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 As a result the Misere was shrouded in mystery and would remain unpublished for 135 years.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.

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