Johann Schmelzer: the Most Underrated Baroque Composer?

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber is widely considered one of the most important composers for the violin in the Baroque era, with his innovations in tuning and fingering. It’s hard not to listen to his work without appreciating his virtuosity. But his Austrian contemporary, SchmelzerJohann Heinrich Schmelzer, with whom some scholars think Biber studied, certainly gives him a run for the money. And yet Schmelzer is hardly known even among Baroque music aficianados. It’s a mystery as mysterious as, well, Biber’s “Mystery Sonata.”

Before Biber came to prominence, Schmelzer helped establish the violin sonata outside of Italy. Arguably his most important work is the “Sonatae unarum fidium” of 1664. It was the first collection of sonatas for violin and basso continuo published outside of Italy and showcases some of Schmelzer’s finest work. The English violinist John Holloway has a lively and fresh take on the collection in a 2000 recording. The CD also contains an almost jazzy version of “Chiacona in A” by Antonio Bertali.


Some random impressions of Schmelzer’s music pulled from Amazon: 

“Some of the most lyrical and beautiful writing that I have come across.  You can hear through Schmelzer’s music the basis on which much of Biber is founded.”—Anonymous

“Most melodious violin sonatas I have ever heard.”—Y. Dai “abubblingegg”

“Beautiful, lyrical, haunting,”—Karen G.


“Schmelzer is revealed as a major composer, his violin sonatas exquisite gems.”—Victor Rodriguez Viera

“Intricate, somewhat experimental, and highly emotive expression.”—Alan Lekan

“Great virtuosity, with hauntingly sweet, slow passages.”—Anonymous

“Picks up where Biber left off, giving the sonata a fun and exhilerating Turkish concept.”—dolcissima2780

“Pulls you into the smooth waves of an ocean. . . . Exciting, fresh, poised.”—Dirkk

Some suggested listening:

“Sonata Quarta in D Major from Sonatae Unarum Fidium”

“Sonata III in G minor”

“Polish Bagpipes”

“Sonata IV a sei”

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Rosa Giacinta Badalla: A First-Round Draft Pick of Convent Music

conventLet’s assume for a minute that “Hamlet” had been written as a comedy rather than a tragedy and that when Hamlet tells Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery” she actually goes. How long could we expect before the recording contract followed?

Music has always been a big part of convent life, much to the church hierarchy’s  dismay, and musically talented women were much sought after. Indeed, it wasn’t unusual for a convent, much like a university today, to sweeten the pot a bit to get a talented novice to move inside their walls. “Musical skills and beautiful singing voices were so valuable that convents could even offer discounts on the dowries of gifted nuns, and decorous religious houses accepted girls from modest backgrounds,” says Silvia Evanegisti in her book Nuns: A History of Convent LIfe.  Just don’t tell the Bishop about it.

Well, we know from Act IV, Scene V of “Hamlet” that Ophelia was quite the singer, so had Polonious lived, he surely would have gotten a discount to send his daughter to a nunnery, as Hamlet suggested.

Badalla VuoGiven the premium convents offered on musical talent, it’s not surprising that many of the female composers we know about from the Baroque era today were nuns. One nun whose work has managed to survive to this day is Rosa Giacinta Badalla, a Benedictine nun in Milan who’s believed to have lived from around 1660 to 1710. She had only one printed collection of compositions that we know about, Motetti a voce sola, and it makes one wish she had been given a recording contract.

Her work is “remarkable . . . for its patent vocal viruosity, motivic originality, and self-assured compositional technique,” Robert Kendrick says in his Grove Music entry on Badalla.

You can hear that virtuosity, originality, and self-assurance in “O serene pupille,” a beautiful piece for solo voice that also translates well to the violin. In this 5-minute video, we see musicians from La Donna Musicale in 2011 perform an excerpt from the piece using violin as the solo instrument. La Donna Musicale is based in Boston and it’s a company dedicated to performing classical works by women composers.

To showcase the rich vein of music that’s come to us from the convents, a couple of publishers have released compilations within the last few years. Rosa Mistica is a highly regarded collection that includes a piece from Badalla as well as composers named Isabella Leonarda and Bianca Maria Meda.


Music in the Convents

“This music brings such joy and peace to my whole being, and every one of the pieces on this album is so beautiful, it’s hard to find words that adequately express the astounding harmony,” says one reviewer on Amazon.

donneBadalla’s work also appears on  Concerto delle Donne, a compilation of female Baroque composers, including one of the most well-known of all female classical composers, Barbara Strozzi. This compilation isn’t limited to the cloistered, so it has a much broader range of work and yet the pieces still center around sacred music, as Baroque music by women composers often did.

In this compilation, Badalla’s piece is called “O fronde care,” and she wrote the lyrics for the piece, not the music.  angelico

Other surviving pieces from Badalla, including “Pane Angelico” and “Vuo Cercando”, have been transcribed and are available today.

Another piece of Badalla’s, called “Non piangete,” is performed beautifully by soprano Roberta Invernizzi and cellist Elena Russo. You can listen to that in the video below.

We’re fortunate this this and other works from Badalla and other nuns remain with us today, and hopefully yet more will be found in the musty cellars of convents someday. The work of composers as gifted as Badalla deserve a wider audience; it would be  a shame to keep it cloistered  behind the walls of a nunnery.

Other women Baroque composers

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The 55 Greatest Baroque Composers in One Sentence Each

Jacopo Peri

Peri Credited with writing the first opera, “Euridice,” and seen as key in transitioning music from Renaissance to Baroque stylings

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

Jan_Pieterszoon_Sweelinck Established North Germany organ tradition, the harmonically and rhythmically complex improvisatory style that was later mastered by Dieterich Buxtehude

Claudio Monteverdi

220px-claudio_monteverdi First musical dramatist, sometimes considered first Baroque opera composer, who built on Peri’s Renaissance-Baroque transition work

Gregorio Allegri

Gregorio An early instrumentalist who is more well-known for his vocal works, mainly “Miserere mei, Deus,” which is sung annually at the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week

Girolamo Frescobaldi

Girolamo Frescobaldi Influential early instrumental Baroque keyboard composer who showed how interesting keyboard music, unaccompanied by voice, could be

Heinrich Schütz

schuetz With “Dafne,” first German opera composer and the most renowned German composer before Bach and Handel

Samuel Scheidt

Student of Sweelinck who helped spread North German organ tradition throughout Europe, and noted for his “patterned variation” keyboard technique in which chorale phrases build to a climax

Denis Gaultier

French lutenist known for writing graceful melodic lines with clear phrase structures

William Lawes

Lawes Minor figure but possibly the most notable English composer along with John Blow prior to Henry Purcell. His viol consort suites juxtaposed bizarre, spine-tingling themes with pastoral ones

Francesco Cavalli

Cavalli1 Helped bring opera to the masses with his performances in small public houses that relied on limited orchestras of strings and basso continuo

Giacomo Carissimi

Giacomo1 First master of the oratorio, which set biblical or other forms of sacred text to music in dramatized settings that dispensed with scenery and costumes

Antonio Bretali

Bertali Helped establish the tradition of Italian opera seria

Johann Jakob Froberger

Froberger Developed the keyboard suite and contributed to the exchange of musical traditions through his travels outside Germany

Barbara Strozzi

strozzi Arguably the most notable female composer of the Baroque period with vocal pieces that are firmly rooted in the seconda pratica tradition but that have more lyricism than Monteverdi’s work

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer

SchmelzerVirtuoso violinist who helped bring the sonata form to Germany and whose innovative techniques in playing and tuning greatly influenced Biber.

Jean-Henri d’Anglebert

anglebert Known mainly for his four suites of harpsichord music and the standard he set for the material quality of the music books he published

Jean-Baptiste Lully

250px-jean-baptiste_lully_nicolas_mignard The Italian founder of French opera who, with Moliiere, created comédie-ballet, which combined theater, comedy, incidental music, and ballet. “Psyché” is his most well-known work

Dieterich Buxtehude

Buxtehude Pinnacle of North German organ tradition who is said to have inspired Bach to walk 200 miles to hear him play. His organ works today remain central to the standard organ repertoire

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

MA_Charpentier_I Known for his sacred music, which is considered more varied, expressive, and accessible than that of Lully, his contemporary

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

HIF Biber Widely regarded as one of the most important composers for the violin in the history of the instrument, pioneering many tuning and playing techniques and composing works that use multiple stops in intricate polyphonic passages. His “Mystery Sonatas” are among the earliest known pieces for solo violin

John Blow

Blow English composer whose opera, “Venus and Adonis,” is credited with influencing Henry Purcell’s landmark opera, “Dido and Aeneas,” and who composed hundreds of anthems for Anglican church services

Domenico Gabrielli

Gabrielli Composer of some of the earliest works for solo cello, including a group of seven ricercari for unaccompanied cello

Johann Pachelbel

unknown Known today mostly for his Canon in D, which is loved and dismissed in equal measure by critics. In his time, he was greatly admired for his work, considered the highest achievement of the South German organ tradition, which is simpler, more melodic than that of the North German organ traditon

Arcangelo Corelli

arcangelo_corelli Eminent instrumentalist composer who is widely credited with developing two of the most significant forms of instrumental music there is, the sonata and the concerto. His “Christmas Concerto” remains a favorite today

Marin Marais

Marais1 Master of the basse de viol and the leading French composer for the instrument, which today has largely been replaced by the cello

Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer

Fischer-Johann-Caspar-Ferdinand-01 Widely regarded as one of the best keyboardists of his day, but most of his work has been lost, so the German composer’s work is rarely heard today

Giuseppe Torelli

220px-Giuseppe_Torelli Matured Corelli’s idea of the concerto and today his 12 concerti of opus 8 constitute one of the great achievements of the Baroque period

Henry Purcell

250px-henry_purcell_by_john_closterman Combined French and Italian influences into a unique English Baroque style. The opera “Dido and Aeneas” is his most well-known work and today he remains one of England’s most eminent composers

Alessandro Scarlatti

457px-alessandro_scarlatti Founder of the Neapolitan school of opera, which took Italian opera in a more Classical, less Baroque style, and influenced even non-Italian opera, including the work of Handel

Johann Christoph Pez

Pez2 German composer whose work, heavily influenced by Lully’s French style, is little played today but was highly regarded during his time for the quality of his sonatas

Attilio Ariosti

ariosti Noted for his opera and, maybe more importantly, his work for the viola d’amore, which is a violin-like instrument characterized by non-playing “sympathetic strings” that resonate “in sympathy” with the strings above them when they’re played. Biber is another composer who made memorable use of sympathetic strings

Jean-Féry Rebel

Rebel French violin prodigy who studied under Lully and whose work often had a surprisingly modern, and often under-appreciated, sound to it, with striking counter-rhythms and complex harmonies

François Couperin

250px-francois_couperin_2 French keyboard master who innovated fingering techniques, established new heights of ornamentation, and brought Corelli’s sonata form to France

Tomaso Albinoni

220px-Albinoni Italian composer whose instrumental music greatly influenced Bach but who is almost entirely known today for a piece of music he didn’t actually write, the “Adagio in D Minor.” The piece was mainly written by Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, who, after Albinoni’s death, took the small bit that Albinoni had written and turned it into the piece that’s so familiar today

Antonio Vivaldi

170px-antonio_vivaldi The greatest and most prolific writer of concertos, including the set of four violin concertos so popular today, the “Four Seasons”

Jan Dismas Zelenka

zelenka1 Czech Baroque composer whose music is admired for its daring compositional structure, harmonic invention, and counterpoint

Pietro Castrucci

Castrucci Virtuoso violinist who studied under Corelli and eventually settled in London. HIs work is little known today, but he is credited with inventing the violetta marina, an instrument no one today has seen but is believed to be a smaller version of the viola d’amore

Georg Philipp Telemann

220px-telemann_4 Hyper-prolific composer of some 3,000 works who was greatly admired by Bach, a friend of his, and whose music is said to serve as a bridge between German Baroque and Classical styles

Jean-Philippe Rameau

200px-attribuc3a9_c3a0_joseph_aved_portrait_de_jean-philippe_rameau_vers_1728_-_001 French harpsichord genius whose music built on the work of Lully and became the pinnacle of the French opera tradition

Johann Gottfried Walther


German music theorist, organist, composer, and lexicographer of the Baroque era. He was most well known as the compiler of the Musicalisches Lexicon. 

Johann Sebastian Bach

220px-johann_sebastian_bach The titan of western art whose music is revered for its intellectual depth, technical command, and artistic beauty

Domenico Scarlatti

220px-retrato_de_domenico_scarlatti Master harpsichord composer whose work, starting with his 555 keyboard sonatas, helped transition music from a Baroque to a Classical sound

George Frideric Handel

220px-georg_friedrich_hc3a4ndel German-born British composer who made his fame and established his imminence as a writer of operas and oratorios, but who is as well-known today for his concerti grossi, including “The Water Music,” and his sonatas

Benedetto Marcello

Marcello1 Much admired in his time for his Vivaldi-like work, he’s largely known today for his Estro poetico-armonico, a musical setting for voices, figured bass, and occasional solo instruments

Sylvius Leopold Weiss

weiss German lutenist who was perhaps the most prolific composer for the instrument with his approximately 600 pieces for it

Francesca Geminiani

Geminiani Instrumentalist composer in the manner of Corelli but with his concerti grossi and sonatas, enlarged the canvas by varying the material more than Corelli and enriching the orchestral colorations

Johann Friedrich Fasch

Fasch image German violinist held in high regard by Bach for his work, including his cantatas, concertos, and symphonies, but his vocal works have largely been lost

Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello

Brescianello Violinist and lutenist known mainly for his 12 concerti e sinphonie op. 1 and 18 pieces for gallichone, a type of lute

Francesco Maria Veracini

Veracini Violinist best known for his suites of violin sonatas. His bowing technique so impressed Tartini that it led this latter composer to withdraw from public while he studied how to apply it to his own work

Giuseppe Tartini

Tartini Corelli’s most significant successor in writing music for the violin. He wrote 150 or so violin concertos and a hundred violin sonatas, including his “Devil’s Trill Sonata,” which Tartini said came to him in a dream

Pietro Locatelli

Locatelli Violin virtuoso whose “L’arte del violino, opus 3,” a collection of 12 concertos for solo violin, strings, and basso continuo, was one of the most influential musical publications of the early eighteenth century. Locatelli’s style is considered a bridge between Corelli and Vivaldi

Jean-Marie Leclair

jmleclair Renowned violinist who is considered to have founded the French violin school.

Johann Joachim Quantz

Quantz Widely regarded as the greatest player and teacher of the flute, and composer for the instrument. He was also an innovative designer of the instrument, adding keys to enhance intonation

Johann Adolph Hasse

Hasse A popular composer in his day, best known for his prolific operatic output and for his role in developing opera seria, the noble, serious form of opera that contrasts with opera buffa, or comic opera

Carlos Seixas

Seixas1 Portuguese composer influenced by the German Empfindsamer Stil (“sensitive style”) for keyboard works. Only three orchestral pieces and around 100 keyboard sonatas, plus a handful of choral works for liturgical use, are available today

Baldassare Galuppi

Galuppi_Baldassare Known as “the father of the comic opera,” he enjoyed considerable fame for the dramma giocoso (“merry”) style of opera that he helped usher in

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

220px-Pergolesi Along with Galuppi, an innovator of opera buffa, or comic opera, whose work helped establish the traditions that would govern the writing of opera buffa for more than a century

William Boyce

Boyce English “Galante” composer best known for his set of eight symphonies, anthems, and odes. “Galante” refers to a simplified, modern style of music that, in some accounts, is seen as a kind of transition between the Baroque and Classical periods of music

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Tension in the Service of the Sad: Pete Townshend Meets Henry Purcell


Rock legend Pete Townshend of The Who has long cited Henry Purcell as a major, if unlikely, musical influence and in fact he incorprated parts of Purcell’s work into his rock opera, Quadrophenia, and in the opening of “Pinball Wizard,” among other pieces.

It’s interesting how this influence began. In a conversation he had with Matt Everitt of the BBC’s “6 Music” program, he said he was living with his manager, Kit Lambert, whose father was the musical director of the Royal Ballet at Covent Gardens, Constant Lambert. Purcell-2 Early in the band’s career, around the time of “My Generation,” Kit shared with Townshend a recording of Purcell’s suite, “The Gordian Knot Untied,” which uses a series of suspended chords. The sophistication and emotive quality of the chord suspensions, particularly in the Chaconne, riveted Townshend and he started incorporating the idea of suspension into his work. “Suddenly I was in a world of suspensions,” he says.

Purcell translates rather nicely into pop music, Townshend says, because, like pop, it’s simple. “Purcell wrote in the very early era of orchestral and choral music,” he told Everitt, “and his music was simple, very basic. It had to be knocked off quickly. It wasn’t as complex as Bach went on to produce later.”

The Chaconne is the sixth of eight parts of “The Gordian Knot Untied” and it is, as Townshend described it, moving and “profoundly sad,” which would certainly characterize much of The Who’s music, if you think of pieces like “The Song is Over” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” wizard

Townshend also used suspensions in the opening chord sequence of “Pinball Wizard.”

“That chord sequence [at the beginning of ‘Pinball Wizard’] runs for about 15 minutes [on the demo],” Townshend told Steve Rosen of Sounds International in 1980. “It’s just an exploration of how many chords I could make with a running B. The B was in every chord. It went through about 30 or 40 chords very slowly and then into the song. “I’m a Boy” did that as well, in the solo.

“I got very Baroque,” he went on. “I started to be interested in the fact that [Baroque composers] used melodic transitions very rarely and there would always be suspensions and tension and it would be another level of tension and it would drop. This was mainly Purcell.”

Tension in the service of the simple and the sad. That sounds a lot like The Who.—Nabob, On Baroque

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‘La Folia’: The ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of Baroque Music

“La Folia” is an interesting piece of music. It’s a short chord progression that’s been handed down from generation to generation and just about every composer of note has put his own stamp on it. Is there anything comparable to it today?

Maybe. Think of what “Wipeout” is to drummers or the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven” is to guitarists. In both of these cases, you have a piece of music that’s almost like a musical currency, a way for musicians to size up one another instantly to get a sense of where they are as players. Only a piece that’s universally recognized can serve that role, and “La Folia” certainly seems to be that piece historically.

In any case, you can learn more about the origins of La Folia on Wikipedia, but there’s also an entire website devoted to it. That’s something not even “Wipeout” and “Stairway to Heaven” have. But give it time. They’ve only been around for a few decades; “La Folia” has been around for a few hundred years.

You can see how Vivaldi, Bach, Corelli, Marais, and Geminiani have each put their own stamp on “La Folia” in the 90-second video above.—Nabob, On Baroque 


The ‘La Folia’ chord progression

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The World’s Most Baroque Rock Band

It’s always interesting to see how musical genres cross paths. I like the way Albinoni’s Adagio in G was interpreted for electric guitar in Oliver Stone’s movie on The Doors, for example. Of course, these days, cross-genre interpretations often go the other way, putting a Baroque or other classical music spin on rock music, like the way the Gregorian Chant people do with Metallica’s “Unforgiven.”


One rock band that gets the Baroque treatment a lot is Rush, which was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Most people probably know the band from its radio hits like “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio,” but the group’s songwriting is even more interesting than those songs suggest. Indeed, for its first 10 years, many of its pieces were these long conceptual compositions that spun out moralistic, fable-like story lines.

In any case, academics and critics have tended to put a Baroque label on the band’s music, not because it sounds Baroque but because its “artifactual” as opposed to natural. That is to say, while a lot of rock is considered cool because it has a naturalness or spontaneity to it, Rush’s music is considered square or nerdy because there’s little that’s natural about it. Rather, it’s highly composed, like an artifact, and takes a lot of practice to play, and there’s very little room for improvising.

Rush: YYZ

Rush: Red Barchetta

To be sure, the band’s cool factor has increased quite a bit in recent years. For much of its 40-year history, it was considered a cult band for nerds, not worthy of serious treatment by mainstream rock critics, but in the last 10 years or so, with all those nerds now grown up and heading up tech companies, producing TV shows, and making laws (Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Kasich of Ohio are two examples),the band has become cool even as its three members have become senior citizens. (They’re all about 60 now.)


What’s interesting from a Baroque music standpoint is that no fewer than half a dozen tribute albums of Rush’s music have been released in the Baroque style. To be perfectly honest with you, the tributes are a mixed bag. Part of the problem is that several of them are arranged and produced by the same person, so there’s a bland uniformity to them. But the bigger issue is that some of the pieces just aren’t arranged that well and the production quality could be better. (The two recordings above are pretty good.)

The one album that is arranged in an interesting way and has high production values is a tribute album by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, but that album puts a classical, even romantic, spin on the music, not a Baroque spin.

Having said all this, it’s still enjoyable to listen to these many Baroque versions of Rush, and it serves as a reminder that music transcends time periods and we’re better off if we separate music from labels that try to freeze music in time. Yes, Baroque music is “ancient” music, but each generation discovers the music anew and, to these new ears, it’s as fresh, dynamic, and important as it was when it was first written. For all their faults, these Baroque-styled Rush tributes at least have the virtue of showing that old and new music is interchangeable. To the extent they help us to stop talking about music in time periods, they’ve done something important.—Nabob, On Baroque

exit-stage-right-2002 2002

baroque-tribute-2004 2004

string-quartet-tribute-2005 2005

piano-tribute-to-ush-2006 2006

through-the-prism-2007 2007

royal 2012

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He Knows a Good Time, and It’s Not Opera



From the “unlikely-to-get-season-tickets” department, we introduce you to Charles de Saint-Évremond, whose hedonism didn’t extend to attending opera.


Hortense Mancini

The French essayist and critic Charles de Saint-Évremond knew how to have a good time. After fleeing to England in 1661 to escape prosecution for attacking the Treaty of the Pyrenees, which ended the Franco-Spanish War, he ended up in the embrace of Hortense Mancini–a soft landing to be sure.

Mancini was the most beautiful of five beautiful daughters of Lorenzo Mancini, an Italian Baron. After an ill-conceived marriage with one of the richest (but also one of the most unstable) men in Europe, Mancini found sanctuary under the protection of Charles II and then later James II.

Comfortably ensconced in London, she turned her home into a parlor for artists and writers looking for stimulation, intellectual and otherwise. Of course  Saint-Évremond would find his way to her house, and although it’s not clear whether the stimulation he received there was anything other than intellectual, he surely found in Mancini a kindred spirit. Rational moralists both, they eschewed the idea that pleasure is a sin, as long as one’s pleasure does nothing to harm others. And indeed, Mancini developed a reputation, whether fairly or not, for her flings with both men and women.

Given this hedonism, you might think Saint-Évremond would be a lover of opera, which in the mid-1600s was just starting to migrate from Italy to France and England, but if you were to think that, you would be wrong. “The music, in some places, is charming,” he says in a letter to the Duke of Buckingham. “The whole together seems wonderful. But it must be granted me also that this wonderful is very tedious; for where the mind has so little to do, there the senses must of necessity languish. After the first pleasure that surprise gives us, the eyes are taken up, and at length grow weary of being continually fixed upon the same object. . . . The soul, fatigued by a long attention, wherein it finds nothing to affect it, seeks some relief within itself; and the mind, which in vain expected to be entertained with the show, either gives way to idle musing, or is dissatisfied that it has nothing to employ it. In a word, the fatigue is so universal, that everyone wishes himself out of the house; and the only comfort that is left to the poor spectators, is the hope that the show will soon be over.”

Well, this does not sound ike a man who will be getting season tickets anytime soon.

In any case, that was not the whole of Saint-Évremond’s criticism. Indeed, his letter to the Duke goes on at length, during which he mentions works by Monteverdi, Rossi, Cavali, and others, and then finally sums up by calling opera a wretched mix of music and poetry. And yet, he says at last, one should not advertise his distaste for opera, because it’s bad form. So, he  advises discretion. “A man runs a risk of having his judgment called in question, if he dares declare his good taste; and I advise others, when they hear any discourse of opera, to keep their knowledge a secret to themselves.” Unless, of course, one is declaring one’s tastes to the Duke.

So, we can be sure that, if ever Saint-Évremond attended opera with Hortense Mancini he did not enjoy it. But he surely enjoyed her company nonetheless.—Nabob, On Baroque

weissThe excerpts from Saint-Évremond’s letter are from a really terrific book, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (Schirmer Books, 1984).

More about Saint-Évremond

evremond Works of Charles de Saint-Evremond

More about Hortense Mancini

hortense The Kings’ Mistresses

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Let’s Give Leonora Duarte the Hollywood Treatment

earring When you think of the great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer you tend to think of  “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” probably his most famous painting. You might remember it was the inspiration of a pretty but underwhelming 2004 film of the same name with Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. movie

But I’m wondering if Hollywood wouldn’t have done better to make a movie about one of Vermeer’s lesser known paintings, “A Lady Seated at a Virginal.” Now that would have made for an intriguing film, because the young lady who is the subject of the painting is reminiscent of Leonora Duarte. woman_seated_at_a_spinet_smaller

Duarte is an almost completely unknown Flemish composer whose few surviving works are sinfonias of lovely lyricism. It’s remarkable that any of her works have survived, since it was unusual for a woman in the mid-1600s to get her work published professionally and even more unusual if the woman was Jewish, as Duarte was, although her family had renounced their Judaism and converted to Catholicism, in name if not in practice.

It’s not believed that Vermeer personally knew Leonora or her family, but he likely knew of the Duartes through his relationship with Constantijn Huygens, arguably the most influential Dutchman of his time in matters of art and culture and a regular visitor to the Duarte household in Antwerp. In fact, it’s believed that Huygens brokered the purchase of  “A Lady Seated at a Virginal” to Leonora’s father, Gaspar, a wealthy merchant and art collector.

gaspar duarte


Gaspar was a notable musical talent in his own right, as was his wife, and indeed as were all four of the children.

The Duartes were fond of gathering together in the evenings to play music for their guests, making their home on the Meir the place to be. As one English visitor put it, “They make a fyne consort and harmony for luts, viols, virginals and voyces. I doubt not but you will fynde great contentement by hearing them.”

duarte home

Home on the Meir

Leonora stood out in this musical family because of her talent for composition, which so impressed her father that he had some of her pieces professionally transcribed and published at his own expense.

It’s not certain, but it’s possible English composer John Bull helped Leonora give her music a professional polish by working with her on her writing.


From Duarte’s sinfonia

In any case, Leonora was able to combine her native talent with the latest ideas in Italian and French music because of the rich traffic of visitors from all parts of Europe that regularly made it to the house on the Meir, including Dirk Sweelinck, son of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the Dutch composer whose work helped mark the transition between the Reniassance and Baroque periods of music.

So, if Leonora wasn’t the subject of Vermeer’s painting she night as well have been, because it depicts the world she lived in. And yet, as a musical talent of considerable gifts, she transcended that world and has given us, as unlikely as it is, the beautiful music of a young Jewish lady at the crossroads of culture at a rich time. That sounds like as great a summer project as any Hollywood filmmaker could wish for.—Nabob On Baroque

Credit to Adelheid Rech at Essential Vermeer and a paper by Victor Tunkel for much of this history.

You can sample Duarte’s music in this short sinfonia:

Two parts of Duarte’s 5-part sinfonia are included in this compilation on Jewish viol music.

album 1 Birds on Fire (2008), 1 CD

Other women Baroque composers

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The World Awaits the Next Johann

Musicologists and others have longed tried to unlock the secret of great composers. From where deep within one’s right or left hemisphere does genius originate? Are they born with this talent or do they develop it over time? Does the music tutor at whose chair they sit at a young age make a difference?



Well, I think the root of musical genius has been staring us in the face all along. It’s all in the name. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that to be a musical genius, it helps to be named Johann. Why else are so many of the Baroque greats named Johann if their name has nothing to do with it?

jc bach

Johann, Jr.

Let’s start with the obvious. The composer that is No. 1 on virtually all lists of musical greats is Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s not Fred. It’s not Bill. It’s Johann. And note that Bach named one of his sons Johann Christoph Bach and that this son, of all of his sons, is the one who went on to a notable musical career, not as a Baroque composer but as a classical composer, but in any case he was considered quite noteworthy in his genre.

Before I proceed any further with this line of reasoning, let me assure you that this isn’t just me pulling some theory out of thin air. In fact, I pulled this theory out of Big Data, by culling from the On Baroque database these results:

  • Johann Jakob Froberger, 1616-1667
  • Johann Rosenmuller, 1619-1684
  • Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, 1623-1680
  • Johann Pachelbel, 1653-1706
  • Johann Paul von Westhoff, 1656-1705
  • Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, 1656-1746
  • Johann Christoph Pez, 1664-1716
  • Johann David Heinichen, 1683-1729
  • Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685-1750
  • Johann Friedrich Fasch, 1688-1758
  • Johann Joachim Quantz, 1697-1773
  • Johann Adolph Hasse, 1692-1783

New name next, Amy?

I don’t know about you, but to me this list speaks for itself. But Big Data is still a new science, and frankly it’s not prudent to rely too heavily on these results, as compelling as they are, especially when there is already a rigorous scientific method that’s available to us, and has been for centuries: name analysis.

In The Guardian there’s an article called “Names really do make a difference,” and it cncludes that girls with feminine names steer clear of masculine disciplines like math and science. And there’s an article in Science Focus called “The Name Game: How Names Spell Success in Life and Love” that says your name can affect your standing at work and your success with the opposite sex.

All of this is called the Pygmalian effect, and it’s a REAL scientific phenomenon.

So, Big Data, name analysis . . . . I don’t know what more there is to say about the matter, but I think if you’re a Tiger Mom, you’re clearly wasting your time making your son or daughter practice the violin when they’re not at the math tutor getting that extra help with calculus. tigermom What you need to be doing is going to your lawyer so you can legally change your child’s name to Johann.

Yes, lawyers are expensive, but it’s a one-time cost, and I can assure you it’s a lot cheaper to pay that fee than to keep paying for violin lessons month after month, year after year.

I make this recommendation without regard to whether you have  a boy or a girl, or even whether you’re German. Last time I checked, it was not against the law to have a name with German roots like Johann without being German or having some German in your ancestry. And in any case, Johann is a much easier name to pronounce than Giuseppe, which is another good name to consider if you want your child to be a musical genius.

So, make that call, get that name changed, and then sit back and watch as your child exhibits that talent you never knew he had or she had.  We who enjoy Baroque music are looking forward to hearing the world’s next musical genius.—Nabob, On Baroque

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Baroque Music in All Its Jargon


For a definitive text on the development of Baroque music, you can’t do better than Claude V. Palisca’s Baroque Music (3rd Edition), originally released in 1968 but periodically updated since then. But bring your decoder ring.

Palisca, a long-time Yale professor who passed away in 2001, is almost as celebrated as the composers he spent his life writing about. Indeed, the American Musicologist Society in 2005 named an award after him to recognize excellence in their profession. So, you know you’re in good hands with him. But don’t expect an easy ride. Like what his students must have experienced when he was standing before them in the classroom, you’re just going to have to keep up, because he’s not slowing down for anybody.


This is a shame and, if the editor of Palisca’s book is to be believed, it’s not what the book is supposed to be about. H. Wiley Hitchcock, who edited Baroque Music and served as the editor of the broader series of music books of which Palisca’s book is a part, says all the books in the series are supposed to be accessible to “informed amateurs” as well as musicologists. The goal of the series, Hitccock says, “has been to present works of solid scholarship that are eminently readable.” Thus, the books are written by specialists “interested in communicating vividly.”

Palisca exempted, apparently. “The second G in measure 64 [of Heinrich Schütz’s O quam tu pulebra es] is a quasi-transitius (relatively accented passing note),” Palisca writes in a typical passage, “a grave-style ornament tendered emphatic here by two other figures belonging to the luxuriant style: an anticipatio notae (anticipation of a note) and prolongatio (prolongation).”

Eminently readable? To a musicologist, yes, but to an informed amateur? That would only be the case if the amateur is as informed as the musicologist.

The apparent pleasure Palisca takes in hearing the sound of his own jargon aside, Baroque Music is structurally skewed. First, he spends two thirds of his book on vocal works, which is justifiable only if the book is on the beginnings of Baroque style. And second, the one-third of the book that looks at sonatas, concertos, and sinfonias is superficial compared to the attention that’s lavished on the smallest detail in the vocal portion.

Given Palisca’s background in Renaissance music, his approach makes sense, since Renaissance music is to a certain extent vocal music. But if Palisca brings this concentration to his work, why did the series editor have him write this book?

Really, what the book should be called is “Monteverdi and the Birth of the Baroque,” becase that’s really what it reads like. And that would be a fine book. But would it be a good book for someone looking for a balanced overview of the Baroque period? I don’t see how it could be. Imagine a book on Baroque music that breezes over Corelli and Vivaldi, barely mentions François Couperin, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, says nothing about Denis Gaultier, and aside from a passing glance here and there leaves out violin virtuosos like Biber, Geminiani, and Tartini.

What Palisca has written is a book for musicologists that looks mainly at changes in vocal styles that helped usher out the Renaissance era and usher in the Baroque period. It also takes a very quick lap atound innovation in instrumental music. What it’s not is an accessible and balanced overview of the Baroque period for informed amateurs, and that’s a missed opportunity given Palisca’s stature and talent.—Nabob, On Baroque

Baroque Music (3rd Edition)
Pearson, 1990
Claude V. Palisca
$87.49 on Amazon

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