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Baroque Music

Baroque Music is the period of time from 1600-1750. It was a time of great musical development as famous Baroque composers, such as Bach (his death in 1750 is typically seen as being the end of the Baroque Period), Handel and Vivaldi created grand works.

New instruments were also invented and the tonality of major and minor keys was firmly established.
We are going to have a look at the following:

  • Historical Context
  • Baroque Composers
  • Characteristics of Baroque Music
  • Instruments of the Baroque Period
  • Typical forms of music
  • Baroque Vocal Music

Historical Context of Baroque Music

The Baroque period 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 also 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, therefore that the music composed and performed at the time similarly stretched the boundaries of what had been heard up until this point.

Baroque Period Composers

Johann Sebastian Bach (composed over 1,000 pieces of music!!), George Frederic Handel (wrote The Messiah) and Antonio Vivaldi (The Four Seasons and Gloria remain very popular) are considered to be the most famous Baroque composers.

Let’s have a listen to some of their work.
Here is Gloria in Excelsis Deo by Bach performed by The Netherlands Bach Society:

Here is the Hallelujah from Handel’s Messiah:

George Frederic Handel

      Play Handel Messiah Hallelujah

(Performed by the Orchestra Gli Armonici)

Here is an extract from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons:

Antonio Vivaldi

      Play Vivaldi Four Seasons

(soloist John Harrison)

Baroque Music Characteristics

If you were only allowed to think of 3 words to describe the characteristic of Baroque music to someone then the words tonality, melody and contrast would go a long way towards helping you do so.

Tonality in Baroque Music

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.

Baroque Melodies

Baroque composers wrote melodies based on major/minor tonality.
They used motifs (short melodic phrases) that were repeated and developed and many of the melodies were decorated with ornaments, such as trills.
The melodies of the Baroque period also became significantly longer.

These long melodies were backed up by the increasingly complex harmony used by composers in structures such as fugues and toccatas.

Baroque composers liked to write contrapuntal music. This technique is where different melody lines are played simultaneously and weave together to form a coherent whole. In particular, the music of Bach is still studied today when learning about counterpoint.

Contrast in Baroque Music

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

  • loud and quiet dynamics (volume) – Baroque composers used terraced dynamics – this is where the volume of the music changes abruptly rather than through a gradual crescendo/diminuendo. You can often hear this effect between the quieter solo and louder tutti sections of a concerto grosso.
  • solo and ensemble instrumentation (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 Baroque period witnessed the development of a number of instruments.
Baroque music instruments

Instruments that had been introduced in the Renaissance period remained popular in the Baroque Period including the viol (or viola da gamba), recorders, lutes and flutes.

The Baroque period also saw the early development of the orchestra as you can hear in some of the examples below.

The Harpsichord

One of the most distinct instruments 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)

Forms of Baroque Music

The Baroque Period saw the emergence of a number of forms/structures, including the concerto grosso, the sonata, the suite and the fugue.

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) and a prelude.

Here is the prelude from the famous Bach Cello Suite No. 1 performed by Lucia Swarts:

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

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)

Baroque Opera

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

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!