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Baroque Music

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The Baroque period of music ran from approximately 1600 to 1750 AD, though not every Baroque composer falls neatly within those limits. The term 'Baroque' was originally applied to the architecture of the time; it was coined only at the end of the era, and was intended as a 'put-down'. It means 'over-ornate' and 'over-decorated', and comes from the Portuguese word for a deformed pearl, barroco.

Baroque now describes the culture of that period - flamboyant, and full of expression and confidence. Though there were several styles of music within that century and a half, they shared a set of conventions and a belief that the purpose of music was to make an impact on peoples' thinking.

Major Composers of the Baroque Period

To highlight a few Baroque composers is to put the many into shadow. However the names best recalled today are:

  • Corelli (1653 - 1713)
  • Purcell (1659 - 1695)
  • Albinoni (1671 - 1751)
  • Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)
  • Telemann (1681 - 1767)
  • JS Bach (1685 - 1750)
  • Handel (1685 - 1759)
  • Arne (1710 - 1778)

Major Influences

There were two major influences on the compsers of the Baroque period: money and location. Music was fostered under a system of patronage, and until the early 17th Century the Church had been almost the exclusive patron; however during the Baroque era its influence, while still major, gradually declined.

It was a time of absolute governments at both state and city level. These became more involved in sponsoring the performing arts, including music. To a much lesser extent, individual aristrocrats also acted as patrons. Across Europe, every state, every rich patron, and almost every major church supported performers who also composed.

That explains the nature of Baroque music - it is ornate and intellectual, so that it appealed to its sponsors. It also explains why the period following the Baroque era (which got underway with the French and American revolutions) preferred music 'for the people and by the people', and looked down the 'excesses' of Baroque.

Thoughout the Baroque period there were centres of musical excellence across northern Italy, in cities such as Florence, Rome, Venice and Bologna. They shared a common style which spread across Europe, influencing the music of other countries to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the 'strength' of the indigenous culture.

French music already had a distinctive, established style, especially in the way that stringed instruments were played. This style was retained, but it absorbed an Italian flavour.

In Germany, all the arts suffered during the 30 Years' War (1618 - 1648), after which the Italian style swept into favour, and held sway throughout the Baroque era.

England too suffered from conflict early in the period. Charles I (who reigned from 1625 to 1649) was not a great sponsor, and the inter-regnum, which followed his deposition until the coronation of Charles II in 1660, brought severe austerity. With the Restoration from 1660 onwards came a musical revival, beginning with a distinctly domestic style, but later adopting the popular Italian style.

Technical Constraints

The instruments of the Baroque period were more primitive than their modern equivalents, and composers and arrangers had to work around their limitations. Here are some examples of what they had to consider:

  • The main keyboard instrument of this period was the harpsichord, with strings stretched on a wooden frame. Unlike a piano, the strings were plucked, not struck. Having a wooden frame limited the tension that could be put on the strings, which also limited the volume of sound they could generate. The force applied to the strings by the plucking was constant, so the player could not control the volume of a note - the use of dynamics (rapid changes in volume) was therefore not possible.

  • Stringed instruments reached a technical peak early in the Baroque era (consider those made by Stradivarius, to take just one example). They produced great depth and quality of sound, and so were the 'backbone' of ensemble playing. Because their open strings were tuned to the root notes of keys with sharps in their key signatures (such as G, D, A and E for the violin), these instruments operated best in those keys, rather than ones with flats in their key signatures.

  • Brass instruments did not have valves (which enable easy, rapid note changes). To change key, or to change to a non-harmonic note, the players had to remove one piece of 'plumbing' and insert a piece of a different length - a difficult task. As a result, composers were not able to write pieces in which the brass section changed key.

  • Many other instruments were different from those used today. Baroque flutes were made of wood, giving them a different tone; and there was no equivalent of the clarinet to provide a treble voice in the reed instruments.

These factors contributed to the sound and style of Baroque music.

The Use of Different Keys

The frequency intervals between adjacent notes in a scale are slightly different for each key. As a result, there are subtle differences between the sounds of tunes in different keys. Baroque composers recognised that these differences existed (though they did not know why), and because they were driven by wanting to influence the way people thought, they ascribed emotional qualities to each key. This gave them a protocol for selecting a key that they believed would be appropriate to the intended mood of the piece.

It is interesting to see how good their assignment was - try it when you next listen to any music. For information, some of the assignments are listed below:

  • C Major: rejoicing, impudent
  • C Minor: sweet, but sad
  • D Major: stubborn, noisy, warlike and rousing
  • D Minor: devout, serious, grand, calming
  • E Flat Major: pathetic, plaintive
  • E Major: the fatal separation of body and soul
  • E Minor: pensive and grieving, but not without hope
  • G Flat Minor: distress, abandonment
  • G Major: persuasive and brilliant
  • G Minor: grace, kindness, loveliness
  • A Major: gripping and clear
  • A Minor: honourable and calm
  • B Flat Major: magnificent, yet modest
  • B Minor: hard, unpleasant and desperate

Musical Genres

Many new styles of music were developed in the Baroque era (and most are still in use). The most important ones are as follows:

  • Opera - A dramatic performance in which all (or most) of the words are sung. An orchestra would accompany the singers and provide incidental music. In many cases, the orchestra would play before the start of the opera (an 'overture') to settle the audience down. This style did not emerge until the 1590s, with the first recorded public performance of an opera (Monteverdi's Orfeo) taking place in 1607. For further information, see the entry on opera.

  • Oratorio - Cynics would claim that an oratorio is a cheap way of staging an opera (Handel wrote several oratorios while on hard times). An oratorio is a story, sung to music, with instrumental accompaniment, but without scenery, costumes or action. Many oratorios take religious themes - Handel's famous Messiah is an example - but some were based on secular stories.

  • Cantata - Similar to an oratorio, a cantata tells a religious story, and is used within a church service.

  • Concerto - Originally this was a pice of music in several movements, written for an orchestra. The violin and the bass parts were prominent, but not as solos. Soon, two more styles developed - the 'concerto grosso' and the 'solo concerto'. In the concerto grosso, a genre pioneered by Corelli, the main ensemble of instruments, consisting mainly of strings (the 'grosso'), accompanies a small ensemble of solo instruments (the 'concertino'). As the name suggests, in a solo concerto the orchestra accompanies a single solo instrument. This is the style of concerto that lived on into the Classical and Romantic eras; the other styles did not survive the Baroque.

  • Sonata - A sonata is a piece, usually in two or three movements, that is written for one or two solo instruments (sometimes with an additional bass line). This versatile genre evolved into many different varieties. For further information, see the entry on sonatas.

What to Expect in Baroque Music

  • The outer parts (the treble melody and the bass) will predominate.

  • The melody will be richly ornamented; the bass part, called the 'basso continuo' or 'figured bass' is the essential foundation for the improvised (or written) chords between the two outer parts.

  • The chords will always sound harmonious, with no clashes or dissonance.

What to Expect of the Instruments

  • The basso continuo will typically be played on a harpsichord, and is used to control the performance (conductors were a later 'invention'). The continuo player will flesh out the part either by doubling up on notated inner parts, or by filling in with chords. (This style is called 'ripieno', which is the Italian word for 'stuffing'.)

  • Sometimes the bass line will be doubled by the cellos.

  • The flute will have a soft tone - Baroque flutes are wooden, not metallic.

  • Brass parts will be limited, tending to sound like a hunting horn.

  • Woodwind will consist mainly of bassoon and oboe. (The clarinet had not yet been invented.)

What's Hidden in the Music?

All the art forms of this period employed allegory. Allegory is the use of an apparently naive story as a way to display and explain difficult, complex, taboo, or 'non-PC' concepts. Although it is hard for us to imagine how music could be used as a medium for this technique, Baroque composers often associated their melodies with allegorical writings or ideas.

For example, all of JS Bach's music (even the secular) is written to add to the glory of God, and to be a statement of perfectly balanced existence in a divinely ordered universe. Some of this is intuitively obvious when you listen to his music, but there are also many subtle tone-pictures, such as the short-bowed string accompaniment to all of Christ's words in the St Matthew Passion, the shimmering strings surrounding those words with a 'halo' of sound.

See the entry on The Goldberg Variations for details of the extensive allegory within these pieces, and the entry on The Four Seasons for details of the tone pictures and allegorical references in these concerti.

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