Baroque Music


Table Summary

Summary of Baroque Music (excluding opera)
Vivaldi concertos (The Four Seasons)
Handel sacred vocal works (Messiah), dance suites (Water Music and Fireworks Music)
Bach keyboard music (fugues), concertos (Brandenburg Concertos), sacred vocal works (St Matthew Passion, Mass in B minor)

General Features

The leading regions of Baroque music were Italy and Germany; the other major contributor was France. Indeed, these three regions (plus Austria, beginning in the Classical period) remained the heart of Western composition throughout the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods.

Baroque music is quite distinct from that of the Renaissance; two primary distinguishing features are major-minor tonality and basso continuo.

Major-minor tonality denotes that a composition is both tonal (centred around a fundamental note) and based on major and minor scales (see Tonality). Medieval and Renaissance music, though indeed tonal, was based on the eight church modes (see Medieval and Renaissance Music). Major-minor tonality dominated Western music throughout the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods (and continues to flourish in modern popular music, film music, and musical theatre).

Basso continuo, on the other hand, was limited mainly to the Baroque period of Western music. This term denotes a style of accompaniment comprised of two instruments: one instrument (typically a cello) provides a bassline, while the other (typically a harpsichord) provides improvised chords.2

Instrumental Music

The Baroque era marks the rise of instrumental music to an equal footing with vocal music in the Western world. Baroque composers especially favoured the violin, harpsichord, and organ. Indeed, Baroque-era Germany was the "golden age" of organ composition.I173,I234,I255

Instrumental music can be divided into program music, which the composer intends to evoke specific events or images; and absolute music, which lacks this intention.

Multi-movement Works

A multi-movement work consists of multiple, self-contained works, each of which is referred to as a movement. Multi-movement works are common in Western music from the Baroque age onward. Typically, the movements vary in character (notably tempo) in order to provide contrast throughout the work.

In a work of absolute music (such as a symphony), each movement is typically named according to its tempo (e.g. allegro, andante). In a work of program music (such as a symphonic poem), each movement is typically named according to the imagery associated with the music (e.g. Scene in the Country, Tortoises).

Sometimes a multi-movement work is called a suite (e.g. piano suite) or cycle (e.g. song cycle).

Rise of the Orchestra

The orchestra emerged in the Baroque era, serving initially as accompaniment for opera. As opera developed and expanded, so did the orchestra.J49

In addition to its main role (accompaniment of singers), the orchestra came to provide instrumental passages in the course of an opera. Such passages include the overture (at the beginning), interludes (between scenes), and accompaniment for dance sequences. Independent orchestral music was born when these instrumental passages (especially overtures) came to be performed as standalone works.I252,J50

The symphony was born when standalone orchestral music was extended into multiple movements. (The term "symphony" did not become standard until the Classical period, however; pre-Classical symphonies are often called overtures or sinfonias.) The concerto (discussed in greater detail below) emerged as a specialized form of the symphony, in which the orchestra is divided into two "voices".

The Baroque orchestra consisted primarily of a string section with basso continuo accompaniment. This core was generally augmented by some combination of woodwinds, trumpets, horns, and/or timpani. The familiar modern orchestra emerged as the orchestra underwent continuous expansion and refinement throughout the Classical and Romantic periods.

Typical Layout of a Modern Orchestra
Diagram Reduced to Typical Instruments of the Baroque Orchestra

Primary Genres

From the Baroque age onward, Western music can be divided into three groups according to scale: solo, small ensemble, and large ensemble.
Primary Genres of Baroque Music
solo keyboard (organ, harpsichord, clavichord), violin
small ensemble trio sonata
large ensemble orchestral concerto
vocal opera, sacred choral (oratorio, mass)

Solo music of the Baroque and Classical periods was composed for many instruments, but especially keyboard and violin. A common term for "solo instrumental work" is sonata. (Note that "solo music" for a non-keyboard instrument usually features keyboard accompaniment.) During the Baroque era, the primary keyboard instruments were the organ, harpsichord, and clavichord.

Works for small ensemble are often named for their number of parts (trio, quartet, quintet, etc). The leading type of small ensemble during the Baroque age was the trio sonata, which features two melody instruments (often violins) supported by basso continuo (which is considered a single part of the "trio").2

Large ensemble music can be classified as orchestral or vocal.

The leading form of orchestral music during the Baroque age was the concerto, which features two "voices". One voice is the orchestra; the other is either a small ensemble or a single instrument. Throughout a concerto, the two voices play both together and separately, imitating and contrasting with one another.

A concerto that pairs the orchestra with a small ensemble is known as a concerto grosso; with a single instrument, a solo concerto. While both types flourished in the Baroque era, only the solo concerto remained popular throughout the Classical and Romantic periods. (In discussion of Classical and Romantic music, the term "concerto" is synonymous with "solo concerto".)

The two great vocal genres of the Baroque age were opera and sacred choral works.

Opera, which is essentially the fusion of theatre and music, typically features two kinds of vocal passages: speaking (which advances the story) and songs (which highlight important parts of the story). Speaking may take the form of recitative ("talk-singing") or plain speech, while singing includes arias (solo songs), small group songs (duets, trios, etc.) and choruses.

The two great forms of Baroque sacred choral music are the oratorio and mass.

An oratorio may be defined as "an opera with the acting removed". Like opera, an oratorio tells a story with a cast of characters who speak (with plain speech or recitative) and sing (arias, small group songs, choruses). The performance is simply directed to the audience, however; the characters do not interact.I200-01,I224

A brief oratorio is called a cantata. Oratorios and cantatas are usually sacred (as opposed to opera, which is usually secular).

The core of the Roman Catholic religious service is Mass, a ceremony that commemorates the Last Supper. In addition to scriptural readings and symbolic consumption of bread and wine, the ceremony includes recitations (sung or spoken) of certain prayers; a musical setting of these prayers is known as a mass (e.g. Bach's Mass in B Minor). The standard prayers of the mass are the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei.

During the medieval and Renaissance periods, the mass thrived as one of the principal forms of Western art music. (As the Middle Ages drew on, plainchant masses, the original type, were joined by polyphonic masses.) The mass remained important after the Renaissance, though its prominence declined.

Main Article

Baroque Music

ca. 1600-1750

The three most renowned figures in Baroque music are Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach.

Antonio Vivaldi, priest and violinist, was the foremost Italian composer of the age, known primarily for composing hundreds of concertos (chiefly solo concertos). His most famous body of work is The Four Seasons, a set of four violin concertos.

German-British composer George Frideric Handel excelled primarily in operas and oratorios.12 The English-language oratorio Messiah (which includes the famous Hallelujah Chorus) is considered his masterpiece. Handel's best known instrumental works are a number of dance suites, namely Water Music (a group of three dance suites) and Fireworks Music (a single dance suite).

The foremost composer of the Baroque era is Johann Sebastian Bach, who excelled in all major genres of the age except opera (which he did not pursue). Bach is particularly renowned for his solo keyboard works, concertos, and sacred vocal works.I256

In the field of solo keyboard music, Bach is considered the greatest composer of the fugue: a contrapuntal work in which a theme is constantly passed between different lines in the texture (see Musical Texture). While some of Bach's fugues are standalone, most are the second component of a two-part work. The most famous of all fugues is found in Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

When a fugue lies within a two-part work, the first part is typically a composition of whimsical, improvisatory character (thus contrasting sharply with the formal, structured nature of a fugue). Common terms for improvisation-style compositions include prelude, fantasia, and toccata. This style of work emerged naturally from warm-up exercises, which encompass improvised mixtures of runs, arpeggios, leaps, and ornaments.

Bach's foremost concertos are the six Brandenburg Concertos, which comprise the pinnacle of the concerto grosso.

In terms of sacred vocal music, Bach was a prolific composer of the mass, oratorio, and cantata. His most renowned vocal works may be the St Matthew Passion (an oratorio) and the Mass in B Minor.

The Birth of Opera

In the final decades of the Renaissance, various Florentine composers (known collectively as the "Florentine Camerata") strove to emulate ancient Greek theatre (which had included musical elements; see Ancient Literature). These composers wrote the first modern plays in which lines are sung rather than spoken. Indeed, they invented a new kind of singing for this purpose: recitative, in which melody imitates the rise and fall of natural speech. These works could be described as "sung plays" or "proto-opera".2,8

Proto-opera drew the attention of many composers across Italy. Opera emerged as these composers expanded the "sung play" beyond recitative to include songs (arias, small group songs, and choruses), as well as instrumental accompaniment (which grew from small ensembles into full-fledged orchestras). Orfeo, by Claudio Monteverdi, is generally considered the first true opera.I189-90,2,3,7,8

Baroque Opera

ca. 1600-1750
The Nine Most-Performed Opera Composers
Baroque Classical Romantic
Italian Handel Mozart (Donizetti, Rossini) > Verdi > Puccini
German Wagner > R Strauss
French Bizet

During the first few decades of the Baroque period, opera was predominantly serious (as opposed to comic) in character. Thus, serious Italian opera was the very first type of opera. Throughout the Baroque age, serious Italian opera came to focus primarily on arias, which grew increasingly long and elaborate.I214-17,3

Radiating from Italy, serious opera was widely embraced by Western Europe. Indeed, the most enduring composer of serious Italian opera is German-English composer Handel. His greatest operatic work is often considered to be Giulio Cesare ("Julius Caesar").

Popularity of Baroque Opera Composers (by performance runs, 2007-12)

In time, other regional styles of serious opera developed (using Italian opera as a model), especially in Germany, England, and France. Serious German opera would eventually (in the Romantic period) become a primary force in the opera world. The flowering of serious English opera was swifter, but limited to the Baroque era and to essentially one composer: Henry Purcell, whose work culminated in Dido and Aeneas. Purcell is the second-most performed of all Baroque opera composers.

Yet during the Baroque and Classical periods, the most active school of serious opera outside Italy was serious French opera, of which the outstanding figures are Lully and Rameau.

Jean-Baptiste Lully founded the French style of opera by merging Italian opera with the lavish French tradition of ballet. French opera consequently de-emphasizes the small-scale, individual level (arias) and emphasizes the large-scale, collective level (scenery, dance sequences, choruses). This emphasis continued to thrive in the works of Jean-Philippe Rameau, the most-performed Baroque French opera composer, and one of the leading contenders for the title of "greatest ballet composer" (along with Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky).I264,3,6,8,9

Comic Opera

Comic opera developed shortly after the maturation and diffusion of serious opera. As in serious opera, four major regional styles emerged: Italian, French, English, and German. Each style drew much from the native folk music and theatre of its region.

Yet all comic opera shares certain typical features, including catchy tunes, relatable storylines and settings, stock characters, and standard comedic genres (e.g. satirical, slapstick, bawdy). While many comic operas feature purely light-hearted stories, others balance the comedy with a measure of serious dramatic material.I303,2

Most of today's frequently-performed comic operas date from the Romantic period. A few (all Mozart) are Classical; none are Baroque.

1 - "Western music", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Western music", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
3 - "Opera", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed September 2010.
4 - "Opera buffa", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
5 - "Opera", Encarta 2004.
6 - "Jean-Philippe Rameau", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed September 2010.
7 - "Claudio Monteverdi", Encarta 2004.
8 - "Opera", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
9 - "Jean-Baptiste Lully", Encarta 2004.
10 - "Orchestra", Encarta 2004.
11 - "Piano", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
12 - "Handel", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.