The Effects Of Enlightenment Movement On Music

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The enlightenment was an intellectual and artistic movement that, at its core, aimed to promote a rational, scientific mindset, both in thought and in deed, in contrast to the superstition and traditionalism of earlier generations. It encouraged individual excellence, and rewarded those bold enough to challenge the accepted limitations of their fields and then to push them to new places. With this came an uptake in critical thinking that posed a threat to the church and organised religion in general, which up until this point had been the primary patron of the arts. Music in particular was democratised: the most important composers now wrote for public concerts or societies, and were able to write much more freely now that they were no longer employed solely by aristocrats and clergymen, who regarded musicians as servants who worked to please them and them alone, and who could count on their employees’ continued reliance upon their funding, allowing them to dictate exactly when and what composers could create.

As these public concerts became more and more widespread, the music industry became more profitable, and composers started to be able to earn a living for themselves. Because of this, the hierarchy of composers and players was turned on its head. Whereas in earlier times it was commonplace for musicians to alter the composer’s score (partly explaining the prevalence of ornamentation and improvisation in early music) when attempting to play it, after the enlightenment had taken hold the music became sacred in itself (in value not in theme), and the way in which musicians distinguished themselves changed. Before the enlightenment, one’s skill as a musician was judged primarily by one’s ability to ‘augment’ and ornament the score in pleasing and appropriate ways. By contrast, musicians practicing after or during the enlightenment were judged by their ability to express the score as accurately and as meaningfully as possible, later giving rise to phenomena like the virtuoso, a musician valued for their technical mastery of a particular chosen instrument. As well as this, the increased emphasis on the music itself elevated the status of the composer above the musician, allowing them to make more of a name for themselves than had been possible before.

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More money also meant larger ensembles, which hadn’t previously existed, for the most part because no-one could afford to pay all the musicians (or to commission such large works), and also because large - scale compositions were unsuited to the intimate environments in which music was traditionally played; typically rooms within the houses of aristocrats or in churches. The public however, wanted spectacle, and so composers extended the upper limit of how many musicians could be performing in a single piece. This caused the symphony (at the time the genre generally involving the most musicians) to expand both in terms of ensemble and length, but most importantly popularised opera as the most fashionable form of entertainment for the upper and middle classes.

Finally, it is true that the political and philosophical mood of the enlightenment affected musical style in fundamental and lasting ways. Order, elegance and simplicity were at the heart of enlightenment thinking, and this is reflected in the music of the time. The long, unbalanced phrases of the baroque style (a word that means ‘over - complicated’ or ‘vulgar’, and only came into use around the time of the enlightenment) were abandoned, in favour of regular, even phrases that lessened the emphasis on movement between parts (counterpoint), instead prioritising vertical, homophonic, melodic textures, that were built on a simpler harmonic language than that of the previous era. This resulted in a more accessible style of music that could be appreciated without serious academic endeavour, and by anyone, which is another reason why public concerts became the standard way of experiencing music.

To conclude, the enlightenment was a philosophical and artistic movement that radically altered the path that music was to take throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Composers, liberated by their new-found status and income, no longer relied on the church and the aristocracy to make their livings, and so were significantly freer to write according to their own whims than the previous generation of composers (as long as the public liked what they were producing). The advent of public concerts and recitals generated large amounts of money, which led to longer, more ambitious pieces that used larger ensembles, and as a result brought opera into the public eye like never before. The way in which musicians were seen changed, and the criteria for success as a player shifted away from one’s skill in ornamentation and addition, and towards interpretation and accuracy. Finally, the enlightenment’s emphasis on order and simplicity led to change in musical style that did away with complex counterpoint and replaced it with homophonic, melody - dominated textures that were both easier to understand and more immediately appealing. This new mode of composition was called the ‘Galante’ style, and dominated the musical landscape until Beethoven and those after him moved towards a more expressive and emotionally rich style in the early years of the nineteenth century.

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