Essay: Art / Language: A Legacy from the Baroque

THE BAROQUE WAS AN ERA IN WESTERN
civilization characterized by various movements in art, literature, and popular music in which broad strokes and generalizations were replaced by intricacies, ornate and self-aware arabesques, bringing out the devil in the details. Traditional ideas were questioned, overturned, and art and architecture underwent profound metamorphoses. Men and women of great ambition fought for the most trivial of positions in what was essentially a political chessboard in which every pawn  decided to wear the clothes of a king.

The word Baroque, as is the case with all periods of note in human history, would be invented later by critics and historians. The etymology of the word has a unique history; it is a French translation of the Portuguese phrase perle barroco, which roughly translates as ‘irregular pearl,’ or more literally as ‘false jewel.’ A similar word is used in Roman dialects to convey the same idea:  barlocco or brillocco. The idea being that, as sometimes pearls are by chance and circumstance shaped differently, more common forms, having no axis for rotation, are in need of a new taxonomic classification. So the irregular forms are baroque pearls. The word’s history may have been influenced by the mnemonic term baroco which serves to denote, in the scholarly tradition, a supposed labored form syllogism.

What would lead historians to classify this period with so unique a word? Originally it was a derogatory term meant to underline what was thought to be affectation and excess, a maligned celebration of self-awareness and anaphoric abundance as opposed to clearer edifice on which stood the sober rationality of the Renaissance. It was first rehabilitated by the Swiss-born art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin in his study Renaissance und Barock; in this work, Wölfflin identified the Baroque as a ‘…movement imported into mass.’ It was a unique artistic antithesis to the edifices of art established by the Renaissance. Originally Wölfflin did not make distinctions between Mannerism and the classification Baroque as modern historians do; he also completely ignored what is now classified as the later phase, the ‘academic Baroque’ which moved into the 18th century. Writers in French and English did not begin to treat our inheritance from the Baroque period as something of great worth until Wölfflin’s study made German scholarship preeminent.

Baroque art began to take shape during the same years that the world’s expanding economies were laying the basis for the age of Western expansion in America and the high-stakes game of duck-duck-goose started accidentally by Europe as a financial pissing contest which somehow provoked the masses, the starving peasants, to rebel and kill these despotic assholes. Despite this, it was a fascinating age of richness in the arts—literary, visual, and musical. This intense circulation of ideas, happening as new national schools took form, allowed for this new age to unite a Europe in a golden age, a golden age in which none living during the age described as golden were aware of this goldenness.

Painting alternated between references to the chiaroscuro (the finer areas of shade and shadow) and the realism of Caravaggio and La Tour and a more purely baroque use of fantasy and color; architecture oscillated between the courageous inventiveness of the avant garde and the traditionalist reliance on the preservation of antiquity’s ideals and philosophies in regards to idea and execution.

In theater, the most spectacular aspects of the stage came to dominate the taste of the period, becoming the models for figurative and architectural expression. If the goal of Baroque art was to amaze the viewer, it was the world of the theater that provided its most successful special effects. This historical and artistic story is lushly illustrated with works by the greatest artists of the period; Bernini, Boucher, Caravaggio, Gainsborough, Hals, Hogarth, Poussin, Rembrandt, Rubens—along with works by minor artists who made important contributions.

The baroque period actually expressed new values in the culture of the arts. These are often summarized in the use of metaphor and allegory, widely found in Baroque literature, and in the research for the maraviglia—wonder and astonishment in the manner of Marinism—and the use of artifices. If Mannerism was first breached with the Renaissance, Baroque was an opposing force with a unique and distinct language.

The privilege given to external forms had to compensate and balance the lack of content that has been observed in many Baroque works: Marino’s Maraviglia, for example, is practically made of a pure mere form—whatever that means.

The prevailing philosophy was simple: an active fantasy and imagination should be cultured, evoked in the spectator, in the reader, in the listener. All was focused around the individual, a straight relationship between the artist and the beholder. Art is then less distant and by definition closer, closer to us and therefore more real.

The increased attention on the individual made possible new methods of approaching art, such as the Romanzo—and, in Italy, this movement was a cultural descent; some believed it to be a betrayal, disrespectful to the traditions established in the Renaissance. Apparently, an age of revolutionary and new ideas, like the Renaissance, was, without irony, used as a basis for what new art should be. This culminated in the definitive replacement of Latin by the more widely understandable and spoken dialect of Italian.

Writers in the Baroque are framed in Siglo de Oro in Spain. Naturalism and sharp criticist points of view about Spanish society are common with conceptista writers like Quevedo, while culterano authors emphasize the importance of form with complicated images and the use of hyperbaton. In Catalonia the Baroque took hold in Catalan language, with representatives including poets and dramaturgs such as Francesc Fontanella and Francesc Vicenç Garcia, as well as a unique emblem book Atheneo de Grandesa by Josep Romaguera. Spanish theater was extensively developed by authors like Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca. Overall, Cervantes is considered the most accomplished author of Spanish literature due in no small part to Don Quixote. In Colonial Spanish America two of the best-known baroque writers were Sor Juana and Bernardo de Balbuena.

In the Portuguese Empire the most famous baroque writer of the time was Father António Vieira, a Jesuit who lived in Brazil during the 18th century. Secondary writers Gregório de Matos and Francisco Rodrigues Lobo were popular too.

Though the Baroque era is most famous for its music, it is nevertheless an era in which many noted figures emerged. Artists such as Rembrandt and Velasquez were prominent during the period. Galileo Galilei was persecuted by the church because of his ideas regarding the universe, and prominent philosophers, such as Descartes, Spinoza, John Locke, and Voltaire also lived and died in the Baroque, and Paradise Lost and Hamlet came from the minds of William Shakespeare and John Milton, respectively.

Music from the period varies in style and comes from many different countries. There is English, French, German, and Italian Baroque music—all of which are uniquely distinct and were utterly new. There is early, middle and late Baroque music—all unique and utterly new.

When compared with its predecessors, Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, with sometimes affectictious intensity. The music of the period was characterized by a counterpoint and melodic line, being one of many defining characteristics of the period, including the use of basso continuo and the belief in a specific doctrine of affections. The doctrine of affections was a new way for composers to add color and personality to their compositions. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baroque was the emphasis on contrast:  volume, texture, and pace. The Renaissance was a large-scale, rubbery portrait—the Baroque zoomed in on the picture all the way to the pores.

And finally, a sacred yet secular type of music was now in abundance and used as widely as those of the liturgical musical tradition. Imitative polyphony (more than one line of music) was still, however, an extremely important factor in writing and playing music, while the homophonic method (a musical technique that displays a vast separation amongst the melodic line and the accompaniment) was gaining acceptance and aplomb.

The homophonic style eventually became dominant in all instrumental forms. Musical works containing a continuo—in which a keyboard (usually an organ or harpsichord) and a bass instrument (usually a bassoon or a cello) helped to convey the harmonic support of chords under melodic lines.

Despite the increasing popularity of homophonic music, it occurred amidst evolving forms of polyphonic music. Similar to the composers of the Renaissance, the composers of the Baroque felt that the art of counterpoint was an essential aspect of artistry. Despite the avant garde’s freedom, formalism in imitative polyphony, cannons and fugues, were very popular; another ironic establishment based on what was meant to encourage uniqueness in the evolving characteristics of the period.

It is important to note that opera and the orchestra were both conceived during the Baroque. Around the year 1600—wherein Shakespeare was alive in England—what we know as opera came about because of the desire Italian intellectuals to recapture what they believed to be the spirit of ancient Greek drama in which music played a key role. Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo debuted in 1607, and was perhaps the first great opera. The characteristic homophonic musical style played a significant role in this as soloist vocals focused on the perceived listener’s concentration of a pronounced melody.

By the mid-1600s the orchestra and orchestral arrangements were evolving into a unique and insular entity and one of the offshoot animals in this family tree was the concerto. The concerto is defined by a solo instrumentalist, or small ensemble of soloists, playing in opposition to the orchestra; this fortissimo added another interesting contrast in texture, color, and volume.

Renaissance composers had invented imitative polyphony, which Baroque composers fashioned into the fugue, perhaps the most developed musical form of the era. Bach became the undisputed master of the fugue. Bach’s Invention No. 1 in C Major, written in 1723, points in the direction of all of his magnificent contrapuntal compositions.

As a composer, teacher and performer of the organ, harpsichord, violin and viola, Bach had an astonishing ability to blend a variety of national styles into existing musical forms in an accessible, engaging manner. Composing solo works for organ, harpsichord, violin, cello, and flute, Bach’s extraordinary abilities allowed him to create music that has remained popular and critically acclaimed, being also the subject of the unique and important study Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter—who approached Bach mathematically, as [Carl] Sagan did in his Voyager plates designed to represent humanity to any potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, as math is the universal language.

The Prelude and Fugue in D Major from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier provide an excellent example of his superb craftsmanship and the sort of mathematical approach for which he is now widely known among the modern intelligentsia. His Prelude grandly introduces us to the key of D Major. This sets up an expectant ear, eager for what is to follow: a spirited, complex, and eloquent fugue.

French composers of the era excelled in music written for solo harpsichord. A tradition that had begun with solo lute music was continued with the harpsichord, in some senses a mechanical lute, after the lute fell from favor at the end of the seventeenth century. They delighted in music that imitated the sounds of nature and in the character piece, that is, a musical portrait of a friend, colleague or patron.

Francois Couperin, court composer to Louis XIV, wrote charming and endearing harpsichord music which remains popular. Le dodo ou l’amour au berceau and L’evapore are excellent and characteristic examples of Couperin’s musical ambitions and sensibilities. The first is undoubtedly the musical portrait of a patron’s cherubic sleeping infant. The second would be a description of one of the ebulliently frivolous ladies of the French Court. The first piece is a rondo, a form developed during the Baroque. The first theme, or rondeau—it is here that the tune, from a popular French lullaby, is repeatedly presented alternatively with other material in the popular ABACADA pattern.

Domenico Scarlatti was a Neapolitan who spent the most important and productive part of his career in service to the Queen of Spain. He is remembered for his harpsichord pieces, as Chopin would be, a century later, remembered for his compositions for solo piano. Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas have an enormous emotional range, evoking lyrical mellowness, languid hours, somber solemnity, dazzling pyrotechnics, and cheerful sprightliness. Scarlatti is often considered merely the author of sonatas of insuperable technical difficulty, but this important composer’s real power lies in his dynamic strength, pouring forth in scale runs and elaborate cascades apropos to the overall harmonic richness. In this respect he is a precursor to Franz Liszt and Charles-Valentin Alkan, in his ability to create multiple melodies for soloists.

The solo sonata and the trio sonata were very popular forms of composition with Baroque composers. Consisting of one or two solo instruments supported by a continuo for rhythmic and harmonic definition, the sonatas gave ample opportunity for the soloists to show off their virtuosity. Soloists developed their technique with pieces such as The Sonatas for Violin and Continuo by violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli.

These pieces were published January 1, 1700, and quickly became a standard teaching tool for violin technique and musical inventiveness. Corelli’s Folia Variations offer a rousing example of the musical effectiveness of solid violin technique and of the variation form. The violin begins quietly, builds to a musical climax, and then returns to the calmer atmosphere in which it began.

This unique yearning, this striving and reaching for ever greater, more personal, more pure forms of art is behind every movement for which we have a pronoun. Biologically there may be little in our genome to distinguish us from other members of the primate family, but in the power of our expression we ascend to something penultimate to more than just an animalistic creature of instinct. This period brought admiration once reserved for frauds and magicians to genuine bringers of light, to secular prophets whose work has shaped the world and in doing so left it brighter than it was before.

Humanity wrestles with methods of expression because of what it does for our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world. Once something is understood the natural fear surrounding it diminishes. It is a way to bring us together. It is a unique aspect of character to set out with the knowledge that what will be for us the product of years, perhaps decades of research, drafting and revision, painful deliberation and punctuated periods alternating between cautious optimism and utter desolation, will be born into a world wherein there is a healthy and moneyed community of critics who by definition exist to pick apart the meat of what is, in a very true sense, the offspring of an artist.

Our inheritance from Baroque, that irregular pearl, that charming era replete with unique and important developments in our exploration of expression and the ways by which it can give voice to the unspoken subtleties that have no official language. The scientific, biological purpose to this—in deep time, the time-scale evolution works on—is the ability for these songs, the poems and paintings, the way they bring us together; the stories of ancient India and Mesopotamia live on in a digital, intangible library of information which cannot be burnt down—a permanent, unbreakable, fireproof Alexandria.

Radio waves have broadcast our thoughts and art into space where they continue traveling at the speed of light; perhaps it is the echo of a species alone in a quiet universe of wasted space, or a particularly loud section in the cosmic chorus: regardless, through this process the genetic and biological impulse of preservation is achieved in a way that nature has so far denied us: immortality is the reward for a life given to these pursuits, despite our ephemeral ambitions, these books and portraits and songs are love letters to posterity; a love letter to a love letter in a sea of similar songs unsigned.