Western Music History/Baroque Music

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Introduction[edit | edit source]

The Baroque Period spans from 1600 to 1750. During this time there were increases in commercial activity, leading to an increase of power in the middle class, which ultimately lead to the Industrial Revolution.

Opera was now emerging for the first time, with many opera houses being built. The two 'giants' of the Baroque era were Bach and Handel.

Bach's death in 1750 marked the end of the Baroque period. Other main composers of this period were Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Corelli, Telemann, and Rameau.

The Baroque era is sub-divided into Early Baroque, Middle Baroque and Late Baroque. The Early Baroque period was between about 1600 and 1660. During this period came the invention of opera – a drama sung to an orchestral accompaniment - and homophonic texture was favored. The Middle Baroque period dates from about 1660 to 1710. Here church modes give way to major and minor chords. Instrumental music becomes very important, and the fully fledged orchestra is now developed. The Late Baroque begins about 1710 and ends circa 1750. Polyphony once more flourishes, most notably of all in the works of Bach.

Music in Society[edit | edit source]

Music was the main source of entertainment/diversion in the Baroque era. Aristocrats surrounded themselves with concert halls etc.... Music directors were employed by the aristocracy to oversee orchestras, choirs, instruments, music libraries etc... They were highly paid and prestigious positions in Baroque society. Music was a craft passed down over generations, a musician teaching the craft to his son, and he to his son. Commercial opera houses were about and flourishing.

Musical Styles in the Baroque Era[edit | edit source]

Mood[edit | edit source]

A Baroque piece expresses only one basic mood, and follows what is termed the ‘doctrine of affect’. Composers used musical language to depict particular affective states, specific rhythms and melodic patterns being associated with each. Word-painting was especially used to associate what one was playing to certain texts of music, for example, "Primavera" (Spring) within Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." The sonnet that precedes each movement describes what the music will be representing (i.e. violins emulating birds, thunderstorms, dogs, etc).

Rhythm[edit | edit source]

Unity is achieved through rhythmic continuity. The same rhythmic patterns are repeated throughout a Baroque piece of music. Some might think that this repetition would become tedious, but this, however, has the opposite effect, propelling the music forward. The beat is emphasized very strongly, which is a huge leap from the rhythmically free nature of the Medieval Gregorian Chant.

Melody[edit | edit source]

The Baroque melodies also create a feeling of continuity. The melody was also repeated in the same way as the rhythm. An unraveling, unwinding and expansion of the melody was gradually created as the piece goes along. As a result, melodies of this era tend to lack the kind of symmetry and balance associated with Classical era melodies.

Dynamics[edit | edit source]

Baroque music uses terraced dynamics. This means that the volume stays the same for a period of time, then there is a sudden shift to a different dynamic level. There are no gradual changes in dynamics (such as a crescendo or decrescendo). Terraced dynamics were used as the main keyboard instrument was the harpsichord, which could only be played in two modes, either loud (forte) or soft (piano), precluding the ability to accomplish crescendos or decrescendos.

Texture[edit | edit source]

Textures used in the Baroque period, especially in the early part (c. 1600-1660), were predominantly homophonic, or melody with basso continuo, typical of Baroque music. In the late Baroque era, German composers such as Telemann, Bach, and Handel experimented with counterpoint and helped to create, in no small degree, Baroque polyphonic music.

Harmony[edit | edit source]

Chords became increasingly important in the Baroque period. Before then, composers were concerned with the individual beauty of melodic lines, rather than with chords. Chords were previously a mere by-product of the motion of several simultaneously sounding melodic lines. In Baroque, chords become significant in themselves, due to the emphasis on the Bass Voice. The entire structure of the Baroque piece rested on the Bass Voice. This new emphasis on chords and the Bass part results in the most characteristic feature of all Baroque music – the Basso Continuo (alternatively translated as Thoroughbass or Figured Bass).

The Basso Continuo consists of a bass part together with numbers below each note which specify the chord to be played above it. It is played by at least two instruments, usually the organ or harpsichord (to produce the chords) reinforced by a cello or bassoon. The performer was given a great deal of freedom with regards the realization of the figured bass. The Basso Continuo was also used in the early classical period, particularly in some works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who will be covered in the next chapter.

Words and Music[edit | edit source]

Word painting was still important, and composers emphasized words through their music.

Orchestra[edit | edit source]

The orchestra was based on the string instruments, and usually consisted of 10 to 40 instruments. However, there was a very flexible arrangement of instruments. At its nucleus were the basso continuo and upper strings. The use of woodwinds, brass and percussion was variable.


Compositions include sets of movements/pieces. A movement is considered an independent piece. The musical genres used during the Baroque era include: opera, oratorio, cantata, suite, sonata, mass, concerto and fugue.

Important Figures[edit | edit source]

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)[edit | edit source]

Life[edit | edit source]

Bach came from a very long line of musicians. Each generation learned the musical craft from the previous generation. Bach had twenty children, although only nine survived; of those nine, four became composers. When he was 18 years old he became an organist. The church complained about his dense polyphony and questioned his strange meeting with a maiden in the church (which happened to be his cousin, who he then married). He then started working for the Duke of Weinstad and was promoted, but did not want the promotion, so he was put in jail for a month. He then moved to Cöthen, where he wrote the Brandenburg concertos. He then moved to Leipzig and became municipal director of all four churches. He sent his children to the local university to study. He was completely blind towards the end of his life, only to have regained his sight briefly before his death.

Music[edit | edit source]

Bach created masterpieces in every Baroque genre except opera. Instrumental music - especially keyboard works - were prominent in his output. It was also during the Baroque period that the public witnessed the emergence of the orchestra. Bach used dense polyphonic textures and rich harmonies. His harmony and counterpoint is still used as a model for music students today. His 'Art of Fugue' displays all resources of fugal writing.

Fugues[edit | edit source]

Bach wrote fugues for solo instruments (mainly for keyboard instruments). The fugue is NOT a form, but rather a compositional device, much like a canon or round. A fugue consists of two items: a subject, or main theme, and an answer. The answer can be either an exact, or real, repeat of the subject, or it can be a tonal repeat, in which the answer is modulated to another key center (usually the dominant) and contains intervallic modifications in order to make it fit into the new key.

Several methods can be used to modify a fugue subject: AUGMENTATION (Lengthening the values of the notes), DIMINUTION (Shortening the values of the notes), INVERSION (Inverting the intervals), RETROGRADE (the theme backwards) and STRETTO (Overlapping of voices).

Another often encountered feature is pedal-point, where the tonic or dominant note (usually in the bass part)is held for long periods of time. One subject is exhaustively exploited.

Cantatas[edit | edit source]

The cantata was the principal means of musical expression of the Lutheran service. Most usually it was written for chorus, vocal soloists, organ and small orchestra, and set to a German religious text based on the bible. It was used to reinforced the minister’s sermon, and was generally around 25 minutes in length. It consists of several movements, including choruses, chorales (hymns), recitatives (sections consisting of melodically intoned narrative), arias and duets. Bach wrote a total of 295 cantatas in his lifetime. While the opera, which also blossomed during the Baroque era, was a dramatic SECULAR work employing an orchestra along with stage actors, the cantata featured all the opera's elements except that the cantata was sacred.

Bach's most famous Cantata: Cantata no 140 – “Wachet Auf”. It was based on a chorale tune, written 130 years earlier. This hymn has 3 movements. Bach uses hymn melody in 3 of the 7 movements.

1st Movement Opens with orchestral introduction. Uses dotted rhythms, syncopation and rising scale passages. Sopranos enter, sing chorale notes in long note values. There are three layers of sound: 1. Chorale melody in long notes in Soprano voice. 2. Imitative dialogue in shorter notes in lower voices. 3. orchestral accompaniment .

4th Movement This is the most famous movement. Arranged as a chorale prelude for organ later on in Bach’s life. Thee are two contrasting melodies against each other. Chorale tune moves in faster rhythmic values than in the 1st movement, sung against the string’s counter-melody.

7th Movement This movement rounds off the cantata. For first time, all voices and instruments are used. The chorale is set in a homophonic texture for four voices with the instruments doubling. The chorale is presented as a continuous melody with full harmony and regular rhythms.

Concerto Grosso[edit | edit source]

The Concerto Grosso was an very important genre in late Baroque in orchestral form. It was written for small groups of soloists (between two and four) put against the orchestra – called the tutti. It standardly comprises three movements : 1st: fast (dramatic); 2nd: slow (lyrical); 3rd: dance-like; 1st and 3rd movements use ritornello form, which is based on alternation between tutti and solo sections.

The main theme is always presented by the tutti. It returns in different keys (possibly only fragments). Bach wrote many Concerti Grossi, e.g., the six Brandenburg Concertos.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048[edit | edit source]

This is arguably the most famous of all the Brandenburg concertos. This is with out a doubt a great piece for an intermediate orchestra. The outer of the three movements are in ritornello form. The concerto's first movement is easily recognizable and associated with Bach. Surprisingly, the second movement consists of only two chords that make up a cadence, which leads to the final movement in 3/4 meter.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050[edit | edit source]

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 uses a string orchestra and group of soloists, which are the flute, violin, and harpsichord. It comprises three movements: The 1st movement - Allegro (lively) - makes use of a continuous flow of rapid notes, alternating between soloists and tutti. The recurring tutti section is louder and longer than the intervening soloist sections, which are mainly marked piano and use the flute to add a new tone-color (timbre). Their music is brilliant and more polyphonic than the tutti refrain, and new material is presented in them. Tension is built up during each soloist section, which anticipates the tutti’s next return. There is a vast cadenza for solo harpsichord towards the end, demonstrating this tension-building and eventual relief, and thus the formal scheme of the concerto grosso, as a tour de force.

Note : A Cadenza is a passage which displays virtuoso brilliance.

The 2nd movement is slow, in the relative minor (B minor) and much quieter. It uses only the three solo instruments, and a cello, which duplicates the bass line of the harpsichord. The harpsichord has both an accompanying role as well as a solo role. There is a serious mood throughout. The 3rd movement is dance-like and makes use of an ABA form (maj|min|maj – ternary form). It opens like a fugue, with plentiful contrapuntal imitation. The main theme is introduced by violins and imitated by the flutes and harpsichord. In the B section, a new, lyrical theme is introduced.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)[edit | edit source]

Vivaldi was an Italian composer born in Venice. His father was a violinist in St. Marks’s cathedral. Vivaldi is best known for his 400 concerto grossi and solo concerti. In particular, he exploited the resources of the violin. His solo concertos include instruments like piccolo, flute, cello, bassoon, and mandolin. He also composed many operas, many of them lost. Despite being known for his concerti today, in his own time he was known largely for his operas (indeed, he was the most performed composer in Venetian theaters from 1713 to 1719).

The Four Seasons[edit | edit source]

His most famous work is a set of concertos for solo violin with string orchestra. Each concerto depicts a season, and each concerto is prefaced by a sonnet. These concerti are programmatic / narrative in nature. The “Spring” concerto is arguably the most famous of the Four Seasons. It consists of three movements (fast | slow | fast), and makes use of terraced dynamics and tone painting; e.g. high trills to imitate bird chirps, tremolos to depict thunder and lightning, and soft running notes depict a stream. There is a Ritornello theme.

Opera in the early Baroque Era[edit | edit source]

The Baroque era invented opera. "Opera" can be simply defined as a drama, set to an orchestral accompaniment. It originated in the courts of kings and princes, and does not deal with the ordinary and mundane, but rather deals with the spectacular and the wonderful. An opera is the joint effort between a composer and a librettist (dramatist). The Libretto is the text, which is set to music by composer(s). Some operas are serious, comic or a mixture of both, and may contain spoken dialog, but most are sung entirely. They can consist of one to five acts subdivided into scenes. The main attraction is the aria, which is a song for solo voice set to orchestral accompaniment. The Opera may include recitatives, where the vocal line imitates the rhythms and pitch fluctuation of speech. Words are sung quickly on repeated notes, and are not melodic. Also, duets, trios, quintets etc... are used. The Chorus is important, as it generates atmosphere, and makes comments on the actions. Dance may be included. Most operas open with an overture or prelude, which is purely an orchestral composition.

Opera was born in Italy. Prepared by musical discussions between a group of nobles, poets and composers, which met regularly in Florence around 1575, and were known as the Camerata (Translated : “Fellowship” or “Committee”). They included Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo. The Camerata wanted a new vocal style based on the music of ancient Greek tragedy. These Grecian dramas were sung in a style midway between melody and speech. They wanted vocal lines to be speech-like. This speech-like style became known as recitative. The earliest opera that has survived is “Euridice” by Jacopo Peri (1561-1633). The first-known great opera is “Orfeo” by Monteverdi. It was written for the court of the Gonzago family in Mantua and based on Greek myth. The first commercial opera house, opened in Venice in 1637, which was one of the factors which caused Venice to became a major tourist attraction.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643)[edit | edit source]

Monteverdi was an Italian composer of the Early Baroque, who initially worked for 21 years in the service of the Gonzagas, the ruling family of Mantua. He was later positioned as the director of music at St. Marks in Venice. All of his works involve voices, and include operas, madrigals and church music. He makes use of the basso continuo and other instruments. He wrote 12 operas, of which only 3 are preserved. He is one of the key composers in the transition from Renaissance to Baroque.

Orfeo[edit | edit source]

Generally considered to be the first large-scale opera ever composed, 'Orfeo' was written in 1607 by Monteverdi for the Mantuan court. It was a lavish production, including soloists, dancers, chorus and large orchestra of 40 players. Beginning with an orchestral overture, it uses recitatives, arias, duets, choruses and instrumental interludes.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632 - 1687)[edit | edit source]

Lully was an Italian-born French composer. His birth name was Giovanni Battista Lulli. He moved to France (where he later became a naturalized citizen) at the age of 14, and was very influential in the development of French opera, the French overture, and ballet. He composed many in these genres, along with a handful of keyboard works. He died of an infection caused by his stabbing of a staff into his foot.

Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695)[edit | edit source]

Purcell was an English composer, born in Westminster, now part of London. He is best known for his opera Dido and Aeneas, semi-operas, and incidental music. He also wrote much chamber music and harpsichord suites.

Dido and Aeneas[edit | edit source]

This was Purcell's only true opera, based on the Aeneid by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. In this opera, soldier-of fortune Aeneas falls in love with Dido, queen of Carthage. Then he deserts her, sailing off to found the city of Rome. In Virgil's original story, Dido stabs herself with Aeneas's sword, but in Purcell's opera, she dies of a broken heart. This is the subject of the famous aria "When I am laid in earth."

Francois Couperin (1668 - 1733)[edit | edit source]

Couperin was one of the leading French composers of the Baroque era, born in Paris. Like Bach, he was from a family of musicians and composed no operas. He wrote some choral and vocal music, but is best known today for his instrumental music, especially his harpsichord works.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653 - 1713)[edit | edit source]

Corelli was an Italian composer, violinist, and teacher and was very influential to succeeding Baroque composers. He wrote 48 trio sonatas, 12 sonatas for violin and continuo, and 12 concerti grossi. Perhaps his most famous composition is the Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6, better known as the "Christmas Concerto".

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)[edit | edit source]

Handel studied the organ at the age of 9, and was teaching and composing by the time he was 11. His output consists mainly of English oratorios and some 39 Italian operas, the latter based on ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology (e.g., 'Julius Caesar'). With the exception of the "Messiah", stories from the Old Testament form the basis of his oratorios. He also wrote a great deal of instrumental music, ranging from solo harpsichord works and sonatas for small combinations to orchestral concerti grossi and celebratory music (e.g. "The Water Music")

His music, which embraces both homophonic and polyphonic styles, contains frequent changes of texture and sharp changes of mood, and often shifts between major and minor keys.

Messiah (1741)[edit | edit source]

The best-known of all oratorios, the 2 ½ hour long "The Messiah" took Handel just 24 days to write, and was first performed in 1742 in Dublin. It consists of three parts. The first part deals with the Messiah’s coming, and uses the New Testament extensively. There is a total of 50 movements in this oratorio. The famous Hallelluja chorus occurs at the end of the 2nd movement (movement no. 44). All movements are contrasting between major and minor keys.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 - 1767)[edit | edit source]

Telemann, a German, was the most famous composer in Europe during his lifetime, over Bach and Handel, both of whom are now, ironically, more highly renowned than Telemann. He was born in Magdeburg. He wrote the first of his 40 operas at the age of 12. Other than operas, Telemann wrote numerous sacred music, but is best known today for his instrumental music. Among his most notable works is the Suite for recorder, strings, and continuo in A minor, TWV 55:a2, the Hamburger Ebb und Fluht, TWV 55:C3 overture in C major, and the Trumpet Concerto in D major, TWV 51:D7.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 - 1764)[edit | edit source]

Like Couperin, Rameau was one of the most famous French composers of the Baroque era. Besides composing instrumental music, he also composed a handful of ballets, motets, and during the second half of his career, many operas, making him a versatile composer. Some of his most famous works include Pièces de clavecin, Pièces de clavecin en concerts, and operas such as Hippolyte et Aricie, Castor et Pollux, and Zoroastre. He also wrote an influential treatise on music theory that paved the way for many developments which followed.