The Baroque Period of music is from 1600-1750
(it is generally considered to finish sometime around the death of JS Bach in 1750 and Handel in 1759).

This was a very eventful period of history.
In Europe, the 30 years war (1618-1648) was being raged and powerful rulers such as Louis XIV in France, Charles II in England and Peter The Great in Russia reigned with considerable ruthlessness.
It was a time of great scientific discoveries – (think of individuals such as Gallileo and Sir Isaac Newton) and new lands were still being explored.
Great artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio were developing new techniques in the world of art.

It is not surprising that the music composed and performed at the time similarly stretched the boundaries of what had been heard up until this point.

Tonality and Contrast

If you were only allowed to think of 2 words to describe the Baroque Period of music to someone then the words tonality and contrast would go a long way towards helping you do so.

Tonality

The Baroque Period is the time where the tonality we are most familiar with today became established.
Major and minor keys took centre stage and have held on to this position ever since (although we shall see in later periods they have not always been unchallenged in this dominance!). The modes so characteristic of the Renaissance Period gave way to this new tonality.
The tonality of the major and minor keys was backed up by the increasingly complex harmony used by composers in structures such as fugues and toccatas. Baroque composers liked to use lots of different melody lines played simultaneously and weaving together to form a coherent whole.

Contrast

Baroque music is also characterised by an increased emphasis on contrast.
This is heard in a number of ways:

  • loud and quiet dynamics (volume),
  • solo and ensemble (e.g. in the concerto),
  • different instrumental timbres/sounds.

Have a listen to the contrast in dynamics in this concerto grosso by Handel:

      Play Handel Concerto Grosso

(Taken from the European Archive)

The Baroque style retained a clear sense of ornate order, but became increasingly emotive in feel as the period progressed. It was also characterised by its use of ornamentation (in some cases, rather a lot of ornamentation!!).

Instruments of the Baroque Period

The Harpsichord

The stand out instrument of the Baroque Period was the harpsichord.
In fact, as a general rule of thumb, if you hear a harpsichord in a piece of music it is highly likely to be a piece from the Baroque Period!
A harpsichord is a keyboard instrument that looks a bit like a piano, but smaller. The strings are plucked rather than hit with hammers (like in a piano).
It can also only play at one volume (unlike the piano where you can change the dynamics according to how hard/soft you play the keys.
Here is a picture of a harpsichord and an audio example of a harpsichord.
Can you hear its distinctive “twangy” sound as the strings are plucked?

Harpsichord image

      Play JS Bach fugue in Bb major

(Taken from the European Archive)

Pipe Organ

Another hugely popular instrument of the Baroque Period was the pipe organ.
A lot of the organ pieces we hear performed today were written in the Baroque Period – in fact, a lot of them will have been written by one man – Johanne Sebastien Bach – arguably the “face” of Baroque Music.
Below is his portrait and the opening of a very famous example of his organ music called the Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

JS Bach picture

      JS Bach toccata and fugue in d minor

(Performed by Paul Pitman)

Other instruments that remained popular in the Baroque Period included:

  • viol (or viola da gamba),
  • recorders
  • lutes/flutes from the Renaissance

The period also saw the early development of the orchestra.

Composers of the Baroque Period

As mentioned, JS Bach was a giant of the Baroque Period.
Other composers whose music is still very famous today are Vivaldi (very famous for The Four Seasons and for his Gloria) and Handel (wrote The Messiah).
You can hear some examples of their work below.

      Play Handel Messiah Hallelujah

(Performed by the Orchestra Gli Armonici)

      Play Vivaldi Four Seasons

(soloist John Harrison)

Forms of Baroque Music

The Baroque Period saw the emergence of the concerto grosso, the sonata and the suite.

Concerto grosso

This was an early form of the concerto.
It was antiphonal (meaning the music is played alternately by two groups of players).
In the concerto grosso, a small group of string instruments (concertino, concerto or concertante) alternated/contrasted with a larger group (ripieno).
Handel and Corelli were notable composers of these.
(you heard an extract of a concerto grosso by Handel at the start of this lesson)

Sonata

The sonata became a very popular for of composition.
Usually written for solo instrument (with accompaniment), these pieces were made up of different movements (think of these like mini pieces within the piece).
Baroque accompaniments were often written out as a continuo.
The continuo is a style of improvised accompaniment based around figured bass markings, usually played by harpsichord and/or lute.
Have a listen to this extract from a recorder sonata by Handel:

      Play Handel recorder sonata in F

(Performed by the Telemann Trio)

Suite

The Suite became a very popular form of Baroque music.
A suite contained a series of dances grouped together.
The standard 4 dances you would find were:

  • Allemande
  • Courante – (upbeat in triple metre)
  • Sarabande – (slow in triple metre. Emphasis on 2nd beat of the bar.)
  • Gigue – (upbeat in compound metre.)

These 4 were the standard, but others were often included, such as the Minuet (a dance in triple metre).

Fugues were also very popular.
Fugues are quite complex to describe/understand and so I have written another lesson on these. Click Here for my lesson on fugues.

Vocal Music of The Baroque Period

Opera

Opera became big and increasingly emotional in the Baroque Period.
The style of singing also shifted from recitative to aria.

Church Music

Not surprisingly church music was still very widespread in Baroque period.
Big sacred choral works including oratorio, passion, cantata, mass and anthem were all written and performed at the time. Many of these pieces still remain as firm favourited for choirs to sing today, such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Handel’s Messiah and Vivaldi’s Gloria.
Have a listen to the following example from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion:

      Play JS Bach St Matthews Passion

(Taken from the European Archive)

Solo Vocal Pieces

Solo vocal works were also popular, most notably the da capo aria. The da capo aria is a piece of music sung by a soloist with an instrumental accompaniment.
Have a listen to this example from Monteverdi’s opera, L’Orfeo:

      Play Solo Opera Piece

(Performed by Anna Simboli)

I really hope this lesson on Baroque Music has given you a helpful introduction to the period.
Try and listen to as many examples of Baroque music as you can to get a “feel” for what it sounds like.
Enjoy!