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 rĂ© 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.