Classical Connections: Baroque Byways

Awe-inspiring baroque architecture. (Photo: Michael Gaida)

Yesterday afternoon, while mooching around in the unkempt wilderness we fondly refer to as “the garden”, I was reflecting on how so many English words have changed their meaning over the years. Most English speakers are aware that the word “awful” is used today in a negative sense, yet before the early 19th century it meant “full of awe” and implied greatness and majesty. The word “artificial” originally meant “artistic” or “artfully made”. When St Paul’s cathedral was being built, King Charles II famously complimented the architect Sir Christopher Wren by saying that the design was “awful and artificial”. Or so the story goes. The word “silly” originally meant something that is worthy or blessed; the word “meat” implied food in general and not simply the product of dead animals. The word “cute” dates surprisingly from the 1730s but at the time, it described someone who was shrewd or even slightly disreputable.

In 18th century France, the word “baroque” was a rather negative term, sometimes used to describe that which was perceived as coarse and incoherent. It was not particularly flattering. In 1762, the newly-published Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française stated that the word describes something which is “irregular or bizarre”. The word has since reversed its meaning entirely and now refers to the grandiose style of music, architecture, theatre and the visual arts that flourished in Europe roughly between 1600 and 1750. The movement began in Italy – Rome to be exact – and swept north and west throughout the continent.  At the time it was the new art; a bold and flamboyant expression of the times which made enthusiastic use of contrast, exuberant detail, rich colouring and high drama. We can see the most obvious effects of all this in the architecture of the time with its intricate ornamentation, ostentatious appearance and attention to rigorous detail. It was intended, to use that word again, to inspire awe.

These qualities found their way into music too. The royal courts needed a constant supply of new music for state occasions, banquets and social events and because printed music was not always available, it was usually more convenient to commission something new. This is why the most important royal courts of the day employed a resident composer. The church also provided a stable source of income for many musicians. One of them was composer and organist Heinrich Schütz, generally regarded as one of the most important German composers of the 17th century.

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672): Alleluia: Lobet den Herren. Capriccio Stravagante and Vox Luminus cond. Skip Sempé (Duration: 11:49; Video: 720p HD)

One of the reasons we show composer “dates” is so that those unfamiliar with the name at least have some idea of historical position. Schütz lived in the period we know refer to as the early baroque. The music of Schütz was greatly influenced by the newly-emerging dramatic Italian style. This work is a setting of Psalm 150, the final item in the biblical Book of Psalms and a text which has since been set by dozens of other composers. This Schütz setting dates from about 1619 and joyful music it is too. It’s a song of praise which uses bright harmonies and lively rhythms. This performance features contemporary instruments: crumhorns, a cornetto and some sackbuts, an early form of soft-toned trombone. The harmonic accompaniment, technically known as the continuo, is provided by organ, keyboard and lutes. The long-necked lutes were often known as arch-lutes and the bass line is provided by the viola da gamba and the violone, a kind of renaissance fretted double bass.

Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741): Kaiser Requiem. Vox Luminus and Scorpio Collective (Duration: 43:04; Video: 1080p HD)

Fux’s name, you might be disappointed to know, rhymes with “books” and not with “ducks”. He was an Austrian composer and musical theorist whose chief claim to fame lay not so much in his music, but in his book about music theory. It was entitled Gradus ad Parnassum and became the single most influential text book on Renaissance counterpoint – the difficult skill of combining melodies in technically proficient ways to create a satisfying whole. As you can from the dates, Fux was a composer of the late baroque and twenty-five years older than Bach and Handel.

Joseph Fux was the resident composer at the court of Emperor Leopold I. The so-called Emperor’s Requiem was composed for the occasion of the funeral rites of the Emperor’s widow which took place in Vienna on 5th March 1720.

The music begins in a reflective mood and contains many skillfully written sections, for Joseph Fux was a master at counterpoint and at building up repeated phrases to create colour and emotional depth. Just listen to how he uses the two sopranos to weave an expressive tapestry of melodic line. The orchestration reflects the solemnity of the occasion and unlike the Schütz work, the composer omitted trumpets and percussion, instruments normally associated with ceremony and celebration. This expressive Requiem was performed on several further occasions in 18th century Vienna but sadly this splendidly expressive music is rarely heard today.