“If Music Be
the Food of Love...
Sing On”

Secret Music
at the State Library of Victoria

The aim of this project was to explore both the courtly vocal chamber music of the baroque period and to uncover some of the hidden and underused treasures of the music collection at the State Library. My intention is to use the concept of “musica secreta” as a springboard for exploring the uses of courtly vocal music during the baroque period.

The baroque extends from around 1600-1750. This covers an enormous amount of time where music emerges from renaissance polyphony to a flowering of the virtuoso soloist and musicians moved from the status of subject servants like Monteverdi to largely independent entrepreneurs such as the ever resourceful Handel.

Socially this is also an interesting time. Italy as ever, was a hotbed of political intrigue and masterful power play between the princely, ducal and papal courts. In Germany and Austria the Holy Roman Emperor protected the last bastion of Roman Catholicism against the burgeoning protestant movement. England perhaps saw the greatest upheaval during this period violently moving from monarchy to commonwealth and back to monarchy. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 replaced James II with King William of Orange, a long period of friction ensued as the Jacobites made various unsuccessful attempts at regaining power. France in complete contrast represented the stability and insularity of absolute monarchy with an uninterrupted succession of King Louis’s.

In each part of Europe the baroque flowered in its own unique way stylistically but various factors, predominately dictated by the needs of the court, contributed to some uniformity. No court could keep up even the merest pretension to humanistic sophistication without an entourage of musicians. Music was the major entertainment; frequent concerts were given on a regular basis in the palaces of Europe, most weekly, but sometime more often when there was a dearth of other entertainments, as the exiled James the III discovered in Urbino. Music would accompany daily tasks from the dining room for ordinary meals to the boudoir when dressing or the bed chamber where a select ensemble could play soothing music to encourage untroubled sleep. It is this music, specifically for the chamber, that was referred to in the early baroque period as secret music or “musica secreta”

Music was also seen as essential to philosophical discussion and was often a feature of the aristocratic groups which sprung up at this time and were commonly referred to as academies. Most of these academies were supported by powerful patrons such as the Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga in Milan and Queen Christina, the one-time queen of Sweden who made a court in Rome after her abdication. It was the Florentine Accademia degli Alerati which produced the genre of opera at the very end of the 16th century, at first a courtly entertainment for an invited audience.

The private chapel was also a feature of most courts. Many members of the aristocracy kept a separate band of musicians specifically for the chapel where they would perform on feast days as well as the normal daily services. Naturally they would compose the sort of music their patron most liked to hear. Louis XIV of France disliked the full mass and so the chamber motet, using only a few voices was developed to suit his needs. He also introduced a variety of instruments into the chapel which had previously been forbidden as unsuitable for devotional music. In England where Charles II married the Roman Catholic Catherine of Braganza, two royal chapels were maintained.

From the time that Plato laid down his theory of the moral effects which music could produce, music’s influence over the emotions was seen as an incredibly powerful political tool. It could be used to impress and glorify as well as divert. Weddings, state visits even birthdays were seen as opportunities to impart the message of power. Purcell’s welcome songs for Charles II and James as well as the birthday odes for Queen Mary often gave out strong political messages of stability and divine right to rule, even though they were only heard by the immediate court. The eulogizing of a patron was a natural extension of any artist’s function and was accepted completely without the repugnance we might feel today towards such sycophantic displays. It was noted even at the time that many of the divertissements which Louis XIV gave for the court at Versailles were the means of distracting the potentially troublesome nobility. Visitors were treated to outlandish splendour in the belief that performances of a high standard accompanied by expensive and novel spectacle were the best indicators of the power and prestige of the dynasty.

During the baroque period aristocratic tastes completely dominated the majority of music making. Even public events as well as the newly opened public opera theatres were largely run by and for the upper echelons of society. Returning to the Platonic ideal, the nobility thoroughly endorsed Plato’s view as he expressed it in The Laws, “I should regard the music which pleases the best men and the highly educated as about the best, and as quite the best if it pleases the one man who excels all others in virtue and education”1. Naturally they saw themselves as “the best” and every ruler’s personal taste became the vogue. The Prussian King Frederick did not hesitate to send back the operas written by his Kapellmeister Carl Heinrich Graun until they met with his satisfaction. Frederick often suggested the subject for and occasionally even wrote some of Graun’s opera librettos.

The restrictions and interference which composers faced during this period made little impact on their startling creativity. Some of the most prolific and inventive composers lived during the 150 years which constitute the baroque period; Monteverdi, Stradella, Handel, Bach, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Purcell, Blow, Lully, Couperin and Rameau among many others whose names and works have survived the test of time. Collectively they represent an embarrassment of riches and I am happy to say that the music collection at the State Library holds an appropriately diverse and representative range of material covering this period.


1 Plato, The Laws, Book I. London: Heinemann, 1952. p.109.


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