17th Century:
The Forgotten Century

by Don Robertson

The birth of today’s classical music took place in Italy. The instruments of the violin family, the brass, the beginnings of what became Western tonal harmony, the terms (concerto, symphony, adagio, piano, forte, allegro, and so on) all this came from Italy around the beginning of the 17th century.

     The 1600s were ushered in by a group of highly educated noblemen who lived in Florence, Italy who called themselves the Florentine Camarata. In their regularly held meetings, they had been discussing ways that they could employ to revive the ancient art of Greek tragedy. They came up with a new style of music that was based on the extensive research into ancient Greek dramatic music conducted by Girolamo Mei, an erudite Florentine scholar who lived and worked in Rome. Based on the ideas of the Camarata, Emilio De’Cavalieri wrote the first important dramatic and liturgical works in the new style, and he and Jacopo Peri wrote the first operas, which were performed in 1600: the first year of the new century. 
     From these humble beginnings, a new style of music was born, a style that moved away from the dominant polychordal choral singing of the previous century to instrumental music, solo singing, and a mixture of all three. This was also the beginning of a new cycle of music that was based on musical instruments, replacing the previous 700-year cycle of polyphonic music that had been based on voices.
     The Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi was the first renowned composer of the new era, and the first great opera was his beautiful Orfeo, composed in 1607.
     By mid-century, the Italian town of Bologna had become a tremendous center of music. There, the full flowering of the 17th Century took place, not only in sacred choral music, but in purely instrumental music as well.
     For many years, the classical music that was composed during the 17th century was described, along with music from the first half of the 18th century, as “baroque music”, although the music that was composed in the style of the 17th century is recognizably different from that of the first half of the 18th century, which naturally (as in the case of all centuries) was derived from it. Composers of the 17th century were absorbed into the general category of “baroque”, and the 18th-century composers such as George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach became the figureheads of this genre in music textbooks, while the bulk of the music from the 17th century had become forgotten. Even Monteverdi’s great operas were unknown until a shortened version of Orfeo was performed in Berlin in 1881 and in 1905, French composer and educator Vincent d’Indy directed for the first time a concert performance of Monteveri’s opera L’incoronazione di Poppea. The fact that Bologna had been a great center of music during the 17th century was finally brought to attention by the musicologist Arnold Schering during the 1920s.

A Taste of the 17th Century
(1 hour)

 Early 17th Century Secular Music
(1 hour)

17th Century Classical Music Examples