Week 19 in Review

The Week in Reading: We began last week in Germany, where a variety of new genres were popping up to provide music for Lutheran services. The chorale concerto (52) was a mixed instrumental-vocal form practiced most vigorously by Scheidt, Praetorius, and Schein. A sad example of the role that terrible historical events can play on culture is to be found in the story of Heinrich Schütz, whose enormous talent was nurtured in Italy and who was perhaps Germany’s first truly cosmopolitan composer. Under the tutelage of Giovanni Gabrieli, Schütz incorporated Italianate harmonies and madrigal-inspired expression into his sacred music in the so-called “luxuriant style.” (59) It was Germany’s take on the seconda prattica, complete even with chromatic dissonances (“ugliness” for the sake of text expression) and erotic texts. But this was not to last. The Thirty Year’s War obliterated the communities of Germany, sent all of Schütz’s musicians to the front lines, and sapped up all the budget for the arts. During the disastrous war, he was forced to drastically scale back his musical ambitions. In one particularly poignant moment, he paired back the continuo to just one lonely bass line: indeed, there were so few musicians in his church to play his music that he was forced to work with the barest of textures.

In Italy around this time, composers like Carissimi were writing grand oratorios and cantatas (the monodic outgrowth of the madrigal). He was joined in cantata production by the composer/singer Barbara Strozzi, who presents us with the first woman composer of the volume and an opening for Taruskin to discuss the thorny problem of the representation of women in the western music tradition (78-83). It’s true that there are comparatively few of them, which can of course be explained today by the misogynistic cultures that women found themselves in during the period of “common practice” music. This presents the historian with a critical dilemma: do we elevate the work of those few women composers perhaps beyond their historical significance in the name of setting the record straight and atoning for past historical erasure, or do we acknowledge important women when we deem them musically important and then provide a massive caveat explaining why there are so few women in the history we write? It’s a really tough question that continues to perplex many musicologists.

Ch. 3: Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored

To France! Nowhere was musical production (at least the literate variety) welded to state power as intensely as it was in France, where the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully enjoyed a close personal relationship with the “Sun King” Louis XIV and essentially held a state monopoly on all opera composition for his whole life. Opera had always been a tough sell in the Gallic lands: the French just weren’t having the idea of mixing drama and music a la the Italians. This changed when Lully (along with others) developed a specifically French form of musical spectacle for the courts, the tragédie en musique (88). It’s hard to mistake Italian opera for Lully: instead of the dramatic melodies so famous in Italian opera, the French variety is reminiscent of perpetual recitative, with lots of “talky” bits and few extravagant vocal displays. The French cherished their ballet, and many operas prominently featured dancing. Further, Lully brought the content of opera back down to earth – most of his works are thinly veiled representations of the exact same court that would have been watching them. In the French opera, therefore, mythology was transformed into politics.

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