A Short History | Classical Era | Opera

The Enlightenment was a natural, if late, consequence of the sixteenth-century Renaissance and Reformation. Also known as the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment advanced to be recognized in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and brought with it new, controversial beliefs that upended the absolutisms on which European society had long been based.

Absolute monarchy, with its reliance on the Divine Right of Kings, and the Church, with its demand for unthinking obedience to doctrine, were major casualties of this great intellectual upheaval. In Enlightenment terms, their supremacy now belonged to the power of reason and a sense of individual worth. These new imperatives would promote social progress and education as a means of freeing the masses from ignorance and superstition. If Martin Luther opened the door to the Reformation as a challenge to the status quo, the Enlightenment flung it wide open.

An important effect of Enlightenment ideas was to promote the public as a force in its own right, with its own tastes and preferences. This involved profound changes in opera and music generally. Until now, composers and performers, who were essentially servants to royal or noble employers, had been required to cater for the demands and whims of a privileged elite at the royal, ducal and other noble courts. Now, in the Age of Reason, a well-to-do middle class that could afford the price of tickets was flocking to public concerts and opera houses, where the music was tailored to catch and hold their attention. For the ‘old guard’ in music, this looked very much like what today would be called the ‘dumbing-down’ of opera. To adherents of the Enlightenment, the new style meant that opera acquired a wider appeal and mirrored the concerns of real people in the real, everyday world.

Key Events

1750 Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz appointed leader of Europe’s finest orchestra – the Mannheim
1755 Samuel Johnson publishes his dictionary
1756 The Seven Years’ War begins
1762 Catherine the Great becomes ruler of Russia
1770 Captain Cook claims New Zealand and Eastern Australia for Great Britain
1772 Poland is split between Russia and Prussia
1775 The American Revolution against the British begins
1776 The Declaration of Independence announces the birth of the United States of America; Adam Smith publishes his ecoomic treatise The Wealth of Nations
1785 The Oath of the Horatii is painted by Jacques-Louis David and becomes a landmark neoclassical painting
1789 The French Revolution begins; the Bastille is stormed; George Washington becomes the first president of America
1791 Mozart dies, leaving his Requiem unfinished
1793 Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antionette are beheaded
1801 Richard Trevithick develops his steam engine
1804 Napoleon Bonaparte crowns himself emperor, to Beethoven’s disapproval; the philosopher Emmanuel Kant dies; Francis II becomes Emperor of Austria
1805 Lord Horatio Nelson defeats Napoleon in the Battle of Trafalgar; the poet Friedrich von Schiller dies
1810 Simon Bolivar leads an uprising in Venezuela
1811 Luddite riots in Britain against new technologies
1812 Napoleon’s army retreats...

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