certain groups of composers, particularly those that lived and worked in and around the Austrian capital of Vienna at the end of the eighteenth century, and among artists who imitated their musical idiom throughout Europe. The designation of this period as “classical” proves similarly problematic, since even in the works of the two supreme examples of the classical style—Haydn and Mozart—elements are present that herald the more tempestuous Romanticism of the early nineteenth century. As a result, the term “classical” has in recent years come to be associated only with a particular kind of musical style popular among the Viennese composers and their imitators throughout Europe for a relatively brief period in the late eighteenth century.

The Eighteenth Century and the Notion of Musical “Classics”

The use of the term “classical” proves problematic, too, on other grounds. During the eighteenth century the modern phenomenon of a musical public for serious music emerged. Around 1700, those who attended concerts and operas, or who listened to music in church, expected to hear music that was new. Major public events at this time called for original music; those compositions might still be played for a few years, but new ones would soon replace them as listeners expected with popular music. In the opera houses of the time, too, few works survived in the repertory of most companies for more than a few years. Throughout the eighteenth century an important change was occurring in the ways in which people thought about and listened to music. First in England, then in other parts of Europe, many people came to value the great composers of the early eighteenth century and sought to continue to perform their works. The English society called the “Concert of Antient Music,” founded in London in 1776, devoted itself to organizing concerts of earlier music, and in 1789, thirty years after Handel’s death, they organized a festival to commemorate his music. This attitude toward music was similar in many ways to the reverence that was developing in eighteenth-century England for the works of Shakespeare, which were now hailed as literary embodiments of the genius of the English language. Like Handel’s music, Shakespeare’s works were quickly becoming a body of texts that was seen as canonical, literary classics that should be continually revived, performed, and celebrated in festivals. In the musical world this enthusiasm for older music soon spread elsewhere, as groups in Germany and other parts of Europe revived the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and other composers of the Baroque era. The advocates of these revivals believed that the music of these composers was not only beautiful, but also serious and learned. Its performance might uplift listeners, in contrast to popular songs of their day that they condemned as immoral and bawdy. The new conventions of these revival movements taught that the music of earlier times deserved special attention and that it should be listened to in silence and respect. As a result of these early efforts at revival, the notion of “classical music” as a serious art form was created. An assumption of the concert-going public as it developed at the end of the eighteenth century was that public performances of serious music should include not only new compositions, but also those composed many years earlier, including as far back as the later Baroque era.

Europe’s Musical Centers

Since the eighteenth century fans of European serious music have relied upon the term “classical” in two ways; they have used it to refer to the entire body of composed music written in the Western tradition that merits serious listening in every era, even as they have also employed the word to describe the short period at the end of the eighteenth century that was dominated by the elegant, simple, and balanced works of figures like Haydn and Mozart. Both figures developed a specific musical language that has often been called “Viennese classicism.” It is undeniable that the works of these composers were avidly studied and imitated throughout Europe, sponsoring the development of “Viennese classical” schools of composers as far away as Finland. Yet Vienna was only one of many important musical centers in late eighteenth-century Europe. London and Paris, for example, had more vigorous and well-established traditions of public concert going than Vienna did, and both Haydn and Mozart were concerned throughout their careers to see that their music was played and known in these and other cities. Today the works of Haydn and Mozart have become so widely known that they have become in many people’s minds synonymous with the entire concept of a late “eighteenth-century” sound. The enormous popularity of these works, though, tends to obscure the unprecedented compositional activity and experimentation that was occurring in many places throughout Europe in this period. The small city of Mannheim, for instance, was the capital of the southwestern German state of the Rhineland Palatinate, and despite its size was one of the great centers of musical innovation at the time. Mozart, Haydn, and other great Viennese composers kept abreast of the musical developments that occurred there, and they wrote works for the great virtuosi that were members of the city’s famous orchestra. The city’s composers, recognized already in the late eighteenth-century as a “Mannheim School,” developed a musical idiom different from Viennese classicism. Among the most famous members of this group, Johann Stamitz (1717-1757) and his son Carl Stamitz (1734-1801), made use of rapid dynamic changes and contrasting themes, elements that showed off the brilliant playing of the Mannheim orchestra. Both Gluck and Haydn hailed another Mannheim-trained composer, Johann Martin Kraus (1756-1792), as a musical genius. Trained at Mannheim and active in Paris and Stockholm, Kraus’s reputation has since the eighteenth century been eclipsed by his almost exact contemporary, Mozart. Beyond Vienna and Mannheim, Paris and a number of Italian cities nurtured composers and musicians that developed international reputations at this time.


By the final years of the eighteenth century, Vienna was already eclipsing these other centers, in large part because of the productivity of its most famous composers, Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and at the very end of the century, Ludwig van Beethoven, a citizen of the German city Bonn who took up residence in the city and studied for a time with Haydn. Vienna had many other musical figures of merit as well, some of who attracted international attention at the end of the eighteenth century. These included Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799), a composer of a number of opera and symphonies; Johann Albrechtsberger (1736-1809), a composer of sacred and keyboard music who often wrote fugues; and Joseph Eybler (1765-1846), a protégé of the great Haydn. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Mozart’s pupil, also came to maturity during the era of Viennese classicism, and continued to write music that reflected its values during the early nineteenth century. It was Josef Haydn, however, that helped to establish the conventions of many of the genres of orchestral and instrumental music in which the Viennese masters wrote. These forms have continued to dominate much serious music until modern times. Haydn’s influence was especially important in the development of the symphony, the string quartet, the sonata, and the piano trio. Born in humble circumstances, he was initially trained as a choirboy. Left without resources at the age of seventeen he followed a musical career. He began schooling himself in composition, largely by reading the major works of musical theory and by studying the scores of other major composers, including Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Soon he became an accompanist in the study of Nicola Porpora, one of the leading opera impresarios of the age and the voice teacher of such great singers as Farinelli and Caffarelli. Porpora offered whatever guidance he could as Haydn began to perfect his compositions, but Haydn developed a musical language that was distinctly his own even in his early years. During the 1750s and 1760s, the composer experimented with the latest styles, writing compositions in ways that made use of the techniques of the Galant and Sensitive Styles, and experimenting with ways to express Sturm und Drang emotions in his music toward the end of this period. The longest portion of the great composer’s career was spent at the Esterhàzy court, one of the wealthiest and most cultivated aristocratic circles in Central Europe. The Esterhàzy employed one of the largest orchestras of the day, and within five years of Haydn’s appointment in 1761, he had risen to become the director of this enviable musical establishment. He remained in this position full-time until 1790, although his duties often brought him to Vienna. In the Esterhàzy household, Haydn was required to produce music in all the genres then popular, and although he initially had some problems in getting along with the count, he gradually acquired great independence and through the publication of his works in Austria and abroad, he acquired a sizable fortune.

Haydn’S Works and His Impact on the Sonata Form

Haydn was enormously prolific, although in the generations after his death a number of works were falsely attributed to him. Today his considerable output of new compositions is recognized to include 104 symphonies, 68 string quartets, 29 trios, 14 masses, and 20 operas. Haydn authored a number of concertos, piano sonatas, and a host of smaller compositions as well. Although he produced masterpieces in almost every genre, it is for the glories contained in his symphonies and string quartets that he has most often been celebrated. Although Haydn did not create the symphony, he perfected its form and composed a body of symphonies that has consistently served as a source of inspiration to later composers. Among these, the Paris Symphonies (Numbers 82-87) are generally recognized as the first set of masterpieces of Haydn’s mature style. They were commissioned for performance at a Masonic lodge in that city during 1785-1786, and they were enthusiastically accepted from their first hearing. Haydn’s set of London symphonies (Numbers 93-104), completed while the composer was a resident of the English capital, represent his crowning achievement in the genre, and they continue to be among the most commonly played eighteenth-century orchestral works. Through his many compositional efforts, Haydn also helped to establish the popularity of the sonata form, a form that was increasingly used to organize the first movement of piano sonatas, concertos, and symphonies. The development of this form helped give composers standards to guide their work and ways to show off their skills and creative imagination. It gave members of the audience a sense of what to listen for, so that they could both enjoy the work and appreciate the ways a composer played with the form. Once it took its basic shape, composers used sonata form throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. A movement in sonata form has two main parts. In the first part, called the “exposition,” the composer first introduces a main musical theme in the work’s main key, then a second theme in a related key. The second main part has two sections. The first of these is called the “development” because the composer plays with, or develops, the themes from the first section in a number of ways. In the second section, the “recapitulation,” the composer goes back to the main themes again in ways that recall the exposition, though now the work stays in its main key. Some movements in sonata form may simply end with a cadence, a set of concluding chords, while others may add a coda, or concluding segment. This format is fairly simple and allows for a great deal of variation and creativity. Although he was not the only composer to make use of the form, Haydn’s brilliant use of sonata form has consistently provided inspiration to composers since the eighteenth century who have relied upon it.

The String Quartet

At the end of the eighteenth century strings continued to hold the highest respect among musical instruments, second only to the voice in overall status. Groups of stringed instruments ranging in size (and therefore in pitch, from low to high) playing together had been common since the Renaissance.

In the mid-eighteenth century, composers varied some of the works they had been writing for violins and continuo. They began to prefer a stringed instrument, usually the cello, for the lowest or continuo part, and to include a middle part for the viola. In this way the harpsichord, which had often served to play the continuo part, gradually disappeared from these ensembles, in favor of a new grouping that consisted only of strings. The resulting group of four voices—two violins, a viola, and a cello—became a standard group for composers and performers, known as the string quartet. Haydn’s enormous output for these string ensembles helped to popularize the form of the string quartet, and to standardize the genre’s form even more definitively than his orchestral works influenced the later writing of symphonies. Through his efforts the string quartet was largely established as a form that consisted of four movements, usually of fast opening and concluding pieces surrounding two interior movements. One of these interior pieces was usually written as a slow movement, while the other was often a minuet. In his 68 quartets, the composer’s continuous adaptation to the changing styles and tastes of the late eighteenth century become brilliantly apparent, as does the depth of his creative and lyrical genius. These works, like the composer’s famous Paris and London symphonies, demonstrate the sense of balance, proportion, and idealized beauty, as well as the intellectual coherence and ready intelligibility that have often been noted as key features of the musical language of the Viennese classical era. During his brief life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart also composed 26 string quartets of incomparable beauty, although it still remains today largely a matter of taste which composer’s works an individual listener prefers. Mozart freely admitted his great indebtedness to Haydn in perfecting his use of the form when he published his homage to the great master, the “Six Haydn Quartets” in 1785. Both composers’ quartets rank among the greatest achievements in the Western musical tradition, and long provided a fertile source of inspiration for the great masterful contributions that nineteenth-century composers like Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms continued to make to the genre.


While Haydn’s great genius has long been recognized, his accomplishments have paled in the popular imagination to those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a figure who was recognized in his own lifetime in Austria and beyond as a divinely-inspired prodigy. Haydn wrote masterful compositions in many genres, but influenced later compositions primarily through his symphonies and string quartets. He also struggled with composition, laboring over his pieces until he got all the details just right. Mozart, by contrast, amassed a catalogue of works during his brief life that included masterpieces in every musical genre common in the later eighteenth century. He was, in other words, a great universal genius, as capable of setting church music and opera as he was of producing major works for the orchestra or the small ensemble. Unlike Haydn, he was reported not to have labored at all over his compositions, but to have produced them while carrying on conversations with his family and friends. Trained by his father to assume the role of a musical director within the confines of a traditional court, the Archbishopric of Salzburg, Mozart made many significant contributions to church music early in his career, and continued to write sacred music throughout his life. His output of sacred music included fourteen masses; two oratorios and several sacred musical dramas; and 22 motets, besides his incomplete but masterful Requiem, one of only several masterpieces he worked on during the final months of his life. He produced fifteen operas, notably his great masterworks, The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 and Don Giovanni in 1787, as well as several other musical dramas, like Cosi fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, and Idomeneo that continue to inspire enormous admiration today. He wrote 56 symphonies and 23 piano concertos, as well as a host of incidental and dance music for orchestra, small ensembles, and keyboard. Such a brief description barely scratches the surface of Mozart’s art and fails to do justice to the many small gems that the faithful listener can discover among his opus. It is impossible to summarize in brief the scope of such an achievement, an achievement that was compressed into the brief space of only 35 years, although generations have consistently called attention to the composer’s melodic invention, his rich harmonies and textures, his sense of elegant beauty, and his formal proportions. His achievement has long been accepted as the finest expression of the Viennese classical era. And yet, in the later stages of his career, particularly in the final years of his life, the composer also experimented with a new musical language that was to come to full flower only later in the Romantic era. His late works anticipated the more tempestuous Romantic musical language that Beethoven and other Viennese composers were to develop in the early nineteenth century.

The Rise of Romanticism

In the final years of the eighteenth century, composers in Vienna and other European musical centers began to experiment with new sounds and styles, making use of a broader range of possibilities that the new large orchestras of the time offered. They also exploited the widespread popularity of small, intimate chamber ensembles like the string quartet. In Vienna and other European musical centers many composers began to experiment with new sounds and styles, and music began to change very quickly. These changes can be seen in the career of Ludwig van Beethoven, who studied with Haydn in Vienna in 1792. Although he was schooled in the graceful elegance and rationality of Viennese classicism, Beethoven soon began to experiment with ways to enlarge that style’s possibilities. Beethoven’s career also coincided with an important change in the taste of European audiences and composers. By the end of the eighteenth century instrumental music was attracting more and more attention, a departure from sensibilities of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, which had held vocal music in highest esteem. The increasing importance of instrumental music was a result of new thinking about the arts. In particular, the literary movement known as Romanticism began to have its effect on the world of music as well as the other arts. Its advocates valued feelings and emotion over words and reason. Many of them argued that instrumental music, with its abstraction from both words and pictures, was the noblest and highest form of human expression. While early Romantic composers like Beethoven and Franz Schubert kept the basic rules of harmony and composition they inherited from the eighteenth century, they often departed from those rules or subtly modulated them to express their innermost feelings, and so to uplift the spirit of the audience. Thus advocates of Romanticism broke the connection between melody and word, the rhetorical pattern of thought that had inspired many of the musical innovations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although it is usually true to say that the boundaries of decades or centuries are too artificial to mark the ends of artistic movements, it is reasonable to say that the years around 1800 marked an important change in European music. From this time forward a new Romanticism was to surpass in importance the long-standing sensibilities of the Baroque and classical eras.