Baroque music is a style of Western art music composed from approximately 1600 to 1750. This era followed after the Renaissance music era, and was followed in turn by the Classical era. Baroque music forms a major portion of the “classical music” canon, being widely studied, performed, and listened to. Key composers of the Baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Claudio Monteverdi, Domenico Scarlatti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Arcangelo Corelli, Tomaso Albinoni, François Couperin,.
The Baroque period saw the creation of tonality, an approach to writing music in which a song or piece is written in a particular key (tonality continues to be used in almost all 2000s-era Western popular music). During the Baroque era, professional musicians were expected to be accomplished improvisers of both solo melodic lines and accompaniment parts. Baroque concerts were typically accompanied by a basso continuo group which consisted of chord-playing instrumentalists such as harpsichordists and lute players improvising chords from a figured bass part while a group of bass instruments (viol, cello, double bass) played the bassline. A characteristic Baroque form was the dance suite. While the pieces in a dance suite were inspired by actual dance music, dance suites were designed for listening, not for accompanying dancers.
During the period, composers and performers used more elaborate musical ornamentation (typically improvised by performers), made changes in musical notation (the development of figured bass as a quick way to notate the chord progression of a song or piece), and developed new instrumental playing techniques. Baroque music expanded the size, range, and complexity of instrumental performance, and also established the mixed vocal/instrumental forms of opera, cantata and oratorio and the instrumental forms of the solo concerto and sonata as musical genres. Many musical terms and concepts from this era, such as toccata, fugue and concerto grosso are still in use in the 2010s. Dense, complex polyphonic music, in which multiple independent melody lines were performed simultaneously (a popular example of this is the fugue), was an important part of many Baroque choral and instrumental works.
The word “baroque” comes from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning misshapen pearl. The use of the word with negative connotations first occurred in 1734, in a criticism of an opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau, and later (1750) in a description by Charles de Brosses of the ornate and heavily ornamented architecture of the Pamphili Palace in Rome. Although the term continued to be applied to architecture and art criticism through the 19th century, it was not until the 20th century that the term “baroque” was adopted from Heinrich Wölfflin’s art-history vocabulary as a designator for a historical period in music.
The term “Baroque” is generally used by music historians to describe a broad range of styles from a wide geographic region, mostly in Europe, composed over a period of approximately 150 years. Although it was long thought that the word as a critical term was first applied to architecture, in fact it appears earlier in reference to music, in an anonymous, satirical review of the première in October 1733 of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, printed in the Mercure de France in May 1734. The critic implied that the novelty in this opera was “du barocque”, complaining that the music lacked coherent melody, was filled with unremitting dissonances, constantly changed key and meter, and speedily ran through every compositional device.
The systematic application by historians of the term “baroque” to music of this period is a relatively recent development. In 1919, Curt Sachs became the first to apply the five characteristics of Heinrich Wölfflin’s theory of the Baroque systematically to music. Critics were quick to question the attempt to transpose Wölfflin’s categories to music, however, and in the second quarter of the 20th century independent attempts were made by Manfred Bukofzer (in Germany and, after his immigration, in America) and by Suzanne Clercx-Lejeune (in Belgium) to use autonomous, technical analy. All of these efforts resulted in appreciable disagreement about time boundaries of the period, especially concerning when it began. In English the term acquired currency only in the 1940s, in the writings of Bukofzer and Paul Henry Lang.
As late as 1960 there was still considerable dispute in academic circles, particularly in France and Britain, whether it was meaningful to lump together music as diverse as that of Jacopo Peri, Domenico Scarlatti, and J. S
. Bach under a single rubric. Nevertheless, the term has become widely used and accepted for this broad range of music. It may be helpful to distinguish the Baroque from both the preceding (Renaissance) and following (Classical) periods of musical history.
The Baroque period is divided into three major phases: early, middle, and late. Although they overlap in time, they are conventionally dated from 1580 to 1630, from 1630 to 1680, and from 1680 to 1730.
Early baroque music (1580–1630)
The Florentine Camerata was a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals in late Renaissance Florence who gathered under the patronage of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi to discuss and guide trends in the arts, especially music and drama. In reference to music, they based their ideals on a perception of Classical (especially ancient Greek) musical drama that valued discourse and oration. As such, they rejected their contemporaries’ use of polyphony (multiple, independent melodic lines) and instrumental music, and discussed such ancient Greek music devices as monody, which consisted of a solo singing accompanied by a kithara (an ancient strummed string instrument). The early realizations of these ideas, including Jacopo Peri’s Dafne and L’Euridice, marked the beginning of opera, which were a catalyst for Baroque music.
Concerning music theory, the more widespread use of figured bass (also known as thorough bass) represents the developing importance of harmony as the linear underpinnings of polyphony. Harmony is the end result of counterpoint, and figured bass is a visual representation of those harmonies commonly employed in musical performance. With figured bass, numbers, accidentals or symbols were placed above the bassline that was read by keyboard instrument players such as harpsichord players or pipe organists (or lutenists). The numbers, accidentals or symbols indicated to the keyboard player what intervals she should play above each bass note. The keyboard player would improvise a chord voicing for each bass note. Composers began concerning themselves with harmonic progressions, and also employed the tritone, perceived as an unstable interval, to create dissonance (it was used in the dominant seventh chord and the diminished chord. An interest in harmony had also existed among certain composers in the Renaissance, notably Carlo Gesualdo; However, the use of harmony directed towards tonality (a focus on a musical key that becomes the “home note” of a piece), rather than modality, marks the shift from the Renaissance into the Baroque period. This led to the idea that certain sequences of chords, rather than just notes, could provide a sense of closure at the end of a piece—one of the fundamental ideas that became known as tonality.
By incorporating these new aspects of composition, Claudio Monteverdi furthered the transition from the Renaissance style of music to that of the Baroque period. He developed two individual styles of composition – the heritage of Renaissance polyphony (prima pratica) and the new basso continuo technique of the Baroque (seconda pratica). With basso continuo, a small group of musicians would play the bassline and the chords which formed the accompaniment for a melody. The basso continuo group would typically use one or more keyboard players and a lute player who would play the bassline and improvise the chords and several bass instruments (eg, bass viol, cello, double bass) which would play the bassline. With the writing of the operas L’Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea among others, Monteverdi brought considerable attention to this new genre.
Middle baroque music (1630–1680)
The rise of the centralized court is one of the economic and political features of what is often labelled the Age of Absolutism, personified by Louis XIV of France. The style of palace, and the court system of manners and arts he fostered became the model for the rest of Europe. The realities of rising church and state patronage created the demand for organized public music, as the increasing availability of instruments created the demand for chamber music, which is music for a small ensemble of instrumentalists.
The middle Baroque period in Italy is defined by the emergence of the vocal styles of cantata, oratorio, and opera during the 1630s, and a new concept of melody and harmony that elevated the status of the music to one of equality with the words, which formerly had been regarded as pre-eminent. The florid, coloratura monody of the early Baroque gave way to a simpler, more polished melodic style. These melodies were built from short, cadentially delimited ideas often based on stylized dance patterns drawn from the sarabande or the courante. The harmonies, too, might be simpler than in the early Baroque monody, and the accompanying bass lines were more integrated with the melody, producing a contrapuntal equivalence of the parts that later led to the device of an initial bass anticipation of the aria melody. This harmonic simplification also led to a new formal device of the differentiation of recitative (a more spoken part of opera) and aria (a part of opera that used sung melodies). The most important innovators of this style were the Romans Luigi Rossi and Giacomo Carissimi, who were primarily composers of cantatas and oratorios, respectively, and the Venetian Francesco Cavalli, who was principally an opera composer. Later important practitioners of this style include Antonio Cesti, Giovanni Legrenzi, and Alessandro Stradella.
The middle Baroque had absolutely no bearing on the theoretical work of Johann Fux, who systematized the strict counterpoint characteristic of earlier ages in his Gradus ad Paranassum (1725).
One pre-eminent example of a court style composer is Jean-Baptiste Lully. He purchased patents from the monarchy to be the sole composer of operas for the French king and to prevent others from having operas staged. He completed 15 lyric tragedies and left unfinished Achille et Polyxène. Lully was an early example of a conductor; he would beat the time with a large staff to keep his ensembles together.
Musically, he did not establish the string-dominated norm for orchestras, which was inherited from the Italian opera, and the characteristically French five-part disposition (violins, violas—in hautes-contre, tailles and quintes sizes—and bass violins) had been used in the ballet from the time of Louis XIII. He did, however, introduce this ensemble to the lyric theatre, with the upper parts often doubled by recorders, flutes, and oboes, and the bass by bassoons. Trumpets and kettledrums were frequently added for heroic scenes.
Arcangelo Corelli is remembered as influential for his achievements on the other side of musical technique—as a violinist who organized violin technique and pedagogy—and in purely instrumental music, particularly his advocacy and development of the concerto grosso. Whereas Lully was ensconced at court, Corelli was one of the first composers to publish widely and have his music performed all over Europe. As with Lully’s stylization and organization of the opera, the concerto grosso is built on strong contrasts—sections alternate between those played by the full orchestra, and those played by a smaller group. Dynamics were “terraced”, that is with a sharp transition from loud to soft and back again. Fast sections and slow sections were juxtaposed against each other. Numbered among his students is Antonio Vivaldi, who later composed hundreds of works based on the principles in Corelli’s trio sonatas and concerti.
In contrast to these composers, Dieterich Buxtehude was not a creature of court but instead was church musician, holding the posts of organist and Werkmeister at the Marienkirche at Lübeck. His duties as Werkmeister involved acting as the secretary, treasurer, and business manager of the church, while his position as organist included playing for all the main services, sometimes in collaboration with other instrumentalists or vocalists, who were also paid by the church. Entirely outside of his official church duties, he organised and directed a concert series known as the Abendmusiken, which included performances of sacred dramatic works regarded by his contemporaries as the equivalent of operas.
Late baroque music (1680–1730)
The work of George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach and their contemporaries, including Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Georg Philipp Telemann, and others advanced the Baroque era to its climax. Through the work of Johann Fux, the Renaissance style of polyphony was made the basis for the study of composition for future musical eras. The composers of the late baroque had established their feats of composition long before the works of Johann Fux.
A continuous worker, Handel borrowed from other composers and often “recycled” his own material. He was also known for reworking pieces such as the famous Messiah, which premiered in 1742, for available singers and musicians.
- Violino piccolo
- Viola d’amore
- Viola pomposa
- Tenor violin
- Bass violin
- Baroque flute
- Musette de cour
- Baroque oboe
- Natural horn
- Baroque trumpet
- Tromba da tirarsi
- Flatt trumpet
- Tangent piano
Styles and forms
A characteristic Baroque form was the dance suite. Some dance suites by Bach are called partitas, although this term is also used for other collections of pieces. While the pieces in a dance suite were inspired by actual dance music, dance suites were designed for listening, not for accompanying dancers. Composers used a variety of different dance movements in their dance suites. A dance suite often consists of the following movements:
- Overture – The Baroque suite often began with a French overture (“Ouverture” in French), a slow movement which was followed by a succession of dances of different types, principally the following four:
- Allemande – Often the first dance of an instrumental suite, the allemande was a very popular dance that had its origins in the German Renaissance era. The allemande was played at a moderate tempo and could start on any beat of the bar.
- Courante – The second dance is the courante, a lively, French dance in triple meter. The Italian version is called the corrente.
- Sarabande – The sarabande, a Spanish dance, is the third of the four basic dances, and is one of the slowest of the baroque dances. It is also in triple meter and can start on any beat of the bar, although there is an emphasis on the second beat, creating the characteristic ‘halting’, or iambic rhythm of the sarabande.
- Gigue – The gigue is an upbeat and lively baroque dance in compound meter, typically the concluding movement of an instrumental suite, and the fourth of its basic dance types. The gigue can start on any beat of the bar and is easily recognized by its rhythmic feel. The gigue originated in the British Isles. Its counterpart in folk music is the jig.
These four dance types (allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue) make up the majority of 17th-century suites; later suites interpolate one or more additional dances between the sarabande and gigue:
- Gavotte – The gavotte can be identified by a variety of features; it is in 4/4 time and always starts on the third beat of the bar, although this may sound like the first beat in some cases, as the first and third beats are the strong beats in quadruple time. The gavotte is played at a moderate tempo, although in some cases it may be played faster.
- Bourrée – The bourrée is similar to the gavotte as it is in 2/2 time, although it starts on the second half of the last beat of the bar, creating a different feel to the dance. The bourrée is commonly played at a moderate tempo, although for some composers, such as Handel, it can be taken at a much faster tempo.
- Minuet – The minuet is perhaps the best-known of the baroque dances in triple meter. It can start on any beat of the bar. In some suites there may be a Minuet I and II, played in succession, with the Minuet I repeated.
- Passepied – The passepied is a fast dance in binary form and triple meter that originated as a court dance in Brittany. Examples can be found in later suites such as those of Bach and Handel.
- Rigaudon – The rigaudon is a lively French dance in duple meter, similar to the bourrée, but rhythmically simpler. It originated as a family of closely related southern-French folk dances, traditionally associated with the provinces of Vavarais, Languedoc, Dauphiné, and Provence.
- Prelude – a suite might be started by a prelude, a slow piece written in an improvisatory style. Some Baroque preludes were not fully written out; instead, a sequence of chords were indicated, with the expectation that the instrumentalist would be able to improvise a melodic part using the indicated harmonic framework. The prelude was not based on a type of dance.
- Entrée – Sometimes an entrée is composed as part of a suite; but there it is purely instrumental music and no dance is performed. It is an introduction, a march-like piece played during the entrance of a dancing group, or played before a ballet. Usually in 4/4 time. It is related to the Italian ‘intrada’.
- Basso continuo – a kind of continuous accompaniment notated with a new music notation system, figured bass, usually for one or more sustaining bass instruments (eg, cello) and one or more chord-playing instruments (eg, keyboard instruments such as harpsichord, pipe organ or lute)
- The concerto (a solo piece with orchestral accompaniment) and concerto grosso
- Monody – an outgrowth of song
- Homophony – music with one melodic voice and rhythmically similar (and subordinate) chordal accompaniment (this and monody are contrasted with the typical Renaissance texture, polyphony)
- Dramatic musical forms like opera, dramma per musica
- Combined instrumental-vocal forms, such as the oratorio and cantata, both of which used singers and orchestra
- New instrumental techniques, like tremolo and pizzicato
- The ritornello aria – repeated short instrumental interruptions of vocal passages.
- The concertato style – contrast in sound between groups of instruments.
- Extensive ornamentation, which was typically improvised by singers and instrumentalists (eg, trills, mordents, etc. )
- Opera seria[/tt_ts] [tt_st]Opéra comique
- Passion (music)
- Mass (music)
- Chorale composition
- Concerto grosso
- Sonata da camera
- Sonata da chiesa
- Trio sonata
- Chorale prelude
- Stylus fantasticus
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