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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism

The “Representational” Style and the Basso Continuo; Intermedii; Favole in Musica

CHAPTER 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


As hinted in previous chapters, the central irony of the “Renaissance,” as the term is applied to music, is the way in which the Greek revivalism that motivated the “rebirth” of philosophy and the other arts actually undermined the dominant “Renaissance” musical style, if we take that style to be the ars perfecta. It would be even sillier to say that the neoclassical revival produced the musical “Baroque,” since that term was never used about art until the middle of the seventeenth century, when it was used to describe Roman architecture, and was only first applied to a musical composition (Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie, as it happened) nearly a century later, in 1733, as an insult. “Baroque” is a term that musicians do not need. Trying to justify it in any terms that actually relate to the music of the period has never led to anything but quibbling, sophistry, and tergiversation. All it is now is a commercial logo for a kind of “classical music” that record companies and radio stations market as sonic wallpaper. Let’s try to forget it.

So what shall we call the music that we used to call “baroque”—the repertory that arose in Italy at the end of the sixteenth century and died out in Germany some time past the middle of the eighteenth, and what shall we call the period of its ascendancy? We could simply call it the Italian age, since almost every musical innovation during that century and a half took place in Italy and radiated out from there to other parts of Europe. (There were pockets of resistance, to be sure, but conscious resistance is an acknowledgement of dominion.)

If we want to emphasize its philosophy we could call it the Galilean period, after Galileo Galilei, the great astronomer (1564–1642), who was the world’s first “modern” (that is, empirical or experimental) scientist, and therefore emblematic of what we now call the “Early Modern” period, when for the first time secular thought and secular art reached decisive ascendancy in the West. (That is why the story of Galileo’s persecution by the Inquisition has achieved such mythic resonance.)

We might do even better to call it the Cartesian period, after René Descartes (1596–1650), the philosophical founder of empirical science, whose extreme mind–matter dualism made possible the idea of objective knowledge and representation. A great deal of music between 1600 and 1750 seeks to represent objects (including objectified emotions) rationally and systematically and accurately, and to formulate rules for doing so. The principle of “objective” musical representation that could be formulated as “doctrine” was a very important idea at this time. (Still, the idea of musical representation was neither born with this repertory, nor did it die out afterward.)

If we want to emphasize media, we could call it the theatrical age. Music theater as we know it today was born at the turn of the seventeenth century (a great age for drama generally), precisely under the influence of the neoclassical revival, and it was much abetted by the new emphasis on representation, for that is what theater is: represented action. But we could just as well call it the orchestral age. Orchestral music and large “abstract” instrumental forms were also an innovation of the seventeenth century, and it was also a great age of instrumental virtuosity—which is to say instrumental music made theatrical. (Again, though, both music theater and orchestral music—not to mention virtuosity—are with us still).

If we want to keep the emphasis on musical technique, then the obvious name for the period—and perhaps the best one—would be the continuo age: the basso continuo as a virtually obligatory aspect of any musical performance that was not a keyboard solo originated around the turn of the seventeenth century, as we learned in the previous chapter, and it died out before the end of the eighteenth. Clearly the presence of the basso continuo (a bass line “realized” in chordal harmony) as a constant factor throughout this period, and its failure to survive the period, in some sense define the period. And that sense has to do with harmony itself, reconceived and newly emphasized as a driving or shaping force in music. It was the development of harmony as an independent shaping factor, and its deployment over larger and larger temporal spans, that made possible the development of “abstract” musical forms.

But were there no connections between the technical and the esthetic and the ideological? Were there no affinities binding the neoclassical impulse, the theatrical impulse, and the rise of the continuo? There certainly were; and to locate them we must turn our attention to the Florentine academies of the late sixteenth century, and to the writings of a remarkable scholar, Girolamo Mei.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-019.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-019.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-019.xml