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Baroque Music: Guide for Beginners

  • 11 April 2024, Thursday
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Baroque Music Guide - iMusician

Western classical music can be divided into six (or seven) periods, each defined by a diverse style of music, sound characteristics, instrumentation, and composers.

This article is dedicated to the dominant period of baroque music, which has pierced through mesmerizing pieces of music from masterminds such as Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Barbara Strozzi, and Francesca Caccini. Let’s dive in!

A brief historical overview of Baroque music

The period of baroque music dates back to the 17th century, lasting roughly from 1600 to 1750, although some claim the era already began to blossom in 1580. The term baroque most likely stems from French baroque and Portuguese barroco, both of which refer to ‘a pearl of irregular shape’. The era was preceded by the Renaissance era and originated in Italy, where it reportedly developed for up to 20 years before moving into the broad Western classical music practice.

Overall, Baroque music is further divided into three sub-periods:

  • Early Baroque — 1580–1650,

  • Middle Baroque — 1630–1700, and

  • Late Baroque — 1680–1750.

As previously mentioned, Baroque music bloomed in Italy, where it first centered around Italian composers who were primarily based in Rome and its surroundings. These artists drew inspiration and tradition from Renaissance music while gradually attaching greater significance to harmony and tonality. One of the key figures of early Baroque was Claudio Monteverdi, an Italian composer and a pioneer in the development of opera, who was praised for furthering the transition from Renaissance- to Baroque-styled music.

Monteverdi was responsible for establishing two essential types of compositions. One was derived from Renaissance polyphony (featuring two or more prominent simultaneous lines of independent melody), which was dictated by the harmonic content (not the text or melody) and was termed ‘prima prattica.’ Meanwhile, the other type, so-called ‘seconda prattica,’ was guided by the principle that words should rule the music, and melody can be broken should the drama, emotion, or text demand it. In other words, ‘seconda prattica,’ unlike ‘prima prattica,’ allowed for more freedom to make the music more dissonant (inconsistent, incompatible, tensile, and, in a way, ugly-sounding) if desired.

Once Baroque music spread across Europe, composers of various origins and cultures enhanced the style with new elements. While the influence of French and British composers, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Henry Purcell, was considerable, the German school of baroque music also left its mark.

Composers like Goerg Philipp Teleman, George Frideric Handel, Michael Praetorius, Samuel Scheidt, and, most importantly, Johann Sebastian Bach were truly formative for the high Baroque period. In fact, it was Bach’s death in 1750 that ultimately brought the Baroque era to its end, passing the baton to the Classical period.

It’s also essential to note that, like other eras, the Baroque period was not limited to music only. The era was further celebrated for its captivating paintings (including works by Peter Raul Rubens, Michelangelo Carravagio, and Rembrandt van Rijn), melodramatic sculptures (dominated by Gian Lorenzo Bernini), and glorious architecture (most notably in the catholic church).

Characteristics of Baroque sound

Fundamentally, the Baroque sound can be characterized by strong contrasts, dissonance, and confusing yet modern harmony. Strong emphasis is placed on the dynamics, uncovering the dynamic possibilities of various instruments and highlighting the differences between loud and soft, solo and ensemble.

Overall, Baroque music embraces the concept of counterpoint and highly constructed polyphony with many sound embellishments (ornamentations such as trills, mordents, turns, or acciaccaturas), making the music sound complex and difficult to comprehend. Additionally, singing may be perceived as harsh and even unnatural, and the intonation difficult.

The so-called basso continuo (or just ‘continuo’) is also considered a defining element of Baroque music. It is based on a continuous bass ‘bottom’ line, with another instrument, like a violin, guitar, or flute, playing the progressing melody. If the continuo is missing in a Baroque composition, it’s definitely for a reason — most commonly to express fragility. You can watch the video below to understand basso continuo better:

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Baroque styles and forms

As for the music prominent during the era, the Baroque period offered various styles, forms, and genres. Instrumental music became increasingly popular, with prelude, fugue, sonata, and concerto being some of the most prevalent styles. Nevertheless, vocal compositions, including operas, oratorios, cantatas, and masses, were commonly composed, too.

It’s also important to note that, similarly to Renaissance music, Baroque pieces also regularly covered religious themes, with a great deal of music used in liturgical settings and environments. Baroque composers were aligned with the Catholic church and various Protestant denominations (following the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century), including Lutheranism and Calvinism.

Traditional Baroque instruments

While several instruments used in Baroque music were already widely popular during the Renaissance era, some instrumental developments were made between the 17th and 18th centuries. The most prominent instrument established during the Baroque period was the ‘harpsichord,’ still widely used today.

String instruments (particularly violins and violas) and continuos formed the basis of a typical Baroque orchestra. Meanwhile, wind instruments, such as the oboe, recorder, horn, trombone, or trumpet, were frequently used to accompany or encourage human movement, particularly dancing. Therefore, they were commonly utilized for dance and municipal performances.

Specifically for Bach, some instruments assumed symbolic significance. For example, in Bach’s eyes, the trumpet was the royal instrument of the Baroque and embodied ‘secular and divine majesty.’ The recorder, on the other hand, was used to represent ‘humility and poverty’ while the flauto piccolo symbolized the ‘sparkling of the morning star.’

Baroque pieces and composers

More than enough monumental compositions originated in the Baroque period — just like great composers. As you can imagine, naming them all would be challenging.

One of the defining figures of Baroque music was the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Having created both liturgical and secular works of art, Bach excelled at the counterpoint technique, harmonic transformation, and motivic organization. Besides being a composer, he was also a superb organ player — in fact, throughout the 18th century, Bach was valued primarily as an organist. It was, however, his compositions that earned him the well-deserved recognition. In total, he composed hundreds of cantatas, Passions, hymns, oratorios, and piano and keyboard works. His most notable pieces include the Brandenburg Concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations, and Tocatta and Fugue in D minor.

While originally also from Germany, George Frideric Handle spent much of his life and career in London and even became British by naturalization in 1927. He was well-known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, concerti grossi, and organ concertos. Some of his landmark works include his orchestral Water Music and Music For the Royal Fireworks, opera Rodrigo, and oratorio Messiah.

Antonio Vivaldi was a dominant figure in the Italian Baroque scene and gained universal recognition as a composer and virtuoso violinist. He also composed music pieces that reflected his instrumental mastery. His best-known composition is the series of violin concertos called The Four Seasons. His other works include operas, sinfonias, sonatas, and chamber music.

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