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The Enlightenment
with Nicholas Till

We revisit the Age of Enlightenment on this edition of Milestones of the Millennium, as scholar and author Nicholas Till joins Lisa Simeone to discuss how the radical ideas of the 18th century changed the course of music. The Enlightenment brought the now widely accepted principles of reason and equality into the public consciousness throughout much of Europe. These concepts were also the philosophical basis for the establishment of the United States; our Declaration of Independence begins with the bold assertion that “all men are created equal” and “endowed with certain unalienable rights.”

In France, intellectuals like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau preached against antiquated notions of aristocracy, class division, and religious and racial prejudice. Voltaire thought that people of other cultures and religions should not only be tolerated but embraced as part of a greater brotherhood of man. Such ideas were quickly absorbed into the music of the day. The "Air des Sauvages" from French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera "Les Indes Galantes" (“Love in the Indies”) offers an example. We hear Philippe Herreweghe conduct the Orchestre de la Chapelle Royale. Christoph Willibald Gluck, another enlightened composer, sought to rid musical expression of “useless, excessive ornamentation” and draw from the ideals of “simplicity, truth and naturalness” in his music. We hear movements from the overture of Gluck’s opera “Orfeo and Euridice.”

The Enlightenment also saw the advent of public concerts; the growing middle class sought entertainment and, unlike the peasantry of prior centuries, they could afford it. Music was no longer to be for the private amusement of a privileged few. Composers like Franz Joseph Haydn invented new ways to indulge large audiences with music that demanded greater attention. He often incorporated a narrative theme and effects like contrast, subtlety, suspense and climax. We hear excerpts from Haydn’s “Surprise" Symphony, which employs some of these attention-grabbing special effects. Then Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic perform the finale of Haydn's "Drum Roll" Symphony.

Haydn would also evoke democracy with another musical invention: the string quartet. Author Nicholas Till explains the “democratic principles” of the string quartet, which he says is a form of open dialogue among equal participants: two violinists, a violist and a cellist. The German philosopher Goethe said Haydn’s string quartets resembled “four civilized persons holding a conversation.” No longer were the main themes the domain of one dominant instrument or section. Each instrument in the string quartet carried an equal share, taking turns in expressing a musical argument from different vantage points. We hear the Tatrai Quartet perform the finale of Haydn's Quartet in B minor, Op. 33, No. 1.

Much of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life and music were shaped by the Enlightenment and its principles. Mozart began his career as a servant to the Archbishop of Salzburg. In fact, up until this period, composers were often just highly-skilled servants to the church or royal courts. But Mozart’s travels to England and France had exposed him to the ideals of independence and equality. He sought to sever his obligation to the arcane hierarchy that employed his services so rigidly. Eventually, Mozart found greater freedom in Vienna, where he supported himself with public concerts and commissions, and through teaching engagements. Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro” epitomized the new ways of thinking by giving servants a central role. Previously, servants were comic figures to be laughed at; but, building on ideas in the play by Beaumarchais, Mozart presented them as equally worthy of serious attention as any noble aristocrat.

Listen as Lisa and author Nicholas Till engage in enlightening dialogue about the music and ideas of the 18th century on this edition of Milestones of the Millenium. Note: Some music parts have been edited from the commentary due to internet rights issues. (This audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

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