Baroque Oratorio With an Emphasis on G. F. Handel Research Paper

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Baroque Era and the Oratorio: Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn

The transition from the Renaissance period to what is commonly known as the Baroque period is marked by a retrenchment of values in Europe following a time of great artistic and ideological reformation. For the Catholic Church and for the crowns of such feudal states as England, Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Hungary, the imperative to return the publics to the fold would call for a more culturally intuitive way of engagement. This marks the very self-conscious birth of the Baroque movement, which was a strategic decision on the part of the European academic community to bring about more accessible thematic values in the music produced during the time. As the research conducted hereafter will demonstrate, these values would be largely contained the principles of the Catholic spiritual canon but would give way to a set of compositional, tonal and orchestral innovations in the historical continuum of musical composition. The primary forms of opera and oratorio that would come into existence during this time are indicative of the need to accommodate the emergent intentions of courtly composition. In order to establish a mass appeal that revolved on sacred composition, new tonal and choral arrangements came to the fore and would increasingly be interwoven with more complex instrumentation and more virtuosic organ notation. In the primary examples of Oratorio that will be discussed here throughout and in the more general discussion of Baroque itself, we can see that critically important figures in the Baroque movement such as Georg Friedrich Handel, Franz Joseph Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn would achieve their greatest innovations and spread their greatest influence working through the religious modicum.

The Baroque Period:

In this regard, the period known as the Baroque era would reflect a powerful nexus between the monarchical bearings of Europe, the re-emergent imperialism of the Catholic Church and the emotive flourish of classical composition. The far-reaching influence of composers such as Handel and Haydn would bear a reciprocal relationship with the political and cultural tenor of the period, with their influence helping to bring the sentiment of the public into congruence with the spiritual leanings of the monarchy itself. So denotes Nettl (1946), who reports that one might characterize "Baroque art as the art of the Counter-reformation . . . A kind of missionary tendency aimed at weaning men away from the independent habits of Protestant thought back into the fold of the orthodox Catholic church and the secular powers of the imperial rule." (p. 101)

Nettl goes on to make the case that the opera composed in the prominent settings of the era would be a particular demonstration of this marriage between religiosity and royal authority. Both in the performance venues on which important works were displayed and in the sonic textures themselves, the distinguished compositions of the Baroque movement were reflective of an impassioned interest on the part of the composers themselves to these conjoined interests. Nettl makes the point that Austrian composition demonstrates a clear affinity for the halls of both religious and royal authority. As Nettl claims, "this theory is fully exemplified in the Austrian music of this period. We find that the opera contains elements taken from courtly, municipal and convent life against a background of Venetian folk-lore monody. Immense choirs divided, according to the old Venetian pattern, into two or more parts, luxurious ballets and brilliant orchestras abound. The tinkling lutes, guitars and harpsichords, the creaking Regal, the deep-voiced violas and wind instruments no longer in use today, such as shawms and cornets, produced a partly mystic, partly bombastic effect. The tonal division of parts into wood-winds, brasses, and strings corresponded to the scenic alinements, with the wooded malls and streets extending into infinity and the severally symmetrical rows of palaces and formal gardens." (p. 101)

To Nettl's perspective, this denote a very particular motive on the part of the composer, or at least on the commission to which he was assigned during the period. Nettl argues that the primary intention of Baroque music was to serve as Church music. Further, he proclaims that as such, its design was on converting adherents to the Catholic Church. And as Nettl points out, even in the most practical sense it was appropriate to contextualize the Baroque in a grand and spiritual way that could not be done practically outside of the Church. So was this the case in the scale upon which such composition would typically be executed, with a considerable number of musicians and voices required to carry out the operas of the time and place. Nettl reports that many a mass would be divided into up to six sections, making an example of a mass by Orazio Benevoli from 1628, Nettl indicates that the score for the mass is divided in 53 systems of notation. Outlining the composition for 16 vocal parts, 34 instrumental parts, two organs and a bass part, Benevoli is here said to have created a compositional arrangement that is designed for the cathedral setting both aesthetically and architecturally. (Nettl, p. 101)

The Baroque era would of course not mark the first time that compositional modes were dominated by sacred imperatives. Instead, it would be an important catalyst toward the greater spread of Catholic influence and values in the period before the Enlightenment. From roughly 1600 to 1750, the influence of the Catholic Church could be heard in many of the most cherished compositions used to identify the era. But in tracing the history of this intercession between compositional innovation and Christian values, we can see that the Baroque movement would initiate as a revival of sorts. In this regard, we can draw a clear connection between the oratorios of Handel and others and the work of such long-passed luminaries as Hildegard of Bingen. The twelfth century abbess was of German descent like Handel. Contrary to Handel, Hildegard was a composer second and a figure of the Church first. The remarkably prescient choral arrangements and morality themes in her work would make her a lynch-pin of the Baroque era that would spring forth many centuries hence. So tells King-Lenzmeier (2001), who makes the case that Hildegard's compositions survive with relevance today on the basis of certain universal thematic imperatives. King-Lenzmeier indicates that "although Hildegard lived in a world whose assumptions were radically removed from our own, she speaks to us today through the centuries as an important voice for concersns we share. These include seeing both the particular and the universal in creation, rediscovering the complementarity of gender imagery, and showing that the feminine can be used creatively in relationship to the divine and the human. She is eminently practical, yet passionate in her concern for what her visions tells her is the right course to follow. In short, she appeals to us on a variety of levels." (King-Lenzmeier, p. xi)

This is very much aligned with the intended values of the Baroque movement, suggesting that hers is a shadow that loomed large for composers of the generation many centuries hence. The purposive nature of the Baroque movement suggests an interest in this notion of universality and accessibility with a simultaneous nod to the emotional heft of faith. The pragmatism and the devotion which would be necessary in complement to one another would be recalled during the Baroque movement based on the template of such seminal and canonized figures as Hildegard. Her influence shows the Baroque movement to have initiated in essence as a 'return to roots' movement in composition. Taking a cue from the religious musical figures of those periods which preceded the Renaissance, the composers of the Baroque movement would place the medieval conceits of liturgical poetry and hymnal composition into the assertively mainstream works of its best composers. It also bears noting that the inherency of the relationship between the spiritual and the royal is likewise hinted at in Hildegard's story, revealing that this core intercession of the Baroque movement could also be traced to the years before the Renaissance. King-Lenzmeier points out that Hildegard of Bingen was herself reared to reflect this entwined relationship, indicating that "when pledging their last and possibly tenth child to God, it was of concern to her parents that Hildegard go to a religious setting in which she would associate with persons of similar background and rank, and they looked for a suitable place where their daughter might be placed. Later Hildegard was criticized for taking only those born to noble families into her convent. This was the customary practice at the time, and Hildegard's sense of class and station was part of her identity and stability. To be part of a social order was to be part of a human community as it had been determined by God; there was nothing shameful to the medieval mind about openness regarding class distinctions." (King-Lenzmeier, p. 3)

So would this also be a major marker of the Baroque period, where the authority sought by the monarchies of Europe would be closely… [end of preview; READ MORE]

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