Monday, 28 November 2011

the next decade.....

Sorry not to up date this for a while - I will get back to it as soon as I can!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

1660s Lully and Louis - Here Comes The Sun King

After Monteverdi died, as I have said, there was a little bit of a gap in terms of big names, but this is now filled by the next composer who is known for making developments to the orchestra whose name was Giovanni Battista Lulli (1632-1687). In this decade he became court composer for Louis XIV, adopted France as his own country and changed his name to the more French sounding Jean-Baptiste de Lully, to fit in.

Lully would later compose many operas but the young King Louis XIV loved dance and as superintendent of music to the king, Lully did much to develop ballet in the 1660s, which like opera had its origins in Italy. Lully collaborated on several ballets with Molière the leading literary figure of the day.

The music he composed had its own distinct French style and a grandeur which suited King Louis XIV and matched the palace at Versailles, the construction of which really got going in this decade and where much of his music would have been performed. Lully was the best composer of his day, not just in France but throughout Europe. I sort of see Lully as the beginning of really good orchestral music.

Also in this decade comes Heinrich Biber composing mainly in Salzburg Austria, a virtuoso violinist and one of the first great composers of violin music. He and Lully established the violin as the main instrument, other than keyboards, in Europe. While Lully composed for ensembles and orchestras, Biber's music was more for the solo violin with accompaniment. Biber was very much an original. Like Janequin back in the 1520s he composed some early 'programme music', imitating things like frogs and chickens with his instrument. This music is weird but worth a listen.

Apart from Lully and Biber I have stumbled upon Johan Rosenmuller, another German violin composer who moved to Italy and composed violin music from there. I think the music from him I have selected is from this decade though I am not too sure.

LullyBourree Du Divertissement De Chambord (1669) Jordi Savall -Les Grandes Eaux Musicales Du Versailles
LullyPreludes Des Trompettes Et Autres Instruments Pour Mars Jordi Savall - Les Grandes Eaux Musicales Du Versailles
Rosenmuller Trio sonata in E minor II Allegro
Rosenmuller Trio sonata in E minor IV Prestissimo

General History

During this decade Holland, England, France and Denmark were all at war with each other. The most powerful person on the planet, Louis XIV began ruling in 1661 at the age of 24 without his prime minister the Italian Cardinal Mazarin who died that year. Louis was a benefactor of years of shrewd policy making firstly under Richelieu and then Mazarin and by now France was rich, prosperous and the most powerful of nations. By the end of his reign in 1715 Louis had squandered the country’s wealth and power, by among other follies, blowing money on non-beneficial wars and persecuting the protestant Huguenots, many of whom had been France’s best craftsmen.

London had the double disaster of the great plague in 1665 and the great fire in 1666.


File:Vermeer - The Milkmaid.jpg

The centre of musical prestige might have moved to France but the greatest artist of his day, a generation younger than Rembrandt who died in 1669, could still be found in Holland and his name was Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675). His paintings were in keeping with the Dutch ultra realistic style as can be seen in brilliant works like ‘The Kitchen-Maid’ above. Maybe his most popular work is 'The Girl with a Pearl Earing' below.

Also in Holland the landscape painting begun in France with Claude  Lorraine caught on as seen in the works of Jacob Van Ruisdael (1628-1682) the leading Dutch landscape painter whose picture entitled ‘An Extensive Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Village Church’ (above) is one of his most famous and another influential Dutch landscape painter called Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) who finished his ‘River Landscape with Horsemen and Peasants’ (below) in 1660 and which some see as the culmination of 17th Century Dutch landscape painting.


Molière (1622-1673 real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquline –was an actor as well as writer and Molière was his stage name.) was writing his plays and is considered to be the creator of modern French comedy and one of the greatest comedy writers in all Western literature known for his excellent plot writing skills. Moliere reached the height of his fame at this time and most of his best known works were first performed during this decade.

In 1667 John Milton (1608-1674) published his long poem ‘Paradise Lost’ concerning Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden which is considered one of the greatest works of English literature and which due to blindness he had to dictate to his two daughters.


Bernini (still going strong) and others made the Italian Baroque style ever more dramatic A highlight of Bernini’s career from 1666 was the stairway between St Peter’s in Rome and the papal apartments which is flanked by columns, shortening as the stairs ascend, creating the illusion that the stairway is of a greater length. 
In 1667 Guarino Guarini began work on the chapel of the holy shroud in Turin with a dome, made up of six hexagonal layers, which, when seen from the interior has a marvellously dramatic effect.

Louis XIV got J. Hardouin Mansard started on his enormous palace at Versailles, which is dull in the detail but extremely impressive simply due to its scale. It took 47 years to build, and notwithstanding the music of Lully, this really is the most symbolic expression of power and wealth the king could make.


Science and Technology

Science was now getting more recognition from governments, first in England with the ‘Royal Society of London for improving natural knowledge’ being founded in 1660. This was something Francis Bacon had wanted as Lord Chancellor back in the 1620s. The French followed suit with the Paris Academy of Sciences founded in 1666. These were institutional bases for scientists. Other countries later set up similar government backed organisations.

Following the success of the telescope, the microscope was now beginning to have its day. Jan Swammerdam was the first to use it to examine insects. In 1665 another microscopist, Robert Hooke, published ‘Micrographia’ the first major publication for the Royal Society and the first scientific best seller bringing about a new interest in microscopy. In it he coined the biological term ‘cell’.  The microscope opened up a whole new world for scientists to explore.

Robert Hooke had collaborated with Robert Boyle to invent the air pump (aka the vacuum chamber) in 1650s. Robert Boyle became very famous for his numerous writings and experiments in the 1660s and is seen as the father of chemistry.

Monday, 25 April 2011

1650s Harpsichord is King

After the death of Monteverdi, there were no really dominant composers for a while and it is hard to find too much music from this decade that is particularly memorable. Froberger was coming to the end of his career and had become the Viennese court composer. A couple of other alright tunes from him are Partita Es-dur FbWV 631: Gigue and Partita D-dur FbWV 611a: Gigue or try Suite n°2 en ré mineur: Gigue. On his travels his influence had spread but he also soaked up influences himself such as the music of the first great French harpsichord composer Jacques Champion de Chambonnieres (1601-1672) whose career now reached its peak with his appointment as composer for the court of the teenage King Louis XIV. He composed the very likeable and regal Chaconne from his Suite in G Major which though not published until 1670s would have been performed around this time. Another good French harpsichord composer was Louis Couperin (1626-1661) whose Suite in F major is short and lively which if, like me, you’re dipping your toes into the genre, is a good combination.

Again, I have looked to obscure composers of violin music from Italy in the search for something a bit more palatable, but this time with less patience and without too much success. I have come across Maurizzio Cazzatti (1620-1677) whose piece La Calcagnina No. 4 is quite pleasant. Other than that, not a lot going on in the 1650s.

My favourite choices or rather choice for this decade is:-

Champion de Chambonnieres - Suite in G Major - Chaconne - Hanneke van Proosdij - Harpsichord Suites of Chambonnieres
General History

Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England until he died in 1658 leaving power to his son Richard Cromwell who was forced to give it up by parliament who replaced him with Charles II. The thirty years war had ended but now England and the Dutch had a war and then England and Spain. Sweden went to war with Denmark, Russia and the Holy Roman Empire.


Thomas Hobbes 1588-1679 had been rubbing shoulders with Bacon, Galileo and Descartes and was on a par with them intellectually. His main work was ‘Leviathan’ published in 1652. Hobbes saw the world purely in terms of matter and movement. For him like everything else, the universe had a length, width and depth and everything in it did too. Everything, including human beings were part of this great machine, like cogs on a wheel. After what happened to Galileo, it was very brave of him to express this materialistic view in such religiously sensitive times. He was very clever in keeping himself out of trouble though. When asked where God fits in he replied that it was beyond the minds of mere human beings to know. Also when challenged on his views he would usually say it should be for the sovereign to decide whether he was right or not. This kept him in the good books of King Charles II and secured his free speech.

For Hobbes the brain was also part of this machine. He believed that the process of thinking was the movement of matter inside the brain. This mechanistic view of psychology was completely new. The idea has developed over time and now it is widely agreed that there is indeed a physical connection to the process of thinking, so thoughts are not something completely abstract.

This is a fascinating view of the world but Hobbes is most important for his political thought. He believed that societies were born from individual self-interest, out of a fear of death. Without society there would be chaos in the world, leading to death. A tyrannical leader was even preferable to the chaos that would naturally occur with no leader at all. He said there was a ‘social contract’ between the ruler or ruling body and the people. The ruler is given the power to rule by the people for the reason that the ruler can impose law for the protection of the people. This is a radical view in a time when monarchs had up until recently mostly seen themselves as appointed by divine authority. This political idea, which continues to the present day, is Hobbes’ most influential contribution to philosophy.


A bright young scientist called Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) was the man who in 1656 invented the pendulum clock, which greatly improved the precision of time keeping, and in 1659 had discovered and announced that Saturn had a ring around it.


This seems to be a good time for literature. In Holland maybe the best know of all Dutch writers is Joost Van den Vondel (1587-1679). He is said to have raised Dutch literature to new heights of expression. Some say his best work is Lucifer published in 1654. In England Sir Thomas Browne published Hydrotaphia in 1658 which is viewed as the finest achievement in English prose of the entire century. This decade is also the century’s high point for French prose with Blaise Pascal’s ‘provincial letters’ published in 1656 and 1657. From Germany Andreas Gryphius wrote ‘Cemetery Thoughts’ in 1656 and some comedy dramas during the following decade, achievements which have been said to be unequalled in German literature for almost a hundred years.

Diego Velazquez 1599-1660 the leading Spanish painter of his day, painted two masterpieces. The first was the portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1650 which captures the hot-tempered pope’s piercing stare. Then came ‘Las Meninas’ in 1656 which has been said to be a ‘painting about a painting’. This is because you look at it from the same view as the King and Queen of Spain whose reflection is on the mirror on the back wall. They are being painted by Velazquez himself, who stands to the left of the picture. 

Bernini began the colonnades at St Peter’s Square in Rome in 1656.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

1640s Goodbye Monteverdi

Monteverdi comes to the end of his career and his life on a musical high with one of his most popular tunes – Pur Ti Miro Pur Ti Stringo from his opera  L’Incoronazione di Poppea composed in 1642, the year before his death.  You don’t really have to like opera to like this. 

A highly influential and well travelled German composer who comes in during this decade is Johan Jakob Froberger (1616-1667). A student of Frescobaldi, he is largely known for his keyboard works. Most of this type of solo keyboard music is not particularly appealing to me but there are just a few from his earliest surviving published work, the libro secondo from 1649, that are worth a listen. These are Partita VI G-dur FbWV 606 Prima Partita and Seconda Partita and Courant Sopra Mayrin Double on an album called Froberger: Meditation – Works for Harpsichord.

Now, from the books I have looked at the music from the first half of this century is dominated by opera composers like Monteverdi and Schutz. The three keyboard composers Sweelinck, Frescobaldi and Froberger get a bit of coverage too but as I am not so keen on most of their music or opera I have had to look a bit further for music from this period that I like.

Well I have found a little more from the early composers of violin music, which was being made in Italy. The violin more than any other instrument mimics the voice. Composers recognised this at an early stage and wrote music which would give the violin a good melody above the other instruments, just as the opera composers wrote their melodies for the human voice. 

We have already heard Marini who is probably the most important of these but he barely gets a mention in the books. By 1640s there are several Italian composers of violin music of even lesser fame and a significant contemporary of Marini was Marco Ucellini (c.1610-1680) who extended the range of the violin by being the first to use the third position. That just means he moved his hand further up the neck of the instrument to get to the higher notes. I can recommend Aria Quinta Sopra La Bergomasta by him which I think is from 1642. Other good early violin pieces are Ciaconna by Tarquinio Merula c.1595-1665 (has a good guitar riff all the way through (on this recording anyway)- most of his work was published from 1615-1639 so this piece may well be pre-1640s) and La Bergamasca from Gasparo Zanetti (1645 I think) – very similar but simpler than and not as good as the Ucellini piece. I might have missed these because Marini is the only one who gets a passing mention in Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music and in Griffiths’ Concise History of Western music. Evidently these early composers of violin music are not considered as important as the opera composers and perhaps that is because the opera music from this time has proved to be more enduring and the good violin pieces are few and far between.

So my selections for this decade are:

Monteverdi - Pur Ti Miro Pur Ti Stringo from his opera  L’Incoronazione di Poppea (realised by Raymond Leppard; abridged version)
Ucellini - Aria Quinta Sopra La Bergomasta – Ucellini: La Bergomasta
Merula – Ciaconna The Collected Recordings of Il Giardino Armonico
Zanetti - La Bergomasta – Gasparo Zanetti - 17th century Italian Dances
General events

At last in 1648 the Thirty Years War came to an end with Germany left in a bloodbath, Spain greatly weakened and France greatly strengthened. In England it’s the civil war (1642-1651) ending up with King Charles I getting executed in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell abolishing the monarchy and taking over.

Rembrandt van Rijn 1606-69, the most successful painter in Amsterdam and one of the greatest painters of all time was reaching the height of his powers. May be his most famous painting is The Night Watch from 1642 (above). He had been commissioned to paint a formal portrait but he made it into an action scene.

In France the classical trend in literature can also be seen in art of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). A good example of this is ‘The Ashes of Phocion Collected by His Widow’ from 1648 (left).  Poussin and another Frenchmen, Claude Lorraine (1600-1682) sought to portray classical antiquity with a sense of nostalgia. Claude is best known though for being the first to make landscape painting a respected genre with paintings like  ‘Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca’ also from 1648 (below left).

The greatest sculptor of the day was Bernini (the same Bernini as the architect who came to prominence in the 1630s). He is seen as a successor to Michelangelo and one of his best works said to be a masterpiece of high baroque is his ‘Ecstasy of St Theresa’ from 1647.

Descartes continued to develop his ideas publishing ‘meditations’ in 1643. This elaborates more on the ‘I think therefore I am’ idea and justifies the existence of God. Another thing to mention about Descartes is that he was a brilliant mathematician and did lots to develop algebra and graphs. The certainty that you have in Maths was what Descartes applied to his philosophy.


No real major works of literature in this decade except that in 1640 the Bay Psalm Book was the first book to be printed in North America. Corneille wrote another three plays- all classical tragedies.


In India they were building the Taj Mahal but other than that nothing specifically spectacular here. 

Monday, 28 February 2011

1630s Chant goes private, opera goes public

Monteverdi’s music continued to develop and improve as the composer remained the numero uno in Europe passed his seventieth birthday. Opera flourished in Italy and the first pubic opera house opened in Venice in 1637, so now it was not just the very wealthy who were watching. 

Also important at this time was Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) who influenced keyboard music for the next 100 years, up to and including Johan Sebastian Bach. His most important work, Fiori Musicali, was published in 1635. He was the first to vary tempo in keyboard music and the first to compose different variations on a single theme as Bach would later do and for innovations like this he is often referred to as a genius. Unfortunately this is all church organ music without a clear melody and I cannot find anything by him I can really enjoy. The best thing I could find was a piece called Canzon Detta ‘A Tromboncina’ but to me it’s not particularly exciting.

My favourite music from this decade is a bit ‘retro’ for the time. It is the Misere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) composed in 1635 but which is a throw back to the renaissance music of Palestrina. This is regarded as one of the finest pieces of renaissance polyphony, although it was composed during the baroque period. It was forbidden for it to be transcribed or performed at any time or place other than Wednesday or Friday during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel. As a result the Misere was shrouded in mystery and would remain unpublished for 135 years. That would change after 1770 when a 14 year old Mozart, during holy week, attended the Wednesday service while on a trip to Rome. The young genius memorised the piece and wrote it all down. He returned to hear it again on the Friday morning to check he had it right and only needed to make some minor corrections to his manuscript. He later gave the transcription to a British Historian, Dr Charles Burney, who had it published in London in 1771. After that, with the music now out it was pointless continuing the copying ban which was then lifted.

So my top recommendation for this decade is:-

Allegri - Misere

General events

The Thirty years war continued. It was the world’s first modern war. It had all started in 1618 when a few protestant nobles threw some of the catholic Hapsburg emperor’s men out of a castle window in Prague following a row. Amidst all this, a new rational way of looking at the world had been taking shape thanks to people like Galileo, Bacon and Rene Descartes.

Science and philosophy
Galileo published his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems in 1634. In 1616 the Inquisition had brought a specific injunction on Galileo ‘not to hold, teach, or defend Copernicanism’ (That's the earth going round the sun rather than the other way round). A little later Galileo managed to get a certificate confirming that he merely could not ‘hold or defend’ Copernicanism. In his 1634 publication Galileo presented the argument for Copernicanism and the argument against, writing it in the third person. The trouble was the character supporting Copernicanism in the book had much the more persuasive argument for the reader and the church believed they had been tricked into allowing him to publish it.

Galileo was brought before the Inquisition. At first he tried to get out of it by sending a doctor’s note saying he was too frail to travel (he was 68) to Rome but he was in big trouble and that did not wash. The Inquisition thought the trial would go very well and they would easily convict him.  He was at risk of facing torture or possibly execution. They confronted him with the injunction. In his defence Galileo produced the certificate he had obtained and said his book merely taught the theory, it did not hold or defend it. An expert witness supported the Inquisition allegation that he was defending Copernicanism but the certificate Galileo had was a problem and a compromise was reached. The compromise was that Galileo would be let off lightly and kept under house arrest for the rest of his life, provided that he admitted the Copernican view of the universe was wrong. In order to save his skin Galileo admitted to the Inquisition that the earth did not move and was the centre of the universe, but the myth goes that he then touched the ground and whispered ‘and yet it does move’.  

During this decade leading scientific and philosophical thought moves from Galileo in Italy to France, Holland and England. Galileo they say was the father of modern science. In France Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had been a soldier in the 30 years war in 1620s, though had not seen much action. In this decade he was to become the father of modern philosophy and he probably takes over from Galileo from this point as cleverest person on the planet.

Descartes published his Discourse on Method in 1637. Here he set out a new method of scientific and philosophical thinking. He compared knowledge to buildings saying that the best buildings were the ones started and finished by one architect. He said he was not going to build on any of the foundations of past knowledge but he would start again from the beginning. This idea was the foundation for modern philosophy. So the first thing to do was to doubt everything. Having begun with a clean slate, clearing away the ideas of Greek philosophers and everything since, he then considered whether there was anything of which he could be certain. He would begin with the most basic thing first, and then build knowledge as far as he could up from there. The only thing he could be certain of, was that he was thinking and if he was thinking, then he must be something that exists. His life might be a dream or it might not but he could be certain of one thing – that he was some sort of existing being. He said ‘I think therefore I am’ and you can say this is about as solid a basis as you can get from which all human thought can start. This idea was to influence 20th century films like the Matrix and Twelve Monkeys.


Rubens continued to be a renowned artist. The greatest pupil of Rubens was Sir Anthony Van Dyk who moved to London and was court painter to Charles I. He painted the Equestrian portrait of Charles I (1637-8) and other similar portraits of the king to promote an authoritative, elegant and dignified image of the king.

A friend of Rubens was Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) court painter to the king of Spain. He painted in 1634-5 ‘The Surrender of Breda’ which is considered to be one of the best paintings of the period and depicts the Spanish capture of the Dutch city of Breda during the 30 years war in 1625.
De overgave van breda Velazquez.jpg


After Maderna died the three leading architects of the next generation in Rome were Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) and Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669). Bernini and Borromini continued with Maderna’s Palazzo Barberini. It is may be just a coincidence or maybe something that worked subconsciously on the minds of the architects but around the time of Kepler’s discovery that planets move in ellipses and not circles, circles are seen less in architecture and ovals become more popular with the baroque designs. The oval is suggestive of movement within a space, while the circle is more static and central. Thanks largely to Galileo, people knew the earth was moving and not fixed in the centre of the universe.  The oval theme is best seen in Borromini’s S Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane (below) begun in 1633 which is considered a masterpiece of the baroque period. The façade was not completed until 1667, the year he died.

In France there was an influx of Italian classical design which developed into a distinctly French classical style. This is best seen in the Orleans wing at the Chateau Blois (below) by top French architect, Francois Mansart (1598-1664) begun in 1635. The curved corners of the colonnades are very French and the curved semi-circular pediment at the top was new for the time and had not been seen in Italy.


English literature was becoming ever more rich and complex with a new freedom of expression in the first part of this century. John Donne (1572-1631) a contemporary of Shakespeare and leading poet died in 1631. His complete works were published in 1633. He is known for his unusual and often extensive metaphors. He came up with the familiar phrase ‘no man is an island’.

In France Cardinal Richelieu, the first prime minister in the world, was making Paris the literary, political and academic centre of France and it has remained that way ever since. Richelieu founded the Acadamie Francais in 1635 basically to try to improve the use of the French language. Pierre Corneille was the leading French literary figure of the time and is said to be the founder of French tragedy. Richelieu would present ideas to Corneille which he wanted dramatised. Corneille obliged but eventually found this too restrictive. His play ‘Le Cid’ was a big success but controversial because it did not follow the classical rules of time and place that Richelieu wanted (that is a play should be set in the same place and within a 24 hour time period).

In Germany the greatest poet was Martin Opitz von Boberfield(1597-1639) who had been trying through his career to set out rules for how the German language should be used in literature. Most representative of this aim was his ‘Vesuvius’ published in 1633. Schutz had composed the first German opera ‘Dafne’ in the last decade with words supplied by Opitz.