Symphonic 'Enlightenment' In The 18th Century

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The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in concert in St. Paul, Minn.

We're used to thinking of the 20th century as the high point of technological and cultural change. The case is easy to make: A generation which knew the horse and buggy watched Neil Armstrong's moon walk. There was Einstein, two world wars, a smallpox vaccine, Elvis Presley and laptop computers.

Members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

hide captionThe Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment specializes in 18th-century music.

Eric Richmond

But two and a half centuries ago, subtler dramas of ideas led to upheavals every bit as volcanic as our recent spectacles. The London-based Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment specializes in the soundtrack of this time. And the ensemble recently made its case for nuanced but significant musical revolutions in works by Mozart, Haydn, and C.P.E. Bach.

Mozart wrote his Divertimento in D, K. 136 at age 16. We hear the charming and graceful prodigy announcing his genius — a familiar, even comforting sound. But rebellion lurks beneath the surface: This teenager is out to change things. He abruptly wrenches the complacent listener from one key to another. And those clever turns of phrase, are they really quite polite?

Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach was another disturber of the peace. Superbly trained by his father, this second son of Johann Sebastian had his own things to say. His style was expressive, even stormy, with no built-in impedance against the display of human emotions. This symphony in B minor, with its stabbing rhythms and dissonance, gives us a forward-thinking C.P.E. Bach in the year 1773.

Again, it might take an act of the imagination to hear the danger in this music today, but the rules of proportion and procedure in a coherent world were being ignored. Such breaches might be a prelude to anything: the rights of man, anarchy, bewigged noblemen hogtied in tumbrils awaiting guillotines.

Finally, Rachel Podger is the soloist in Joseph Haydn's Violin Concerto in C. Another innovator, and an inventor of lasting things, Haydn developed both the string quartet and the symphony. On the surface, his style in the Concerto says "Empress Maria Theresia," but the virtuosic solo part anticipates the humanity of Beethoven and Brahms. These men — living after the Reigns of Terror and the Napoleonic promise and nightmare — inherited the Haydn legacy of change and then felt it accelerate.

Trains broke the 25 mph barrier in the 1830s. This was too much, and Cassandras in the press warned, "The end is near!" Our shifts — from slide rule to nanotechnology, from Kitty Hawk to the Mars Rover — have conspired to make change almost routine. Can we ever again know the equivalent shock of a C.P.E. Bach symphony?

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