Music with Ease > Classical Music > Baroque Era Music
After Palestrina, and before Bach and Handel, there are no Continental composers of sufficient note to detain us; though it was within this period that the great forms of opera and oratorio sprang into being. Indeed, the first opera ever written was produced in the very year of Palestrinas death. This was Dafne, composed by Jacopo Peri, one of a Florentine coterie of dilettanti. It was a very primitive kind of work, with only four instruments (harpsichord, viol di gamba, lute, and harp) for accompaniment. But it proved a huge success, and the result was a second opera, Eurydice, produced on the occasion of the marriage of Mary de Medicis with Henry IV. of France in 1600. Peri is described as having "an aureole of notoriously ardent hair," whatever that may mean. He was a very avaricious person. Of noble birth himself, he grew rich on the favour of the Medicis, and added to his wealth by marrying a fine lady who brought with her a very handsome dot.
Peris operas were, of course, mere experiments. It was left for Claudio Monterverdi (1566-1650), a Milanese musician, to give a pronounced form to the opera. Monterverdi has been glowingly described as "the first opera composer by the grace of God, a real musical genius, the father of instrumentation." Less enthusiastically, we may call him the Wagner of his time, since in his harmonies and general style he was so daringly in advance of his age. Thus, in an opera of 1624, he introduced instrumental effects which were almost Wagnerian in their attempts to convey to listeners an idea of the feelings animating the several characters. He indicates, for instance, the galloping of horses and the fierceness of their riders pretty much as Wagner does in his Ride of the Valkyries. Monteverdi had many competitors in opera, but he easily eclipsed them all, and in a few years gave opera quite a new complexion. It is said that he entered the church after the death of his wife, when he was about sixty-five years of age. By and by the Neapolitan Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725) burst on the scene and established the real Italian opera, which has now held sway for so many years in so many different countries.
What Monteverdi did for opera was done for oratorio by Giacomo Carissimi (1582-1672), who often wrote for the voices in that broad and simple style which Handel popularised a whole century later. The development of oratorio, in fact, progressed side by side with the development of opera. But oratorio has had a much shorter active existence than opera. The opera, like Tennysons brook, seems destined to go on for ever, while the oratorio really lives only in the masterpieces of Handel and Mendelssohn, with an occasional spurt from Haydn. Practically, as regards its form, Handel said the last word in oratorio; whereas the opera was in a state of evolution right up to the time of Wagner, if it is not in a state of evolution even now.
And what was England doing for music all this time? Not very much that has proved permanent. England had a host of composers of all kinds, but their names are, for the most part, altogether unknown in the great world of music. Some call this -- the time before Handel and Bach -- the golden age of English music; reminding us that in those far-away days flourished such composers as John Dunstable, Christopher Tye, Thomas Tallis, William Byrde, Richard Farrant, John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, John Bull, Henry Lawes, Jeremiah Clark, and William Croft, among many more. These names, or some of them, are interesting enough. Thus Tye was the music-master of Queen Elizabeth, who prided herself upon the playing of the virginals, a primitive precursor of the piano. Byrde, also, was intimately connected with the Queen, being one of the chief contributors to her Virginal Book. Tallis survives in the common-metre church tune bearing his name, as well as in the tune of the evening hymn, "All praise to Thee, my God, this night." To John Bull some are inclined to attribute (and very properly, considering his name) the tune of "God save the King." Dowland would be worth mentioning if only because Shakespeare made a sonnet about him -- "If music and sweet poetry agree"; and Henry Lawes is interesting for a similar reason, namely, that Milton celebrated him in the lines --
Harry, whose tuneful and well-measured notes
First taught our English music how to span
Words with just note and accent.
Jeremiah Clark wrote cathedral music which is still performed, and William Croft some noble anthems and some hymn-tunes, such as "Hanover" and "St. Anne," that are heard regularly in all the churches. Every one of these musicians was born before Handel, and every one of them did something notable, each in his own way, though, comparatively, it was a small way.
There is, in truth, but one really great name in English music before the days of Handel and Bach. That is the name of Henry Purcell, who died the years after these masters were born. There are those who content that Purcell is the only real musical genius Britain has ever produced. One recent writer calls him "our last great musician," which is not complimentary to later composers! He was a sort of musical Shakespeare of his time, and hardly more is known of him than we know of the man who wrote Hamlet and Macbeth, Born in 1658, he lived in the London of Samuel Pepys, the diarist, and died in 1695, having written complimentary odes to three Kings -- Charles II., James II., and William III. Besides these odes, he wrote "piles of instrumental music, a fair heap of anthems and songs, and interludes and overtures for some forty odd plays." This is really all that we know about Henry Purcell. But it is mildly interesting to note that he was made organist of Westminster Abbey (where he is buried) at the early age of eighteen, and that he met his death at thirty-seven (such is the story) by his wife shutting him out one cold winter night because he came home late. Perhaps it was a feeling of remorse that led the widow to collect her husbands compositions and publish them with a highly laudatory dedication. The Abbey epitaph ought to have pleased her at any rate: "Here lyes Henry Purcell, Esquire, who left this life, and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded."
Purcells work appeal mainly to musicians and musical antiquaries, for they are seldom performed. He had a passion for expressing words in notes; as when, in his setting of the text, "They that go down to the sea in ships," he plunges the bass down a couple of octaves, and then at the words "up to heaven," keeps him straining his voice on a high dotted crotchet. Composers much greater than Purcell went in for musical word-painting of that kind. The "plagues" in Handels Israel in Egypt are full of far-fetched musical word-pictures; Haydns Creation has "a long and sinuous worm" and a sportive leviathan; Mendelssohn tries to reproduce the bray of the donkey in his Midsummer Nights Dream; and even Beethoven introduces a real cuckoo into his Pastoral Symphony. We should regard this sort of thing as childish now. But Purcell at least had no idea of being childish. He was perfectly serious, and though we cannot possibly agree with Dr. Burney, the musical historian, that in passion and expression his vocal music is "as superior to Handels as an original poem to a translation," we must nevertheless admit that this man who was so prematurely cut off was one of the greatest musicians England has given birth to.