Music 214

Baroque and Classic music periods within the historical milieu

by Sue Talley 

The centuries are strange subdivisions for the history of music.  In fact, trends and movements overlap from one century to the next, and repeat themselves, to the extent that it is impossible to speak of 18th Century Music as if something new began at the end of the century and ended precisely when the clock struck 12 on 1800!  We will be covering a period of music which really had its start around 1580, with the beginnings of Baroque music, and which ended around 1830, when Romanticism began to supplant Classicism.  Compared with the first 1600 years of  music, it’s a rather short period of time, but it is full of change and development. William S. Newman, in Understanding Music, suggests that about every 300 years since AD 1000, there seems to be quite a new development in the history of music:          

Several music historians observe that the most conspicuous changes seem to have occurred at remarkably equal intervals (every 300 years, especially AD 1000, 1300, 1600, and 1900).  However, from where we now stand history seems to have sped up (11).

The following chart gives an idea of how the arts, philosophy, and history were intertwined in the period from the approximately 1600 to 1730:





Shakespeare, Jonson,

Scientific Method, Bacon

Asymmetry and freedom within natural space

Moliere, Racine, Vega

Rationalism: Descartes

Classic proportions

Milton, Pope, Swift,

John Locke

(Rediscovery and admiration of Greek art and architecture)


 Scientific synthesis: Newton





Between 1750 and 1790: 




Philosophical novels; Voltaire, Rousseau

French Encyclopedists

German poetry and drama from “sturm und drang” to idealism: Schiller, Goethe

Empiricism:  Hume

Critical idealism: Kant

Literal return to classical Greek styles in goveernment buildings, with emphasis more on form than function




Figures, portraits, pageants, middle class portraits, etc.

Virtuostic mastery of oils, murals, from masaccio, Raphael, da Vinci, Van Eyck, Breugel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Durer, Grunewald, El Greco, Velasquez..

Sculpture in church mausoleums, portals, and statues (Michelangelo and Bernini were 2 great examples)



Chiefly secular landscapes, French court life (Lorrain, Watteau), Portraits, aristocratic (Boucher) and middle class (Hogarth)

Reynolds, Gainsborough, still life, romantic ruins…




The fading Spanish aristocracy (Goya), mysticism (Blake), French grace in sculpture, Ancient classics and revolution scenes (David)






Philosophical and scientific thought affected religious belief, and vice-versa.  The biggest “event” was the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation on the Continent, and the development of the National Church in England.  Music changed greatly to accommodate itself to the new faith, from the hymnody of the Lutheran faith and the psalmody of Calvinism, to the reformation of Catholic chant and the development of other styles of music within the context of the service.





1600 to 1830


1648, the Peace of Westphalia ended the 30 Years War

Worldwide colonization by Spain, Portugal, and other powers (which had begun much earlier)

English Commonwealth and Restoration,

Louis XIV and French power

Russians:  Peter the Great turns to the West

Frederick the Great and Prussia

Era of Revolutions, in America, France

Washington, first US President, inaugurated 1789.

By 1815, Napoleonic empire; Congress of Vienna set boundaries.







So, what we have in this complex era could be summed up this way:

1.  In philosophy and religion: A challenge to old ideas, brought about by the Renaissance and the opening up of humanism, the Protestant Reformation, and ultimately a challenge to the authority, both religious and civil, which had been a presupposition of previous eras.  An opening up of Russia with Peter the Great  also had great consequences for the West.

2.  In science:  Renaissance awareness of the place of the world in the universe and the centrality of the sun in the solar system finally brought about a burst of exploration and colonization which caused unprecedented competition between the nations of Europe, with the discovery of the New World.

3.  In art:  The Renaissance brought about new ideas of expression, and from Giotto onwards religious art became more “humanized.”  Instead of spiritual idealism, humanism began to prevail in the portrayal of Biblical subjects.  Oil painting and sculpture reached heights of technical perfection.  Greek ideals in sculpture and architecture were idealized. 

4.  Newman’s following chart, very oversimplified, summarizes the music of the period by date, possible form designation, possible style designation, and possible great-name designation (12): 



Age of the fugue, suite, and early opera

Age of thoroughbass

Age of Bach and Handel



Age of the sonata

Age of the Alberti bass

Age of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

             Though the following represents a vast oversimplification, it is a good idea to keep it in mind. Between the Baroque and the Classic eras sits a transitional period called “Rococo;” Beethoven, of course, represents the “Early Romantic” trend.