Recent Opinions on Baroque Music:
John Walter Hill, Baroque Music – Music in Western Europe,
1580-1750

(W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2005)

 

        The present volume represents a welcome addition to the renowned series Introduction to the History of Music by the British-American publishing house W.W. Norton & Company. As the title itself suggests, Walter Hill provides his readers with a book destined to be a textbook, being structured in such a way that is easy to broach by the students of specialized educational institutions in the first place, but also accessible to a wider audience, that is willing to gain a deeper understanding of the musical Baroque. But the ones belonging to the second category should be more careful and look for other sources, otherwise they risk to have an incomplete image, at least from the point of view of the works traditionally considered of maximum importance. Of course, I here refer to the first half of the eighteenth century.
        Musicologist and professor John Walter Hill, who taught until 2008 at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, is a researcher primarily dedicated to the seventeenth century.  Sketching a new genre, that will determine the existence of Western music – opera – and finishing off with Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s theories on harmony, which have in itself a strong impact on the following epochs, the volume realizes a quasi-diachronic survey of the musical phenomenon. We should also note (and salute, I would say) that it avoids a common mistake of similar books, since it presents, in its 15 chapters, a history of music, rather than musicians, which is so common.
        The reference points of each section are usually connected to the genres under scrutiny, but there are also geographical and historical elements that enable the positioning of works and movements in an ampler context. For instance, when he speaks of the innovations of the Florentine Camerata, of Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini and Emilio de' Cavalieri’s music, the author creates an ample frame that includes the political context of Tuscany, that, approximately 50 years before the analyzed events, was converted into the Grand Duchy, loosing its title of republic, while the de Medici family tried to reinstate its (now official) rights as a leading dynasty of the region. To affirm its domineering position, but also to maintain the calm within the city, the new dukes undertook populist endeavours, including a series of public events, with the occasion of certain weddings within the family, weddings of a special political importance.
        The anecdotes connected in one way or the other to the musical phenomenon are present, especially the usual intermezzos and subsequently operas such as Il rapimento di Cefalo and L'Euridice. The level of detail that John Walter Hill reaches is extremely interesting, managing to maintain a pleasant lecture, knowing when to briefly look at some aspects and where to stop.
        A warning: if you want a volume that will closely describe the life and creation of Georg Friedrich Händel and Johann Sebastian Bach, you will be slightly disappointed. A small section in the last chapter is dedicated to them and their works are analyzed when the opera seria (Händel) and lutheran cantata (Bach) are presented. These gaps, in my opinion, don’t represent any problem, since the great majority of this type of textbooks does the exact opposite – they present the creations and innovations of the two composers, while the others are seen as auxiliary.
        This is why I think the volume Baroque Music – Music in Western Europe, 1580 – 1750 is first and foremost addressed to those that already have musical experience and sufficient reference points to enlarge their horizons. I found it interesting that the author chose to include sections dedicated to music in Spain, Portugal and the New World, as these areas are usually ignored by traditional publications. John Walter Hill, with a fine sense of detail and predisposition to more obscure subjects in the history of music, manages to offer the audience a pleasant and instructive experience, bringing a welcome addition to the collection The Norton Introduction to Music History.

Radu Mihalache
English Version by Simina Neagu