Changing Times Around 1600
Changing times in the world of music

By 1600, the musical landscape of Europe, starting with Italy, was characterized by profound changes. Vocal polyphony – as the leading music style – had been largely replaced. With the advent of the “stile nuovo” there developed amongst composers and listeners a fundamentally new understanding of music, one coupled with the emergence of many new musical genres and forms.

In 1607 the opera Orfeo, by Claudio Monteverdi, was performed for the first time, at the court of the noble family Gonzaga in Mantua, in northern Italy. In the prologue of the piece, the allegorical figure La Musica appears and announces a story which tells not only of the destiny of the singer Orpheus, but also of the mighty strength of the music which shall succeed in calming the underworld and shall even influence the very soul of the listener. Literally, she says:

"I am music, which knows how to soothe with sweet notes each tormented heart, at times with noble anger and at times with love it may inflame even the coldest minds."

The section quoted must be interpreted as a paradigm for the profound changes in music occurring in the decades before and after 1600. Starting in Italy, these took place throughout Europe at breakneck speed. This was a radical change in musical style, one that involved both innovative compositional techniques and forms but generally encompassed an entirely new conception of the function of music itself.

The old style and the new

In the 15th and 16th centuries it was Franco-Flemish polyphony that had emerged as the leading style in music of many European regions. A wide range of masses and motets in elaborate, mainly contrapuntal polyphony used learned structures to convey musical sense within complex structures. At the centre there stood less the word set to music, but more the very complexity of the music itself.

Around the year 1600 this principle was virtually reversed. Instead of five-part or six-part vocal music drawing on a sophisticated compositional technique, there were suddenly a number of solo voices which were accompanied only by a continuous instrumental bass line, the so-called basso continuo. An understanding of the text became an important criterion, as the Roman composer Ludovico Viadana stressed in 1602 in the preface to his Cento concerti ecclesiastici: "I have tried to underlay the words to the notes so that they may be recited well and so that they may be completely, and in a contiguous sense, understood by the audience."

In addition, composers often attempted to write simple and easily graspable melodies in any new work, and aimed at comprehensible rhythms and harmonies. Instruments were given a new meaning and power of expression through their obligato, concertante voice leading. The human voice as well as instrumental ones played a mediatory role for the listener, achieving through the use of characteristic affects a clarification of the text or of the overall textual expression.

The origins of the new movement were in Italy, and the new way of composing and playing music was called accordingly "stile nuovo" or "seconda pratica", both terms in contradistinction to "stile antico" or "prima pratica". Claudio Monteverdi in turn defined precisely the difference between the old and new, writing in his Scherzi musicali of 1607:

"Prima pratica refers to the type of composition where perfection of harmony ["armonia" = the old compositional rules] is aimed at, and which is no longer the servant of speech but the lord of it ["oratione", as the speech-based music]. Seconda pratica refers to that type of composition which focuses on perfection of melody and determines that speech be the mistress of harmony."

New forms and genres

Almost inevitably, the development of new musical genres and forms was accompanied by the emergence of these compositional principles, in order to better reflect the structures of the "stile nuovo".

This tempestuous development certainly took place in opera, a form in which text, music, acting, dance and stage design combined in a previously unprecedented manner to form a single unit. Initiated by a small group of enthusiastic aristocrats who held up the values of the Ancient world, a new form of music theatre emerged at the end of the 16th century in Florence. Here, patrons, musicians and business people quickly realized what great potential lay hidden in this novel art form. Princes and dukes saw opera as an excellent means of courtly representation, and gave magnificent performances in venues well-equipped for the undertaking. Simultaneously, commercially operated opera houses opened in Venice and other cities. Under the guidance of the impresario, who carried artistic and economic responsibility, a number of small opera companies were created that were dependent on the goodwill and financial generosity of the audience.

A popular form of non-liturgical music-making in the church was, around 1600, the oratorio - named after the "prayer rooms" of various spiritual brotherhoods, in which were held regular worship services containing a high proportion of music. Composers of operas, oratorios, but also of spiritual and secular cantatas, concertos and other works, habitually tacked recitatives, arias and song forms onto each other and thus created the formal basis for vocal music throughout the Baroque era.

Efforts aimed at granting instruments their own musical value are evident in various experiments with various forces and forms. The spectrum ranges from solo violin music to different genres of chamber music (accompanied solo sonata, trio sonata, quartet, sonata), right up to the concerto grosso.

From Italy to Germany

The practice of the "stile nuovo" spread quickly and soon penetrated German-speaking countries. An efficient network of printers, publishers and distributors ensured that Italian music editions were available north of the Alps soon after their appearance in print. In addition, many musicians travelled to Italy to study changes on the spot as it were. Thus it was that Heinrich Schütz spent two lengthy periods in Venice, where he met Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi, probably taking over many suggestions about his compositional work. As late as 1647, in the preface of Symphoniae Sacrae II, he had not left the "Italian style", having attempted in his music to assimilate "advice" given him by "the ingenious gentleman Claudii Monteverden", maintaining that music in the new style "should now be well on the way to reaching perfection."

But numerous other composers from the German-speaking countries took educational trips to the South, such as Johann Jakob Froberger, who studied with Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Christoph Bernhard, who received the teachings of Giacomo Carissimi. A scarce century later the young Handel was in Rome and finally and performed there alongside Arcangelo Corelli and Domenico Scarlatti.

As the 17th century progressed, a new style of music was established in Europe and thereby encouraged a new attitude to the stuff of music itself. The focus of many compositions was no longer abstract and scholarly, but – with the text acting as a vehicle of communication – engendered clear structures and musical affects, a reflection of mankind and its various mental states.