A Short History | Early Baroque | Classical

The word ‘Baroque’ is derived from the Portuguese barrocco, a term for a misshapen pearl, and it was still with this sense of something twisted that it was first applied – to the period between about 1600 and 1750 – in the nineteenth century.

In 1768, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: ‘a Baroque music is that in which the harmony is confused, charged with modulations and dissonances; melody is harsh and little natural, the intonation difficult, and the movement constrained.’ For Rousseau, the word was not a compliment, but he was someone who advocated balance and restraint – the hallmarks of the classical style in the arts. Whatever one can say about the vastly diverse musical repertories of the early Baroque era (1600–1700), rarely are they balanced and restrained. Since its first application, however, the term has gained currency and its negative connotation has now disappeared.

The first years of the seventeenth century were witness to vast political changes across Europe. Religious dissent – the inheritance of the Reformations of the Renaissance – continued to wreak havoc throughout Europe. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) impoverished Central and Northern Europe and redrew political and religious boundaries. In France, the monarchy was on shaky ground between the assassination of Henri IV in 1610 and the assumption of absolute power by Louis XIV in 1661. England experienced the execution of a king and a civil war before returning power to the Stuarts, who tried with short-lived success to pick up where they had left off. Italy was more stable, but many of the great families of the Renaissance – the Medici, Este and Gonzaga – entered the new century with significantly diminished spheres of influence. During these years, too, the major European powers fought and negotiated over rights to lands in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

All these developments had their impact on music in various ways and to lesser or greater degrees. But if any single phenomenon could be said to have influenced all music, everywhere in Europe, it would have to be the dawning – at the close of the sixteenth century – of an age of theatre. This was ushered in by the opening of Europe’s first permanent theatres in Italy and was marked by the birth of opera, oratorio and a host of peripheral theatrical genres.

Key Events

1598 Huguenots granted freedom of worship and equal rights in the Edict of Nantes
1599 Globe Theatre, home of Shakespeare’s plays, built in London
1602 Persecution of Protestants in Bohemia and Hungary
1603 Death of Elizabeth I; James VI of Scotland becomes first Stuart king of England as James I
1606 Shakespeare writes King Lear and Macbeth
1610 Assassination of Henri IV of France, who is succeeded by nine-year-old Louis XIII; Galileo uses telescope to observe Jupiter’s satellites
1611 Authorized ‘King James’ Bible issued
1618 Beginning of Thirty Years’ War
1619 Hamburg and Venice banks founded; Pilgrims leave Plymouth, England, for North America
1628 Harvey publishes discovery of blood circulation...

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