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Middle Baroque

   In the middle of the 17th century the focus of innovation moved from Italy to France, where Jean-Baptiste Lully, an expatriate Italian, developed a new strain of opera amid the grandiloquence of the French court. While Italian opera had come to place ever greater emphasis on the solo singer, French opera emphasized elements of dancing (drawing on the previous court ballet tradition), the chorus, and spectacular scenic effects. For the soloists a clear yet elegant melodic musical style, suited to the French texts, was developed, which contrasted with the increasing elaboration of melodic lines that accompanied the growth of vocal virtuosity in Italy. In both Italian and French operatic styles, however, there was an increasing distinction between recitative (relatively fast-moving conversational episodes carrying the plot forward) and extended airs or arias which released in music the emotional tensions of individual characters: in the course of the 17th century the communication of significant emotions shifted gradually from recitative to aria, especially in Italy.

    In developing the string-playing French court musicians into a well-drilled ensemble to accompany the operas, Lully also laid the foundation for the modern orchestra. In the second half of the century, the oboe developed in France as an acceptable orchestral instrument, while in Italy the best trumpet players also refined their style to the extent that they could feature in sonatas accompanied by strings; thereafter, oboes and trumpets (and also bassoons) established artistic roles in the orchestral ensemble, while still retaining their cruder functions as outdoor and military instruments. For the development of string music in the later part of the century, however, the lead passed back to Italy, where the golden age in the manufacture of instruments of the violin type, by makers such as Amati, Stradivari, and the Guarneri family, was matched by the development of a suave style of writing for the instruments, by composers such as Torelli and Vitali, in compositions that established the concerto for string orchestra and the trio sonata for chamber ensemble as major instrumental genres. As the Italian operatic aria grew in length and elaboration, so the sonatas and concertos of the Italian composers gradually extended the scope of individual movements to supersede the succession of short contrasted sections that had been characteristic of earlier sonata-type pieces. The dissemination of the new Italian instrumental style was speedy and considerable, carried partly by the emigration of Italian players and partly by the ready market that developed for the sets of concertos and sonatas that rolled from the presses: Venice, Amsterdam, and then London became major centres for the publication of music, and the popularity of the Italian compositions led to the establishment of Italian musical terminology for tempo and dynamics as a common linguistic currency for musicians throughout Europe.

   By the end of the Middle Baroque period a certain internationalism of outlook was in any case apparent in European music. Contrasted "Italian" and "French" styles were perceived, which could be drawn upon as appropriate: the "French Overture", for example, became one option for the orchestral prelude to Italian operas. Composers working in Germany and Austria, such as Georg Muffat and Johann Kusser, showed some enthusiasm for the French style, while the Italian vocal and orchestral styles influenced the development of the German church cantata. It is difficult to identify in this period a specifically "German" musical style, but the German language gave a characteristic pattern of inflections to vocal lines, and the chorales (hymn tunes) that had become firmly entrenched in Lutheran culture provided a characteristic resource for compositions by German composers, both in church cantatas and in organ music. In Heinrich Schütz, Germany produced a major composer during the first half of the 17th century, but he suffered in the terrible conditions of the Thirty Years' War which inevitably attenuated German cultural development at that period. As confidence returned in the later part of the century, German courts and cities established their own opera houses, Italianate in ideals but often with local traditions of musical execution: it was not unknown for some characters to sing in German while others in the same opera sang in Italian, or sometimes the recitatives would be in German and the major arias in Italian. The maintenance of even a modest court opera house involved the employment of musicians, but these could be involved in a number of other activities as well, such as performances at the court chapel and "chamber" concerts for the delectation of the patron. The scoring requirements of Italian string music gave a schema for the employment of court musicians: often there would be a highly paid "trio sonata" of soloists—a couple of violins, a cello, or viola da gamba (frequently Italian or French players), and a Kapellmeister or Konzertmeister who might be a keyboard player or lead violinist—surrounded by a ballast of more humble players. This matched the emerging musical principle of the Italian concerto grosso for string orchestra which featured a contrast between the concertino soloists and the full band including the accompanying ripieno players. The concertino/full orchestra contrast makes an early appearance in the orchestral accompaniment to the oratorio S. Giovanni Battista (Rome, 1675) by Alessandro Stradella. The oratorio genre had developed in 17th-century Italy in parallel to opera, using the same technical musical forms and styles for the presentation of sacred stories, though often performed without the resources of full theatrical staging. Another opera-related genre was the chamber cantata, which reflected the stylistic and formal characteristics of the music in Italian or French operas. Some cantatas were effectively miniature operatic scenas, but others were essentially musical settings of more intimate lyric poetry.

   The outstanding composer of the Middle Baroque period is the Englishman Henry Purcell, whose musical career provides a kind of compendium of the successive influences of national styles. Growing up as a chorister in the Chapel Royal in the 1670s, Purcell experienced the waves of French influence that followed the Restoration and King Charles II's return from exile in France. An early manifestation of the French influence was the introduction of "Symphony Anthems" in the Chapel Royal accompanied by a chamber ensemble of string players. Earlier in the century, musical developments in Italy had even slightly influenced the vocal writing in the chapel's music, but the old styles and genres had shown a sturdy resilience in England, particularly in chamber music with the continued development of Renaissance-style contrapuntal fantasias for consorts of viols, and of lute-accompanied solo songs. Purcell blended together the inherited English traditions with newer European influences, first in his own anthems and odes for the court, and then in the publication of a set of trio sonatas in 1683 in "just Imitation of the most fam'd Italian masters": in fact Purcell brought his own contrapuntal mastery and harmonic system, which preserved dissonance treatment of a most un-Italianate type, to bear on the composition, which rendered the sonatas far from being "imitations". Only three years before, Purcell had written pieces in the old fantasia genre for viols, but his acceptance of the new flowing Italian music, albeit in a personal version, was swift. Purcell died at the age of 36 in 1695: during his last decade, circumstances at court had gradually discouraged his earlier area of activity in church music, and he gave increasing attention to writing music for London theatre productions.

Baroque Music, Donald Burrows, M. A., Ph. D., Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000