7: The Baroque era, part 1 (poetry, drama and secularism, 1600-1650)

The term baroque describes an era in which art, architecture and music adopted a grand, ornate style during the years 1600 to 1750. It is best understood by its architecture, which adorned the balanced simplicity of renaissance design with exquisite detail. The opulent Hall of Mirrors (17thC) at the Palace of Versailles and Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa (1647-52, both below) are paradigms of baroque design and sculpture respectively.

Often new cultural tendencies develop through rejecting a prior orthodoxy, though baroque music evolved by taking the intellectual orthodoxy of the renaissance more seriously, not rebelling against it. In doing so, baroque composers developed new approaches, culminating in the late greats of the era: Vivaldi, Handel and JS Bach. Today I’ll highlight how the innovations which heralded the baroque era were the consequences of renaissance thought and its roots in ancient Greece.


If you would like to read about the renaissance in more depth, please see previous posts (or my summary, here). If you prefer listening whilst you read, you can find today’s musical examples below.


The First Orchestras

Modern people often look back on the renaissance as the ascension of reason (and hence the rejection of religion), leading to the enlightenment in the 18th century, and then widespread atheism in the 20th century. Though there is a grain of truth to this, renaissance thinkers tended to (like the Greeks) see reason and religion coexisting happily.

Following this view of reason and belief, composers around 1600 started to adopt elements of sacred music to secular settings and vice versa. Secular music became elevated as a subject for serious artistic contemplation, whilst sacred music evolved to include the instruments usually reserved for secular music. Whilst renaissance composers’ sacred music was exclusively a cappella, Venetian Giovani Gabrieli composed the original surround sound experiences: distributing groups of instrumentalists and singers throughout the galleries and balconies of St Mark’s Basilica.

Soon it became normal for early trombones, trumpets and strings to play alongside choir and organ in Catholic churches. You can listen to Gabrieli’s best-known work, In Ecclesiis (1609) here. It is an example of bold and ambitious innovation, but one which paid off by laying the foundations for orchestral writing since.

Venetian polychoral style | COVE
The Galleries of St Mark’s Cathedral, Venice

Opera and the elevation of secular music

I’ve previously contrasted the renaissance interest in secular life with the greater medieval concern for the afterlife, so it may seem strange that the treasures of renaissance music are all religious. Whilst artists and literary men were producing secular masterpieces in the 16th century (think da Vinci, Shakespeare etc.) composers failed to follow suit. Why was this? Though the reasons are complex, musicians were largely dependent on the church, whereas artists and writers often had secular patrons.

Though late to the secular party, secular music developed dramatically around the turn of the 17th century through the invention of opera. True to renaissance orthodoxy, a group of musicians and scholars known as the Florentine Camerata sought to revive classical Greek theatre by combining acting, singing and dance to make an all-encompassing spectacle. Music had always been focal to Greek theatre: their early plays were all tragedies, and the term tragedy itself is a composite of the Greek words for ‘goat’ and ‘singing’. Why goat? Greek tragedy evolved out of festivals celebrating Dionysus (the god of wine and ritual chaos), whose entourage were goat-like creatures known as satyrs. See more about Dionysus in Greek music here.

A short story about Dionysus | Greece and Grapes
Drunken Silenus supported by Satyrs (Anthony van Dyck, c.1620). Silenus was the tutor of Dionysus.

Unfortunately, the polyphonic style of the renaissance, beautiful though it was, did a poor job of clarifying the text. Without the text being sung clearly, how could an audience follow the unfolding story? An entirely new musical language was developed to clarify the text, starting with recitativo: a declamatory style of singing which matched the rhythm and melodic inflections of spoken phrases, usually scored against a duo of bass and keyboard instruments (basso continuo). It is unsurprising that Italian was the first language to be translated into melodious speech-style song: Italian evolved through the interaction of many regional dialects, so Italians adopted inflection and hand gestures to make themselves more comprehensible to people of other dialects.

The first operas would be constructed by alternating between brief recitativo sections to tell the story, and arias (songs) to reflect the emotions of recent events. Hence the story and its mood would be mediated by a continuous back-and-forth between action and reflection. Though he wasn’t a member of the Florentine Camerata, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was the first composer to develop these innovations into a full opera: L’Orfeo (1609, excerpt here). How appropriate that the operatic revival of Greek theatre should be founded on one of Greek myth’s greatest tragedies, moreover one whose protagonist was a great musician (see here for more on the Orphic myth).

Claudio Monteverdi - Concerts, Biography & News - BBC Music
Claudio Monteverdi
Orpheus - Wikipedia
Greek mosaic – Orpheus subduing wild animals with his music

L’Orfeo marked not just the first opera, but the earliest large-scale secular musical work. Exactly a century after Raphael’s painting The School of Athens (1509), music had joined the renaissance project of elevating secular life and invented an entirely new musical language to do so. In other words, music became better aligned with the intellectual project of the renaissance, though had totally evolved beyond the music of the renaissance period. Hence the baroque era was born.

Despite the importance of L’Orfeo, Monteverdi’s most celebrated opera is L’incoronazione di Poppea (c.1650), written when the composer was in his 70s. It takes a controversial theme, a vengeful love affair between Nero, emperor of Rome, and his mistress Poppea. In doing so, Monteverdi wrote the first in a long tradition of operas to take themes so licentious they make gossip magazines look tame. The closing duet, “Pur ti Miro” was the very first romantic duet in opera – think how many musicals and films have built on this since. The musical performance below is sublime, even if Nero looks like a member of the Adam’s family in drag.

Monteverdi is also celebrated for his madrigals (secular songs for choir) in which his dramatic flair brought Italian poetry to life. Lamento della Ninfa (The Nymph’s Lament), taken from his 8th book of madrigals (C.1610), is Monteverdi at his melancholic best. It is an early example of the chaconne, a new genre based on the repetition of a bass pattern (often known as ground bass). This bass pattern is simply a stepwise descent of four notes, a pattern known to Italian composers as the pianto motif, representing falling tears. The constant repetition of this tear motif underscores the longing of the Greek nymph for her beloved.

Monteverdi was a master of generating various emotional atmospheres. As well as pieces on amorous longing and tragic loss, Monteverdi wrote exceedingly optimistic music. Below is the duet Zeffiro Torna (1632) which celebrates the coming of Zephyrus, the Greek god of the west wind and bringer of spring (most famously depicted in the top left of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, C. 1485, below). Just like Lamento della Ninfa, Zeffiro is based on a repeating bass figure, this one moving energetically to underscore the singers heralding the coming of spring.

The Birth of Venus - Wikipedia
Sandro Botticelli – The Birth of Venus

You may notice that all the examples above are on Greco-Roman topics – none refer to the Italy of Monteverdi’s time. This is typical of the reverence renaissance Italians felt towards the classics for the past two centuries (1400-1600). Monteverdi was the composer to best realise this reverence musically, providing the catalyst to transform music from a polyphonic language of religious devotion to a dramatic, poetic language of secular feeling. Hence it was adherence to the renaissance as an intellectual project, rather than an evolution away from it, that caused music to evolve: a case of innovation through conservatism.

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