Masque to Mozart – Glorious Music that Resonates


Architecture, literature and philosophy are integral to the intellectual and artistic life of every society in every age, with its spirit expressed through its music. Long before the Three Tenors sang amidst the ancient ruins of the Baths of Caracella at Rome, or Il Divo sang the breathtakingly beautiful Amazing Grace in the Coliseum at Pula in Croatia, the correlation between music and architecture existed in many different ancient societies and cultures.

For hundreds and hundreds of years in Europe and the Middle East, great stone architectural spaces were designed to reflect the eternal harmony believed present in nature and the music performed in them its echo. Over the centuries composers exploited their harmonious effects.

Creative Inigo Jones painted by Van Dyck

They produced amazing melodies that scaled the heights reverberating off faceted stone arcades to linger long in lofty places.

In England during the reign of Elizabeth 1 (1533 – 1603) and her successor James VI & I (1566 – 1625) masques were a popular form of aristocratic entertainment.

Originally they consisted of pantomime and dancing and then dialogue and song were added and gradually they evolved into elaborate productions, given by both amateur and professional actors.

English Architect Inigo Jones (1573 – 1652) is a mysterious figure, just like his contemporary Will Shakespeare. He was a luminary, a genius, unique in his time, a giant in all things, posessing a rare intellect.

He was employed at a court recognised as brilliant and cultured during the reign of Charles 1 and until his death in 1649. Jones was brought up an Elizabethan and went off on his first tour to Italy in 1598 in the company of Francis Manners, brother to the 5th Earl of Rutland.

They travelled through France and Germany and on to Italy until the death of Elizabeth brought him back home to England as it did so many others.

At the court of James 1 Jones designed elaborate sets and machinery to work the different aspects of the scenery for the masque.

King Charles 1 by Daniel Mytens

He had a fruitful collaboration with Ben Jonson, one of the era’s best authors and together they produced grand entertainments, most by royal command.

King Charles 1 (1600 – 1649) had created a prestigious appointment at the British royal court, Master of the King’s Musick.

It was only bestowed on exceptional composers and despite the fact Charles lost his head quite literally, subsequent rulers since have ensured the award was carried on through to the present Master of the Queen’s Music.

England during the period post the restoration of its King was encouraged in part by the towering achievements of the Italians during their period of revival and rebirth so brilliantly reflected in the grand manner of the grand manner of the architectural style now known as the Baroque.

They were also ennobled by support for the expansion of world exploration, the birth of the sciences and mood of absolutism at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles.

There the addition of drama and dance was part of the impetus for change and helped begin, what can only be described as a period of feverish musical activity.

From the archiepiscopal city of Salzburg to the imperial court at Vienna, from the northern reformers to the English eccentrics and American colonists the western world went mad for music.

The re-founding of the traditions of the Chapels Royal after the 1660 Restoration to the throne of England of King Charles II (1630 – 1685) brought music of excellence before the public in the tradition of Masque and Ceremonial Odes.

These were held on all state occasions.

The public rejoiced in the opportunity to hear sacred and secular musical entertainments on such a grand scale.

Composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695) at six years of age was placed under the guardianship of his influential uncle when his father died.

He became a chorister in His Majesty’s Chapel until his voice broke aged 14.

Made assistant to the keeper of the King’s wind instruments he was 18 years of age when appointed organist at Westminster Abbey.

Purcell and his friends enjoyed informal lively sessions of music and conversation in the Coffee Houses and Ale Houses and he delighted in writing somewhat bawdy Songs and Rounds for their Alehouse sessions.

Purcell’s flair and understanding of theatre produced rare musical gestures that combined both Italian and French stylistic influences.

King Charles II and later King James II (1633 -1701) encouraged his efforts.

They had both enjoyed the light-hearted music of Jean Baptiste Lully (1632 – 1687) at the French court while the Stuarts were in exile.

Lully’s works make many people leap to their feet in sheer joy at their virtuosity. In France he became a model for French composers of the Baroque style of music, as did Henry Purcell in England.

Composed at the height of his career just three years before his death aged 35 Purcell’s delicate dance of the Chinese Man and Chinese Woman reveals the lilting grace of his music.

Francois le Grand Couperin

It was composed for the masque The Fairy Queen, whose score was lost following his death until the early 20th century when a copy was discovered.

The libretto for The Fairy Queen was an anonymous adaptation of Will Shakespeare’s wedding comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it delighted audiences then as it still does now.

Today it features among a rich legacy of sacred and secular works that include the one great true opera that graces English musical history, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

The composer, organist and harpsichordist Francois Le Grand Couperin (1668-1733) is considered by many the father of French keyboard music.

His sacred, or secular pieces are effortlessly elegant. They seem to echo musically the sentiments of the French painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721.

His Fétes galantes, fashionable quasi-pastoral idyllic scenes populated by people in court dress are like Couperin’s music, witty, delicate, poetic and delightfully decorative. The music and the art are meant to charm, to entertain, and to move without tears and violent passions, just gently exploring the depths of the spirit and soul.

During the eighteenth century in Europe marvellous music swept all before it as contemporary composers strove to produce works that exuded ‘noble simplicity and quiet greatness’, qualities that ‘enlightened’ men and women were seeking to gather unto themselves.

Converting drama and religion the pedal fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) lit up many a gathering of the faithful when a new pedal organ was installed at Westminster Abbey rebounding off the architecture with sounds of unparalleled intensity.

By the middle of the century changes in the economic order and social structure of society had brought into favour in Europe a new style in architecture, literature and the arts, which has become more generally known as classicism.

Its tenets were based on the considerable legacy of texts and the remains of ancient Greece and Rome. This new refined and elegant version by and large, favoured simplicity over complexity. It had a taste for structural clarity and this emphasis worked its way into the world of music taking it forward towards a style in which a melody was preferred.

The Movie, Amazing Grace, featured Welsh Actor Ioan Gruffudd as Willliam Wilberforce

One of the most poignant melodies of all time was the tune for English poet and clergyman John Newton’s Amazing Grace.

Written by a man who  had first hand experience of the horrors and degredation of the slave trade, it became the hymn to freedom and is today perhaps the most heralded song in the English language.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see

British idealist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) spent virtually the whole of his parliamentary life endeavouring to end the British transatlantic slave trade. His struggle finally led to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. Wilberforce died just three days after hearing the passage of the Act through Parliament was assured.

Published first in 1779 in Newton & Cowper’s Olney Hymns, the song Amazing Grace could have descended into obscurity, but instead was taken up in the USA during the nineteenth century where the fight for freedom from slavery there caused it to become the most famous of all folk hymns.

A union of poetical and musical creative ability is not often found or accomplished. It abounded in John Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus who was born on the 27th of January 1756 in the Archbishopric of Salzburg in Austria.

It was an ecclesiastical state of the then Holy Roman Empire. Music and religion were integral to Mozart daily life.

His father Leopold was an accomplished composer, violinist and writer on music, who had been educated by the Jesuits and was violinist to the Salzburg court chapel in 1743 and Vice-Kapellmeister or Assistant Director of Music in 1765.

Mozart’s mother Anna Maria remained a background presence until she accompanied her son to Paris where she died.

Her letters home reveal an intelligent, optimistic woman with a wry, self-deprecating wit that it seems her son inherited. His only sibling was his older sister Maria Anna, who was nick-named Nanerl.

She was also a gifted and accomplished musician playing with and supporting her brother throughout his short, but brilliant career.

There have been many other youngsters since who have played an instrument adroitly, but by the age of 8 Mozart was an accomplished piano, organ and violin player, with a knowledge of musical composition of a man seasoned in his profession.

His travels around Europe meant he was able to unite the musical treasures of all nations, which could have been a disaster, but instead was a triumph.

To put Mozart into historical context King George III 1760 – 1811 of England was on the throne and the first fleet had landed in Australia in 1770 when Mozart was 14 years of age.

Already a virtuoso, this was the year of his first visit to Italy where he was invited to attend a service in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican at Rome.

He was entirely enthralled as he listened to a sublime setting of Psalm 51 composed by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri probably in the 1630’s.

Allegri’s Miserere was a piece of music considered by the church to be so sublime that it was far too dangerous for ordinary ears to hear, so they had kept it a secret. Mozart, being the genius he was committed the whole breathtaking piece to memory and later wrote it down for posterity. Without his diligence in this regard it would have been lost for all time.

It is not really enough to say that content and form balance each other in Mozart’s music, for this unity is style, and while the style is constant the variety of its manifestations is as great as the number of the works compiled before his own tragic death in 1791 aged 35.

His innate understanding of the beauty of sound, combined with fantasy and poetry in music means that the legacy of his works is wide ranging in its influences. The breathtaking qualities of the music Mozart made his creed was fully attained in instrumental music and with the human voice.

He was enchanted by the sorcery of singing. It made him turn to the paramount form of vocal composition, the opera.

His operas Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro are the result of a collaboration between Mozart for the music and the Italian Lorenzo da Ponte for the libretto while The Magic Flute was with the German Emanuel Schikaneder.

The Plot of Don Giovanni is based on the life of legendary fictional libertine, Don Juan, whose story has been told many times by many different authors.

Design for a Masque by Inigoo Jones

The Magic Flute is noted for its Masonic elements, an aspect of the political climate of times when Freemasonry was considered a dangerous organization.

Many of the opera’s ideas and motifs echo Enlightenment thinking being expounded by Genevan philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and French writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778.

A notable feature of the music for the Magic Flute is the way in which Mozart was able to write for a range of skill-sets to combine voices of great virtuosity with those of what are essentially comic actors creating a satisfying result.

Allelulia Mozart, life certainly seems to go well and without much effort when it is filled with glorious music that resonates.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014

Watch Il Divo sing Amazing Grace

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