Introduction | Early Baroque | Classical

The revival and imitation of ancient theatrical genres in sixteenth-century Italy bore fruit in seventeenth-century England and France in the works of the great dramatists of those countries: William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine.

In Italy, however, the sixteenth-century innovations in spoken drama were followed in the next century not by a great national spoken theatre, but by the creation of opera. If Shakespeare and Corneille were the heirs of Renaissance theatre in England and France, their counterpart in Italy was Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643).

Opera was not the only musical genre to grow from the roots of theatre. In between the acts of spoken drama the Italians placed intermedi, musical interludes that could be as simple as a madrigal or as grand as the famous intermedi of 1589. Intermedi continued to be composed in Italy well into the seventeenth century; in fact they were sometimes performed in the intermissions of operas. They also served as inspiration for courtly entertainment outside Italy, giving rise to the masque in England and the ballet de cour in France.

Sacred Music

Opera, masque and ballet de cour are theatre music, but it is also possible for music to be theatrical without being intended for the theatre. It is the development of theatrical modes of expression, in all music, that shows the extent of the influence theatre had on Baroque music. In sacred music this is most evident in the oratorio, which is essentially an unstaged religious opera, but a more general sense of theatre infused other sacred genres as well. Texts, even of conservative genres like the motet, increasingly focused on the speaker’s emotional response to biblical events, especially to the Passion, the gospel account of the Crucifixion. The dramatic possibilities of the Passion held a strong attraction for Protestants, who produced increasingly elaborate settings which were to culminate in the famous Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750).

This theatrical aesthetic can even be traced in purely instrumental genres. Of central importance to Baroque instrumental music is the fundamentally dramatic principal of contrast: between forces, between dynamics, between textures and – most important for the development of musical technique – between harmonies. The need to place harmonic areas in opposition to one another was the primary impetus for the development of functional tonality and, in this sense, even this important technical development was a theatrical one.

The Spread of Opera

The greatest and most enduring result of the dramatic impulse of the Baroque era was opera, a genre that draws together art, architecture, music and literature. The operas of the seventeenth century are an index of the latest developments in all these arts. The scenery, in imitation of the scenery used in Renaissance theatre, drew on new experiments in perspective and illusion. The theatres themselves, often designed by the leading architects of the day (Buontalenti in Florence, Palladio in Parma), drew on classical and modern principles of performance space. The plots of operas were mostly drawn, in the seventeenth...

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