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The Enlightenment

The Baroque World:
Music from Heaven?

Gill Ross
Rhodes University
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The Enlightenment was a unique and wonderful age in which an entirely new way of thinking developed. This view profoundly affected every facet of life including music. Above all, it represented humankind as able to reason and therefore able to choose its own destiny.

This essay will attempt to show how Baroque music must be seen as the ultimate expression of this joyful discovery, for as Friedrich suggests, "Baroque sought to give literary and artistic expression to an age which was intoxicated with the power of man."

CJH Hayes, Modern Europe to 1870 (New York, 1953), 371.

Only by examining what constituted the Enlightenment can the link with Baroque music be appreciated. For just as the Enlightenment was a revolution of intellectual thinking, for man was no longer concerned primarily with sin and his salvation, so was Baroque music revolutionary.

Composers of this period tried to convey the sensuous qualities of music, of mood and emotion. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact moment for the birth of the Enlightenment but Newton's publication of his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687 appears to have been the catalyst.

A key word of the Enlightenment was reason. Nothing was to be taken on faith but rather scrutinized and criticized logically, which meant natural scientific and natural laws would govern the lives of individuals rather than the supernatural.

This rational, critical and questioning approach would also lead to the discovery of the structures of human society and of nature. So herein lay the foundation of the social sciences which also led to the very important concept of progress and consequently an optimistic belief in the ability of humankind to move towards perfection. With the advent of reason, religious institutions, society and politics were dissected and discussed.

JP McKay & Others, A History of World Societies since 1500 (Boston, 1984), 799.

It was this critical vision and yet profound belief in the power of these concepts that led to the exuberant spirit of optimism and enthusiasm of the Enlightenment. From approximately 1750, the Enlightenment reached its peak, especially in France, but later linking up with the German Enlightenment.

This new vision was spread by a group of men who termed themselves philosophes, the French name for philosophers. Men such as Bacon, Fontanelle, the Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire, Locke, Spinosa, Pierre Bayle, Descartes, Kant, Goethe and Diderot were just some of the men who represented this spirit of critical vision.

Man was seen to have the potential within himself for happiness, to be manifested through reason. Descartes' Discourse on Methods (1641) and Bacon provided the impetus for this new form of reasoning.

But this approach of critical and rational questioning, together with a call for freedom and tolerance of religious beliefs as in Locke's Epistola de Tolerantia clashed with the still influential voices of the established churches whose foundations were embedded in theology.

The Philosophes did not write in a vacuum. They were not necessarily atheists. Some were deeply religious men who believed however that God would not abandon mankind to hell.

They were influenced by the attitudes of their time and yet in turn shaped those attitudes through such works as Diderot's Encyclopaedia finally completed in 1772 which greatly increased people's tolerance through knowledge.

But one disadvantage of the Enlightenment was that it appealed only to a very small elite. Its message did not reach the general populace. Furthermore reason was not all, according to Hume writing during the British Enlightenment.

He believed rather that human passion and experience was of greater significance, which reflects the essential duality of the Baroque.

SJ Lee, Aspects of European History, 1494-1789 (London, 1984), 251-5.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the chasm between Protestant and Catholic deepened irrevocably with the outbreak of the religious wars and of terrible religious intolerance. Throughout Europe, nations were split into differing factions as kings and rulers sought to ensure that their subjects followed the religion dictated by them.

This ultimately led to the religious fanaticism on the part of Protestant and Catholic alike, culminating in the devastating and bloody Thirty Years War which only ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This war was to set back the German Enlightenment at least a generation.

Louis XIV also revoked the Edict of Nantes protecting the Huguenots in 1685 which lead to further religious intolerance. But all the bloodshed and destruction of the religious wars gradually paved the way for the process of secularization, especially strong in the Protestant countries and which was to give rise to the modern state and to pave the way for the Enlightenment.

To understand why Baroque music epitomizes the Enlightenment, it is necessary to ask the question as to how this particular style originated and where.

Weber suggests the Baroque style arose partly out of the Counter-Reformation, from the directives of the Council of Trent, especially in art as inspired by the need to glorify God and Church in the face of the Protestant condemnation of the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic Church.

E Weber, A Modern History of Europe (New York, 1971), 353.

Yet Friedrich argues that although the origins of the Italian Baroque slipped into the time of the Counter-Reformation after 1550, the height of the Baroque came at a time when the influence of the Counter-Reformation was dying.

Many of the greatest creations and compositions of the Baroque period were conceived by Protestants who would violently oppose the Catholic movement and all that it stood for. Nevertheless the musicians and composers, Catholic and Protestant alike, must have been influenced by the religious and political turmoil of their times.

The Baroque man, on one hand, was fully aware of the power of man but also aware that man was limited and ultimately controlled by a higher being.

CJ Friedrich, The Age of the Baroque 1610 - 1660 (New York, 1962), 44.

Friedrich also opposes the view that the Baroque style could be attributed solely to absolutism. Although absolute monarchs and princes such as Louis XIV, Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great significantly contributed to the spread of the Baroque, especially in architecture, through their patronage of the artists, composers, painters and playwrights of the time, this view ignores the rise and development of the wealthy bourgeoisie who patronized the operas and purchased the art of the Baroque artists.

For the Enlightenment encompassed not only the monarchs, but also lawyers, doctors, scientists and philosophers. This view, however, also neglects the fact that Baroque plays and operas, artwork and architecture were available for all people although sponsored as it were by royalty.

Friedrich, The Age of the Baroque, 44.

Variations of the Baroque style could be found across Europe spread by musicians, artists and philosophers who gravitated all over Europe, such as Descartes who settled in the Netherlands and who epitomized the Baroque man's sense of power and self in his statement "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am).

Spain experienced a flourishing of its literature, an example of which is Don Quixote by Cervantes. Shakespeare produced Baroque plays such as King Lear and Macbeth. Goethe produced Faust.

France did experience the Baroque, although this is also referred to as classicism and rococo. Even costume and dress were affected by the spirit of the Baroque, for the wig became a fixture of the Baroque age. Sexual excesses were common features of this age and gluttony was a common symptom. All are characteristic of the Baroque age, reflecting its duality, so magnificently expressed through its music.

The expression of intense emotions such as love, despair, exultation, wonder, jealousy and rage through music was a characteristic of the Baroque. As such the music became very elaborate and dramatic. Significantly, it was fast becoming the domain of the secular rather than being written just to glorify the church.

At last, music was available for people to enjoy, not only in church which had greatly expanded the cultural boundaries for many people. Consequently, Baroque music exemplifies the spirit of progress of the Enlightenment.

The Baroque Age stretches from approximately 1600 to about 1750, and includes the music of Claudio Monteverdi in the late 16th century right through to Johan Sebastian Bach and ultimately Frederick Handel in the 18th century.

Just as architecture at this time was very elaborate and decorative, so was the music equally ornamental. Consequently the music is also called Baroque, aptly reflecting its unique and fantastic qualities. The Baroque represented the move away from the polyphonic style and the renouncing of counterpoint to strive in turn for a simpler style or monody such as that of the Florentine Camerata.

L Alberti, Music through the Ages (London, 1974), 86.

So recitative music was born, consisting of one melodic line for a solo voice with only very basic instrumental accompaniment. The Opera developed out of recitative music, the very first opera being Dafne and later Euridice.

Yet it was only with the explosion of the genius of Monteverdi that opera came to be of great significance for he was able to express human emotions and moods in his compositions. Monteverdi is also considered to be the originator of the symphony orchestra.

Jean Baptiste Lully developed the opera in France and also significantly developed the role of the orchestra and introduced ballet. Alessandro Scarlatti laid the foundations of Italian opera. Henry Purcell created Dido and Aeneas in England. Baroque music also featured the development of religious music, such as the oratio and the Passion.

Carissimi wrote the first oratio Jephtha. During the Renaissance, the Passion employed a chorus not accompanied by music. In the Baroque period, however, the Passion was accompanied by an orchestra and included solos and chorales when the congregation joined in the singing. Heinrich Schutz was considered to be the first significant composer of Passions.

The cantata was another important musical invention of the Baroque, as was the linking of dance music to form a suite. Other significant developments were the creation of the sonata, concerto, fugue and toccata.

Bach may be termed one of the greatest composers and musicians of the Baroque, although his music was not fully appreciated in his time. Handel must be remembered for at least his great oratio The Messiah.

Dietrich Buxtehude of Germany, greatly developed the cantata, using chorales. Scarlatti also wrote cantatas as well as operas. The Aria was also modified.

Another very significant feature of the Baroque was the development of instrumental music as opposed to purely vocal music. Figured bass as a form of musical notation became prominent but counterpoint was not completely denounced and ultimately developed into dramatic instrumental music.

D Edwin, "Baroque Music" in The New Book of Knowledge , Vol 2 (Philippines, 1982), 63-7.

The Baroque period was a time of great experimentation, which further links up to the Enlightenment as promoting progress and the expression of creativity. Baroque music echoes the Enlightenment for never again would music be the same.

The Enlightenment banished the darkness of ignorance and superstition, and formulated the notions of reason and progress through which at least humankind was seen to strive for perfection.

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