Music in the Baroque
by Wendy Heller

Reviewed by Richard Adams


Published by W.W. Norton, 2013   |   336 pages

Humanities departments are facing extremely harsh economic times as of late, with programs in the arts especially hard hit. Operas, orchestras and ballet companies, in particular, have also been defunded and denuded: the San Diego opera and the Minneapolis Orchestra have come perilously close to folding; the New York City Opera is no more. Hard times demand ambitious new approaches. Wendy Heller’s Music in the Baroque, simultaneously a work of rigorous historical scholarship and contemporary social relevance, is just that.

Heller’s text is no exhaustive history of Baroque music; other books are broader in their coverage of the period’s genres, composers, and terminology. Music in the Baroque instead departs from outdated musicological frameworks of the period, foregrounding the social at the expense of local: the period’s absolutist politics, fragmenting religious landscape, and in particular changing class, gender and sex roles (both among performers and characters). In addition, she introduces a number of individuals and ideas that usually remain on the periphery or are ignored in musicology surveys. In so doing, Heller opens up new approaches to a central period of one of our most treasured art forms.

Music in the Baroque is ostensibly divided into the traditional eras of early, middle, and late Baroque. These divisions, however, are framed here as “Expression and Innovation,” “Institutions,” and “Synthesis in the Capitals of Europe,” respectively. Each section’s individual chapters support these alternative divisions. We learn of how education and public opera in Venice were both shaped by a misogynist oligarchy working in opposition to Rome; how time and again academies and salons throughout Europe fostered humanism while simultaneously biasing specific genres and musicians; how Louis XIV’s court was central to the period, assimilating many Italian innovations and, in turn, influencing nearly everything that was to come. Composers do not disappear in this arrangement, but appear in their proper measure as individual nodes of larger social networks. In place of over-reliance on great composers and their oeuvres, individual works and ideas become the focal points of analysis.

The strength of this approach is in helping to temper the musical determinism that is often applied to this period. The 17th- and 18th-centuries saw the birth of many cultural and artistic elements that we now recognize as proto-modern (in music history surveys the year 1600 is a homecoming for many students as it ushers in styles and tonal palettes that are surprisingly familiar). Heller’s text acknowledges this familiarity, but keeps us ever mindful of the unintentional role that quotidian concerns of the period (local political and religious factions in many cases strongly antithetical to our own worldview) had in processes that would shape the society and art of later generations and that would influence our reception of it.

The opening aria from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607), in which the allegorical figure of Music makes bold claims about music’s power, is our point of entry into the Baroque. While this opera functions in the first few chapters as a focal point for many core concepts of Baroque music – the cultivation of humanism, the use of explicitly musical myths, the expressive use of dissonance, the dominance of monody – nearly every element receives a social reading. Heller contributes new readings of the professional and societal rivalries that surrounded this work, Monteverdi’s career, and the general state of music in Northern Italian courts. For example, in examining Monteverdi’s famous laments (the Lamento d’Arianna and Lamento della ninfa), Heller focuses on the fact that both were central to noble weddings:

Why would those planning a wedding celebration place so many obviously unhappy women in the spotlight? In fact, there could not have been a more fortuitous intersection between gender ideology, humanism, and innovations in musical style…In a period in which chastity and silence were considered paramount virtues for women, such unfeminine outbursts in highly dramatic musical language contradicted accepted standards of behavior. Yet…since virtually all of these tales ended happily (at least from the male perspective), the tears that might have been inspired by the passionate musical outpourings of gifted young singers were ultimately transformed into joy, as the heroine–like the bride–willingly accepted her divine or royal spouse and marriage bed.

This is, in a way, an inversion of the traditional narrative of the beginnings of Baroque music and the “seconda prattica” that defined Monteverdi’s style. Heller argues that the techniques involved in creating such emotional music were secondary to the social meanings of such emotional displays. Thus, instead of reading only about the musical innovations, we find that they were used in the service of normative lessons on the proper roles of women in seventeenth and early eighteenth European society.

Heller ends Music in the Baroque with an appeal to the importance of listening to early modern music with, to the best degree possible, early modern ears. In being aware of the worldview of those who wrote and listened to this music, we liberate it from simplistic meta narratives with which we too often rewrite history to mirror our own view of the world. If we reduce the music to a mere artifact of an aristocratic heritage, or valorize it as something sublime and precious, then we will hear only those limited ideas reflected in it. If, however, we allow this music to speak to us in its full abundance, as both an artistic and social object, we can connect with that place and time. This connection will, in turn, give the music relevance for our own time, fostering continued support of the arts.

Richard Adams lives in Chicago and writes about music, among other things. As a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is currently writing about voice and excess in the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier. You can find some of his other writing on his blog: accenteddissonance.wordpress.com

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