Monday, April 30, 2018

The Glorious 18th Century

A while back I put up a post saying that my favorite musical century was the 18th. There were some puzzled comments. I don't know what comes to mind when you think of the 18th century--wigs for men, the guillotine, lots of trills--but the 18th century was the foundation for a lot of good things. For example, it was in the 18th century that historic rates of poverty began to plunge. Or, looking at it from the other side, that was when humanity suddenly, and I mean suddenly, started becoming prosperous. Have a look at this graph:

Click to enlarge
Taken from here. We really don't realize how much things began to change in the 18th century. Sure, there were earlier beginnings in the Italian Renaissance (we forget how the art and culture were only possible because of the new economic prosperity), but the engine of prosperity really took off in 18th century England with the Industrial Revolution. Until then, virtually everyone in the world lived in the most abject poverty.

As one would expect, this opening out of the world of possibilities was reflected in the music. The music of the first half of the century, which is essentially the music of the ancien regime along with the magnificent music of Reformation Germany, was ornate, gilded and resplendent. It also was largely restricted to the nobility. Have a listen to this, the fourth of François Couperin's Concerts Royaux:

But the greatest composer of that half of the century was J. S. Bach, rector of St. Thomas' church in Leipzig and composer of great quantities of Lutheran church music (which stylistically fused German counterpoint with French graces and Italian harmonic vigor). This is Cantata BWV 4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden":

You can, I think, hear the elegance and self-confidence of the music.

In the second half of the century composers became more, well, populist. Yes, they still usually wrote for the nobility, but the music, borrowing from Italian opera buffa, started to take on a more rustic and jolly tone. It became less elegant and more striking with frequent and startling changes of mood and demeanor. In the hands of someone like Joseph Haydn, the music became festive and jocose. Take as an example the first movement of his String Quartet in G minor, op. 20, no. 3, here played by the Buchberger Quartet:

Haydn seems to be just playing with harmony, rhythm and melody for the pure fun of it. To this Mozart added a sublime beauty. Then Beethoven and Schubert added a complexity that launched the developments of the 19th century. I know that this period, often called the Romantic Era, is preferred by a lot of people and there was certainly a lot of remarkable music written. But I think I still prefer the 18th century. Let's end with what might be the finest finale to any symphony, the Symphony No. 41 in C major, the last symphony written by Mozart:

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