Wednesday, 19 September 2012

1680s Captain Correlli's violin string

Zooming on into the 1680s and with his triumphant and majestic instrumental interludes we find Lully still going strong until he accidently wacks his toe with the baton he was using to keep the orchestra in time during a performance of Te Deum. Unfortunately this caused him an injury which might have healed if he'd had it looked at by a doctor. As it happened the wound became gangrenous, he refused to have his toe amputated and this meant the end of Lully on 22nd March 1687, a real shame for music. In this decade Lully even managed to compose some vocal music that I like, that is the chorus 'Cherchons la paix dans cet asile' from his opera Phaeton which I am sure I have heard somewhere, on a television advert probably.

My other favourite composer of the day was also still going strong and he did manage to survive the decade.  Biber was like nobody else and his music seems to know no boundaries. My particular favourites from him this decade are Garry Clarke – Mensa sonora, seu Musica instrumentalis: Sonata No. 2 in F major: I. Intrada and Ars Antiqua Austria – Violin Sonata No. 3 in F major, C. 140: IV. Variatio. This latter piece and some other of Biber's music has something about it, like the chanting hundreds of years earlier, that just seems timeless and I feel a bit cheesy and at risk of sounding a bit like a judge on the X Factor for using this word but also, 'soulful', especially when you compare him to Lully who was great but of his time. The way it ends is extraordinary for the 1680s, but then Biber was an extraordinary composer. As much as I love the music from the other composers I have chosen in this decade, next to this all those other pieces seem a bit trivial, but then they're lots of fun too.

So that's Biber but there was another virtuoso violinist based in Rome who was more influential, this was Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). Corelli's music was very much in keeping with the classical architecture around him, nice and neat and tidy, well formed, perfectly balanced and aesthetically pleasing. Parts of Biber sound outrageous by comparison.  Corelli's musical output is also very neatly organised consisting only of 6 'opus' collections which each had 12 sonatas each containing a few short movements. In this decade we have Opus 1 (1681), 2 (1685) and 3 (1689) and out of these three the first is the best and the second the worst. Opus 6 which was not published until just after he died is supposed to be the best of all 6 but we'll see about that when I get to the 1710s. There's not much to separate these sonatas but try the first allegro from sonata 7 of opus 1. Il Ruggiero – Sonata Settima

Corelli is significant because he was the first of all the composers not to bother with choral or vocal music at all, that is, the first whose work consisted entirely of music for instruments and the composer who set music on a course that would finally see instrumental chamber and orchestral music challenge the status of vocal music.  I refer to him as captain in my heading partly in tribute to a great novel by Louis De Bernieres but also because in a way Corelli was the  captain of the violinists, the one they all looked up to and learnt from, the first in a string of Italian composers of violin music, most of whom would follow Corelli's style and some of whom were his pupils (excuse the pun but by the string I mean Corelli, Torelli, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Locatelli, Somis, Manfredini, Geminiani,  Veracini, Tartini, and a little later Nardini, Lolli and Pugnani and finally to Paganini, the Jimi Hendrixi of the violin). 

With Biber and Corelli the violin was well and truly on the up and had established itself as the most important non-keyboard instrument. Antonio Stradivari began making instruments around this time and bought the design of the violin to perfection between 1700-1720.

In my last post I mentioned an English composer whose name I am pleased now to reveal as Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Purcell's really good music does not really come until 1689 and I have picked the opening overture from his opera Didas & Aeneas which is a slow starter but then gets going after about a minute. Three other pieces are harpischord pieces which could be 1690s but I am guessing 1680s - it's a real joy to find such catchy little 40/50 second gems for the harpsichord as Rigadoon, Scotch Tune and Irish Tune and the March in C major but Purcell's best was yet to come.

So my selections for this decade are: -


Christophe Rousset – II, 5: Entrée, Gavotte
Marc Minkowski – Lully : Phaëton : Prologue "Cherchons la paix dans cet asile" [Chorus]
Musica Antiqua Köln – Lully: Te Deum Motet à deux choeurs
Lully, Jean-Baptiste [Composer] – Lully: Acis & Galatée - Premier Air - Deuxième Air
Dominik Kiefer – Phaeton : Rondeau


Ars Antiqua Austria – Violin Sonata No. 3 in F major, C. 140: IV. Variatio
Ars Antiqua Austria – Violin Sonata No. 8 in A major, C. 145: IV. Allegro - Allegro
Garry Clarke – Mensa sonora, seu Musica instrumentalis: Sonata No. 2 in F major: I. Intrada
Garry Clarke – Mensa sonora, seu Musica instrumentalis: Partita No. 3 in A minor: III. Aria
Garry Clarke – Mensa sonora, seu Musica instrumentalis: Sonata No. 4 in B flat major: IV. Balletto
Garry Clarke – Mensa sonora, seu Musica instrumentalis: Sonata No. 5 in E major: V. Gavotte: Alla breve
Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Biber: Sonata a 2 violini, trombone, violone in D minor - 2. (Poco allegro)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Biber: Sonata a 2 violini, trombone, violone in D minor - 9. (Allegro)


Il Ruggiero – Sonata Prima
Il Ruggiero – Sonata Seconda
Il Ruggiero – Sonata Quinta
Il Ruggiero – Sonata Settima
Il Ruggiero – Sonata Duodecima
Il Ruggiero – Sonata Sesta
Il Ruggiero – Sonata Ottava
Il Ruggiero – Sonata Duodecima


William Christie – Purcell : Dido & Aeneas : Overture
Olivier Baumont – Purcell : Hornpipe in E minor ZT685
John Gibbons – March in C major, Z. 648
A New Scotch Tune in C major, Z. 655
John Gibbons – A New Irish Tune in G major, Z. 646
John Gibbons – Rigadoon in C major, Z. 653

General History

Turkey and Austria were at war with each other and Poland joined in on Austria's side. Louis XIV started to get too big for his boots, banning all religions except catholic and kicking the protestant Huguenots out of France  which was not a good move for his country. He also claimed the Palatinate, a German state as French. This was also not a good move for France because it led to Sweden, Spain, Holland, the Holy Roman Empire and German states, Saxony and Bavaria forming the League of Augsburg against Louis XIV. England later joined  the League after James II was forced out and replaced by William and Mary in 1688. The war of the League of Augsburg, with them all against France, began in 1689.


Now that the finishing touches were being put on the palace at Versailles most aristocrats around Europe wanted their own mini Versailles and also to replicate Bernini and Boromini's impressive Italian baroque designs and a whole lot of extravagant castle and monastery building was going on, though often they would run out of money before the buildings were completed.


We are in a creative slump in terms of painting. By now the greatest artists of the century had either died, that's Rubens, Poussin, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, or were about to this decade, meaning Ruisdael and finally Claude Lorraine. Claude did at least manage to keep the standard of his paintings up into his late seventies with this one entitled landscape of Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia, painted in 1682, the year of his death.


The world of literature was consistent with the art world in that there really was not a great deal of enormous significance happening in this decade (apart from Locke & Newton who, if you read on you will see, within a couple of years of each other, were responsible for two of the most important publications in the history of mankind) .

Science & Technology

Newton published his Principia (or mathematical principals of natural philosophy) in 1687. This is the monumentally important book in which he explains the laws of gravity and the workings of the solar system. From this Newton could predict things like the movement of the moon, the planets, comets, the movement of the tides, an absolutely astounding achievement that for the first time, gave people the feeling that the universe had somehow been tamed.

Within Principia was the invention of 'Calculus' (the study of change in maths). An intellectual rival of Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716),  had in fact invented Calculus independently and published this in 1684. It is unfortunate for Leibniz to have worked all that out and then to find that Newton could prove he had already done it back in 1666 but just not published his work, a bit like when you think you've got an amazing idea for a new type of website but then find out it's already been done! You've got to have some sympathy for Leibniz, who despite discrediting himself by trying to back date and amend his work to claim the glory, was apparently a charming and well liked fellow. His desk was very untidy and he confessed he would often have to re do work he had already done because it would be quicker for him to do that than to look through his unorganised pile of papers. Of some consolation for him is that it is his notation for Calculus that mathematicians now use rather than Newton's.

Leibniz was a real bright button though and was the first to describe an early type of mechanical calculator  called a pinwheel calculator and his 'leibniz wheel' was a component used in the first mass produced calculator which came out much later in 1851 and this component was used all the way until 1973 when electronic calculators came in.

Leibniz also began philosophising in this decade, following the rationalist philosophy of Descartes and Spinoza but he did not publish anything until 1710, probably because his papers were in a mess, so I'll tell you about his ideas when I get to 1710.


Newton's friend John Locke (1632-1704) published his Essay on Human Understanding in 1689. Like Newton's 'Principia' this is another monumental work and like Henry Purcell, Locke is basically known  for what he came out with during the few years following from and including 1689.

Before Locke people generally thought that the limit to what could be known was set by what there actually was in the universe, so theoretically we could go on finding out things until there was nothing left to find out. So for example Descartes started with 'I think therefore I am' and said we can build up our understanding of the universe from one certainty leading to another.  Locke on the other hand said that when we are born, rather than thinking first, our mind  is like a blank page waiting to be written on by our experience in the world and we can only really know and understand things based on what we experience through our senses and build our knowledge from there, so there may be a whole lot in reality that we'll never be able to know about if we don't experience it through our senses. This idea that knowledge comes from how we interpret our sensory experience, rather than pure and simple reasoning is known as empiricism and is a reaction against the rationalist school of thinking that included Descartes, Spinoza and Newton's intellectual rival Leibniz.

Also important to Locke's philosophy is that as we infer something from our sensory experience, we'll then generalise from that experience and this occasionally can lead to us being mistaken.

Locke's ideas were revolutionary in two ways. One because they suggested that no one is superior by birth whether they're a king or a peasant and two, because they suggested that  if we could be mistaken then we should not impose our own view, but instead be tolerant of other people's, and willing to change our mind if necessary. Locke believes that this sort of thinking combined with the absence of civil order being of such great detriment to human beings led mankind to listen to one another to create organised rule. So for Locke governments and rulers are empowered by the people and that is where they had always got their sovereignty from, not from God as rulers like Louis XIV liked to believe.  Locke's essay marks the start of liberal democracy and was a big influence on the people who started the French and American revolutions about 100 years later.


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