Thursday, October 4, 2012

My Favorite Century

Click to enlarge

An old friend of mine used to say that music has been in a steady decline since 1733, the death of François Couperin. More and more I wonder if he wasn't right. Of course he failed to take into account J. S. Bach, died 1750, Haydn, died 1809, and Mozart, died 1791. But I think that the point he was making was that there was a kind of Golden Age for music in which an audience possessed of a delicate sensibility also had the wherewithal to support the music they liked. By the end of the 18th century, the sans-coulottes would be burning harpsichords as well as guillotining nobles. Now, it may still be too soon to tell if the French Revolution was a good thing or not, but as far as music goes, it ended an era of astonishing musical beauty.

The painting I have headed this post with, L'Embarquement pour Cythère by Jean-Antoine Watteau, symbolizes this glorious time. Painted in 1717, it is a celebration of love on the island of Cythera, the birthplace of Venus, goddess of love. The music of François Couperin is an excellent musical analogue:

Such a delicate and poised beauty... Couperin wrote darker music as well, such as the Leçons de Ténèbres:

And his solo harpsichord music is over-flowing with gems like this:

But of course, François Couperin was not the only composer writing glorious music. There were dozens upon dozens of wonderfully gifted composers from the same time. For brilliant harpsichord music there are none better than Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 - 1764). The first piece in this suite, La Triomphante, is a brilliant display performed by Gustav Leonhardt:

Rameau was also a very successful opera composer. Here is the overture to Castor et Pollux:

But these two composers are merely the tip of the iceberg. The French Baroque has a host of others like Forqueray:

or Duphly:

And of course the Italians were not asleep. Their violinists, for whom Stradivarius, Amati and Guarnerius built all those unexcelled instruments, were writing spectacular music. Take Arcangelo Corelli (1653 - 1713) for example:

Or Giuseppe Tartini (1692 - 1770):

Not to mention Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741) composer of five hundred concertos, mostly for violin:

Have I forgotten the Germans? Not at all. Their music was not as delicate as the French, nor as sparkling as the Italians, but more substantial than either. There were a host of great German composers in the period, but if I just mention J. S. Bach (1685 - 1750), that pretty much proves my point:

Now, who have I forgotten... oh yes, Domenico Scarlatti (1685 - 1757), Italian, but spent most of his life in Portugal and Spain writing keyboard sonatas that very likely make him the second most important keyboard composer after Chopin:

But here is what I think definitively makes the 18th century the best century for music: all this great music I have been pointing to is just the Baroque half of the century! In the second half, an entirely new musical vocabulary was invented (largely by Joseph Haydn) and we have an unbelievable wealth of music as a result. Like Haydn quartets:

Or piano concertos by Mozart (1759 - 1791):

Symphonies by Beethoven (1770 - 1827):

But if I really devote sufficient space to the glories of the Classical Era, this post will go on forever. Two words: Don Giovanni!

Honestly, the 18th century was an unequaled era for music. The further we get into the 19th century, the more things tend to go to hell. Schubert and Schumann, ok, but Berlioz is crude by comparison and by mid-century we have grotesque monstrosities by, well, I won't name any names, but you know who I mean. That boat for the isle of Cythera had long since departed...


Craig said...

Very interesting, as usual! And, I must add, a little surprising.

If someone had told me, out of the blue, that their favourite music came from the French Baroque, I'd have thought they were jesting. It is a period/place for which I, personally, have little affection. Things were a little better in Italy, and best of all in Germany (and in Leipzig!), but by and large the baroque is, for me, a tad dull. Haydn, yes; Mozart, yes! Beethoven, sort of yes. I would agree that things got better as the eighteenth-century went on.

On a timeline, my favourite music is bi-modal. The period from 1300-1625 or so is wonderful (Machaut, Dufay, Ockeghem, Josquin, Victoria, Byrd are all at the top of my list). With exceptions (Bach!) the baroque is pleasant but not especially compelling. Likewise the classical period (again, with some exceptions). Romanticism was a steady downhill slide (except for Schubert). But then in the twentieth-century there are again a large group of composers whom I really enjoy: Mahler, Webern, Britten, Shostakovich, Weinberg, Messiaen, to name a few.

So I guess I'd say that the best musical century was, all things considered, the fifteenth or sixteenth, but the twentieth (despite a preponderance of really awful music) made something of a comeback.

Odd, isn't it?

Bryan Townsend said...

The appreciation of the French Baroque is greatly aided by living with a harpsichordist for a couple of years! There is a kind of charm in the French Baroque that doesn't seem to exist elsewhere.

But there is no denying that a lot of wonderful music came from other periods. Yes, the ones you mention are particularly strong. But I still think that for sheer quantity of remarkable music, the 18th century has a lot of weight. And intellectually, it was a strong century as well: David Hume, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon and Immanuel Kant are some pretty important names.