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The Baroque Ideal

At first when the term Baroque was used it had a restrictive and derogatory connotation. But in the literature of music, since the late nineteenth century, it has denoted comprehensively the music of the period from approximately 1580 to 1750.

Baroque music is conceived today to comprise such diverse manifestations as the madrigals of Gesualdo, the early musical pastorals of Peri and Monteverdi, the tragicomedies of Scarlatti and the tragédies lyriques of Rameau. In instrumental music it comprehends such categories as the toccatas of Merulo, the trio sonatas of Corelli, and the concertos of Vivaldi. In baroque church music are embraced styles as opposed as the passions of Schütz and the cantatas of Bach.

Is it justifiable to lump together into one stylistic period and under one label such diverse modes of musical expression as these? Many have asked this question as the music of this period has become better known, particularly since Manfred Bukofzer's pioneering study, Music in the Baroque Era (1947). The appropriateness of the term baroque itself has been questioned. Because these doubts have been raised, we must examine whether a unifying concept exists in the period we call baroque and, indeed, whether the term is a fitting one.

The French philosopher Noel-Antoine Pluche used the word baroque in 1746 to characterize the style of playing of Jean Pierre Guignon as opposed to Jean Baptiste Anet, then the most celebrated violinist in Paris. Guignon, he says, aims to show off his great agility, to amuse and surprise. Baptiste, on the other hand, prefers a sustained expressive style that aspires to the lyricism of the human voice. He disdains pure display, which "for him is to wrest laboriously from the bottom of the sea some baroque pearl, when diamonds can be found on the surface of the earth." This comparison leads Pluche to distinguish two kinds of music, common to both France and Italy. There is the musique chantante, rich in melodies that are natural to the voice, effortless, artless, and without grimace. The other kind of music seeks to amaze by the boldness of its sounds and turns and to surpass the native capacities of the singer with its rapidity and noise. This is what he calls a musique baroque.

The term continued to be in vogue when in 1768 Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave this entry in his music dictionary: "A baroque music is that in which the harmony is confused, charged with modulations and dissonances, the melody is harsh and little natural, the intonation difficult, and the movement constrained. It seems that this term comes from baroco of the logicians."

Etymologists still disagree on whether baroque comes from the Italian baroco, an adjective applied to a far-fetched mode of argumentation by syllogism, as Rousseau believed, or from the Spanish barrueco, used to describe an oddly shaped pearl, as Pluche believed. Odd pearl or strained syllogism, baroque music was to both Pluche and Rousseau bizarre, extravagant, and unnatural. To be sure, both were bent on disparaging the style, living as they did in a time that rejected the baroque. But the deprecating tone aside, were Pluche and Rousseau not speaking of the same music that today we call baroque? Might not passages from Bach's arias be described as confusing in its harmony, charged with dissonance and modulation, unnatural in its melody, which is difficult to intone, and constricted in its rhythm by the persistent repetition of a formula? It is possible to admit this without judging each the aria's faulty, because we recognize that the unusual means here are justified by the text, which the composer sought to express forcefully. But a Frenchman of the mid-eighteenth century had little sympathy for Bach's attitude toward expression, and all he could hear was the bizarre quality. Similarly the violin concertos of Vivaldi and Albinoni which Gugnon played at the Concerts Spirituels in Paris abound in passages of extravagant virtuosity, difficult leaps, and surprising configurations; outbursts of fire and fury alternating with moments of intense lyricism. Pluche and his contemporaries were not against virtuosity so much as the passion, impetuosity, and enthusiasm that was behind baroque virtuosity. Mondonville, Pluche's favorite among song composers, wrote music that required agility, but it tended toward the playful, elegant, and static arabesques of the pre-classical period.

Behind the traits that mark music as baroque, then, are their reason for being. The passions, or as they were more often called then, the affections. Affections are not the same as emotions. A sixteenth century poetic critic, Lorenzo Giacomini, defined and affection as "a spiritual movement or operation of the mind in which it is attracted to repelled by an object it has come to know." He described it as a result of an imbalance in the animal spirits and vapors that flow continually throughout the body. An abundance of thin and agile spirits disposes an person to joyous affections, while torpid and impure vapors prepare the way for sorrow and fear. External and internal sensations stimulate the bodily mechanism to alter the state of the spirits. This activity is felt as a "movement of the affections," and the resulting state of imbalance is the affection. Once this state is reached the body and mind tend to remain in the same affection until some new stimulus produces and alteration of the combination of vapors.

Affection and passion are two terms for the same process, the former describing it from the point of view of the body. The latter from the standpoint of the mind. The alteration of the blood and spirits affect the body, while the mind passively suffers the disturbance.

This view of the mechanics of the affections perpetuated the belief, propounded already by Aristotle in his Rhetoric, that there exist discrete states. The most common are fear, love, hate, anger and joy. From the last decades of the sixteenth century the arousal of the affections was considered the principal objective of poetry and music. There was much theorizing about the passions beginning about this time and continuing throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One of the masques of the carnival of 1574 in Florence was even called "The Affections."

The most comprehensive study of the affections up to its time was the treatise of Renè Descartes, The Passions of the Soul (1649), in which this pioneer of rationalism elaborated, upon the theory as it had been passed down to him. Johann Mattheson at the end of our period in his Der Vollkommene Kapelmeister (The Perfect Musical Director, 1739) still theorized at length about the affections and their representation in music. But by now psychology was turning away from this naive concept of emotional life towards theories of association of ideas and nerve activity. Daneil Webb sees the feeling of pleasure "not, as some have imagined, the result of any fixed or permanent condition of the nerves and spirits, but it springs from a succession of impressions, and is greatly augmented by sudden or gradual transition from one kind of strain of vibrations to another." Similarly composers of the mid-eighteenth century found the affections too static, intellectual, and lifeless. They were enticed by the possibility of continuous dynamic flux and transition of sentiment.

If there is any common thread that unites the great variety of music that we call baroque, then it is an underlying faith in music's power, indeed its obligation, to move the affections. Whether it is a madrigal of Marenzio in the late sixteenth century or an aria of Bach or Handel in the 1730's, this belief strongly determines the musical style. If we want to ascertain whether we have crossed the boundary into the baroque or out of it, there is no better test than to ask if the expression of the affections is the dominant goal in fashioning a piece of music. At one end of the chronological spectrum there is the art of such a composer as Adrian Willaert, who almost never sacrificed beauty of form, perfection of technique, and a prevailing harmoniousness for affective expression, through he always lavished great care on the enunciation and depiction of the text. But once across into the next generation, that of his pupil and countryman Cipriano de Rore, we have entered the beginnings of the baroque, because he is often more concerned with affection than form. Similarly when we find Pergolesi, a contemporary of Bach, more intent upon balancing phrases, overwhelming the listener with spirited inventions, and weaving a spell of beautiful melody than with turning out a steady stream of stereotyped affections, we recognize that we have crossed over into the esthetics of the early classic period.

Not all music can be subjected to this simple test. Certain categories of danced, instrumental and church music are not so easily classified. Here we must arbitrarily apply the chronological lines drawn for music more easily characterized. Nor does the passage from one style to another at either boundary of the period arrive at the same moment in all countries. The baroque style is not felt in Germany until around 1610 and does not become the reigning style until decades later. While it starts declining in Italy in the 1720's, it suddenly flowers in France for a brief while. Even within a single country there are pockets in which the baroque persists or is resisted. While Hasse's pre-classical operas triumph in Dresden in the 1730's Bach's high baroque cantatas continue to inspire Leipzig worshippers and university audiences. Within a single composer's output or even within a single work, baroque and counter-baroque techniques exist side by side, as in the late operas of Alessandro Scarlatti and Handel.

Aside from the ideal of affective expression, there are external characteristics that run through much baroque music. The desire at the end of the sixteenth century to make the solo voice the principal bearer of the text and message of a musical setting leads to the reduction of the instrumental accompaniment to a half-improvised chordal support that is outlined in a shorthand score. The ensuing thorough-bass manner of notation pervades almost all vocal music and music for more than one instrument from shortly after 1600 to around 1770. In the last forty or fifty years of this period, however, much of the music written with thorough-bass belongs to a tendency that is essentially counter-baroque. The stile concertato, which exploits contrasts and combinations of various instrumental timbres and groupings, originates in the Renaissance and gathers momentum during the seventeenth century to reach its greatest flowering around 1720 in the works of Vivaldi. Certain manners of concertato writing are almost exclusively a property of the seventeenth century, while others have subsided until today. The thorough-bass and the concertato style, then, are deeply ingrained in baroque music but they are not exclusive to it.

Our period is thus unified and delimited more by and expressive ideal than by a consistent body of musical techniques. Nevertheless, several phases of baroque style can be recognized through changes in performance practices and compositional procedures. The first phase is one of preparation. This begins as early as 1550 and gains an irreversible momentum by 1580. The desire to find new means for expressing extreme and conflicting affections that were earlier suppressed or moderated leads to stylistic expediency and mannerism. The experiments result in a wholesale emancipation from the genres and contrapuntal rules of the sixteenth century. Individual personalities stand out because no uniform criteria of correctness and decorum are respected. At first composers are able to draw out their ideas and affections only for short spans until there evolve such means for expansion as the ritornello, basso ostinato, and strophic variation, and until there is developed a surer sense of tonal relations.

By 1640 in Italy an accumulation of many techniques used in common marks the end of the individualistic experimental phase. Between approximately 1640 and 1690 a style that had been spontaneous and pragmatic becomes more and more regulated by rules and standards. The treatment of dissonance becomes uniform. Chords rather than freely counterposed melodic lines determine harmonic motion. Rhythm is subject to rigid metrical control. Expressive devices, formal schemes, and compositional categories become stereotyped. The baroque style during this period spreads throughout Europe.

In the last phase, 1690 to 1740, high baroque, the rules and standards evolved during the previous phase are accepted as fixed. Genres and forms are expanded and embellished but maintain their essential character. Expressive devices acquire symbolic value and are used out of context. The rendering of the affections tends to be intellectual and calculated. Reason often replaces inspiration.

Meanwhile several counter-movements begin. In the comic opera a new lightness, directness, and melodiousness is cultivated. In France popular elements blend with courtly elegance to produce the rococo style. The rationalistic approach of the affections dominated esthetic provokes a reaction from composers who want to express a more dynamic and unstable emotionalism. The outcome is the style of sentimentality or Empfindsamkeit. These counter-baroque tendencies arise amid continuing but increasingly sporadic manifestations of the high baroque. By 1720 the baroque ideal is declining and by 1740 a new ideal seeps through most of Europe. The Classical period begins.



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