Music and Vision homepage


Book review


Baroque Sound-Bites


CD Review

Before the late 18th century's Enlightenment, pretty well all music was 'contemporary'. Communities that were small and self-contained enough to know what they were about made music in part to define their identities, while showing little concern for the identities of those long dead. Today, We the People are said to regard 'modern' music as difficult, elitist, inimical to the common man's commonness, with the consequence that we nurture ourselves mainly on music of the not too distant past, especially the 18th and 19th centuries. We regard the best of classical baroque music - Bach and Handel, with a bonus in the shape of the slighter but democratically ubiquitous Vivaldi - as our daily bread.

If some classical baroque music is now familiar, and almost all baroque music is increasingly fascinating, to us, the reason is probably that it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that the modern world was born, starting from the Renaissance that was in part a rebirth of pre-Christian humanism, from which humankind exulted in pride in being human, with few forebodings about the presumption thereby entailed. Yet although we instinctively accept the baroque as our fons et origo, it remains also irremediably other than us: so encyclopaedic modern man produces a rash of little guides as to its nature - as, indeed, he does to the nature of almost anything. Here, in this booklet of sixty-odd pages, a youngish French musicologist, Raphaelle Legrand, presents a commentary on 'Forms and Figures' in baroque music, describing the public conventions within which it functions, without attempting to explain how and why we find this relatively old music stimulating, moving, exalting, or even merely pleasurable. This may be fair enough, since in the last resort only we ourselves can know.

The text is allied to two CDs of musical illustrations, mostly culled from well-known recordings by artists distinguished in the fields of Early Music. One of the discs is devoted to complete versions of four 'representative' works, the other to snippets that fill in the gaps, offering complementary and sometimes qualifying insights. The first substantial example is the Prologue to Monteverdi's Orfeo which, first produced in 1607, counts as the first (significant) opera. This sets the scene, since it presents - makes present in song and dance - the blissful euphoria of a High Renaissance nobleman's party, offering the illusion that then-modern civilization could create, perhaps had already created, paradise on earth. The opening toccata is a music of carne-val, indulging in the flesh while at the same time bidding it a momentary fare-well at the advent of Lent. In their charmed and charming circle courtiers carol solo songs and ensemble numbers along with effervescent or poignant choruses in Renaissance madrigalian style, sometimes dancing to them in delectably lilting rhythms. The performers purr as they pretend that Now needs no before or after; voices and instruments bravely boast, whilst going and getting nowhere.

But what makes Monteverdi one of the supreme composers in European history is not the wish-fulfilment of this first act's court masque but what happens in the second act, when, following classical Greek precedent, a Messenger informs Orpheus that his wife Eurydice (whose name means the Wise One) has been nipped by the Serpent of Mortality and, having died as we all must, has been snatched by Pluto to the underworld. Orfeo, a Renaissance man claiming the status of a God, if not of God, acts as poet-composer and shaman-priest in descending to the nether-world in search of his beloved. Although we know that there can be no possibility of his liquidating death, his hitherto unprecedented courage signals man's growth to adulthood: so that we might say that in the Messenger's truth-telling arioso recounting, in an alarming juxtaposition of an A minor with an E major triad, of Eurydice's slaying by the Serpent, and in Orfeo's challenging of death through the virtuosity of his music, the Modern World was born. It's regrettable that Legrand doesn't allow us to hear this crucial transition from wish-fulfilling dream to reality, but I can see that to define the wish-fulfilment had to be her starting-point, since it was within these hopeful dreams that the conventions of baroque music, from Monteverdi to Handel, evolved. The task Legrand set herself was not to explore the tensions between music's public conventions and the realities of personal experience - a word that derives from the Latin ex periculo, meaning from or out of peril - but simply to tell us what those public conventions were.

Continue >>

 Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, June 12th 1999

<< Music & Vision homepage      More book reviews >>      More CD reviews >>