Lives And Art Principles Of Some Seventeenth And Eighteenth Century Composers

There is much of value to the student to be derived from a study of the lives and art principles of the composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To go back to an earlier period would hardly be worth while, as the music composed in those days is too much obscured by the uncertainty of tradition and the inevitable awkwardness of expression that goes with all primitiveness in art.

The first whom I would mention are Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, and Ludovico Viadana.

The former was a nephew of the Archbishop of Naples, was born in 1550, and died in 1613. His name is important from the fact that he went boldly beyond Monteverde, his contemporary, in the use of the new dissonant chords (sevenths and ninths) which were just beginning to be employed, and adopted a chromatic style of writing which strangely foreshadowed the chromatic polyphonic style of the present century. He wrote innumerable madrigals for a number of voices, but his innovations remained sterile so far as the development of music is concerned, for the reason that while his music often acquired a wonderful poignancy for his time by the use of chromatics, just as often it led him into the merest bramble bush of sound, real music being entirely absent.

Viadana (1566-1645) has been placed by many historians of music in the same category as Guido d’Arezzo (who is credited with having invented solmization, musical notation, etc.), Palestrina, Monteverde and Peri, who are famed, the one for having discovered the dominant ninth chord, and the other for the invention of opera. Viadana is said to have been the first to use what is called a basso continuo, and even the figured bass. The former was the uninterrupted repetition of a short melody or phrase in the bass through the entire course of a piece of music. This was done very often to give a sense of unity that nowadays would be obtained by a repetition of the first thought at certain intervals through the piece. The figured (or better, ciphered) bass was an entirely different thing. This device, which is still employed, consisted of the use of figures to indicate the different chords in music. These figures or ciphers were written over or under the bass note on which the chord represented by the figures was to be played or sung. A 5 over or under a bass note meant that with that note a perfect major triad was to be sounded, considering the note written as the root of the chord; a 3 was taken to stand for a perfect minor triad; a 6 for the chord of the sixth (first inversion of a triad), and 1 for the second inversion; a line through a 5 or 7 meant that the triad was a diminished fifth or a diminished seventh chord; a cross indicated a leading tone; a 4 stood for the third inversion of the dominant seventh chord. This system of shorthand, as it may be called, was and is still of tremendous value to composers. In the olden days, particularly, when many of the composers engraved their own music for publication, it saved a great deal of labour. It is probably not generally known that the engraving of music by the composer was so common; but such was the case with Bach, Rameau, and Couperin.

And this reminds me that the embellishments, as they were called, which are so common in all harpsichord and clavichord music, were also noted in a kind of shorthand, and for precisely the same reason. The embellishments themselves originated from the necessity for sustaining in some way the tone of the instrument, which gave out little, dry, clicklike sounds; if the melody were played in simple notes, these sounds would mingle with the accompaniment and be lost in it. Therefore, the embellishments served to sustain the tones of the melody, and thus cause them to stand out from the accompaniment. Their notation by means of symbols copied from the primitive neumes vastly facilitated the work of engraving. Much confusion arose in the notation of embellishments, owing to the fact that each composer had his own system of symbols.

Alessandro Scarlatti and his son Domenico, both celebrated in their day, are the next to demand attention. The former was born about 165o and died about I725. He wrote many operas of which we know practically nothing. His son was born about 1685 and died in I757. He was the most celebrated harpsichord player of his time; and although his style, which was essentially one of virtuosity, was not productive of direct results, it did nevertheless foreshadow the wonderful technical achievements of Liszt in our own times. It is indeed a great pity that Domenico Scarlatti’s work did not bear more direct fruit in his day, for it would have turned Mozart, as well as many others, from the loose, clumsy mannerisms of the later virtuoso style, which ran to the Alberti bass and other degrading platitudes, paralleled in our comparatively modern days by the Thalberg arpeggios, repeating notes, Döhler trill, etc.

Two masters in music, Handel and J. S. Bach, were born the same year, 1685 ; their great French contemporary, Rameau, was born two years earlier and died in 1764; while Handel died in 1759, and Bach in I750. Bach was destined to give to the world its first glimpse of the tremendous power of music, while Rameau organized the elements of music into a scientific harmonic structure, laying the foundation for our modern harmony. Handel’s great achievement (besides being a fine composer) was to crush all life out of the then promising school of English music, the foundation for which had been so well laid by Purcell, Byrd, Morley, etc.

Jean Philippe Rameau was born in Dijon, and after travels in ltaly and a short period of service as organist at Clermont, in Auvergne, went to Paris. There he wrote a number of small vaudevilles or musical comedies, which were successful; and his music for the harpsichord, consisting almost exclusively of small pieces with descriptive titles, soon began to be widely played in France. Much later in life he succeeded in obtaining a hearing for his operas, the first of which, ” Hippolyte et Aride,” was given in 1732, when he was fifty years old. For thirty-two years his operas continued to hold the French stage against those of all foreigners.

His style marked a great advance over that of Lully, the ltalian, of the century before. Rameau aimed at clearness of diction and was one of the first to attempt to give individuality to the different orchestral instruments. By some strange coincidence, his first opera had much the same dramatic situation that all the early operas seemed to have, namely, a scene in the infernal regions. Rameau’s operas never became the foundation for a distinctly French opera, for at the time of his death (1764), ltalian opera troupes had already introduced a kind of comedy with music, which rapidly developed into opéra comique; it was reserved for Gluck, the German, to revive grand opera in France.

As a theoretician, Rameau exerted tremendous influence upon music. He discovered that the chord which we call the perfect major triad was not merely the result of an artificial training of the ear to like certain combinations of sounds, but that this chord was inherent in every musical sound, constituting, as it does, the first four harmonics or overtones. All chords, therefore, that were not composed of thirds placed one above the other, were inversions of fundamental chords. This theory holds good in the general harmonic system of to-day. But although the major triad and even the dominant seventh chord could be traced back to the harmonics, the minor triad proved a different matter; after many experiments Rameau gave it up? leaving it unaccounted for.

Rameau was also largely instrumental in gaining recognition for the desirability of dividing the octave into twelve equal parts, making all the so-called half-tones recur at mathematically equal distances from each other in the chromatic scale. In I737 his work on the generation of chords through overtones caused the equal temperament system of tuning to be generally accepted, and the old modes, with the exception of the Ionian and Æolian, to be dropped out of use. The former became known as major and the latter as minor, from the third, which was large in the Ionian and small in the Æolian.

Handel, as before stated, was born in 1685 (February 23), in Halle, in the same year as J. S. Bach, who was a month younger (born March 21). His father was a barber, who, as was common in those days, combined the trade of surgery, cupping, etc., with that of hairdressing. He naturally opposed his son’s bent toward music, but with no effect. At fifteen years of age, Handel was beginning to be well known as a clavichord and organ player,- in the latter capacity becoming specially celebrated for his wonderful improvisations. ln spite of an attempt to make a lawyer of him, he persisted in taking music as his vocation, after the death of his father.

In Hamburg, whither he went in 1703, he obtained a place among the second violins in the opera orchestra.* Realizing that in Germany opera was but a reflection of Italian art, he left Hamburg in 1707 and went to Italy, where he soon began to make a name for himself, both as performer and composer. One of his operas, “Agrippa,” was performed at Venice during the Carnival season of 1710.

The Hanoverian kapellmeister, Staffani, was present and invited him to Hanover, whither he went, becoming Staffani’s successor in the service of the Elector of Hanover. Several trips to England, where he was warmly welcomed, resulted in his accepting from Queen Anne, in 1713, a salary of two hundred pounds yearly, thus entering her service, notwithstanding his contract with the Elector. In I714 the Queen died, and the Elector of Hanover was called to the English throne under the title of George l. Handel, in order to escape the impending disgrace occasioned by having broken faith with his former employer, wrote some music intended to be particularly persuasive, and had it played on a barge that followed a royal pro-cession up the Thames. This ” Water Music,” as it was called, procured for him the King’s pardon.

From this time he lived in England, practically monopolizing all that was done in music. ln 1720 a company for the giving of Italian opera was formed, and Handel placed at its head. ln I727, on the occasion of the accession of George Il, Handel wrote four anthems, one of which ” Zadok the Priest,” ends with the words ” God save the King,” from which it has been erroneously stated that he wrote the English national hymn.

ln 1737 Handel gave up the writing of operas, after sinking most of his own savings in the undertaking, and began to write oratorios, the germs of which are found in the old Mysteries and Passion plays performed on a platform erected in the chapel or oratory of a church. Much has been written about Handel’s habit of taking themes from other composers, and he was even dubbed the ” grand old robber.” lt must not be overlooked, how-ever, that although he made use of ideas from other composers, he turned them to the best account. By 1742 Handel was again in prosperous circumstances, his ” Messiah ” having been a tremendous success. From that time until his death he held undisputed sway, although his last years were clouded by a trouble with his eyes, which were operated upon unsuccessfully by an English oculist, named Taylor, who had also operated on Bach’s eyes with the same disastrous result. Handel became completely blind in I752. Up to the last year of his life he continued to give oratorio concerts and played organ concertos, of which only the tutti were noted, he improvising his part.

Handel’s strength lay in his great ability to produce overwhelming effects by comparatively simple means. This is especially the case in his great choruses which are massive in effect and yet simple to the verge of barrenness. This, of course, has no reference to the absurd fioriture and long passage work given to the voices, — an Italian fashion of the times, — but to the contrapuntal texture of the work. Of his oratorios, ” The Messiah ” is the best known. Two of his ” Concerti Grossi,” the third and sixth, are sometimes played by string orchestras. Of his harpsichord music we have the eight ” Suites ” of I720 (among which the one in E is known as having the variations called ” The Harmonious Blacksmith “), and a number of ” Harpsichord Lessons,” among which are six fugues. All these may be said to have little value.

J. S. Bach differed in almost every respect from Handel, except that he was born in the same year and was killed by the same doctor. While Handel left no pupils, with perhaps the exception of his assistant organist, Bach aided and taught his own celebrated sons, Krebs, Agricola, Kittel, Kirnberger, Marpurg, and many other distinguished musicians. Bach twice made an effort to see Handel at Halle, but without success. On the other hand, there are reasons for believing that Handel never took the trouble to examine any of Bach’s clavichord music. He lived like a conqueror in a foreign land, writing operas, oratorios, and concertos to order, and stealing ideas right and left without compunction; whereas Bach wrote from conviction, and no charge of plagiarism was ever laid at his door. Handel left a great fortune of twenty thousand pounds. Bach’s small salary at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig made it necessary for him to do much of his own engraving; and at his death, though he had helped many young struggling artists, his widow was left so poor that she had to be supported by public benevolence. Bach’s works were neglected by his contemporaries, and it was only in the nineteenth century that he began to be appreciated in a way commensurate with his worth.

Bach was born in Eisenach, in Thuringia, and it is of interest to know that as far back as his great grandfather, Veit Bach (born about 1550), music had been the profession of the family. Bach’s parents died when he was a boy of ten, and his education was continued by his elder brother, Johann Christoph, at a town near Gotha, where he held a position as organist. The boy soon out-stripped his brother in learning, and continued his studies wholly by himself.

After filling a position as organist at Weimar, in 1703 he accepted one at a small town, Arnstadt, at a salary of about fifty-seven dollars yearly. He had already begun to compose, and possibly in imitation of Kuhnau, whose so-called Bible ” sonatas were at the time being talked about, he wrote an elaborate clavichord piece to illustrate the departure of his brother, Johann Jakob, who had entered the service of Charles Xll of Sweden as oboist. This composition is divided into five parts, each bearing an appropriate superscription and ending with an elaborate fugue to illustrate the postillion’s horn. I believe this is the only instance of his having written actual programme music. After leaving Arnstadt he filled positions as organist at Mühlhausen, Weimar, Coethen, etc. lt was before 1720 that he paid his two visits to Halle in the hope of seeing Handel. At this time he had already written the first part of the ” Wohltemperierte Clavier,” the violin sonatas, and many other great works. Ten years later, when Handel again came to Germany, Bach was too ill to go to see him personally, but sent his eldest son to invite Handel to come and see him, although with-out success.

In 1723 he obtained the position of Cantor at the St. Thomas School, in Leipzig, left vacant by the death of Kuhnau; here he remained until his death. ln 1749 the English oculist, Taylor, happened to be in Leipzig. On the advice of friends, Bach submitted to an operation on his eyes, which had always troubled him. The failure of this operation rendered him totally blind and the accompanying medical treatment completely broke him down. On the eighteenth of July, 1750, he suddenly regained his sight, but it was accompanied by a stroke of paralysis from which he died ten days later.

So far as his church music is concerned, Bach may be considered as the Protestant compeer of the Roman Catholic, Palestrina, with the difference that his music was based on the tonalities of major and minor and that his harmonic structure was founded on a scientific basis. What is mere wandering in Palestrina, with Bach is moving steadily forward with a well-defined object in view. With Bach, music is cast in the definite mould of tonality, while with Palestrina the vagueness of the modes lends to his music something of mystery and a certain supernatural freedom from human will, so prominent a characteristic of Bach’s compositions. ln considering Bach’s music we must forget the technique, which was merely the outside dress of his compositions. His style was the one of the period, just as he wore a wig, and buckles on his shoes. His music must not be con-founded with the contrapuntal style of his utterance, and although he has never been surpassed as a scientific writer of counterpoint, it would be unjust to look there for his chief glory. As a matter of fact, when his scientific speech threatened to dash with the musical idea in his composition, he never hesitated to sacrifice the former to the latter. Thus Bach may be considered the greatest musical scientist of his time as well as the greatest breaker of mere rules.

Of his sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel is the most celebrated, and did much to prepare the way for Haydn in the development of the sonata. J. S. Bach wrote many sonatas, but none for the clavichord; his sonatas were for the violin and the ‘cello alone, a great innovation. The violin sonatas bring into play all the resources of the instrument; indeed it is barely possible to do them justice from the technical standpoint. His ” Wohltemperierte Clavier ” naturally was a tremendous help to clavichord technique, and even now the ” Chromatic Fantaisie ” and other works require fine pianists to perform them properly.

In considering the development of music, it must always be remembered that Haydn, Mozart, and their contemporaries knew little or nothing of Bach’s works, thus accounting for what otherwise would seem a retrograde movement in art. C. P. E. Bach (born I714) was much better known than his father; even Mozart said of him, ” He is the father, and we are mere children.” He was renowned as a harpsichord player, and wrote many sonatas which form the connecting link between the suite and the sonata. He threw aside the polyphonic style of his father and strove to give his music new colour and warmth by means of harmony and modulation. He died in 1788 in Hamburg, where he was conductor of the opera. lt should be mentioned that he wrote a method of clavichord playing on which, in later days, Czerny said that Beethoven based his piano teaching.

Up to the period now under consideration, music for the orchestra occupied a very small part in the composer’s work. To be sure, J. S. Bach wrote some suites, and separate movements were written in the different dance forms for violins, with sometimes the addition of a few reed instruments, and possibly flutes and small horns or trumpets. lt is in the works of C. P. E. Bach, however, that we find the germ of symphonic orchestral writing that was to be developed by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The so-called ” symphonies ” by Emanuel Bach are merely rudimentary sonatas written for strings, with flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, etc., and have practically no artistic significance except as showing the inevitable trend of musical thought toward greater power of expression. In Germany (and indeed everywhere else) the Italian element had full sway over opera, and non-ltalian musicians were forced into writing for the concert room instead of the stage. Even Beethoven had many disappointments in connection with his one opera ” Fidelio,” and so strong was the Italian influence, that here in America we are only just now (1897) recovering from the effects of it.

Franz Joseph Haydn was born near Vienna, in 1732, of humble parents, his mother a cook in a count’s family, and his father a wheelwright and sexton of the parish church. When a young boy Haydn had a fine voice, on account of which he was admitted as a member of the choir at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. This entitled him to admission to St. Stephen’s School, connected with the cathedral, in which the city paid for the board and lodging as well as the instruction of the singers. When the boys’ voices changed or ” broke,” however, they were turned adrift. On leaving the cathedral, Haydn suffered the direst poverty, engaging himself at one time as valet to the Italian singing teacher, Porpora, in order to secure some lessons.

He gradually managed to make himself known, and was engaged by Count Morzin, a rich nobleman, to organize an orchestra of about eighteen, which the count retained in his service with Haydn as leader. Here he wrote his first symphony (for strings, two oboes and two horns, in three movements) and a number of smaller works. When he was twenty-nine, Count Morzin gave up his establishment and Haydn entered the service of Prince Paul Esterhazy, in Eisenstadt, Hungary, in the same capacity. Here he had an orchestra of sixteen, composed of good musicians, whom he could call up at any hour of the night to play if he wished, and over whom he had complete control. Although the contract by which he was engaged names the most degrading conditions, and places Haydn on a par with all the other servants, the pay, though small (two hundred dollars yearly), was certain and regular. From this time Haydn was free from the hardships of poverty. His salary was soon increased to five hundred dollars, and he made as much more from his compositions. He wrote over one hundred and twenty-five symphonies, sixty-eight trios, seventy-seven quartets, fifty-seven concertos, fifty-seven sonatas, eight oratorios and cantatas, and nineteen operas, besides innumerable smaller things, for instance, between five hundred and six hundred vocal pieces. His operas, of course, are mere trifles compared with our more modern ones.

His friendship for Mozart is well known. As for his relations with Beethoven, it is probable that their disagreement was merely the effect of pride, and perhaps a certain amount of laziness on one side and youthful bumptiousness on the other. Haydn was returning to Vienna via Bonn, from England, where he had been welcomed by the wildest enthusiasm, when Beethoven called on him to ask for his opinion as to his talent as a composer. It resulted in Beethoven’s going to Vienna. After taking a few lessons of Haydn he went to another teacher and made all manner of contemptuous remarks about Haydn, declaring he had not learned anything from him.

After two highly successful visits to England, in 1792 and 1794, Haydn returned to Vienna and wrote his two celebrated cantatas, ” The Creation ” and ” The Seasons.” His last appearance in public was when he attended a performance of ” The Creation ” in 1808, at the age of seventy-six. He was received with a fanfare of trumpets and cheers from the audience. After the first part he was obliged to leave, and as he was being carried out by his friends, he turned at the door and lifted his hands towards the orchestra, as if in benediction; Beethoven kissed his hand, and everyone paid him homage. He died during the bombardment of Vienna by the French, May 31, 1809.

Haydn’s later symphonies have been very cleverly compared with those of Beethoven by the statement that the latter wrote tragedies and great dramas, whereas Haydn wrote comedies and charming farces. As a matter of fact, Haydn is the bridge between the idealized dance and independent music. Although Beethoven still retained the form of the dance, he wrote great poems, whereas the music of Haydn always preserves a tinge of the actual dance. With Haydn, music was still an art consisting of the weaving together of pretty sounds, and although design, that is to say, the development of the emotional character of a musical thought, was by no means unknown to him, that development was never permitted to transcend the limits of a certain graceful euphony which was a marked characteristic of his style. His use of orchestral instruments represents a marked advance on that of C. P. E. Bach, and certainly very materially helped Mozart.

Of Mozart we probably all know something. Born at Salzburg, in 1756, his was a short life, for he died in I791. We know of his great precocity; his first compositions were published when he was six years old, at which age he was already playing in concerts with his eleven-year old sister, and was made much of by the titled people before whom he played. The rest of his life is one continual chronicle of concerts given all over Europe, interrupted at intervals by scarlet fever, smallpox, and other illnesses, until the last one, typhoid fever, caused his death. During his stay in Italy he wrote many operas in the flowery Italian style which, luckily, have never been revived to tarnish his name.

His first works worthy of mention are the clavier concertos and several symphonies and quartets, which date from about 1777. His first important opera is ” ldomeneo, King of Crete,” written for the Munich opera. In this he adopts the principles of Gluck, thus breaking away from the wretched style of the Italian opera of the period, although the work itself was written in Italian. His next opera was in German, ” Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail,” and was given with great success at Vienna, in 1782. It was followed by ” The Marriage of Figaro,” ” Don Juan,” and the ” Magic Flute.”

The story of his death is well known. A stranger, who turned out to be the steward of Count Walsegg, came to him and ordered a requiem, which was played in i 793 as Walsegg’s own composition. Mozart thought the man a messenger from the other world. He died before he completed the work. So great was his poverty that it was difficult to get a priest to attend him, and a physician who was summoned would come only after the play he was attending was ended. He had a ” third class ” funeral, and as a fierce storm was raging, no one accompanied the body to the grave. His widow gave a concert, and with the help of the Emperor money enough was raised to pay the outstanding debts.

It is difficult to give an adequate idea of Mozart’s works. He possessed a certain simple charm of expression which, in its directness, has an element of pathos lacking in the comparatively jolly light-heartedness of Haydn. German opera profited much from his practically adopting the art principles of Gluck, although it must be confessed that this change in style may have been simply a phase of his own individual art development. His later symphonies and operas show us the man at his best. His piano works and early operas show the effect of the “virtuoso “style, with all its empty concessions to technical display and commonplace, ear-catching melody.