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).

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