To put this into perspective, try and remember that the Renaissance was a "re-birth" of good art and music and the Classical era was that birth coming into its maturity. The Baroque Era(which happened to come directly after the Renaissance and before the Classical Era(coincided nicely with those awkward and highly emotional teenage years that everyone goes through on the pathway called growing up.
When Was the Baroque Era?
The official company line on when the Baroque Era started, which you will find in every book, encyclopedia, or bubble-gum wrapper on the subject, was the year 1600. The event which earned 1600 this enviable distinction, as far as I can tell, was the simple fact that it has two zeros stuck on the end of it, thus making it fairly easy to remember. In contrast, the end of the Baroque Era was definitively set by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Grand-Poobah of Baroque music, who had the good foresight to die in a year also ending with a zero, thus giving historians another easy to remember date; 1750. For some Baroque zealots Bach's death was truly the day that music died! at least it gave good closure.
The Origins of Baroque Music
In the spirit of rebellious teenagers everywhere, I'm going to throw caution (and facts) to the wind and talk about eunuchs. As you may know, eunuchs are guys who--for lack of a better term--are missing an organ. (Bach was a master organ player, but that has absolutely nothing to do with this) Medieval doctors had learned that if the--men, brace yourself--"family jewels" were cut off of boys at an early age, none of the traditional biological changes of puberty would occur. There would be no facial or body hair, their voices would not change, and all their acne problems would be virtually solved. Now, in my mind, that in NO WAY could compensate for the loss of everything that makes life worth living, but apparently back at the turn of the century (the 15th Century, I mean) being a eunuch was not as uncommon as one might think.
So these incomplete and unfulfilled men were eking out a meager living primarily playing the women's roles in theatre (back then, not only was that funny, it was the law!) when somebody realized that these guys not only acted like women, they could sing like women! in fact, they could sing BETTER than women. It turned out that these castrati (castrated singers) had the high beautiful voices of women, and the strong powerful lungs and chest muscles of men (and the anatomy of a Ken doll). Well, as you might guess, once you build a better mousetrap you'll soon need a better mouse. Composers had to write music that could demonstrate these singer's remarkable abilities. To Baroque composers, better music simply meant more difficult, with very elaborate, ornamental melody lines.
In addition to the Eunuch singers, there are three other factors that also may have contributed to the rise of Baroque music:
The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation:
The entire 17th Century was a great big publicity war put on between the Catholic and protestant churches, each side vying to attract more customers--sort of like Coke and Pepsi do today--by spending tons of money on rock stars and pop-concerts (I mean, on musicians and church-concerts) each side was trying to convince the consumers that they were the best and only church to buy salvation from.
The Insanely Wealthy Families of Europe:
Due to the bustling trade [read: slaughter] of newly discovered foreign countries, money was streaming into Europe at a tremendous rate. Everybody who was anybody wanted to drive in their expensive carriages and show off their expensive clothes and their expensive servants. The Opera House was the hangout of the 17th Century. It was a fad of sorts, the hip place to see and be seen, and sometimes since they were there, some people would even listen to the music.
The royal courts of Europe's desires to appear cultured and refined:
As they oppressed the lower classes and taxed them for every last cent to pay for their grotesquely extravagant lifestyles, the kings, queens and other assorted monarchs decided that they didn't want to appear entirely barbaric to the peasants. Music became a symbol of sophistication and taste. The thing to do if you were a king was to have your own music group. The general rule of thumb was this; the better the musicians performed, the better king you were.
In summary, if you were a composer during the Baroque era and you didn't work for a Church, the Opera, or some Royal Court, you were basically unemployed and starving. Although these three things led to the deluge of money and attention that was poured onto the musicians and artists of the time, it is important to remember that the style of Baroque music spread from the simple idea of ornamenting the vocal lines of the eunuch singers to show off their dynamic range and abilities.
Baroque Does Not Mean "Broke"!
You may be thinking right now, "Whatever. Who cares what the origin was. I just want to know what the heck the word 'Baroque' means?" Well, you'll be happy to know that historians can't even agree on this one. There are two separate yet equally convincing arguments on the subject. One side says that it comes from the Italian barocco, meaning bizarre or strange. Others have proposed the idea that it is really from the Portuguese barroco, which means a distorted or irregularly shaped pearl. In either case, the 18th Century French were the first to use the term to describe the art and music of the previous generation, and what they meant by it was, "It sucked!" Granted that may seem a bit overly critical, but honestly now, what do you think about the music your parents listen to? Regardless of the original intent, the name stuck! and so too did the concept: remember the Portuguese definition of the irregular shaped pearl? The barroco was considered more beautiful because of it's irregularity, or uniqueness. A great example of this is Cindy Crawford. She is more beautiful specifically because of that disgusting black mole on her face. Without it she'd be just another plain, ordinary, supermodel. It's her mole! her flaw! her beautiful disfigurement that moves her up that last rung from mediocre greatness into the realm of super(ficial) greatness.
Sir Francis Bacon foreshadowed the entire Baroque phenomenon with the phrase, "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion. [Essays; of Beauty, 1597]"
So what exactly was this "strangeness in the proportion" that defined the entire Baroque Era and offended the French so much? (Like that's a hard thing to do.) Going back to our teen-ager analogy, one distinctly adolescent characteristic is that impressive ability to turn everything into a full-blown, end-of-the-world, emotional roller-coaster style melodrama. Well, Baroque musicians thought that this extreme excess of emotion was a great thing. Any artificial method they could contrive to manipulate audiences into having a genuine emotional reaction was what they deliberately strove for, and they found many innovative ways to do it. Advertising executives take note:
Sharp Contrasts: can anyone say "Manic Depressive"?
Conflict is one of the easier ways to create a high emotional response. Try this: Imagine the most beautiful person you know. Now the ugliest. Now imagine them kissing. Feeling any emotions?
Baroque music is full of these same conflicts, contrasts, and overblown distinctions. It contrasts everything with everything. A Baroque concerto is typically in three movements or sections that traditionally go fast, then slow, and then fast again. It contrasts solo instruments or small groups with large orchestras--think of Dueling Banjos, with a single kazoo player against an entire philharmonic orchestra. It even contrasts volume. First it is loud, then it goes soft, then it goes loud again. Of course, we do a lot of these things with music today, but back then this was kind of a novelty, an emotional tempest of Biblical proportions. You're probably thinking, "Emotional maelstrom? This hardly sounds like an emotional summer breeze!" (or words to that effect). I would like to agree with you except that somehow these guys pulled it off. With some basic ideas on what creates strong feelings they have managed to write some of the most emotionally compelling music ever written.
Ornamental Toppings: The Banana-Split Analogy
One of the great things to come out of the Baroque Era is the concept of the Basso Continuoso, or the continuing base. Stated simply, this is a steady and not-too-lavish base line that contrasts sharply with the overly ornamental and wildly fluctuating melody line (In case you missed it: another contrast!). I like to compare this musical style to a banana split. It doesn't matter how much or how many different toppings you put on it as long as you've got the banana and three scoops of ice cream underneath. Renaissance music (Remember, it came before Baroque.) was more like a bowlful of toppings without banana or ice cream, just a bowlful of assorted nuts, syrups, sprinkles, cherries and cream all congealing together into a puddle of oversweet ooze. It was in the Baroque era that they learned this first and fundamental rule to music and banana splits. A masterpiece will always hold together nicely, even with all the ornamentation piled on top, as long as your foundation is sound.
Improvisational: Spontaneous Combustion
Like teen-agers who always want to do things "their way," another important characteristic of Baroque music was the improvisational technique. To show how good they (thought they) were, many singers and musicians embellished, improvised, or just plain ad-libbed their music during a performance. Far from being offended, the composers who wrote this music actually encouraged this free thinking behavior. Fewer notes to write, I guess. So these fantastic musicians, commonly known as virtuosos, were given music with instructions that said, more or less, "Play the song something like this, and have FUN with it." Then a few guiding notes or a simple melody line would follow. No two performances were ever alike, and every performance was exciting for everyone, because no one knew exactly what was going to happen next. Sometimes this ended with disastrous results, everything coming to a crashing discordant halt. When it failed, it failed miserably. But mostly these unplanned performances triumphed beautifully and were the spectacle of the show and the talk of the town for weeks on end.
Baroque music has been called many things over the years; subtle has never been one of them. With all these strange contrasts, overly ornamental decorations, and wildly unpredictable superstars going off on musical tangents, it's a wonder the whole concept of music even survived these hectic, teenaged years. Nevertheless, this chaotic hodgepodge of emotions and art still managed to produce some of the most brilliant and gifted men who every composed music.
Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel: The 3 Pillars of Baroque Music
Antonio Vivaldi (1678: 1741)
The most remarkable thing about Vivaldi's life is the decided lack of scandal associated with it. Certainly he is not unique in this, it's just that he had so many great opportunities to live a really debauched life. It was extraordinary that his reputation survived him, virtually unscathed.
Here is a man who took a priesthood vow of celibacy at the early age of 25, the same year he got a job working in a very elite all-girls'school. His fiery red hair, and his aversion to religious ceremonies (especially Mass) earned him the nickname "The Red Priest." The girls all adored him and worked hard under his tutelage. But sadly, just as youth is wasted on the young, so too was Vivaldi's opportunity-filled situation wasted on Vivaldi. His passion and devotion was to his music alone, and the young maidens of his school remained just that(at least as far as he was concerned.
He was more famous in his own time for being a fantastic "virtuoso" violinist then as a composer. He frequently traveled around Italy and Europe performing for large audiences. It was a lucky coincidence that he was as good a violin player as he was, since the music he wrote was so difficult, written to showcase only the greatest of the violin soloists.
The only scandal ever associated with Vivaldi was when future generations listened to his music and accused him of writing the same song over 500 times. This is simply not true. He could only have written the same piece 499 times because he also wrote The Four Seasons. This song is so famous that even if you think you haven't heard it before, I guarantee you have.
Sadly, Vivaldi mismanaged his fame and fortune and disappeared into relative obscurity and poverty. But luckily for him, my piano teacher taught me that good musicians can never really die, they just decompose. Speaking of good piano teachers, let's talk about:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685: 1750)
Bach was much more than just a Baroque musician. His death heralded the end of an Era, and his life was a monument to creativity: In addition to his innumerable volumes of musical compositions, he also had twenty children(Bach truly was a master organ player. His genius lies in music that can stir the heart and soul of the untrained ear, and simultaneously humble and instruct the most gifted artists. His name will always be counted among the greatest musicians for what he brought to music as a whole. But enough gushing, let's talk about the man.
Bach (pronounce it like you're hacking up phlegm in the back of your throat) was born in Germany, died in Germany and worked most of his life as a German Organmeister, in charge of fixing and tuning the organ of whatever church would hire him. He wrote Toccata and Fugue(made popular in Walt Disney's Fantasia) to help him test out his freshly tuned organs. He also supervised and instructed the choirboys who usually lived in the church with him. In the few moments he had between church meetings, organ tunings, and teaching he would write page after page of music. He wrote so much that many of his pages found their way into the shops of the local fishermen(as packaging for the fish.)
Some of his more popular pieces include: Air on a G string, Jesu, Joy of man's desiring (played at most traditional weddings) and his Brandenberg Concertos. The latter were put together as a kind of a musical résumé in a desperate attempt to get out of tuning organs and babysitting teenagers. Sadly, he didn't get the job and it was back to the church for poor old Bach.
As you might expect Bach also died in relative obscurity and poverty, yet every generation since has discovered new levels of depth and inspiration within his music.
George Frideric Handel (1685: 1759)
Italy had Vivaldi. Germany had Bach. So Handel, who was born in Germany and schooled in Italy, in a brilliant career move decided to adopt England as his new home and nail down the Baroque market there.
The opera was the fashion in all of London. Handel competed on a nightly basis with all the other opera house managers to bring the biggest and the best singers to his performances in order to win the devotion (and ticket sales) of the patrons. The complexity and the cost of these extravagant operas grew to be astronomical.
But England eventually tired of these lavish events and Handel resorted to writing the more economical oratorios--Like opera, but no set, no costumes, and no budget. His most popular becoming that Christmastime sing-along, The Messiah. A musical interpretation of the life of Christ, it has become an annualized event in virtually every major city in the world today. And shining as the crown jewel in the center of this masterpiece is the equally well-known and celebrated Hallelujah Chorus. On a personal note; I once took part in a multi-choir ensemble, more than one hundred singers strong, with an equal number of musicians, performing this as the grand finale of the show. I can remember being so overwhelmed by the intensity and magnificence of the music surrounding me that I quite literally lost my breath and forgot to sing. I found my sense of aesthetics at the same time. It was an epiphany that I still regard today as one of the great moments in my life.
England reveres Handel, even to this day, as their greatest musical treasure--although, technically, he was a German. He in turn gave England the kind of musical prestige that they wouldn't see again until the birth of the Beatles. Everyone benefited from this arrangement except for one man; native-born Englishman and composer Henry Purcell, which brings us to:
The Junior Varsity Baroque Players
I know the following list looks intimidating, but let's have a moment of silence to think about the hundreds of unknown (and mostly bad) musicians who spent their whole lives dedicated to writing Baroque music, and then be grateful they got cut from the list.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567: 1643) wrote the most palatable of the first generation of operas called L'Orfeo and so he is kind of the father of both Baroque music and Opera. Two reasons a lot of less-than-cultured men would hate him if they knew who he was.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653: 1713) Crackerjack violin player whose styles and techniques were mimicked and emulated throughout all of Italy. 33 years in the making, his greatest work is the Opus 6 Concerti Grossi that he completed on his deathbed.
Johann Pachelbel (1653: 1706) Truly a one-hit-wonder, but this German's Cannon in D is so popular that it will always be considered the theme song for Baroque music.
Henry Purcell (1659: 1695) English composer who would have been famous if Handel had not moved to England thus relegating him to a historical footnote of relative obscurity.
Tomasso Giovanni Albinoni (1671: 1751) Prolific Italian composer who wrote nearly 50 operas, and a bounty of sonatas, concertos and solos pieces and yet always considered himself to be an amateur musician. Adagio in G minor and his Concertos for Oboe Opus 7 and 8 are considered his best works.
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683: 1764) Red neck hick, born to a poor family in provincial France. Jean-Philippe's father vainly hoped his son would be a successful lawyer instead of the unemployed musician he turned out to be. In 1722 he published Treaties on Harmony which gave him celebrity and guaranteed him employment.
Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti (1685: 1757) Born in the same year as Handel and Bach, this Italian composer could finger a keyboard like no man before or since. His 555 Sonatas are worth a listen.
Two More Guys from Italy Who Deserve Some Kind Of Mention
Antonio Stradivarius (1644: 1737) Pretty good violin maker whose instruments today all have their own names and sell for gazillions.
Faranelli (1705: 1782) Castrato who became so famous he only needed one name. Women adored him, would swoon at the sound of his voice and were sexually drawn to him. Romantically speaking, however, he was all bark and no bite.