As somewhat of a scholar and very much a fan of Western Classical music, I’m often approached by people looking for an entry point into the vast intimidating edifice that classical music has become. “What should I listen to?” they ask.
It’s an intimidating question for ME. There are more than 400 years of repertory music, and due to the scholarship of the last 50 years, you can now tack on another 300 years of Late Medieval and Renaissance masses, motets, and madrigals. And let’s not even get into Gregorian Chant (or at least, let’s save that until later) or the musical fragments we still have from the ancient world!
When I’m asked about a starting point, I often ask the person to describe a quality of classical music that they like. Most people respond by saying, “I like SPRIGHTLY.”
“Sprightly.” It’s a word that even a native speaker of English can easily live an entire life without ever hearing. I’d claim that we rarely hear this word spoken because “sprightly” is a quality that is no longer a part of our contemporary lives. It’s also a quality that people long for, judging by my musical conversations with them.
I understand what people mean when they say they want to hear sprightly music. They mean they want to hear Baroque instrumental music. “Sprightly” is a quality they identify with works like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” a work everybody has heard, whether they wanted to or not! In fact, people often admit to me with a bit of shame that they like “The Four Seasons,” as though they sense it’s not cool to like it.
“The Four Seasons” is indeed overplayed, but despite its rather light intellectual weight, it’s a great work, full of imagination, eternally youthful, and very easy to like. I particularly love the pastoral third movement of the Spring concerto, which depicts a shepherds’ dance to bagpipe music, and the middle movement of the Winter concerto, which presents a musical scene of someone relaxing by the fireplace as it rains outside, the rain splashing on the windowsill illustrated by plucked violin strings. I don’t think contentment has ever been more convincingly portrayed in music than it is in this movement.
Baroque music certainly doesn’t traffic solely in the “sprightly.” It was a period when emotion in music became fashionable. Baroque opera, in particular, deals with some pretty tragic situations. Just listen to this aria from Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” in which Dido, after ruining her life in order to be with Aeneas, sings this lament after Aeneas departs to found Rome.
The Romantic music that came after and is said to have started with Beethoven in the 19th century goes one step further by dealing with EXTREME emotional states and situations, like death, rape, murder, incest, betrayal, infanticide, and many others! I often wonder if today’s young piano students have to be given a trigger warning before starting work on Chopin’s Funeral March movement from his B flat minor Piano Sonata (Number 2). No one ever comes to me and says, “I like music about death and sadness,” and yet Romantic music is the most widely performed period of Western Classical music. Go figure.
No, people say they prefer “sprightly.” Why is it that Baroque instrumental music does “sprightly” so well?
The reason could have a lot to do with the mood of the period in which the music was written. Baroque music is said to have started in Florence, Italy, in the conveniently easy to remember year of 1600, because that’s the year that the earliest surviving opera – Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice” – was written (Peri wrote an earlier one, called “Dafne”, in 1597, but it’s lost). While opera is certainly NOT “sprightly” (well, some bits are, but finding those bits requires attentive searching), it IS a celebration of human emotion.
So why were people celebrating human emotion and writing sprightly, cheerful instrumental music? Because people were AWESOME!
At least that’s the conclusion drawn by people who were aware of the miraculous scientific discoveries that were ongoing since the previous century, when Copernicus had shown that the Earth revolved around the Sun. In the 17th century, Galileo championed Copernicus’ observations and added some of his own, while Kepler described the laws of planetary motion, and, towards the end of the century, Newton integrated everything in his laws of motion and universal gravitation. It seemed that science, which people, of all living creatures, had come up with through their unique access to rational thought, was going to explain the world and solve all of its problems! Suffering would end! The entire Earth would be transformed into Paradise!
We in the 21st century know that that didn’t happen, but the point is, people in the 17th and 18th centuries thought it would, and that sense of optimism is encoded in the music of the time.
There’s a precedent for the belief in Western music history that music encodes the beliefs and values of its time. Back in the Middle Ages, monks, nuns, and clergy in the Catholic church spent huge amounts of time in prayer, and the services they prayed at included plainchant: religious texts set to music in order to create a solemn mood. Pope Gregory I standardized these chants in the sixth century, so they’re also called Gregorian Chant. Here as an example is the plainchant Ave Maris Stella.
Now, it was believed that, as generations of monks, nuns, and clergy chanted these hymns throughout the Middle Ages, the melodies took on the holiness of the chanted words, and plainchant melodies came to be included in polyphonic compositions in order to give them a sense of musical holiness beyond the words, as in Josquin Desprez’s magnificent Ave Maris Stella Mass (here’s the Kyrie). If you want to use a modern metaphor, you COULD say that people thought that the holiness of the words came to be encoded in the music’s DNA.
In the same way, the optimism generated by 17th century scientific discovery can be said to be encoded in the DNA of Baroque music. Take Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, for example. What could you possibly imagine going wrong while you’re listening to THAT? Even church music transforms from the solemnity of the Renaissance Mass to the bubbly joy of, say, the Gloria of Bach’s Mass in B minor.
I think that the reason Baroque music continues to be popular today (aside from the fact that it’s compositionally some of the most sophisticated and complex music ever written, yet still manages to be appealing) is because it communicates a sense of grounded positivity in its sound and compositional structure that other types of Western music don’t even approach. In a world as unsure as the one we denizens of the 21st century live in, Baroque music can serve as the rock we can push off of in creating a more positive environment around us.