During the Enlightenment, composers and musicians developed new forms of music. Their music followed ordered structured forms well suited to the Age of Reason. At the same time, their work transcended, or rose above, the culture of the Enlightenment and remains popular all over the world today.
Ballets and opera—plays set to music—were performed at royal courts, and opera houses sprang up from Italy to England. In the past, only the highest people in society could afford to commission new works of music. By the mid-1700s, wealthy middle class people commissioned works and hired musicians to perform them. Among the towering musical figures of the era was Johann Sebastian Bach.
A devout German Lutheran, Bach wrote beautiful religious works for organ and choirs. His skills playing the organ and harpsichord were recognized during his lifetime, but he is now generally regarded as one of the greatest composers in history. Bach was a master of counterpoint, a technique that weaves two or more independent melodies together to create a new harmony.
Another German-born composer, George Frideric Handel, spent much of his life in England, where his music was extremely popular with the general public. There, he wrote Water Music and other pieces for King George I, as well as more than 30 operas. His most celebrated choral work, the Messiah, is often performed at Christmas and Easter. The stirring “Hallelujah Chorus” from the Messiah conveys universal themes of joy and celebration.
Johann Sebastian Bach plays the piano with his family in a 1870 painting. Many of Bach's children became important musicians.
In 1761, a six-year-old prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, burst onto the European scene. He gained instant celebrity as a composer and performer.
During his brief life, the young man from Salzburg in Austria composed an amazing variety of music with remarkable speed. His operas reflected Enlightenment criticism of a class-ridden world full of hypocrisy and lies. At age 35, Mozart died in poverty, leaving a musical legacy that thrives today.
By the 1700s, literature developed new forms and a wider audience. Middle-class readers, for example, liked stories about their own times told in straightforward prose. One result was an outpouring of novels, or long works of prose fiction.
English novelists wrote many popular stories. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, an exciting tale about a sailor shipwrecked on a tropical island. In a novel called Pamela, Samuel Richardson used a series of letters to tell a story about a servant girl. This technique was adopted by other authors of the period.
How did literature change as Enlightenment ideas spread?
Discussions of Enlightenment theories enlivened the courts of Europe. Philosophes hoped to convince European rulers to adopt their ideas and introduce reforms. Some monarchs did accept Enlightenment ideas. They became enlightened despots, or absolute rulers who used their power to bring about political and social change.
As king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, Frederick II exerted extremely tight control over his subjects. Still, he saw himself as the “first servant of the state,” with a duty to work for the common good.
Frederick openly praised Voltaire's work and invited him to Berlin. He asked French scientists to help him set up a Prussian academy of science. As king, he tried to reduce the use of torture and allowed a free press. He also tolerated religious differences, welcoming victims of religious persecution. “In my kingdom,” he said, “everyone can go to heaven in his own fashion.”
Most of Frederick's reforms were directed at making the Prussian government more efficient.