Where did the classical concert come from?

Can learning more about music written 300 years ago help us to re-think and re-appreciate the modern concert experience? Ahead of Baroque: Take Two, we explore how the Baroque era changed our experience of classical music, and how we might

4 October 2019

If you’re reading this, as someone who enjoys music, in the 21st-century, it’s likely that you’ve bought a ticket before, a bit of paper which allows you to gain entry to a building and enjoy a live performance. Why did you go? Perhaps you knew the music, or the band. Maybe you just fancied doing something that night. Maybe you hate all kinds of music and were dragged along by an enthusiastic friend or partner and hated the entire thing.

What we’re getting at is that, whatever the reason, the experience of going out to see a planned performance of music is a very normal part of our modern experience – but it wasn’t always the case, and this is something we were talking about when we were planning our most recent concert of Baroque music.

As well as being rich, virtuosic and beautiful, the music of this time – we’re thinking Vivaldi, Corelli, Locatelli et al – is also fascinating in that it represents a game-changing period of musical and social history. Across what we now call the Baroque era (spanning from roughly 1600 to 1750), a certain spirit developed and grew, and alongside socio-economic changes rippling throughout Europe, the idea of what music was for and who music was for, was changed in a way that informed everything to come, and still resonates today. Coupled with a growing belief in music’s inherent power to communicate to its listeners, music stepped out into the public realm, and the idea of the concert was born.

All of this got us thinking about this idea of music – music that we perform today, as part of a modern classical concert – originally being written for a function, and what effect this has, if any, on how we listen to it today. Does knowing more about its origins and original purpose change anything for us? And does replicating the space it would have been performed in bring out anything new in the notes?

Who and what was music written for?

In the early 1600s, any composer making money from writing music would have been commissioned by either a religious institution, or a political one. Religious commissions might include music to be performed as part of the church service, whilst composers employed by the courts would be busy writing music to accompany lavish entertainments and social events, all for the ears of an aristocratic elite. The most lucrative jobs for music directors were to be found on the political side, but it would have been demanding; a large court would typically have an opera company, orchestra and choir, and entertainment would include opera and ballet.

Either way, whether by that of the church, or those of the court, this was music written to someone else’s rulebook, catering to the impulses and whims of the commissioner, and subject to the sheer volume of their needs, often driven by a desire for novelty and newness in order to impress the rival courts across Europe.

This in itself can be an interesting factor in our response to this music today, from within a society both subjugated and enamoured by just one rule: that there should be no rules. We tend to assume – and to value – the notion that a piece of music is representative of what the artist wished to express; some deep, personal and individual impulse. Do we feel differently about music that is composed for a function? Does knowing the circumstances of its creation affect our personal and emotional response to it? And how does hearing the piece in a setting closer to its original intention affect this?

So what changed?

Many of the major musical forms we’re familiar with now originated at this time – including the opera, the concerto (which grew from the concerti grossi you’re listening to tonight) and the sonata.

At the same time, a different way of thinking about music was blossoming. The Baroque period came on the heels of the Renaissance, with its renewed interest in the ideas and stories of ancient Greece and Rome. One of these ideas, being mulled over in early 1600s Italy by Monteverdi et al, was the notion that music was a powerful tool that could – and should – arouse a spectrum of emotions.

This is something else we tend to take for granted today, when the very notion of music is intermingled with our personal, emotional response to it – an understandable reaction, perhaps, given Western society’s increasingly secular, increasingly humanist approach to life. But it wasn’t always the case, and this revival of ancient ideas helped to pave the way for this new wave of thought; that not only could music convey something emotional to its listener, it might also be allowed to cater solely to the listener’s pleasure.

The Baroque isn’t necessarily the period we’d associate with this. Notions of pleasure for its own sake may be associated with the crystal clarity of Classical Mozart; emotional responses with the Romantic drama of Tchaikovsky or Mahler.

But behind the now characteristic ornamented, frilly Baroque sound was the growing belief in music as a means of conveying drama and emotion. New trends began to emerge, from an increasing attention to contrasts – whether it was playing loudly or softly, setting soloists against a larger group, or having different types of instruments nestling against each other – to, importantly, the new celebration of melody, after so much prior focus on harmony (the birth and development of opera being a shining example of this).

But of course, no changes in artistic thinking are suspended outside of time and history, and whilst composers were discussing whether it was more important as to whether music should satisfy harmonically or emotionally, a middle class was growing across Europe for the first time – a wealthy middle class, borne from colonisation and trade, and aspiring to the nobility, and all the arts and entertainment they enjoyed. For the first time, spaces such as concert halls and opera houses, previously only for nobility, began to allow in others – the ones who could afford a ticket, anyhow.

For musicians, the change was significant too. They began to earn money from a brand new, and very powerful, patron: the middle classes. And for the history of music, it was equally significant, marking the beginnings of the modern concert tradition that still has you sitting here tonight.

And why is this interesting to us today?

Does a little more knowledge of the historical context of music improve our enjoyment of it? It’s a question often posed at classical music concerts, where we’re handed programmes explaining when the pieces were written and what the composer was doing at the time, and one that probably deserves its own pondering upon.

But even this very light skimming of the history of the pieces we’re performing has, for us, brought up some interesting questions which make us think differently about the music. How do the venues we listen in now compare to the ones we would have inhabited 300 years ago – are they the same, or has the music migrated far from its original intentions so as to change its essence? What are our modern expectations about how classical music will be performed – the programme notes, the interval, who’s in the crowd and why they’ve gathered – and how does this differ? And – most importantly, to us – can playing around with this experience help us hear the music in a new way, encourage a different way of thinking about what we’re hearing and what we’re doing?

Some of these may be questions worth pondering the next time you’re at a concert, whether it’s classical music or any other genre with even a few years of history. Whatever your thoughts, it certainly feels like this notion of everyday people leaving their houses, meeting other human beings, and experiencing live music together is something that is still to be cherished.

More on Baroque: Take Two

It’s this tradition that we were thinking about when planning Baroque: Take Two, our upcoming concert tour on which we’re splitting a concert across two deliberately contrasting venues, each intended to better represent the surroundings the music – a selection of concerti grossi and sonatas – was written for.

We’ll perform the first half of the concert in one venue before walking to the next (very nearby) venue for the second half. Both have been chosen to reflect the nature of the surroundings that the music was composed to be performed in: the Baroque ‘chamber’ – smaller and cosier, with the audience sitting closer to the musicians – and the Baroque church – grand, ceremonial, and designed for a communal religious service. Guest directed by Jonathan Cohen, an outstandingly good musician with an admirable passion for, and knowledge of, this period of music, we’re looking forward to exploring everything above – at the same time as enjoying an excellent evening of virtuosic, exuberant music from Vivaldi, Corelli, Biber and more.

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