Baroque Music II: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

Enter the French. With the English School well-established since Dunstable and the German School developing in the wake of Martin Luther, the French School began to reassert its influence in the 17th and 18th centuries. First up, Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer to the Sun King, Louis XIV. Born to humble origins, Lully would climb to the very heights of French society, only to see his music eclipsed, permanently, shortly after his death. This operatic narrative is fitting for the man who (along with Moliere) invented French opera. French opera is distinguished from its Italian and German counterparts by the prominence of dance. Thanks to Lully, French opera would typically include a ballet scene for more than 200 years (now often cut to appease the attention span of modern audiences and to save on labor costs). This is not surprising: Louis XIV’s passion in life was the ballet, which he often performed in (likely as a sun god, I’m sure). There is always a strong hint of the dance in Lully’s music–whether that was to please his patron or the reason why he proved such a success at court, we will never know. For me, Lully’s music is inseparable from the persona of Louis XIV: This is where Baroque ornamentalism first took flight.

Lully was a violinist (one of the first composers to have the violin as his primary instrument) and his music highlights the violin, prefiguring its dominant role in the years to come. The violin had been invented some 130 years previously in or around 1520, but was originally conceived of as a low peasant instrument. Italian craftsmen in Northern Italy began transforming the violin into its modern form in or around 1555, when Lorenzo di Medici ordered one from Andrea Amati of Cremona. For such a commission, Amati made the shape of the violin more elegant, with significant work going into the scroll work on the end. Medici was very pleased with the instrument (which has not survived to the present, apparently), something he undoubtedly wrote to his daughter Catherine, who by then regent of France.

By any measure, Catherine de Medici was an extraordinary woman and if anyone can recommend a good biography of her, please do.  Not only did she more or less rule France successfully during the first major schism between Catholics and Protestants, Catherine invented or popularized a range of things that remain popular today, from high heeled shoes to ice cream and ballet.  She is also responsible for popularizing the violin in France, ordering a staggering 38 or so from Amati, a good number of which survive today.  Under Catherine’s instructions, ballets were performed to what can only be described as a proto-violin section of a modern orchestra.  Incidentally, a certain Antonio Stradivari worked for Amati’s grandson Nicolo as an apprentice.  Along with one of Amati’s other apprentices, Andrea Guarneri (his grandson Giuseppe “del Gesu” is the famous one), the three Cremonese created the modern violin.  They have remained the gold standard for stringed instruments to this day.

Lully followed in Catherine’s footsteps. He arranged for similar groupings of other stringed instruments (viol de gamba and other more modern instruments such as the cello). As these instruments were added in sections, the modern orchestra was born (the selection below from Le bourgeois gentilhomme brings this point home). Incidentally, the Overture also gets its start here, with French ballet and opera. Symphonie was the Italian for this prefatory instrumental piece. Originally a minute or two long, this is where the grand symphonies of the classical and romantic period began to evolve. Lully gave the symphony life, but it would be left to others to take up the baton and drive instrumental music to new heights.

For me, Lully’s music is where beat begins to assert itself as a primary driver of the musical line. Always conscious of his employer’s love of dance, Lully made sure that the royal foot would be able to tap, if not dance, along to his tunes. Here are a few brief examples:

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Atys, Overturehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLsFCIU5xw4

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Marche pour la Ceremonie Turque: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsF0dM0FvuY

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Psyche, Chantons Les Plaisirs Charmants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCS-9PXQbt4

Recording note: You may have notice that last of these selections come from Les Arts Florissant’s album “Les Divertissements de Versailles”. I discovered the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully through Les Arts Florissant—William Christie more or less single handedly brough Lully back to prominence over the last 30 years, which is one of the reasons he’s in the French Legion of Honor. In this album, Christie reimagines a Baroque pastiche—rather than present a single opera or ballet, a pastiche presents a “greatest hits” performance. Sometimes, a pastiche was used to create a soundtrack for pleasure garden parties; often, a pastiche would be used to create a new narrative work altogether, complete with new lyrics set to familiar tunes. While the idea of a greatest hits concert seems obvious to modern sensibilities, at the time the concept was revolutionary. The Met Opera created a pastiche of their own, The Enchanted Island, some years back. It is as good a greatest hits of the Baroque soundtrack as one could hope for. https://www.metopera.org/discover/video/?videoName=the-enchanted-island-2011-12-season-new-production&videoId=792232300001

More Monteverdi: A Prayer on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, without end.

It is a wonderfully cool morning in NYC. Perhaps that’s what triggered it in my mind — it was that nearly imperceptible hint of fall that did the trick. 9/11. It had been the same 20 years ago: 9/11/01 was just a peach of a day until IT happened.

I had gotten to the office early that day for a conference call on one of those digital music joint ventures the record companies were always trying to get off the ground in the pre-iTunes world. The call started at 8:30am Eastern. I saw the towers fall from my office window. My wife had been there just two days prior. The walk home up Lexington Avenue seemed to take an eternity. The last time I had been in a crowd like that had been in Paris the year before. The French had just won Euro 2000; the mood had been quite different then. Here and there I caught bits of conversation, but mostly things were unnaturally quiet. No cars. No buses. Just people walking. You could sense the fear, the anger, the grief. I heard a couple of guys talking about going “Jew hunting” that night. Didn’t happen, but I still remember that. Mostly, I felt numb. A half eaten donut would lay on my desk for a week.

I bought a ton of pasta and bottled water that night. We ate mostly in silence and left town two days later when the bridges opened. In many ways, I never looked back. We moved to London that November and wouldn’t return for three years. London was different. Its scars were older and had been accepted by the time we got there. It was a happy place. We finally threw out the rest of the pasta when we returned in 2005.

I was in Scotland on 9/11/02.  We were staying at a small farmhouse outside of Oban.  We spent the day on the Isle of Kerrera, where sheep outnumber men by at least 3,000:1.  It couldn’t be more different than where I had been the prior year.  Nothing had changed here in centuries.  It was as it ever was.  The fateful hour had passed unnoticed.  I had begun to heal.  That night, we had dinner at the inn. We ate the BBQ chicken without thinking, reliving the day’s adventures; it wasn’t until we had the chocolate cake for dessert that I realized that the innkeepers had made an all-American dinner for us. And then, in an instant, I realized why.  That meant the world to me; it still does.

Twenty years on, that feeling of good will has been lost, squandered by the hubris of successive Administrations that have unethically preyed on the fears of the American people, driving us apart from each other, and us from the world at large. We have become the sheep, jumping at every little last provocation, repeatedly failing to embrace compassion and forgiveness because the lure of hatred is the easier path. Twenty years on, the memory of 9/11 still haunts this city. But the great tragedy of 9/11 is not the gaping hole that it left for the better part of a generation in downtown NY or even the lives that were lost that day. The greater tragedy by far is its legacy. It is a legacy that transformed our nation from a beacon of liberty and justice to an international pariah. Twenty years on, NYC has recovered. It is our nation that has been fatally wounded.

Sacred music can lift the spirits and inspire humanity to goodness, even if you do not have faith in its message. The message of music is universal, allowing those of us who are gripped in the vise of a historic pandemic in the 21st century to be soothed by music written half a millennia ago. Today, I think we need some of that.

Freed of the strictures of Renaissance music, Orfeo is where the full flower of Monteverdi genius began to take hold. Leaving his position at the Court of Mantua for the greener pastures of Venice, Monteverdi entered a city that would be described as “opera mad” only a few decades later. Libertine Venice, soon to be home to half a dozen opera houses, was surely ready to embrace Monteverdi’s revolution in full. And that’s because Monteverdi’s music, matching the ambitions of new employers, was simply bigger and louder (not to mention better) than anyone else’s: At a time when everyone maxed out at 7, Monteverdi went to 11. Gone were the subtle polyphonic harmonies that had been carefully developed in the Renaissance. Hello, over-the-top Baroque. For a taste of just what exactly that Baroque aesthetic looks like, gaze upon the splendor of the Church of the Gesu in Rome: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/9d/56/be/9d56be355ffd709324a8032a733ee300.jpg.

Commonly referred to as the Vespers of 1610, I can’t think of a better way to introduce the glorious sound of the Baroque in its fullest. If there is such a thing as music that heals, this is unquestionably it.

Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJIwFO9A1f8

Recording note: John Eliot Gardner is one of the towering geniuses of interpreting Baroque through early Romantic Period music. If you are ever in doubt as to which recording to get, get his: Monteverdi through Berlioz. Although the Vespers were composed during his time in Mantua, some have speculated, given their unusual length and complexity (which made them unusable for standard liturgy services), that Monteverdi submitted the score as an informal application to the Basilica of San Marco. Regardless of whether that legend is true, Monteverdi was in fact hired and this recording was made live in the very space in which Monteverdi’s new music was first heard. This performance was captured on a 2-disc set that has been among my Desert Island Discs for as long as I can remember.

Back in the Baroque: An Introduction and Preview

The Baroque period covers roughly 150 years of music history, divided into the early (1605 to 1630), middle (1630 to 1680), and late (1680 to 1750) periods.  Just a quick detour into music theory.  Baroque music introduces the figured bass (also known as the thorough bass), as composers began what was to become an obsession with harmonic progressions that continue to this day and across all genres of music.  The figured bass part was played by one or more instruments (often a harpsichord, possibly joined by a cello or viola da gamba), collectively referred to as the basso continuo.  Here is a much more detailed explanation:  http://openmusictheory.com/thoroughbassFigures.html.

The figured bass also gave rise to the practice of basso ostinato or ground bass, essentially a repeating pattern in the bass line.  For example, listen to the first eight notes of the following—one of the most famous examples of ground bass in music history:

Johann Pachelbel, Canon in D: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvNQLJ1_HQ0

Pachelbel creates the harmony from the ground up; hence, ground bass. This is no longer the fixed drone of Renaissance polyphony—harmony, beginning in the Baroque, is free to journey away from the home tonic chord, led by the bass line.  Chords, rather than individual notes, could provide a sense of emotional closure—something noted by Monteverdi in his seconda practica.  No longer just a piercing high C (think back to Allegri’s Miserere and its high notes), this is more the emotive satisfaction of riff based on power chords.    The notable effect of this new method of composition was to confine melody in a single voice (as opposed to multiple voices in polyphony), supported by accompaniment, i.e., monody, paving the way for opera, concertos, and more popular musical forms.  These basso continuo parts, and the concept of the basso ostinato, links Western music across the centuries, beginning in or around 1600 to the present, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Count Basie to some of the best-known rock tunes.

The Beatles, Day Tripper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IbPn5j2YKk

Led Zeppelin, Immigrant Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8OtzJtp-EM

Baroque composers were now free to explore the relationships between the multiple melodic lines and the figured bass line, a compositional technique called “counterpoint”—literally point on point—which would come to dominate the Baroque Era.  Here is a short video that provides an excellent introduction to contrapuntal technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4O6lc_ym12U.  Although counterpoint was present prior to the seconda practica, Monteverdi’s embrace of dissonance led subsequent composers to explore a greater range of tone color in their music.  Harmonies therefore became more complex as composers both identified the natural affinity between chords, as well as how multiple tones could combine into new chords. 

The culmination of these explorations in counterpoint manifested in the fugue form.  Technically, a fugue is a “contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.”  I think it is easiest to understand as the same basic melodic line (the subject) repeated at different times and at different pitches and meters, like Row, Row, Row Your Boat (in its most simplistic form).  It opens with a short main melody (ending with “stream”), which is then repeated successively in each ensuing voice.  When each voice has entered, the exposition is complete.  Most fugues will then move on to more complex “development”, exploring different keys where material previously heard is transformed and transfigured, before returning to the home key for the recapitulation.  Some fugues have a coda at the end.

Fugues are magical things.  All you need is a simple tune to start and, frankly, it doesn’t need to be anything great.  So, let’s pick a recent example from the top of the pop charts:

Ed Sheeran, Shape of You: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGwWNGJdvx8

Not exactly great music.  But give the tune over to a talented composer, unleash the contrapuntal power of the fugue and—BOOM:

Ed Sheeran (arr. Giovanni Dettori), Shape of You: https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/ed-sheeran-fugue/ (see embedded link)

And if you want to hear a shorter vocal-only version:

Ed Sheeran (arr. Giovanni Dettori and Chris Rupp): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZfHRZOFUGM