Introduction | Late Baroque | Classical

More sophisticated diplomatic relations between states in the late Baroque era resulted in a time of relative peace – for a short period at least – during which the arts flourished. As in the Renaissance and early Baroque eras, writers, artists and musicians turned to the classical antiquity of Greece and Rome for their standards and their in­spiration.

At the same time, a new interest in realism in the arts spread across Europe. The rise of printing meant that new ideas were disseminated rapidly to increasingly literate populations, and many standard musical forms, most notably opera, underwent a rush of development. Then came the War of the Austrian Succession, bringing such development to a temporary halt as the music of the period became propagandist in nature, or was forced to take a back seat while money and attention were focused on more pressing matters.

Princely Courts

During the eighteenth century, European rulers made a deliberate attempt to emulate the image-building and self-aggrandizement that had characterized the court of Louis XIV. Using Versailles (created by Louis le Vau, Charles Le Brun and André le Nôtre) as a model, kings and princes created handsome new residences containing suites of grand staterooms and surrounded by formal gardens. The paintings on the walls and ceilings of the various apartments, often by distinguished Italian artists such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Sebastiano Ricci, celebrated rulers’ achievements, ancestors or the virtues they purported to uphold. Such palaces were intended to act as showcases for their occupants, displaying them as sovereigns endowed with good taste as well as power and money.

Music provided an important indicator of taste, wealth and social status during this period – whether it was professional court opera performances in the prince’s private chapel or in semi-amateur performances, where members of the royal or noble family took part, assisted by professional musicians. Almost every composer of any note found himself attached to a court establishment of some sort. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) spent several years as Kapellmeister (music director) to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, and George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) wrote various important works for the Duke of Chandos. Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757) spent most of his career in the service of Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal, later queen of Spain, and many of the major works of Antonio Caldara (1670–1736) were written for the Imperial chapel and court theatre in Vienna.

However talented, though, and however highly regarded their skill by their patrons and others, composers such as these were frequently treated as little better than talented servants, subject to the whims and high-handedness of their employers and expected to wear a uniform. This subservient position remained a standard feature of a musician’s life at court (with the exception of Handel) until the end of the eighteenth century, when the French Revolution undermined aristocratic assumptions of power, and Romanticism’s subsequent glorification of the artist helped to elevate the status of composers and performers.

Classical Influences

Alongside the grandeur of the European courts came...

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