Devotees contend that baroque music expresses the order of the universe, combining lightness and beauty with an underlying cosmological architecture. As well they might: The “high baroque” period of European classical music, lasting from 1700 to 1750, coincided with a period of scientific inquiry and upheaval with profound effects on literature and music as well. Given the intellectual rigor of the time, it makes perfect sense that people, then as now, would prize thundering organ fugues and intricate string concerti as scale models of the universe—the comforting sound of heavenly gears turning in miniature.
Geographically, baroque music was the result of German and Dutch influences—particularly the art of counterpoint, a chief concern of one Johann Sebastian Bach—pollinated by winds wafting northward from Italy, where composers like Antonio Vivaldi and Archangelo Corelli were in the process of formalizing musical styles like the sonata and the concerto. The term “baroque,” apparently derived from an Italian word meaning “bizarre,” was originally applied to the ornate architecture of the period, and came to describe music only in the first few decades of the 1900s.
On a deeper level, however, baroque music describes the clash and conciliation of different philosophies and worldviews: High baroque was also the period of Sir Isaac Newton, who replaced Descartes as the leading thinker of his day. Newton’s belief that individual perception in matters of scientific inquiry was no less legitimate for being at odds with established scientific and theological doctrine was likewise at odds with Cartesian philosophy, which saw the world as a perfect machine made up of perfectly-machined parts. The world of Descartes was rich but finite, and above all governed by unchanging principles. Newton’s, on the other hand, hinted at fluidity and constant change, and—still more disturbing—chaos lurking outside the edges of the known world.
Even on the musical scale. Newton noted the proportional similarities between pitches in a musical scale and sunlight passing through a prism, an observation that seems to jibe with the Cartesian view, but he was also intrigued by the fact that special relationships between certain intervals in the musical scale seemed to deteriorate toward the upper range of instruments with fixed tunings, like the harpsichord. The divine proportions of musical beauty simply didn’t seem to apply to the upper registers, where thirds and fifths that were pleasing elsewhere on the keyboard started to clang and howl discordantly.
The intersection between science and music during this period is perhaps best typified by the controversy over temperament: Into how many notes should an octave be divided? The latest development in Descartes’ day was equal temperament, the division of the octave into 12 equidistant half steps. Previously musicians and instrument makers had favored more divisions to the octave, and produced keyboards with 19, 21, 32 or more keys to the octave instead of the now-familiar 12. By shaving a fraction away from the divine proportions that had been recognized as far back as the ancient Greeks, proponents of equal temperament hoped to introduce a tuning system that worked anywhere on the keyboard. It seemed a sensible arrangement to many—though not to Descartes, who denounced equal temperament as a violation of music’s divine proportions. Descartes and his supporters argued—in what was to become the prevailing musical controversy of what we now refer to as the baroque period—that the acceptance of equal temperament would mean the loss of all those qualities that struck a heavenly concordance between music and the human heart. By the pure reasoning of Cartesian logic, what actually sounded good was far less important than what was supposed to sound good—that is, what was governed by all-encompassing rules.
Granted, Descartes had a horrible ear and by his own admission couldn’t tell the difference between a pure, sonorous fifth and a howling “wolf.” But Newton, too, thought that something was amiss with the “contrived” intervals of equal temperament, which he proclaimed to be as insulting to the ear as “soiled and faint colors are to the eye.” Still, for him, equal temperament represented an important first step toward creating a temperament in tune with both the earthly and the divine, man and heaven.
Temperament might have turned out to be less of a controversy if music in Descartes’ and Newton’s day had somehow ceased to evolve from the relatively primitive melodies and harmonies of ecclesiastical music in the 14th and 15th centuries. As it was, however, composers had begun to push the limits of form like never before. Composers like Bach and Handel often were familiar with each other’s work. Like rock bands today, they were remarkably mobile compared to the general populace, often packing up and moving on as better opportunities for patronage presented themselves. George Friedrich Handel, for example, was born in Germany, studied with Corelli for three years in Italy and eventually became a British citizen.
There were also regional specialties with regard to baroque instruments; Antonio Vivaldi’s life and career overlapped with those of Antonio Stradivari (of Stradivarius fame); organs manufactured by Bach’s close friend Gottfried Silbermann are still considered among the finest ever made.
As for how to divide an octave: Johann Sebastian Bach, in whom all the threads of baroque music come together so beautifully, wrote his music for a variety of temperaments. Because when you’re good, you’re just good.
The Montana Baroque Music Festival, featuring violinists Monica Huggett and Adam La Motte, cellist Lori Presthaus and harpsichordist Sue Jensen, will be held from August 10–12 at Quinn’s Hot Springs in Plains. Call 1-888-646-9287 for more information.