Introduction | Classical Era | Classical

The Enlightenment was a great wave of thought in the eighteenth century that combated mysticism, superstition and the supernatural – and to some extent the dominance of the church. Its origins lie in French rationalism and scepticism and English empiricism, as well as in the new spirit of scientific enquiry.

It also affected political theory in the writings of such men as François-Marie Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France, and Thomas Paine in the US. Enlightenment thinking had its effect on music: naturalness and simplicity were watchwords for the new generation of composers. Baroque counterpoint was giving way by the middle of the eighteenth century to agreeable, elegant and affecting melody. The writer J. A. Scheibe said: ‘Who can listen to a symphony by Hasse or Graun without pleasure and benefit?’ – as opposed, he meant, to the learned complexities of Bachian counterpoint.

Enlightenment Operas

Increasingly, the vernacular forms of opera (Singspiel, opéra comique, ballad opera, even opera buffa, often with its local, Neapolitan and Venetian dialects), based on direct, everyday human drama about ordinary people, gained ground over serious, heroic Italian opera. One vernacular opera is Le devin du village (‘The Village Soothsayer’, 1752), by Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself, which although a slender piece, was widely translated and played beyond France. The ultimate Enlightenment operas, however, are those of Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714–87), with their rational reforms, their rejection of un­motivated elaboration and their basis in simplicity and direct emotional appeal, and Die Zauberflöte (‘The Magic Flute’) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91), with its triumph of Wisdom, Reason and Nature, through the brotherhood of man, over the forces of darkness. Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), in The Creation and The Seasons, and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), in his Choral Symphony, carried the same serene confidence in man and God into the world of choral music, with its symbolic embrace of ‘alle Menschen’ (‘all mankind’).


This was an era in which seminal reference works were produced. Samuel Johnson completed his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. The first Encyclopedia Britannica was issued in 1771 by a Society of Gentlemen in Scotland. One of the greatest collective achievements of the age was the multi-volume Encyclopédie (1751–76), edited by Denis Diderot. Its rational humanism undermined the legitimacy of the French aristocracy (ancien régime). Diderot’s collaborators included two great French writers – Voltaire, the free-thinking satirist who wrote the philosophical tale Candide (1759), and Rousseau, whose Emile (1762) would influence the Romantic movement. French writers were heralding the twilight of late-Baroque certainty and the dawn of modern anxiety. These philosophes (‘philosophers’) laid the groundwork for the French Revolution.

In Britain, Henry Fielding’s ‘comic epic’ The History of Tom Jones (1749) and the sentimental Clarissa (1748) by Samuel Richardson gave impetus to the British novel. The enigmatic William Blake expressed his personal worldview in paintings, engravings and poems such as ‘Jerusalem’ (1804). Literature also revealed the Enlightenment’s darker side – the sexual...

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