Back To: Music and Europe in the 17th Century, Medieval to Modern.
Music and Europe in the 17th Century, Birth of the Seconda Prattica.
Incentives for composers to adopt the new techniques were not long in coming. Speaking broadly, the rise of secular music was at the heart of the musical transition, bringing with it increased use of instruments, with their greater range of pitch, and fewer technical limitations, allowing for greater melodic virtuosity. String instruments were especially important, as they produce more audible overtones, often implying a triad even while playing single notes. A shift in tastes was also beginning, best illustrated by a single group, The Florentine Camerata.
The Florentine Camerata was a type of half salon/half academy in Florence during the last years of the 16th and first years of the 17th centuries. The group was made up of a mix of musicians and intellectuals, including [Vincenzo Galilei, father of the great astronomer, and renowned singer/composer Giulo Caccini. The camerata shared a common influence with Lippius, the late 16th century composer/theorist Gioseffo Zarlino. Zarlino contended that the musical practice of composing multiple melodies to be played simultaneously, termed the primo prattica, was obscuring both the texts of vocal music and the impact and distinctiveness of the individual melodies. Unlike Lippius, who thought that the interval juggling of compositional practice missed the basic unity of musical material, The Florentine Camerata objected to the overly dense textures arising from the interweaving patterns of polyphonic music. Their thesis was that music had lost its visceral force, and appealed to the ideal of Greek music, which had been accorded near magical powers in greco-roman myths and legends]. Orpheus had been able to charm the gods themselves with song to such an extent that he saved his beloved from death. It was clear to the camerata that something had been lost along the way. Ironically, the renaissance habit of looking to ancient Greece and Rome ultimately led to the extinction of renaissance musical practice. Little was or is known of the specifics of ancient Greek music, but the Camerata used the little information available in an attempt to recreate it. What they knew for sure was that Greek music had been melodically driven, a single voice would have sung a melody, with light, regular accompaniment from a lyre. Caccini, an early pioneer of the camerata's new flagship style said of his first visit to one of their meetings:
"I learned more from their learned discussions than I did in more than thirty years of studying counterpoint."
Caccini, himself a vocalist, was keenly aware of the limitations placed upon melody by the contrapuntal style.
The camerata got the chance to put its ideas, the new style termed seconda prattica into action when a member of the group, Giovanni de Bardi was commissioned to write the music for two De Medici weddings, one in 1586, the second in 1608. The works were composed for voices and instruments, which was nothing new. What made the work special was the manner in which the voices were balanced. In the work, the instruments did not play melodies, rather they provided a simple, steady, pulsing undercurrent over which the singers preformed. The voices did not sing at the same time, rather a single melody would be played out over the bare bones accompaniment. The texts of course, were based on tales of the astonishing power of ancient Greek music, especially focusing on the trials of Orpheus. In addition to boosting Bardi's career, the works marked the coming of the most dramatic turn in the history of music.
The new art of opera thus planted its roots in Florence, and from there began to spread. The appearance of opera however, is only a surface level, stylistic event if taken by itself. For music in general the rise of opera would be a main cause in the ascendancy of the triad, and the tonal harmony built on it. The adoption of the triad by composers of opera was a pragmatic solution to the technical problems involved in the new genre. Once the decision was made to treat text on the same level of importance as music, it remained to be decided how the text could be made clear. As already stated, a single vocal line would predominate, singing the text. The accompaniment was to be rhythmically constant and unobtrusive. The problem arose then as to what notes the accompaniment should play. If the accompaniment was to not become its own melody, hence counterppoint, the notes would have to change infrequently, remaining a solid platform for the melody. If the accompaniment stayed the same however, the melody, which changed frequently would invariably clash with the static accompaniment at some point, as the intervals between continuo and melody became dissonant. Of course, the melody could be constrained in the contrapuntal manner, so that when the accompaniment played its notes on the strong beat, the melody would be made to sure to be consonant with it. The point of the new style however, was to unchain the melody, give it dominance, so this solution anathema to the goals of the new music.
The triad proved to be the ideal solution to the problem. The triad is as stable as hydrogen and consonant as the octave. As such, any nearly any note can be played over it, without making it sound dissonant. The consonant quality of the triad shines through regardless of what is going on around it. As such, it could provide a stable anchor for the wildest of melodies without turning sour. In addition, the triad is so stable that it is usually heard as one unit, so though it contains three notes, so long as those notes remain in the same relation to each other, the whole unit is perceived as one. This allowed composers to make the accompaniment jump around, moving to different triads to highlight the text and melody, without muddling it. The steady, instrumental, harmonic nature of the accompaniment, or basso continuo contrasted nicely with the fluid, vocal nature of the melody, throwing it into relief, and not competing with it. Eureka, an ideal solution to dull technical problems had been discovered, and opera, along with the seconda prattica techniques on which it was based, were free to explode onto Europe.
The time was ripe for it, drama was the order of the day, and Europe's nobles were looking to add spice, flash and grandeur to their courts. The baroque in music could never had matched the grandness of the other arts had it not been for the triad, which opened the door to a new system of harmony based upon the tonic/dominant relationship. If god did indeed create the heavens and the earth, and all the laws which govern them, then tonic/dominant is literally a match made in heaven.
Every triad has a dominant, every dominant has a tonic. If we choose any old note, lets say C in this case, and build its triad on top of it, C,E,G, in this case, then take the fifth above the root, the second overtone, G in this case, the note with the strongest relation to the root, or fundamental and build a triad on it in the same manner as the original note, using its harmonic series, we have a dominant of C, the chord being spelled, G, B, D. G, the second partial of the harmonic series of C, a perfect fifth above it, is the dominant of C. The gravitation between C and G is amplified when these notes have their triads built on them, with the B and D of the Dominant straining to resolve to the C and E of the tonic, while the G remains constant in both chords, tying them together while producing a tension and pull familiar to us all, and far more dramatic than anything in contrapuntal practice.
As anyone who has attempted to compose 4 part counterpoint can attest, it is a puzzle of the highest caliber, every element must be pre-planned and executed just so, it is a house of cards, every element linked in a frail balance, should any tampering occur, the edifice would collapse. Melodic freedom is not exactly its strong suit. The seconda prattica, giving freedom to the melody, added drama in still another way, the rise of virtuosity. The melody was no longer constrained by the contrapuntal framework in which it had to move, but only by the abilities of the player or singer.
The patronage of nobles which had given Bardi the chance to display the new style continued to support the growth of monody, opera and the tonal style. The ruling classes of Europe, Monarchs, Nobles and to a lesser extent Clergy all began to seek cultural power in addition to the old staples of military, economic and political sway. The ideal of emotional force and extravagance was made clear in one of the early operas, the first great hit of the genre, Monteverdi's Orfeo.
Imbued with the maxims of the camerata, it tells the Greek tale of Orpheus. The telling moment for the future of music is in Act III, in which Orpheus sings a masterful aria in a somewhat traditional polyphonic style, imploring Charon to allow him to cross the river Styx. Charon is unmoved by the pleading counterpoint, after which Orpheus bursts out, raw and unaccompanied, declaiming "Unhappy lover that I am!" Orpheus thereupon gains access to the underworld Charon by lulling to sleep with his lyre, not his voice, lolling Charon to sleep with a simple triadic, tonal arpeggiation.
While Monteverdi and the camerata established the seconda prattica in Florence and Venice, the influence of the new style was slowly spreading beyond opera and Italy. The simple observation that most of the "great" baroque composers, Teleman, Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, etc. were all born in the last quarter of the 17th century, and didn't compose their most important works until the 18th speaks of the slowness of the change. This being said, there were a number of disciples of the seconda prattica making headway.
Heinrich Schutz, (1585-1672) studied composition in Venice, where he naturally picked up the new styles and techniques of the seconda prattica. Returning to Germany, he was employed in the court of Dresden, on the payroll of the elector of Saxony. Protestant Dresden proved fertile ground for new ideas, and the Elector of Saxony, Johann Georg I had a taste for extravagance. One of the earliest works by Schutz from this period was a ballet, music and text both furnished by Schutz. The text was, once again, based on the legend of Orpheus. The occasion for the composition was a state visit by Holy Roman Emperor Matthias to Saxony. It was a prime example of cultural power used to further political goals, and while no record of the Emperor's reaction to the work exists, it is likely that Matthias was pleased, as Schutz was shortly thereafter promoted to Hofkapellmeister. As for the music itself, only fragments survived The Thirty Years War. Schutz was called upon to flex Dresden's cultural muscle again many times, composing a series of religious choral works commemorating the centenary of the reformation. Also lost was the first German opera, 'Daphne' written by Schutz. The best example of Schutz's progressive style is not his opera however, but a traditional church motet. 'Singt dem Herren ein Neues Lied', a setting of 'Psalm 96' in which Schutz explores the new style, and makes a powerful statement. Translated, the title is "Sing the Lord a New Song", a telling choice for this progressive piece. The music begins innocuously, intoning the text in traditional polyphony. Schutz then begins to word paint, odd harmonies in the
accompaniment and strange melodic leaps in the vocal line accenting particular words. The instrumental accompaniment gradually becomes simpler, congealing into a steady, semi-triadic pulse over which the singer gradually emerges, increasing in tempo to a high contrast. The piece ends in a style of monody very much in the operatic style, having gone from the quiet gravitas of the renaissance to the emotional fever of the baroque, and though it finishes with the traditional plagal, or amen IV-I cadence of sacred music, the final cadence is immediately preceeded by a mini dominant to tonic cadence. A new song indeed.
By 1747, the year Schutz published the collection containing 'Singt dem Herren ein Neues Lied', he was no longer an exception to the rule. Opera, monody, basso continuo, tonal harmony, all that embodied the seconda prattica was well established in the courts of Europe. Public opera houses had sprung up, first in Venice, shortly thereafter in Europe's major cities. In 1650, the seconda prattica was still far from dominant however. New and old existed simultaneously, and even the progressive composers relied heavily on accepted practice for the nuts and bolts of their work. Schutz himself stressed repeatedly the need for aspiring composers to be instructed in renaissance counterpoint before any adventuring, a practice which continues to this day. Nor were the battle lines clear, for there was not much of a battle. The great majority of composers used the new techniques pragmatically, as dictated by the music. Few musicians were ideologically motivated in the fashion of Lippius or the Camerata, to compose in the new style as a matter of principle. That the seconda prattica would become the dominant form of musical practice is due in large part to French composers, politicians, and audiences of the second half of the century.
Aristocracy, Culture Wars, and the Triumph of the New Music.
Johann Georg I used the music of Heinrich Schutz to impress foreign dignitaries, and to this end subsidized Schutz. An opera composed for the Viennese court trumpeted the victory over the Turks at Vienna. For those aristocrats and monarchs who did not have a genuine passion for the arts, there were practical benefits to be reaped from employing artists, or commissioning special works. Perhaps no figure of the century cultivated, exercised, and relied upon cultural power to the degree that Louis XIV did. His understanding of the importance and application of cultural power is, equaled or surpassed by only a handful of individuals in all the annals of history. When Louis XIV took the throne, France shared to a lesser degree the fragmentation and regionalism which so characterized the Germanies. Louis XIV started not as the supreme ruler and arbiter of a cohesive nation-state, but as the highest ranking member of an aristocracy which jointly ruled over a diverse population, spread over a large geographical idea. Louis XIII had begun a process of consolidating royal power, a process that Louis XIV was determined to expand and pursue.
The process was twofold; create a more homogenous, unified France, with a standard language and culture, and strip the aristocracy of its power, concentrating it in the crown. The solutions to these dual problems dove-tailed nicely. For a unified culture, a single standard would have to be set and promoted, and Louis XIV undertook the task of creating a cultural beacon out of his court. It was his hope that the French people would all aspire to the same aesthetic ideals which emanated from his court. If they did not, Louis XIV would pay handsomely enough to ensure that all the best talent would be concentrated around himself, draining any regional talent, leaving the regional cultures to wither. The goal of turning the aristocracy from share-holders to lackeys was made reality by gathering the nobility at court, enticing them with lavish parties, exuberant art, and a game of favorites played out in a ridiculous system etiquette and affectation. Thus all the elements of Louis XIV's double thrust were gathered at the King's court, in a specially built palace at Versailles. The excess, the flamboyance, the decadence which Louis XIV required in order to stun, stupefy and entrap France's elite, could in music, only be achieved by the techniques of the seconda prattica.
The story of music at Versailles is not one of Louis XIV's necessity giving birth to innovation. It is rather the classic tale of an orphan of a German monk who is
adopted by royalty and made a star. Given the incentives, it is unsurprising that the roster of great French composers during the reign of Louis XIV is filled mostly with those who were associated with Versailles and Paris. Couperin, Marais, Rameau, Lully, all number among the beneficiaries of Louis XIV's patronage. Musical society at court was not, however an open, supportive one.
One composer, Lully, was the musical dictator of the king's court, and to the extent possible, the whole of France. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) was born under the name Giovanni Battista Lulli, in Florence. His father left his education to a group of nearby Franciscan friars, who instructed him in music on the side. Through means unknown, he landed a position teaching Italian to a cousin of Louis XIV, Anne-Marie-Louise d'Orleans in 1646. He left Florence, well-spring of the seconda prattica for Paris immediately. His service to Mlle. d'Orleans became long term shortly thereafter when Lulli was appointed garcon de chambre.
While living in Paris, Lulli continued to study music with the city's pre-eminent composers, and learned to dance, which he came to excel at. In 1653, Lulli was able to preform in a ballet to be attended by Louis XIV. The king, despite his hawkish brandishing of art as a weapon, did in fact have an interest and appreciation for dance, and was so impressed by Lulli's prowess, that Louis appointed Lulli the court composer of instrumental music. His abilities as a dancer served to enhance his reputation with the king, allowing Lulli to bypass the authority of the other composers of court to a degree. He was, however, barred from entering the world of vocal music by the court's established opera composers. Due to this, Lulli mainly composed dance music, becoming the court's most prolific composer in that genre which was so close to the king's heart. That Lulli developed as seconda prattica style composer is partly attributable to his upbringing in Florence, and partly explained by his musical duties at court, composing dance music.
Given Louis' personal interest in dance, it was natural that it should be a staple of his court. The king's personal flamboyance also meant that his dance music would have to match. The rhythmic nature of dance music makes it rather ill suited to the prima prattica style. Renaissance dance music was often only vocal music played by instruments, with percussive accents added. It had a distinctly droning, hypnotizing quality, which for Louis XIV, simply would not do. Lully, employing the seconda prattica techniques learned in Venice, gave the king precisely what was wanted in his dance music. Lully used a homophonic texture in which one part, giving the melody prominence in the other voice. The other instruments would play chords on the strong beats, as dictated by the meter of the dance, and add ornaments and commentaries to the main line. The triad was especially useful here, as the already potent effect of tonic-dominant progressions was amplified immensely by the heavy rhythmic emphasis they received. The meat and potatoes of tonal music for 300 years, the chord progression I - IV - V - I, is used heavily in the works, to grand effect. Louis was quite pleased at how far over the top Lully had been able to take his court, and following the death of the head director of court music, the position given to Lulli in 1661. Having reached the top, Lulli became a naturalized Frenchman, changing his name to Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Lully, having been deprived of the opportunity to compose opera for so long, immediately dove in. Collaborating with no less than Moliere, Lully became immersed in the world of opera. Louis XIV and Lully saw their interests running parallel, Lully's desire to squelch competition complemented the king's crusade of cultural homogeneity. Alarmed by the inroads being made by Italian operas, Louis XIV banned non-French opera, and fired all Italian court musicians in 1666. Lully, recently naturalized, escaped these purges and continued his prodigious output of music, especially opera while at the same time sabotaging opponents and gathering more power. When the head of the Royal Academy of Music had to sell
his office to repay debts, Lully bought it, making him second only to the king in power over French music. The Royal Academy of Music was responsible for approving new works for performance throughout France, and so Lully posessed the power to crush any composers works which threatened him. In the provinces, musical life dried out as Lully either withheld backing, or flat out banned new pieces. This was fine with Louis, who aproved of any act which made his court the eminent source of culture.
It would be only a minor stretch to state that music in France was, 1687 the music of Lully and the select composers he approved. When Lully died in March of that year, he had made his style, seconda prattica, supreme in France. He had also turned the tables of cultural might around, to where Louis XIV wanted them. In a supremely symbolic reversal, the duke of Tuscany, birthplace of the Seconda Prattica commissioned Lully to compose a set of dance music in "the most fashionable style." Which was the French style of course, courantes, bourees and gavottes, from the sine qua non of French composers. So it was, that seconda prattica came to dominate European music, re-imported from France to its original birthplace in Florence. Florence was not an isolated case, as members of the ruling class over all of Europe sought to sometimes emulate, but more often imitate Louis XIV and France as 17th turned to 18th century. Harmony, which in primo prattica had been a byproduct of simultaneous melodic movement, became a separate entity which interacted with, yet was distinct from melody. By 1700, harmony prevailed, quite literally.
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