Influental Composers During the Enlightenment and Baroque Era

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In Europe during the seventeenth century, great reform on the culture, religion, and daily lives of Europeans occurred due to both the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, and emerging Enlightenment ideals. The post-war period resulted in the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire along with the fall of the Hapsburg powers, which created great political influx due to change occurring in what used to be the powers of Europe. Aside from changing political powers, areas of religion also came to be very geographically similar to how Europe is today, with more Catholics in the south and Lutherans farther in the north.

The most crucial point concerning religion is that the Catholic church no longer held the central power over Europe, in contrast to years past. In Germany, society was greatly impacted due to the war; a large portion of the population destroyed and crops dying aided in the spreading of disease, which ultimately decimated the economy, on both large and small scales. During this period of hardship in Germany following the Thirty Years War, famine, and plague, there still remained the ever-present influence of art and music on the religious and cultural life of Europeans.

While the Catholic church may have lost its complete political control over Europe following the Thirty Years War, their influence did not escape the creative thought. Following the period of the Renaissance (1450-1600) was the period of Baroque era (1600-1750). Renaissance music focused on polyphonic style (music with multiple independent melodic lines performed simultaneously) and secular music which expressed a composer’s personal expression; while the Baroque period focused on light and simple melodies, known as the galant style. While there was past influence from the Renaissance era, the entirety of the Baroque era was greatly influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach, a German composer and organist whose compositions challenged the simplicity of music which the Galant style required.

The period of suffering which the Thirty Years War brought to Germany only encouraged and motivated the continuation of the galant style; if a composer were to compose and publish works which did not fit the criteria of the galant style and were receiving patronage from the Catholic church, they would be faced with great criticism and threat of losing their patronage. This was a reality that Bach faced as he tried to publish his own works, some of which were not praising the church.

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Although Bach was a devout Catholic, he often gave an abundant amount of pushback to authorities if he felt he was being treated unjustly. When the University of Leipzig did not pay him the fee which was promised, Bach appealed to the king himself. While hardly any of his personal letters were kept, those which were recovered show that while Bach did not contribute to the study of developing new music theory in his compositions, he influenced his pupils and great composers of the time such as Pachelbel and Joseph Haydn.

Bach’s original scores show the intricate mathematical and logical notation and counterpoint within the solo melody, which are shown in the ornamentation of the progression of scales and main theme from the Bach Cello Suites, which are still today the pinnacle of cello repertoire. Violin sonatas and partitas were made possible to play due to Bach’s contribution to reshaping the way violinists performed by pioneering advancements in tuning, technique, and bow shape. The bow of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries featured a highly curved stick, providing for more agility in sounding multiple strings at the same time.

Although not specifically a German design, this specific structure is now referred to by some as the “Bach bow.” The technical abilities of this bow advanced the improvisatory style for solo violin, found in the preludes and adagios of Bach’s partitas and sonatas. This emphasizes a point of musical ornamentation which was developed at this time, partially as a result of the newest changes to the structure of the bow. The emphasis on Baroque individualism, and for violinists to improvise dynamics and solos, is clearly demonstrated in this new level of musical expression required in the performance of Bach’s works.

During the Enlightenment and Baroque Era of the early seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the development of mathematics and use of observation did not escape composers of the period. An example lies in Bach’s Violin Sonata No.1 in G minor: IV. Presto; it is clear to any trained musician the complexity yet precision Bach presents; this complexity is shown when Bach applies implied polyphony by applying two separate melodies occurring at complementary octaves. Under the employ of an affluent, supportive patron, free to compose in the style of his choosing, Bach produced some of his most unique pieces. His pioneering efforts were not in vain; they serve as the foundation upon which much of the classical musicians repertoire is built.

It is difficult to name a composer whose influence equals that of Johann Sebastian Bach. Because of his strong musical heritage, his respectable career, and his unprecedented talent, his contributions to the changes and developments of solo instrumental music produced a ripple effect that musicians continue to experience to this day.

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