Friday, 28 January 2011

1610s Dance Music - Old Style

From the 1600s onwards music starts to find it's melody. In the centuries before the best music consists of voices merging together, evolving from the medieval fashion of open fourths and fifths to some nicer harmonies during the renaissance. Now, with opera, the completely different idea of a single vocal part singing over instrumental backing becomes more popular. 

Monteverdi is still top composer of the day but I don't think he does anything in this decade as  good as those selections I chose from L'Orfeo. Opera continues to gain popularity with Monteverdi but so does instrumental music and this is my preference. Instrumental music began to be played less by amateurs and gradually more by virtuoso musicians.

John Dowland continued to compose lute music and a really nice tune published by him in this decade is Sir John Smith's Almain.

Probably the best creatively and also successful commercially for the composer was some early 17th century dance music composed by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) in  a collection of 312 dances called Terpsichore published in 1612. I like all of the following Ballet Du Roy, Ballet, Bransle Double 3, Spagnoletta, La Canarie, Courante but my favorite is Volte.

We hear the beginnings of music for the violin which was a relatively new instrument at this time and thankfully would eventually come to take the place of the viol. This early composer of violin music was perhaps the leading violinist in Monteverdi's orchestra. His name was Biagio Marini (1587-1663) and his first collection was Affetti Musicali which came out in 1617 and from which I have chosen 'La Cornera'. Don't expect too much from the violin yet, but it's a start.

Also in 1617 a leading German composer called Johan Hermann Schein (1586-1630) published an instrumental collection called Il Banchetto Musicale (the Musical Banquet). It's not as good as Terpsichore from Praetorius but Suite 5 in D Allemande (attaca) -Tripla is probably worth a listen.

Solo keyboard music which first emerged towards the end of the last century becomes more and more popular too with composers like Girolamo Frescobaldi. A slightly older composer though is Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) and he is probably the first major keyboard composer in Europe. Solo church organ music is really not something that appeals to me at all but I skimmed through a bit of Sweelinck and came across quite  a nice organ piece by him called Ballo Del Granduca (it may have been from a previous decade but I am squeezing it in here) if you happen to be in the mood for it!! Maybe something to listen to more for interest than for pleasure.

Ok I am going to keep my posting short - so here are my selections:-

Dowland:  Lute Music of John  Dowland - Sir John Smith's Almain
Praetorius: - Dances from Terpsichore - Ballet Du Roy, Ballet, Bransle Double 3, Spagnoletta, La Canarie, CouranteVolte
Schein: - Il Banchetto Musicale - Suite 5 in D Allemande (attaca) -Tripla 
Marini: - Affetti Musicali -Marini Und Seine Zeitgenossen La Cornera

General history

The main thing that happens in Europe is that tea was introduced. Oh yea, and there was the outbreak of the thirty years war in 1618 which lasted until, let's 1648. This caused the population of Europe to decline from 21 million in 1618 to 13 million in 1648 - pretty devastating and it was fought mostly in Germany (then the part of the Holy Roman Empire). For this decade it was about religious unrest but it then evolved into a conflict and power struggle between France and the Habsburg family who ruled Spain, the Netherlands and Austria. France, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Spain would all participate. 


Galileo continued to be a superstar. Now he was focusing his attentions on the skys and more actively promoted the Copernican view of the universe (that's the earth not being the centre of the universe but instead orbiting the sun) that he had always held. He also wrote in 1615 'Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science' in which he said  that the bible should not be taken too literally where it is contradicted by science, but instead a different interpretation should be found.  This basically remains the position of the catholic church today though at the time it outraged some in the church and the Inquisition opened a file on him. Galileo's message to the church was that it should not interfere with science. His view was that just as a despot who was not a qualified would not personally attempt to perform the duties of a doctor, so the church should not say whether scientific reasoning was correct or not. 


Not a great deal to note here other than that Shakespeare completes his last play 'the Tempest' which is performed in 1611. He then died in 1616, as did Cervantes who had published the second part of Don Quixote in 1613.


Caravegio died in 1610 and Peter Paul Rubens 1577-1640 is now looked upon as the leading painter of the day. He had been in Italy studying the great Italian paintings but had returned to Antwerp in 1608. His paintings were often on a large scale and were full of colour and life.  The visual equivalent of opera maybe. The elevation of the cross above was an early one from 1610 that helped him create a name for himself.


Inigo Jones, Britains first modern architect of significance, having returned from Italy where he studied the buildings of Palladio, brings the classical forms  to England and designs the Queen's House in Greenwich (above) in 1616  and Banqueting Hall in Whitehall 1619-22 (below). Later, in 1635,  Rubens painted the ceiling.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

A New Presentation of History and a little interlude

I was thinking why, before I started getting interested in all of this and blogging away, did my knowledge of what happened in the 1500s throughout the entire world consist basically of some names of Tudor monarchs and events like Henry VIII breaking with the church and the Spanish Armada coming to invade England and a few other nuggets of information that for some reason got lodged in my memory. Why is it that in history lessons at school you really only learn about the history of leaders, what they did and changes in power?

Leaders are a key element but not the only element of history. Elizabeth I may have supported the arts and this would have helped create the climate for Shakespeare to write his plays. She may have helped greatly to give England its identity and confidence later to expand but of what significance or good is that other than one people having some sort of control over another people. Is it really that significant?

Leaders and governments seem more usually to be unpopular than popular but deserve credit and often huge credit and gratitude from the people who in some way, big or small, take benefit from their decisions insofar as that outweighs any negative consequence. Leaders and creative thinkers in government and commerce have the power to improve people’s standard of living (to the extent that the recipient of the perceived benefit see it as an improvement) and the more people they can do that for the better. Then they might be considered great, especially by those people they benefit and yes, events like Henry’s VIII’s break with the church and various decisions taken by leaders throughout history have played some part in shaping the world today. There is some significance in these things.

However, Shakespeare is much more relevant today than Elizabeth. He has left plays that have been enjoyed by many people over and over again for centuries. Elizabeth might have helped create the environment for Shakespeare and had a big influence on the way one country has evolved, but Shakespeare’s legacy is tangible. Likewise, Galileo improved the telescope and started looking at the skies. This is much more important. Monteverdi began writing operas - much more important. These are things people still use and enjoy today.

I suppose the answer to my first question, to take it quite literally, is simply that you would learn about Shakespeare in an English lesson, you might come across Monteverdi in a music class and you would probably hear a mention of Galileo in Science.

That’s not quite enough for me though. I reckon history should be taught in a way that gives these creators primary importance over or at least equal importance to the leaders who allowed them the space to create. An event like the gunpowder plot of 1605 is much less significant to mankind than Galileo improving the telescope and using it to look at the stars in 1609. I knew about the gunpowder plot but nothing of Galileo.

Friday, 14 January 2011

1600-1610 Opera Opens

There is a cliché that ‘football is a game of two halves’. That is to suggest that one half can be completely different to the other. For one moment, let us imagine this musical history I have been blogging about as minutes ticking through a football match, the major players, that’s Dufay, Des Prez, Palestrina and Lassus and the others I have so far mentioned or not mentioned all belong very much to the first half. Really in music history the second half begins here around 1600 and continues to the present day. I suppose too that you could say most of the action in this game is going to happen in the second half.

The Baroque period in music is generally seen as beginning at the start of this proverbial second half, around 1600 and lasting until about 1750. There are so many things changing in music in or around the first decade of the 1600s that this posting, which I had originally intended to keep very short, has turned into another long one.

What happened was that the renaissance people in Italy who had firstly brought back in ancient Greek and Roman literature (Petrarch in the 1300s) and then the ancient architecture (Brunelleschi in the 1400s) were now looking to do the same with music. The architects could study ruins and the poets found ancient texts (presumably in the archives of libraries). For musicians it was not as easy (music notation did not come in until about 1000AD). The musicians and composers got the idea that all of the text in the dramas of the ancient Greeks would have been sung and none of it spoken. This was really just a guess but, hey, it was an excuse for the new type of music they wanted to create. It would have been like ‘speaking with melody’ they thought. In trying to recreate this concept, they created the first operas.

From roughly this point on the secular form of the opera becomes more important to people than the religious chanting of the church. Personally I cannot really get into opera. I struggle too much with the warbling. I never understand why people have to sing with such vibrato. May be I‘ll get it one day. As with most musical genres, however, the very best can transcend the barriers of taste and leave an impression on the listener. In other words there are going to be some bits of opera that I like enough to mention here in my blog. I know this now because to my surprise I have already found something I like in this very decade from the person who is sometimes referred to as the ‘father of opera’ Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and whose ‘L’ Orfeo’ is first performed in Mantua in 1607.

Before I get to that there is one other major renaissance composer I mentioned but whose work I had not included in my last posting. His name is Tomas Luis De Victoria. Well in this decade I find he has left his best (and most well known) work until last. It’s another Kyrie and its from his Requiem Officium Defunctorem of 1605 and is worth a listen if you like this kind of thing. This type of music by now is fairly old hat and it is madrigals and the brand new medium of opera together with the rise of instrumental music that people are getting more excited about.

In basic terms it was time for the music of Palestrina and Lassus (who had both died in 1594) and others like Byrd and De Victoria by 1600 to move over for the new generation of Italian opera composers, the best of whom was Monteverdi.

The new spirit of vocal music is heard in the ‘Lasciate I monti chorus from Act 1, a brilliant and uplifting choral piece showing the fresh vitality that opera had. Monteverdi’s instrumental arrangements in this and his future works are also very influential in the development of orchestration. He assembled the largest orchestra created to date for this opera. The opening ‘Tocatta of L’Orfeo sounds especially good after hundreds of years of church chanting and seems to me to announce the arrival of orchestration. There is also a third piece from the opera which I think is just a really good straight forward song with a good melody. It is Vi Ricorda from Act 2 and the singing on the recording I have selected reminds me a bit of Arthur Lee singing on Love’s ‘Forever Changes’ album from 1967. Also worth a mention here is the instrumental opening 'Aria di Romanesca' (equivalent to Monteverdi's opening Toccata but a bit softer) from Giulio Caccini's opera 'Euridice', one of the very first operas completed in 1600.

There is much talk in the various sources I have looked at about the precursor to opera, which was the Italian madrigal, emerging around the 1530s and eventually becoming a craze throughout Europe during the second half of the last century. In 1588, the year in England Elizabeth I sees off the Spanish Armada, the madrigal becomes popular in London which is by now the most populated city in Europe. The madrigal in England develops its own style. Creatively, London must have been quite a buzzing place (ok there were probably flies buzzing around the decapitated heads of executed traitors on stakes at London bridge - so may be a little scary too) with 1 in 8 Londoners going to theatres to see plays which were affordable to all, mostly by William Shakespeare, every week apparently.

The top English composer William Byrd did not compose madrigals and went a bit quiet from about the mid 1590s. The next most noteworthy English composer was also not a composer of madrigals. He was probably the best lute player of his day and his name was John Dowland. He is considered second only to William Byrd of the English composers at this time. Dowland composed mainly songs with lute or viols accompanying. Most of his music was published during this first decade of the 1600s. Best to listen to are not his songs, but his solo lute pieces like My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home, Round Battle Galliard and Lady Laiton’s Almain and The Shoemaker’s Wife

We are a hundred years on from when instrumental music first started to come in in Europe but now more and more it becomes prominent. This selection from Dowland is representative of an emerging popularity of music for solo instruments. Solo keyboard music also started to feature more as we have already seen with William Byrd and his collection entitled ‘My Lady Nevilles Booke’ from 1591.

Really though, the most significant music of this decade is Monteverdi’s because with him we find the emergence of the brand new form which would come to be known as opera.

My recommendations from this decade (all on my playlist on spotify) are:-

De Victoria- Requiem Officium Defunctorem – Kyrie
Monteverdi – L’Orfeo – Tocatto
Monteverdi – L’Orfeo – Lasciati I Monte
Monteverdi – L’Orfeo – Vi Ricorda

General History

The Dutch East India Company is formed in 1602 and begins to trade with the East, the first step in the evolution of the Dutch empire. Elizabeth I died in 1603 and James I becomes king and makes peace with Spain. Guy Fawkes and his gang try to blow up the houses of Parliament with their gunpowder plot of 1605. Netherlands break away from Spanish rule in 1609.

Science, Technology and Philosophy

Cleverest person of the decade must be Galileo Galilie 1564-1642), the father of modern science (Shakespeare of course was also a bright spark). By now he was in his thirties and had already invented a pump for raising water and a military compass and an early type of thermometer. In 1602 he made his discovery about the movement of pendulums by watching a lamp swing back and forth in the cathedral of Pisa. This led to pendulum clocks in the 1650s improving the accuracy of time keeping. In 1604 he discovered that objects fall at the same speed whatever, their mass, supposedly by dropping objects off the leaning tower of Pisa. In 1609 he made vast improvements to the newly invented telescope and began using it to look at the skies.

Also important is Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Copernicus had turned the world upside down in the last century with his theory that the earth was not the centre of the universe and in fact orbited the sun. For the first time the bible was shown to be literary wrong (‘though has fixed the earth immovable and firm’ from psalm 93). If it was wrong about this it could be wrong about other things. There was also a belief that God would have created perfect symmetry in the movement of heavenly bodies and Kepler showed in 1609 that the planets, moon and stars did not move in perfect circles, but instead in ellipses. The Copernicun revolution and discoveries like this from Kepler meant the whole authority of the church was therefore under a great philosophical threat.


Shakespeare writes Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale among many other plays. He had moved from writing light comedies and historical dramas to tragedies. 

In 1607 Ben Johnson publishes Volpone or the Fox, a play, maybe his masterpiece, which satirizes the up and coming Jacobean merchant class. John Donne wrote his divine poems in 1607.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes was published in 1605 (1st volume, number 2 came in 1615) in Spain. Like Shakespeare’s plays, this is a founding work of modern western literature. Thanks to this book Cervantes has sometimes been called the father of the novel.


El Greco painted his ‘Opening of the Fifth Seal’ below in 1608 but by this time Mannerism had given way to Baroque art. It looks way ahead of its time.
Michelangelo da Carravegio (1573-1610) hit the art scene arriving in Rome and painting some of the earliest Baroque works causing a sensation in 1600 with paintings like the Martyrdom of St Matthew (below). He re-introduced chiaroscuro technique first seen in Corregio, that is the use of extremes of light and dark which created a spotlight effect. He used this to good effect to convey the most dramatic moment of the scene he had been asked to depict. Another feature of his work is that he wanted to convey truth and he made his figures look more like ‘everyday’ people. For example he would make a disciple look like the common labourer he probably was.
The Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) also arrived in Rome in 1600 and studied the works of Caraveggio and the renaissance masters.


As with music and art, the baroque period also begins in architecture around this time. Unlike with music it is not such a big departure from what had gone before. With baroque architecture the designs get more complicated. This was often shown in church facades partly to show as part of the counter-reformation movement that the church had money and power. The most important of the early baroque designs was the church façade of Santa Susanna in Rome by the leading architect of the day Carlo Maderno(1556-1629).

Saturday, 1 January 2011


I thought I better state my sources of information for this blog so here they are:-

The internet.

History of Western Music - Richard Taruskin
A Concise history of Western Music - Paul Griffiths
Chronical of Classical Music - Alan Kendall
Classical Music The 50 Greatest composers and their 1000 greatest works -Phil Goulding
Classical Music -Julian Johnson
Lives of the Great Composers - Harold Schonberg
Guinness Guide to Classical Composers - Keith Shadwick
The Story of Art - E.H. Gombrich
The Story of Philosophy - Bryan Magee
Philosophy - 100 Essential Thinkers - Philip Stokes
An Outline of European Architecture - Nikolaus Pevsner
The Story of Literature - Daniel Anderson Maria Lord Michael Macaroon Clare Peel and Tara Stubbs
The Story of Science and Technology in World History - An Introduction James McClellan III and Harold Dorn
The History of the World - Richard Overy