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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries



This volume, principally devoted to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (with some small spillover into the nineteenth for the sake of completing the discussion of Beethoven’s instrumental works), presents and contextualizes material usually covered in music history courses surveying the so-called baroque and classical periods in the traditional (that is, twentieth-century) periodization of music history. The book is designed to accompany such courses, but at the same time it is hoped that its use will help reconceptualize their content. The text itself gives copious reasons for regarding the terms baroque and classical, and the conventional periodization they symbolize, as outmoded. Both terms are anachronistic to the repertories with which they are now associated. The adjective baroque was first applied to music in the eighteenth, not the seventeenth, century—and then as a pejorative. The adjective classical was first applied to the composers we now intend the term to cover in the 1830s, after they all were dead. Their being dead was part of what made them “classical,” but in every other way the term is misleading.

Rather than two “periods,” the contents of this book might be viewed as encompassing several major events or watersheds in the history of European music. The first is the establishment of opera, both as a genre and as an institution, at the center of European dramatic art. The volume opens with the two earliest masterpieces of the new theatrical form, both by Claudio Monteverdi but exemplifying vastly different, even antithetical, creative purposes arising from their respective origins in an aristocratic court (in the case of Orfeo) and a public theater (in the case of L’Incoronazione di Poppea). That social difference provides a paradigm that will be constantly invoked and reinvoked as the history of the genre continues in subsequent chapters. The earlier history (or “prehistory”) of opera, the subject of the last chapter in volume 1 of the Oxford History, concerns the rise of the “monodic” idiom (solo voice accompanied by a chord-strumming instrument whose notation consists of a figured bass), a fancied imitation of ancient Greek theatrical declamation that supplanted the fully elaborated (or “perfected”) polyphonic style of the sixteenth century.

The basso continuo texture thus arrived at became ubiquitous in European music for the next century and a half, the period coextensive with what is usually called baroque, and it provides a much better (because concrete) descriptor of that period. Conceptualizing the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as the period of the basso continuo has two additional advantages: It focuses attention on harmony, the musical domain that saw the most radical development during the seventeenth century, culminating in the full elaboration of major-minor tonality as a governor—and generator—of musical form. And the new conception of harmonically governed or determined form largely conditioned the amazing rise of instrumental music in the second half of the seventeenth century to the point at which, in the eighteenth, it could vie with vocal music for dominance, and by the end of the period covered by this book, actually achieve it.

The dominance of instrumental music over vocal not only was a triumph of formal organization but also represented the triumph of a new esthetic ideal, that of romanticism. To observe this is to broach the ultimate advantage of reconceptualizing the contents of this book (and of the courses it accompanies) away from the traditional, chimerical, baroque/classical periodization toward one truly reflective of contemporary events. For the rise of romanticism, in stark contrast to such nonevents as the “rise” of “the baroque” or “the classic,” was an actual contemporary event, and one of transformative importance to music, both as reflected in its style and in its expressive content. And beyond even that, it was an intellectual juncture that transformed notions of what it meant to be an artist.

That is why it is of crucial importance that the rise of romanticism be given the proper context: namely, the social, historical, and intellectual currents of the late eighteenth century, for all that it is the nineteenth century that in conventional periodization is called the romantic period. Romanticism was emphatically a product of the eighteenth century, and that point is driven home by the boundaries of the present narrative.

And, it follows, that is why Beethoven is encompassed (but for his single opera) within the confines of this volume rather than the next one. That Beethoven’s creative career began, and his creative personality was formed, at the end of the eighteenth century is sometimes adduced—especially by historians writing in the aftermath of World War II and in the immediate environment of the looming cold war—as evidence of his essential classicism and (in the especially insistent version of Charles Rosen’s widely read treatise of 1970, The Classical Style) his freedom from all taint of the romantic. The question that so exercised twentieth-century historians—was Beethoven classic or romantic?—is very illuminating of their time; it is altogether meaningless in the context of Beethoven’s time, when “the classic” as a concept in opposition to romanticism did not exist, and it has absolutely no light to shed on him. Beethoven’s coming of age in the last decades of the eighteenth century, far from equipping him with a protective shield against burgeoning romanticism, was precisely what made him the primary embodiment of that very burgeoning.

Another way of taking the measure of the contents of this volume without recourse to obsolescent or essentialist notions of “period” is to compare conditions at its outset with conditions at its completion. When the curtain goes up, the main figure on stage, Monteverdi, is an Italian specialist in vocal music. When it comes down, the main figure on stage is Beethoven, a German specialist (not as complete a specialist as Monteverdi, but nevertheless decidedly a specialist) in instrumental music. These two changes—one a geographical migration of musical initiative, the other a decisive transvaluation of esthetic values (in the course of which, incidentally, esthetics as a term and as a subject area had its birth)—constitute in the large the trajectory this book’s contents will trace.

Another change, perhaps equally momentous: Monteverdi and Beethoven were both men of strong personality and will. Far from humble men, they have left ample evidence of their sense of self-worth; and, indeed, they are among the strongest individual agents to figure as dramatis personae on the stage of music history. The dynamic or dialectical relationship between strong agents and the enabling and constraining conditions of their environments is always the main subject of art history. That dialectic is adumbrated in the strongest contrast that may be drawn between our opening and closing protagonists: Monteverdi’s career was passed in service to courts, municipalities, and speculative enterprises that granted him employment; he could conceive of no other social status for a musician. Beethoven passed his entire mature career without official affiliation; and, although he did accept aristocratic patronage, he was able to decide with a degree of freedom that would have been inconceivable to Monteverdi what to write and when to write it. That social emancipation—or was it social abandonment?—of the artist is perhaps the largest theme broached within the covers of this book. It is not a story this book narrates in its fullness. Monteverdi’s status and expectations were formed by developments described in the previous volume, and Beethoven’s status and expectations led in directions that will be described in later ones. But the crucial move from service personnel to autonomous agent takes place in the course of our present narrative, and it was the biggest social transformation in the history of music as a fine art. Without it, this book would have had no call to exist.

R. T.

August 2008

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Citation (APA):
(n.d.). . In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Mar. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-miscMatter-008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
"." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Mar. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-miscMatter-008.xml