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Baroque music

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Baroque music

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History of European art music
Medieval (476 – 1400)
Renaissance (1400 – 1600)
Baroque (1600 – 1760)
Classical (1730 – 1820)
Romantic (1815 – 1910)
20th century (1900 – 2000)
Contemporary classical music  

Baroque music describes an era and a set of styles of European classical music which were in widespread use between approximately 1600 to 1750 (see Dates of classical music eras for a discussion of the problems inherent in defining the beginning and end points). This era is said to begin in music after the Renaissance and to be followed by the Classical music era. The original meaning of "baroque" is "irregularly shaped pearl", a strikingly fitting characterization of the architecture and design of this period; later, the name came to be applied also to its music. Baroque music forms a major portion of the classical music canon. It is widely performed, studied and listened to. It is associated with composers such as J.S. Bach, George Friedrich Händel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Claudio Monteverdi. During the period, music theory, diatonic tonality, and imitative counterpoint developed. More elaborate musical ornamentation, as well as changes in musical notation and advances in the way instruments were played also appeared. Baroque music would see an expansion in the size, range and complexity of performance, as well as the establishment of opera as a type of musical performance. Many musical terms and concepts from this era are still currently in use.



Style and trends

Music conventionally described as Baroque encompasses a wide range of styles from a wide geographic region, mostly in Europe, composed during a period of approximately 150 years. The term "Baroque", as applied to this period in music is a relatively recent development, first being used by Curt Sachs in 1919, and only acquiring currency in English in the 1940s. Indeed, as late as 1960 there was still considerable dispute in academic circles whether it was meaningful to lump together music as diverse as that of Jacopo Peri, Domenico Scarlatti and J.S. Bach with a single term; yet the term has become widely used and accepted for this broad range of music. It may be helpful to distinguish it from both the preceding (Renaissance) and following (Classical) periods of musical history. A small number of musicologists argue that it should be split in to Baroque and Mannerist periods to conform to the divisions that are sometimes applied in the visual arts.

Baroque versus Renaissance style

Baroque music shares with Renaissance music a heavy use of polyphony and counterpoint. However, its use of these techniques differs from Renaissance music. In the Renaissance, harmony is more the result of consonances incidental to the smooth flow of polyphony, while in the early Baroque era the order of these consonances becomes important, for they begin to be felt as chords in a hierarchical, functional tonal scheme. Around 1600 there is considerable blurring of this definition: for example one can see essentially tonal progressions around cadential points in madrigals, while in early monody the feeling of tonality is still rather tenuous. Another distinction between Renaissance and Baroque practice in harmony is the frequency of chord root motion by third in the earlier period, while motion of fourths or fifths predominates later (which partially defines functional tonality). In addition, Baroque music uses longer lines and stronger rhythms: the initial line is extended, either alone or accompanied only by the basso continuo, until the theme reappears in another voice. In this later approach to counterpoint, the harmony was more often defined either by the basso continuo, or tacitly by the notes of the theme itself.

These stylistic differences mark the transition from the ricercars, fantasias, and canzonas of the Renaissance to the fugue, a defining Baroque form. Monteverdi called this newer, looser style the seconda pratica, contrasting it with the prima pratica that characterized the motets and other sacred choral pieces of high Renaissance masters like Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Monteverdi himself used both styles; he wrote his Mass In illo tempore in the older, Palestrinan style, and his 1610 Vespers in the new style.

There are other, more general differences between Baroque and Renaissance style. Baroque music often strives for a greater level of emotional intensity than Renaissance music, and a Baroque piece often uniformly depicts a single particular emotion (exultation, grief, piety, and so forth; see doctrine of the affections). Baroque music was more often written for virtuoso singers and instrumentalists, and is characteristically harder to perform than Renaissance music, although idiomatic instrumental writing was one of the most important innovations of the period. Baroque music employs a great deal of ornamentation, which was often improvised by the performer. Expressive performance methods such as notes inégales were common, and were expected to be applied by performers, often with considerable latitude. Instruments came to play a greater part in Baroque music, and a cappella vocal music receded in importance.

Baroque versus Classical style

In the Classical era, which followed the Baroque, the role of counterpoint was diminished (albeit repeatedly rediscovered and reintroduced; see fugue), and replaced by a homophonic texture. The role of ornamentation lessened. Works tended towards a more articulated internal structure, especially those written in sonata form. Modulation (changing of keys) became a structural and dramatic element, so that a work could be heard as a kind of dramatic journey through a sequence of musical keys, outward and back from the tonic. Baroque music also modulates frequently, but the modulation has less structural importance. Works in the classical style often depict widely varying emotions within a single movement, whereas Baroque works tend toward a single, vividly portrayed feeling. Lastly, Classical works usually reach a kind of dramatic climax and then resolve it; Baroque works retain a fairly constant level of dramatic energy to the very last note. Many forms of the Baroque would serve as the point of departure for the creation of the sonata form, by creating a "floor plan" for the placement of important cadences.

Other features

  • basso continuo - a kind of continuous accompaniment notated with a new music notation system, figured bass, usually for a sustaining bass instrument and a keyboard instrument
  • monody - music for one melodic voice with accompaniment, characteristic of the early 17th century, especially in Italy
  • homophony - music with one melodic voice and rhythmically similar accompaniment (this and monody are contrasted with the typical Renaissance texture, polyphony)
  • text over music - intelligible text with instrumental accompaniment not overpowering the voice
  • vocal soloists ('bel canto')
  • dramatic musical expression
  • dramatic musical forms like opera, drama per musica
  • combined instrumental-vocal forms, such as the oratorio and cantata
  • new instrumental techniques, like tremolo and pizzicato
  • clear and linear melody
  • notes inégales, a technique of applying dotted rhythms to evenly written notes
  • the aria
  • the ritornello aria (repeated short instrumental interruptions of vocal passages)
  • the concertato style (contrast in sound between orchestra and solo-instruments or small groups of instruments)
  • precise instrumental scoring (in the Renaissance, exact instrumentation for ensemble playing was rarely indicated)
  • idiomatic instrumental writing: better use of the unique properties of each type of musical instrument
  • virtuosic instrumental and vocal writing, with appreciation for virtuosity as such
  • ornamentation
  • development to modern Western tonality (major and minor scales)


Baroque composers wrote in many different musical genres. Opera, invented in the late Renaissance, became an important musical form during the Baroque, with the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725), Handel, and others. The oratorio achieved its peak in the work of Bach and Handel; opera and oratorio often used very similar music forms, such as a widespread use of the da capo aria.

In other religious music, the mass and motet receded slightly in importance, but the cantata flourished in the work of Bach and other Protestant composers. Virtuoso organ music also flourished, with toccatas, fugues, and other works.

Instrumental sonatas and dance suites were written for individual instruments, for chamber groups, and for (small) orchestra. The concerto emerged, both in its form for a single soloist plus orchestra and as the concerto grosso, in which a small group of soloists is contrasted with the full ensemble. The French overture, with its contrasting slow and fast sections, added grandeur to the many courts at which it was performed.

Keyboard works were sometimes written largely for the pleasure and instruction of the performer. These included a series of works by the mature Bach that are widely considered to be the intellectual culmination of the Baroque era: the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations, and The Art of Fugue.

Brief history of Baroque music

Composers of the Baroque

Early Baroque music (1600–1654)

The conventional dividing line for the Baroque from the Renaissance begins in Italy, with the composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), with his creation of a recitative style, and the rise of a form of musical drama called opera. This was part of a self-conscious change in style that was across the arts, most particularly architecture and painting.

Musically the adoption of the figured bass represents a larger change in musical thinking—namely that harmony, that is "taking all of the parts together" was as important as the linear part of polyphony. Increasingly polyphony and harmony would be seen as two sides of the same idea, with harmonic progressions entering the notion of composing, as well as the use of the tritone as a dissonance. Harmonic thinking had existed among particular composers in the previous era, notably Gesualdo, however the Renaissance is felt to give way to the Baroque at the point where it becomes the common vocabulary. Some historians of music point to the introduction of the seventh chord without preparation as being the key break with the past. This created the idea that chords, rather than notes, created the sense of closure, which is one of the fundamental ideas of what would much later be called tonality.

Italy formed one of the cornerstones of the new style, as the papacy, besieged by Reformation but with coffers fattened by the immense revenues flowing in from Hapsburg conquest, searched for artistic means to promote faith in the Roman Catholic Church. One of the most important musical centers was Venice, which had both secular and sacred patronage available.

One of the important transitional figures would come out of the drive to revive Catholicism against the growing doctrinal, artistic and social challenge mounted by Protestantism: Giovanni Gabrieli. His work is largely considered to be in the "High Renaissance" style. However, his innovations became to be considered foundational to the new style. Among these are instrumentation (labeling instruments specifically for specific tasks) and the use of dynamics.

The demands of religion were also to make the text of sacred works clearer, and hence there was pressure to move away from the densely layered polyphony of the Renaissance, to lines which put the words front and center, or had a more limited range of imitation. This would create the demand for a more intricate weaving of the vocal line against backdrop, or homophony.

Monteverdi became the most visible of a generation of composers who felt that there was a secular means to this "modern" approach to harmony and text, and in 1607 his opera Orfeo would be the landmark which demonstrated the welter of effects and techniques that were associated with this new school, called seconda pratica, to distinguish it from the older style or prima pratica. Monteverdi was a master of both, producing precisely styled motets that extended the forms of Marenzio and Giaces de Wert. But it is his new style pieces which were to be the most visible changes to the Baroque. These included features which are recognizable even to the end of the baroque period, including use of idiomatic writing, virtuoso flourishes and what Stanley Sadie calls "a thorough going" use of new techniques.

This musical language would prove to be international, as Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) a German composer who studied in Venice, would adopt it to the liturgical needs of the Elector of Saxony, and serve as the choir master in Dresden.

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643).

Middle Baroque music (1654–1707)

The most influential middle Baroque composers include Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), Dieterich Buxtehude (1637–1707) and Henry Purcell (1659–1695).

Late Baroque music (1707–1760)

Leading figures of the late Baroque include J.S. Bach (1685–1750), George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757), Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764).

The Baroque's influence on later music

Transition to the Classical era (1740–1780)

The phase between the late Baroque and the early Classical era, with its broad mixture of competing ideas and attempts to unify the different demands of taste, economics and "worldview", goes by many names. It is sometimes called "Galant", "Rococo", or "pre-Classical", or at other times, "early Classical". It is a period where composers still working in the Baroque style are still successful, if sometimes thought of as being more of the past than the present—Bach, Handel and Telemann all compose well beyond the point at which the homophonic style is clearly in the ascendant. Musical culture was caught at a crossroads: the masters of the older style had the technique, but the public hungered for the new. This is one of the reasons C.P.E. Bach was held in such high regard: he understood the older forms quite well, and knew how to present them in new garb, with an enhanced variety of form; he went far in overhauling the older forms from the Baroque.

The practice of the Baroque era was the norm against which new composition was measured, and there came to be a division between sacred works, which held more closely to the Baroque style from, secular, or "profane" works, which were in the new style.

Especially in the Catholic countries of central Europe, the Baroque style continued to be represented in sacred music through the end of the eighteenth century, in much the way that the stile antico of the Renaissance continued to live in the sacred music of the early 17th century. The masses and oratorios of Haydn and Mozart, while Classical in their orchestration and ornamentation, have many Baroque features in their underlying contrapuntal and harmonic structure. The decline of the baroque saw various attempts to mix old a new techniques, and many composers who continued to hew to the older forms well into the 1780's. Many cities in Germany continued to maintain performance practices from the Baroque into the 1790's, including Leipzig.

In England, the enduring popularity of Handel ensured the success of Avison, Boyce, and Arne—among other accomplished imitators—well into the 1780s. By this time it was though of as an older style, and was required for graduation from the burgeoning number of conservatories of music, and for compositions written for the sacred context.

Influence of Baroque composition and practice after 1760

Because Baroque music was the basis for pedagogy, it retained a stylistic influence even after it has ceased to be the dominant style of composing or of music making. Even as baroque practice, for example the thoroughbass, fell out of use, it continued to be part of musical notation. In the early 19th century, scores by Baroque masters were printed in complete edition, and this led to a renewed interest in the "strict style" of counterpoint, as it was then called. With Felix Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's choral music, the Baroque style became an influence through the 19th century as a paragon of academic and formal purity. Throughout the 19th century, the fugue in the style of Bach held enormous influence for composers as a standard to aspire to, and a form to include in serious instrumental works.

The 20th century would name the Baroque as a period, and begin to study its music. Baroque form and practice would influence composers as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg, Max Reger, Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók. The early 20th century would also see a revival of the middle Baroque composers such as Purcell and Vivaldi.

There are several instances of contemporary pieces being published as "rediscovered" Baroque masterworks. Some examples of this include a viola concerto written by Henri Casadesus but attributed to Handel, as well as several pieces attributed by Fritz Kreisler to lesser-known figures of the Baroque such as Pugnani and Padre Martini. Today, there is a very active core of composers writing works exclusively in the Baroque style, an example being Giorgio Pacchioni.

Various works have been labeled "neo-Baroque" for a focus on imitative polyphony, including the works of Giacinto Scelsi, Paul Hindemith, Paul Creston and Martinu, even though they are not in the Baroque style proper. Musicologists attempted to complete various works from the Baroque, most notably Bach's The Art of Fugue. Because the Baroque style is a recognized point of reference, implying not only music, but a particular period and social manner, Baroque styled pieces are sometimes created for media, such as film and television. Composer Peter Schickele parodies classical and Baroque styles under the pen name PDQ Bach.

Baroque performance practice had a renewed influence with the rise of "Authentic" or Historically Informed Performance in the late 20th century. Texts by Quantz and Leopold Mozart among others, formed the basis for performances which attempted to recover some of the aspects of baroque sound world, including one on a part performance of works by Bach, use of gut strings rather than metal, reconstructed harpsichords, use of older playing techniques and styles. Several popular ensembles would adopt some or all of these techniques, including the Anonymous 4, the Academy of Ancient Music, Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, William Christie's Les Arts Florissants and others. This movement would then attempt to apply some of the same methods to classical and even early romantic era performance.

List of Baroque genres



External links

Sources and further reading

  • Schulenberg, David. Music of the Baroque. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. ISBN 0195122321

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