A History of Western Music

By Donald Jay Grout; Claude V. Palisca | Go to book overview
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Around 1750 the well-traveled Charles de Brosses complained that the façade of the Pamphili Palace in Rome (see illustration) was being made over with a kind of filigree ornamentation more suitable to tableware than to architecture. Addicted to colorful language, he called this decorative style baroque1. (from the Portuguese barroco, describing a deformed pearl). Thus was launched the career of a term that art historians in the late nineteenth century embraced to characterize a whole period of art and architecture. Years earlier, an anonymous music critic called the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) "barocque," complaining that it was noisy and unmelodious, with capricious and extravagant modulations, repetitions, and metrical changes. 2. Before the term was ever used by art or music critics, baroque meant abnormal, bizarre, exaggerated, grotesque, or in bad taste, and it retains that sense today.

The term baroque

It took the art criticism of Jacob Burckhardt and Karl Baedeker in the nineteenth century to overcome these derogatory aspects of the term and bring out its positive side. For them baroque summed up the admirably flamboyant, decorative, and expressionistic tendencies of seventeenth-century painting and architecture. In the 1920s, music historians followed suit and applied the term back to music from the late sixteenth century until about the mid-eighteenth. Baroque came to represent a particular style of music from an entire era, but it

Charles de Brosses, L'Italie il y a cent ans ou Lettres écrites d'Italie à quelques amis en 1739 et 1740, ed. M. R. Colomb (Paris, 1836), 2:117f. The letters from Rome were not drafted until after his return to France between 1745 and 1755.
Lettre de M ***à Mlle *** sur l'origine de la musique in Mercure de France, May 1734, pp. 861ff.


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A History of Western Music
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