Industrialization was not without its downsides, however. When factories first opened, there was no industrial regulation in place. Factory smokestacks polluted the European landscape so severely that some regions have yet to recover. Poor, willing workers quickly found themselves working grueling eighteen-hour workdays, receiving unfair wages, and facing brutal disciplinary measures. Moreover, without age restrictions on work, it was frequently young children who had to endure such conditions. When workers tried to band together to form early labor unions, they were dissuaded with death threats and other forms of intimidation. Until labor unions finally grew large and well organized enough to command respect, workers had to tolerate the mistreatment.

Women’s Rights

The progressive thought of the Enlightenment also brought calls for increased women’s rights and equality. Olympe de Gouges, a writer and feminist activist in late-eighteenth-century France, solidified the movement with her 1791Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. An obvious stab at the French Revolution’s 1789Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, de Gouge’s declaration called for equal rights and liberty for women, including more control over marriage.


The push for women’s rights was emblematic of the changes that were taking place in European society during the Enlightenment. Beyond heightened respect for women, the era also marked the beginning of the end for such atrocious practices as slavery and witch burning. Children, who had previously been treated essentially as miniature adults, began to enjoy more contact and affection with their parents—a shift that owed much to Rousseau’s Émile and his other Romantic writings. Jews, who had long been ignored or vilified, started to receive a warmer welcome throughout Europe as well.


Given that the Enlightenment had already reinvented pretty much every other field in existence, it’s little surprise the era also produced some of Western music’s most revered composers. Working during the late Baroque period of the early 1700s and the early Classical period of the late 1700s, these composers synthesized styles and influences in a wide range of genres of both sacred and secular music.

Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750) of Germany quickly built a reputation as a master organist but was also was an enormously prolific composer—a fact that was not entirely appreciated until after his death. His major works include the Brandenburg Concerto, his Mass in B Minor, the St. Matthew Passion, and countless other vocal and instrumental works, both for the Church and for secular purposes.

George Frideric Handel (16851759), conversely, found enormous fame as a composer during his life. Born in Germany but working primarily in England, Handel was a celebrated court composer who won numerous commissions and wrote enormously popular operas. Some of his best-known works include the Messiah, an oratorio set to biblical text, and the Water Music, a suite written for King George I and performed on the river Thames.

Popular pages: The Enlightenment (1650–1800)