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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
Middle Ages
16th - 17th century
18th century
     The Bach dynasty
     Chamber music and concerto
     Symphony and string quartet
     Gluck and the reform of opera
     Haydn at court
     Haydn in the wide world
     Mozart the prodigy
     Mozart and the archbishop
     Freelance in Vienna
     Mozart and opera

To be completed

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Handel: 1705-1759

Germany's first public opera house, in Hamburg, has recently employed a young musician, Georg Frideric Handel. Now, in 1705 when he is just twenty, his first opera is on the stage. Almira is a success. In the following year Handel travels to the home of opera, Italy.

Here too he rapidly makes a name for himself, with sacred music in Rome (where the pope forbids the performance of opera) and with operas in Florence and Venice. His fame is now spreading through Europe. In 1710 he is appointed music director, or Kapellmeister, to the Elector of Hanover, the future George I of Great Britain. In 1711 he is given permission to visit London.


Handel's first opera in London (Rinaldo 1711) is a triumph (though Mocked by some), and he has a warm reception at the English court. He settles in Britain, producing a long succession of Italian operas for the London theatres and many pieces for royal occasions. These public commissions include the anthems for the coronation of George II in 1727 (among them Zadok the Priest, which has been sung at every coronation since); and, on a lighter level, the Water Music is played for George I in about 1717 and the Music for the Royal Fireworks for George II in 1749.

By this time Handel has become a British subject (in 1726) and has pioneered a very British form of music - the English oratorio.


Handel's Italian operas have never had much financial success. They cost too much to put on, and many in England regard them as frivolous and foreign. But from 1732, when he presents the biblical story of Esther as an oratorio, Handel strikes a new and highly successful vein. The English middle classes, more puritanical than their social superiors, respond eagerly to Handel's music when it deals with a biblical drama on the concert platform rather than a mythological one on the stage.

A patriotic work such as Judas Maccabaeus in 1747 (using a biblical story to celebrate the victor of Culloden) is a typical Handel oratorio. But the most successful of all is rather different in kind.


In three weeks, between 22 August and 14 September 1741, Handel sets to music a selection of passages from the Bible, forming a loosely structured meditation on the passion of Christ. He calls it Messiah. The work has its first performance at Neal's Music Hall in Dublin on 13 April 1742. It is performed in London the following year.

It only gradually wins popularity - partly through an annual performance given by Handel himself for charity at the Foundling Hospital in London. But by the time of Handel's death, in 1759, Messiah is his best-known work. Two and a half centuries later it is probably the most famous piece of English music.


The Bach dynasty: 18th century

Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach are born in Germany in the same year, 1685, and together are the towering figures of baroque music. But in other ways their careers could hardly be more different.

Handel is ahead of his time in spending most of his career as a freelance composer, writing operas and then oratorios for public performance. He draws a pension from successive English monarchs, but his real working life is in the market place.


Bach, by contrast, spends his life in the employment of German princes in provincial courts. In all but one he is valued mainly for his skill as an organist and as a composer of cantatas for performance in church. The exception is Köthen, where Bach is employed from 1717 to 1723 and where his employer is interested in instrumental music. It is here that he writes, in 1721, the six Brandenburg Concertos (so called because dedicated to the margrave of Brandenburg).

Bach moves in 1723 to Leipzig, where he spends the rest of his life as cantor to St Thomas's school. To this he adds, from 1736, the post of court composer to the elector of Saxony.


Bach's greatest religious works date from the Leipzig years (St John Passion 1723, St Matthew Passion 1729, Mass in B Minor 1733), and the same period sees him developing his interest in secular music for the keyboard.

The Goldberg Variations (c. 1742) consist of thirty variations on a theme for the harpsichord. Johann Goldberg, a pupil of Bach's, has a patron who suffers from insomnia; Bach provides the variations so that Goldberg can offer him some solace. Of the forty-eight pieces in The well-tempered Clavier half are written in Köthen in 1722 and the rest in Leipzig in 1744. Their purpose is to demonstrate the advantage of a new system of tuning keyboard instruments, with equal semitones between the notes.


Bach's music is less widely known than Handel's during his lifetime and is somewhat neglected after his death (a revival in his fame begins with a performance of the St Matthew Passion conducted by Mendelssohn in 1829).

But the name Bach is never absent from the musical life of Europe thanks to the activities of Bach's talented offspring. He is married twice (to his cousin Maria Barbara Bach in 1707, to Anna Magdalena Wilcken in 1721). Many members of the family make music their profession. There are eleven sons and seven daughters, but two in particular - one son of Maria Barbara and one of Anna Magdalena - achieve an international reputation.


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, born in 1714, spends the first half of his court career as harpsichordist to Frederick the Great in Berlin (this is a court with a busy musical schedule, for the flautist king likes to hear instrumental music on five nights a week and opera on Mondays and Fridays). Meanwhile C.P.E. Bach is also a busy composer, writing more than 200 sonatas and 50 concertos.

The youngest of Bach's sons, Johann Christian, becomes known as the English Bach. He moves in 1762 to London, where he writes several successful Italian operas and much instrumental music. From 1764, with Karl Friedrich Abel, he organizes the subscription concerts which for the next two decades are the centre of London's musical life.


Chamber music and concerto: 17th - 18th century

The forms and names of chamber music and of the concerto derive from Italy in the late 17th century. Sonata (Italian for 'sounded') is used to distinguish an instrumental piece from one written for voices (cantata or 'sung'). Similarly a distinction grows up between instrumental music which is religious (sonata da chiesa 'of the church') or secular (sonata da camera 'of the chamber').

Chamber music (musica da camera) is usually written for between one and four instruments. For pieces where more players are involved, often with a solo instrument set against others playing in unison or 'in concert', the term concerto is in conventional use by the late 17th century.


Three great Italian composers, whose working lives span several decades either side of 1700, bring these various forms to a high level of achievement. Arcangelo Corelli, the oldest of the three, lives in Rome from 1675 until his death in 1713. His own instrument is the violin, and his chamber sonatas are usually scored for two violins, viola and harpsichord.

Corelli also writes a set of twelve concertos, each of the more elaborate kind fashionable in the early 18th century (known as the concerto grosso) in which a small group of instruments is together given the solo role.


Another Italian violinist of the period also excels as a composer of both sonatas and concertos. He is a generation younger than Corelli, works in Venice rather than Rome, and is a much greater virtuoso on his instrument. He is an ordained priest, Antonio Vivaldi, known from the colour of his hair as il prete rosso (the red priest).

Four of Vivaldi's concertos have a fame rivalled only by Bach's Brandenburg set. They are The Four Seasons, published in 1725 as part of a group of twelve violin concertos under the title Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention).


Vivaldi composes as many as 450 concertos, for various solo instruments, and he does so for a specific purpose. From 1703 to 1740 he is in charge of the music at an orphanage for girls in Venice. He trains his young pupils to become one of Italy's best orchestras, and his compositions are designed for them to perform.

The third of these Italian composers writes for a similar purpose, but he has just one pupil. Domenico, son of the opera composer Alessandro Scarlatti, is a virtuoso on the harpsichord. In his thirties he is employed in Lisbon as teacher to a Portuguese princess, Maria Barbara. When she marries into the Spanish royal family, he goes with her and spends the rest of his life in Madrid.


Scarlatti writes 555 sonatas, all but a few for the harpsichord. Maria Barbara (who becomes queen of Spain in 1746, as the wife of Ferdinand VI) is a talented performer and she is the first to play each piece as it comes from her teacher's pen.

Domenico Scarlatti lives until 1757, the decade in which the two greatest baroque composers die (J.S. Bach in 1750, Handel in 1759) and when Haydn is in his mid-twenties. The three Italian pioneers of the sonata and concerto have laid the basis on which the great edifice of classical music, from Haydn to Beethoven, can securely rest.


Symphony and string quartet: 18th century

A significant development in the last two decades of the 17th century is the growth of interest in the overtures of operas. Here the composer can display his talents in purely orchestral form, without needing to pander to the showy demands of singers. One of the most prolific composers of opera, Alessandro Scarlatti (the father of Domenico Scarlatti, and the author of as many as 115 operas between 1679 and 1723), becomes particularly associated with the instrumental form known as the 'Italian overture'.

Overtures of this kind prepare the way for a musical form which comes fully into its own during the 18th century - that of the symphony, a word meaning 'sounding together' in Greek.


The symphony becomes such a popular form that some 12,000 symphonies have been catalogued for the 18th century alone. The typical symphony of the time has a fairly light orchestra - strings, woodwind and often a harpsichord. Over the next two centuries new instruments are introduced, orchestras increase in size and in range of tone, and symphonies become correspondingly more dramatic.

The ability of composers to suggest a dynamic development within a work, through changes of key and of texture, is also a feature of the symphony. In this development Haydn plays a crucial role.


Another form which develops in the 18th century is the string quartet - almost invariably two violins, viola and cello. In the early years of the century quartets are often little more than the string parts of a symphony without the wind instruments. But gradually a more complex and distinctive style evolves, in which each of the four instruments has equal importance and the themes are reflected back and forth between them.

As with the symphony, the key figure in this development is Haydn.


Gluck and the reform of opera:1762-1778

By the mid-18th century the conventions of Italian opera have settled into a pattern of stultifying unreality, with elaborately artificial plots regularly grinding to a halt to allow the famous castrato singers of the day to show their paces - or indeed to show them twice, for no aria ends until it has been repeated da capo (from the top). An Italian poet, Pietro Metastasio, has cornered the market for librettos in this style (known as opera seria). Every hack composer turns first to him. Some of Metastasio's texts are given forty or more different operatic settings.

Metastasio lives from 1730 in Vienna, where there is a great demand for Italian opera in the court theatre. But it is in Vienna, in 1762, that an opera revolution occurs.


The director of music at the court theatre is a German composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck. In partnership with Ranieri de' Calzabigi, a librettist critical of Metastio's conventions, Gluck devises a form of opera in which words and music work together to convey in the most direct form a musical drama.

The first fruit of their reform is Orfeo ed Eurydice, performed in Vienna in 1762. The piece is described in the programme as an azione teatrale per musica (theatrical action through music). Gluck later writes that opera should aim for 'simplicity, truth and naturalness' and should 'serve poetry by expressing the drama of the plot, without unnecessary interruption or superfluous ornament'.


Orfeo admirably fulfils these ideals. The story is simply and dramatically told, with arias which express the character's emotion rather than merely show off the singer's technique. The contributions of both chorus and ballet are fully integrated with the plot.

Gluck develops this new direction with another Italian opera for Vienna (Alceste 1767) and with operas written in French for Paris (Iphigénie en Aulide 1774, Armide 1777, Iphigénie en Tauride 1778). In these two decades Gluck has vividly reminded opera-goers of the potential of the medium as music drama, a lesson never again forgotten. Mozart is twenty-two when Iphigénie en Tauride is premiered. Three years later he writes Idomeneo.


Haydn at court: 1757-1790

Joseph Haydn is the first great composer to be writing when all the musical forms of the classical repertoire are in place. And along with the two subsequent giants of the Viennese classical school, Mozart and Beethoven, he enjoys a distinction rare among composers - that of writing with success in every one of these forms.

In church music he is a master of the cantata, the oratorio and the sung mass. In a secular context he pushes forward the developing forms of the keyboard sonata, the string quartet, the symphony and to a lessser extent the concerto. He is the author of twenty operas, of which fifteen survive.


Haydn's ability to find his own voice over such a wide range derives to a considerable extent from the nature of his employment. Noble families in the Austrian empire like to withdraw for the summer to their country castles, where a favourite pastime is music.

For nearly thirty years Haydn spends the summer months, and often almost the whole year, in peaceful surroundings with a team of well trained professional musicians. It is the type of environment which might nowadays be devised as a creative seminar for composers. Haydn himself later comments: 'There was no one near to confuse me, so I was forced to become original.'


His first such employment, at the age of twenty-five, is in a castle near Melk where he writes his first string quartets in 1757. In the summer of 1759 he is in a castle in Bohemia. And in 1761 he begins the employment which establishes the pattern of his working life. He becomes assistant director of the permanent orchestra employed by the powerful Esterházy family.

His new employers are passionate musicians, particularly Nicolaus who inherits as prince in 1762 and lives until 1790. By 1766 Nicolaus has rebuilt the family castle at Esterháza in such lavish style that it becomes known as the Hungarian Versailles. It even contains an opera house seating 500.


This is Haydn's domain. When the prince is in residence, he wants a musical performance every evening. It is up to Haydn and the court orchestra and singers to provide it. (The prince himself plays a baryton, an instrument related to the cello, which explains why Haydn writes as many as 126 baryton trios.)

During the winter the musicians perform in the Esterházy r residence in Vienna. Word soon spreads of the fine music being written for Prince Nicolaus. Manuscripts are eagerly copied and borrowed. As early as 1764, even before the move into the new Esterháza palace, printed versions of some of Haydn's symphonies and quartets are published in Paris without his knowledge.


During the late 1760s Haydn extends the range of both the symphony and the quartet far beyond any previous models. But the freedom which at first allows him to do this at Esterbáza gradually comes to feel like restriction. Haydn's European fame is growing, while his role as the prince's musical servant ties him to his employer's tastes and demands.

The situation is dramatically resolved in 1790. Prince Nicolaus dies and the news prompts a London impresario, Johann Peter Salomon, to hurry to Vienna with an offer. If Haydn will accompany him to England, Salomon will commission twelve new pieces for his series of public concerts in London. Haydn seizes the chance.


Haydn in the wide world: 1791-1809

Haydn and Salomon set off together in December 1790. Six new Haydn symphonies (nos 93-8) are performed in London in 1791-2 and a further six (nos 99-104) on Haydn's second visit to England in 1794-5.

In these twelve symphonies (known collectively as the London symphonies) Haydn responds to a wider musical challenge than that of court life in Austria. London is a rich commercial city in which a new middle class has developed a passionate interest in music. This first generation of the modern concert audience idolizes Haydn as an early example of the great maestro (a role previously reserved for performers, such as castrato singers). He likes the experience and responds with creative enthusiasm.


Salomon makes a further contribution to Haydn's fruitful last years when he suggests, in London in 1795, that the composer should write an oratorio on the first two chapters of Genesis. The result, The Creation, is first performed in Vienna in 1798 and is an immediate success. It is followed by a secular oratorio, The Seasons, which Haydn completes in 1801.

During the 1780s Haydn has been a close friend of Mozart, twenty-four years his junior. They play string quartets together in Vienna, influencing each other's styles and dedicating works to each other. Haydn regards Mozart as the greatest composer known to him. But the younger man dies in 1791. Haydn lives another eighteen years.


At the end of his life Haydn is the grand old man of European music. In May 1809, the month of his death, a French army besieges and enters Vienna. Napoleon orders a guard of honour to be placed outside the composer's house to protect the great man from any disturbance. An admiring French officer pays Haydn a visit, and delights him by singing an aria from The Creation.

Haydn's operas are rarely performed today, two centuries after his death, posssibly because of their foolish plots. But his masses and oratorios and symphonies and string quartets ensure him a place in the standard repertoire more prominent, perhaps, than that of any previous composer.


Child prodigy on tour: 1762-1773

It takes Leopold Mozart, court composer to the archbishop of Salzburg, little time to realize that a son born in 1756 has exceptional musical talent. When Wolfgang Amadeus is six, and already clearly a prodigy, Leopold begins the series of tours in which he displays his son's abilities in the courts and cities of Europe.

Munich is the first destination, in 1762, and then Vienna where the the child plays the harpsichord and violin to the empress Maria Theresa. A longer tour begins in 1763 - first through Germany to Paris (where the 8-year-old publishes four violin sonatas), then to London for eighteen months (during which the first two symphonies are written) and eventually home in 1766.


Much of the time from 1769 to 1773 is spent travelling in Italy. In Milan the boy, now fourteen, is commissioned to write an opera for La Scala. Entitled Mitridate, rè di Ponto, it is produced to great acclaim in December 1770 and is repeated some twenty times in subsequent months.

By 1773, when Mozart is seventeen, it is no longer so easy to trade on his youth. Regular employment is now desirable. Leopold takes his son to Vienna in the hope of a place in the imperial court. Nothing is forthcoming. (The one benefit of this particular visit is exposure to Haydn's music. Mozart composes in Vienna six string quartets and a symphony directly influenced by Haydn. Ten years later, again in Vienna, he is a close friend of the older composer - see Haydn and Mozart.)


Mozart and the archbishop: 1774-1781

For the next few years Mozart is based in Salzburg, where at least his father is well established and where, from 1779, he is himself taken on to the archbishop's staff as court organist. During these years he spends some time in Munich (1774-5, 1780-81) and in Paris (1778) in the hope of finding regular employment. The most promising development is a commission in Munich in 1780 for a new opera, Idomeneo.

In Salzburg Mozart finds it increasingly difficult to tolerate the arrogance of the archbishop and of his chamberlain, who insist on treating the composer as a servant. When the archbishop's entourage is in Vienna in 1781, Mozart's patience snaps. He hands in his notice.


A freelance in Vienna: 1781-1791

In resigning from the archbishop's staff, and settling in Vienna without any official appointment, Mozart becomes the only 18th-century composer of any stature apart from Handel to risk the life of a freelance. He finds it harder to survive in Vienna than Handel did in London.

As in London, the main public source of income for a composer is subscription concerts. Mozart puts on his own, hiring an orchestra and one or two singers to present a mixed programme of his own works. He is himself a virtuoso on the piano (now becoming one of the most popular of instruments), so his own piano performances - in concertos, in solo pieces, and particularly in improvisation - prove a prime attraction.


In 1787, after he has been in Vienna for six years, the emperor Joseph II finally offers him a court salary as composer of chamber music. Mozart follows Gluck in the post. It involves little more than writing music for court balls, which Mozart provides in abundance. Even so, he is paid less than half the rate granted to his predecessor (800 gulden each year instead of 2000).

A greater opportunity for Mozart has been commissions for the court opera house. Joseph II insists on operas written in German, instead of the conventional Italian. In 1781 Mozart is invited to write Die Entführung aus dem Serail - a comic project very different from Idomeneo, presented in Munich earlier in this same year.


Mozart and opera: 1781-1791

Mozart's first major opera, Idomeneo, is the result of his efforts to win employment from the court in Munich. In 1780 he is commissioned to write an opera seria - the conventional and solemn form of Italian opera, following strict rules perfected in the librettos of Metastasio. Idomeneo is premiered in Munich in January 1781.

In this work Mozart's genius adds an unprecedented charge of emotion and drama to the conventions of opera seria. The opera is well received in Munich. But then it is forgotten for the rest of Mozart's lifetime, remaining unappreciated until the 20th century. So the real beginning of Mozart's busy operatic career follows his move later in 1781 to Vienna, where he wins a commission from Joseph II.


Joseph II's wish for a cheerful opera in German is admirably met by Mozart in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), which has its premiere in Vienna in July 1782. It rapidly becomes popular in Prague and in cities throughout Germany.

Mozart's next venture is very much more ambitious. In the mid-1780s Joseph II gives up his insistence on the German language for opera. Mozart now collaborates with an Italian librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, in adapting the most controversial play of the decade - Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro, subversive in its comedy at the expense of the aristocracy and sensationally successful when performed in Paris in 1784.


Joseph II has forbidden any performance of this Beaumarchais play in Vienna, but Da Ponte persuades him to allow the proposed opera to proceed. There is a slightly mixed reaction from the first audience in May 1786, perhaps due to lack of rehearsal, but a production later in the same year in Prague proves a runaway success.

When Mozart goes to Prague in January 1787, he is delighted to find everyone humming the tunes of Le Nozze di Figaro. The Czechs have no doubt that this is a masterpiece. It is indeed something new in opera, combining comedy and passion in a heightened intensity, through the genius of Mozart's music, while yet remaining in close touch with recognizable everyday reality.


Following this success, the Prague company commissions another opera from Mozart and Da Ponte. They respond with Don Giovanni, which opens to huge acclaim in October 1787 but is less successful in Vienna in the following year.

A third opera is commissioned in Vienna in 1789 from this eminently successful pair of composer and librettist. The result is Così fan tutte (So Do All Women), the most cynical and unromantic of stories which unfolds upon a stream of supremely beautiful and romantic music. The first run of performances, early in 1790, has to be interrupted because of the death of Joseph II.


Joseph II would no doubt have approved of the very German opera, Mozart's last work for the stage, which opens in Vienna in 1791. Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is a tale of strange rituals and rough comedy, commissioned by a commercial impresario, Emanuel Shikaneder, for his popular theatre, akin to a music hall. This anarchic and unconventional entertainment is as far as it is possible to be, within the field of opera, from Idomeneo just ten years earlier. Yet in both, as in the intervening masterpieces with Da Ponte, Mozart is supremely inventive. No other great composer of opera has so varied an output.

The Magic Flute makes Shikaneder rich but not Mozart. It opens less than three months before his death.


Requiem: 1791

The last year of Mozart's life has become encrusted with legend, most of it untrue.

In the full scenario, the impoverished genius is visited a few months before his death by a mysterious stranger inviting him to write a requiem mass, which Mozart interprets as a final prayer for his own soul. He is then poisoned by the jealous Antonio Salieri, director of music at the Viennese court. And he is buried in a pauper's grave, in a ceremony unattended by anyone except the gravedigger.


It is true that Mozart has constant financial problems during the 1780s, in spite of his successful career, but they are mainly due to excess of expenditure rather than lack of income. He and his wife (Constanze Weber, whom he marries in 1782) attempt to live at a level which is expensive to maintain. But lack of funds never force them to give up servants or their carriage.

The jealousy of Salieri makes an excellent tale (and has given rise to a fine play in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus), but in reality the two men appear to have been on friendly terms. The theme of Salieri as poisoner derives from a poem by Pushkin, which Rimsky-Korsakov makes the basis of an opera, Mozart and Salieri.


In October 1791 Salieri goes to The Magic Flute as Mozart's guest, and he may well be one of the group of friends who accompany the coffin in December. They see it lowered into a shared grave - the convention at the time for any but the grandest of citizens, but no doubt the origin of the legend of the pauper's funeral.

Historical reality lies only in the most mysterious detail - the visit of the stranger wanting a requiem mass. The commission arrives in July 1791, brought by a messsenger on behalf of an anonymous patron. There is good reason for the anonymity. The patron turns out to be a rich amateur musician, Count Franz Walsegg, who commissions new music and then has it performed as his own.


Work on the Requiem is delayed because of Mozart's final commission for an opera, to be performed in Prague in September 1791 to celebrate the coronation of Joseph II's successor, his brother Leopold II. Mozart hurriedly sets La Clemenza di Tito, an existing libretto by Metastasio which has already been used by at least twenty other composers.

When Mozart is working on the Requiem, in the autumn of 1791, he is already seriously ill - so the intimations of mortality involved in any requiem mass may, even more than usual, seem to have been aimed at him personally. The work is completed after his death by his pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, and is delivered to Count Walsegg.


Unlike Haydn, whose reputation grows during a long life, Mozart is relatively little known as a composer outside the German-speaking world at the time of his death, at the age of thirty-five. Most of his music is not yet published. When it is printed, during the 19th century, his reputation climbs to the peak from which it has never dipped.

No composer seems a more completely natural musician, for whom everything is easy. Yet this facility brings no corresponding lack of depth. In every aspect of music, sacred or profane, instrumental or vocal, for chamber, concert hall or theatre, Mozart excels. In the late 20th century the number of his recorded works exceeds, by a very wide margin, that of any other rival.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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