Music History: Baroque Music

Background

When we say Baroque music, we typically think of composers like Bach and Handel. These composers – and this musical era in general –  were vital in shaping music as we know it today. Beginning around 1600, the Baroque era was instrumental (pun definitely intended) in the normalization of tonality (harmony as we know it – major and minor keys, etc.), the rise of instrumental solos and ensembles, and the trend of musical improvisation.

During this time, professional musicians were expected to be able to improvise accompaniments and melodies. Musical concerts were usually accompanied by a harpsichord or lute improvising chords from a figured bass line (a musical notation where numbers and symbols indicate specific chords and intervals to be played with a given note). The Baroque era also saw the expansion of size, range, and complexity of instrumental performance, and many new genres of music were created that we still use today.

*Fun fact: the word Baroque comes from a Portuguese word that means “misshapen pearl”. Originally (waaaay back in 1734) this term was used negatively to criticize some new compositions. In 1750 the term was used to describe the newly ornate and very heavily ornamented architecture in Rome. Since then, Baroque was used to describe (and criticise) art and architecture of the era (because of its ornate ornamentation and design), and eventually the term stuck as the general descriptor of the era.

The Baroque era can be roughly divided into three periods: early, middle, and late.

Early Baroque Music

The early Baroque era, the transition from Renaissance, took place from 1580-1630-ish. Composers during this time explored ideas from Ancient Greek music, and as a result turned away from Renaissance polyphony and toward the Ancient Greek idea of monody: a solo singing voice accompanied by another instrument. This idea marked the beginning of opera, which later became a defining genre of the Baroque era.

Dafne by composer Jacopo Peri is the earliest known work that is considered an opera. While most of the music has been lost, we do know that the premiere was in 1598 and was only scored for harpsichord, lute, viol (father of the cello), archlute (a bass lute), and triple flute. And Peri established recitative as an opera norm: a kind of melodic speech set to music that allows for narration in opera. This technique is still used in operas today. You can read here for more information on Dafne.

The oldest surviving opera was also written by Peri; it’s called Euridice. Check out this video for some of the music:

You can read more about Peri and Euridice here.

Early Baroque music established the importance of tonal harmonies through a method called figured bass. Figured bass, a system of symbols for the performer to determine the harmonies to be played underneath a melody, started a movement that resulted in chord progressions (like what we use today). Certain harmonic intervals were determined to be unstable (like the tritone) and used to create dissonance and tension, and other intervals were used to signify release and closure; this helped initiate key centers instead of modes (used in Medieval and Renaissance music). Functional harmony – keys and chords moving to create tension and release – was officially the end of the Renaissance and the start of a new era.

 

Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi was key in establishing the Baroque era musical style. Also an opera guy, Monteverdi created the Baroque technique known as basso continuo: a realization of figured bass where chords are improvised over the notated bass line. Check out this video of a selection from his opera L’Orfeo:

Middle Baroque Music

In 1643, King Louis XIV – also known as the Sun King and Louis the Great – began his rule as the king of France. Why is this important in the development of Baroque music? Well, Louis XIV represents what historians call an “Absolute monarch” – a ruler who has supreme authority. And in Louis XIV’s case, this means culture and extravagance and the rise of the centralized royal court. He fostered the arts and thus created the means for many musicians to compose and perform. Royal courts around the world followed France’s model; musicians were then hired to work specifically for the royalty.

Because of this increased need for musicians (thanks to the king and his court who enjoyed the finer things in life), music continued to develop. The middle Baroque era lasted from 1630-1680, and during this time new vocal genres developed (such as the cantata and the oratorio). Melodies became simpler and more polished, based on short and simple chord progressions. Counterpoint (a form of polyphony; harmonically dependent lines with differing rhythm and shape) started to develop as the figured bassline became more integrated with the melody, and the opera reached new popularity.

*Side note: composers were often accomplished performers, and when they had to perform new works, their employers often expected them to improvise (so they wouldn’t get bored). As a result, one defining characteristic of Baroque music is the intense musical ornamentation – trills, neighbor tones, passing tones, and many more. Composers would notate some embellishments to be used, but often the performers would add their own ornamentations during the performance. Click here for a table of the common embellishments used.

One specific court composer to know is Jean-Baptiste Lully. He composed full-time for the Sun King and is considered the epitome of French Baroque music. (He was also one of the very first conductors!) Lully expanded opera to include several instruments (including a string section), and his music is known for its liveliness, power, and deep emotion. He revolutionized court dances by introducing new ones (such as the minuet) and established the French overture as a new style. Read more about Lully here and check out some of his music below.

*Side note: the French overture is a musical form split into two contrasting halves. The first half ends using chords that suggest incompleteness – or a question that is answered at the end of the first half. The second section often ends using materials used in the beginning. (This was very very important to musical development in the Classical era – but more on that later!)

An important genre development during this time was the concerto grosso. This is a piece of music that features a small number of soloists placed against an orchestra, where the musical content is passed between the two groups and extremes are juxtaposed dramatically.

The video above is an example of a concerto grosso composed by Arcangelo Corelli (he was the one who popularized the genre). Read more about it here.

Late Baroque Music

This time period, 1680-1750-ish, is where all of the well-known composers lived and wrote. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, and more all made their mark on music history; and we continue to play their music today. By this point, tonal harmony was absolutely the thing to do if you were a composer. Counterpoint was developed to fully embrace the new system of keys, which is cool because they combined the Renaissance idea of polyphony (two or more independently moving lines) and combined that with chords and harmonies to create tension and resolution. And fugues! A fugue is a complex form of counterpoint that develops one subject throughout multiple voices. Also, musical form standardized during this time (composers generally used a binary form – AABB – or a ternary form – ABA).

During these years, opera continued to develop, the oratorio (a huge work for orchestra and choir) reached its prime, and instrumental solos became just as culturally important as vocal works. The dance suite became popular – this is a work with a series of movements in the style of Renaissance or Baroque dances (such as the allemande, sarabande, minuet, and gigue). For more information about the dance suite and its various movements, read here.

Noteworthy composers from this time include:

Johann Sebastian Bach

The following is an example of a concerto grosso written by Bach, featuring nine solo string instruments over a basso continuo (listen for the harpsichord filling in chords and harmonies in the accompaniment) (read more here):

And this is an excerpt from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major for keyboard:

George Frideric Handel

Even though this particular opera was sort of a flop, this piece has survived the years due to its beauty and grace (read more here):

Domenico Scarlatti

This guy wrote an astounding amount of music for harpsichord. Check this out:

Antonio Vivaldi

There’s more to Vivaldi than just Four Seasons. Listen to this sunny concerto for violin:

Sadly we can’t cover everything in just one post, but there you have it – the Baroque musical era in a nutshell. The music created during this time was (and still is!) influential for musicians and composers. One of the most important developments of this time, though, is tonal harmony. Key signatures, chord progressions, and harmonic support became standard during the Baroque era.

And finally some words of parting from our friend Cogsworth:

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