The Baroque Period
The music of the Baroque Period was characterized by ornate melodies, dense harmonies, and harpsichord-driven orchestras. Composers produced music of this sort for an approximately one-hundred-and-fifty-year period between 1600 and 1750.
The word Baroque comes from barroco which means “imperfect pearl” in Portuguese and was first used by journalists to pejoratively describe art and architecture of a strange and peculiar nature (Norton/Grove 61).
Many of the common “classical” styles evolved in the Baroque Period, including the sonata, the oratorio, and the concerto:
- The sonata was a composition for one solo instrument.
- The oratorio was a choral composition similar in scale and scope to opera but based on religious themes instead of secular ones.
- And the concerto was an orchestral piece featuring one focus (or lead) instrument (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca).
In addition to these styles, a theory based on the interaction between mind and soul evolved during the Baroque Period that greatly affected music. Known as the Doctrine of Affections, this theory stipulated that sense stimuli (such as listening to music) caused perturbations within one’s soul that evoked powerful emotions like sadness, love, anger, and joy (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 296).
Rene Descartes, the French philosopher responsible for defining the “affections” idea, suggested that experiencing music, art, and architecture was akin to experiencing the metaphysical essence of existence itself.
On a more down-to-earth matter, the Baroque period also saw theoretical advancements in accompaniment technique. One such accompaniment technique was known as basso continuo, or as thoroughbass, and it involved a kind of shorthand for keyboardist and bass instrumentalist to realize musical figures together (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 301).
Functioning somewhat like a jazz lead sheet, thoroughbass notation was a straightforward way of writing down the complex ideas involved in musical accompaniment. The basso continuo was usually realized by two musicians: one playing harpsichord, organ, or lute; and another playing viola da gamba, cello, or bassoon. Consequently, these instruments were known as continuo instruments (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 301).
Being able to detect this distinctive accompaniment style is one way to discern Baroque music from all other styles. Just listen for that driving harpsichord, and you’ll know it’s Baroque music.
The Baroque period also saw the rise of opera, which was an epic marriage of music, storytelling, choreography, acting, set painting, and costume design. Opera evolved out of musical interludes called intermedi that were used to segway between acts of a play. The first opera was called Dafne and was written by Jacopo Peri, who was a composer operating in Florence, Italy, during the late 1590s (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 308).
Opera featured a new singing technique called recitative that enabled plot to be delivered entirely by song. The dialogue of a typical recitative was sung in short, clipped phrases that were speech-like and composed to follow along with the accents of the text (Larousse 156; Randel 429).
One of the masters of this technique, and of the opera genre in general, was George Frideric Handel.
One of the most important composers of the Baroque period was Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel was born in Germany but moved to England in 1712 and became an English citizen in 1727. As a result, most of his career took place in England, and he died there at the age of 74 having lived an inordinately successful and productive life.
Handel was an especially prolific composer of opera, but in 1742 (after the debut of his epic composition called Messiah, which was an oratorio) he mainly focused on religious styles (Norton/Grove 342).
An oratorio is kind of like an opera but without the acting, costumes, or secular themes. The lyrics to oratorios are always religious. Handel’s most famous oratorio was Messiah, which is a piece that is so famous that it may even be familiar to those that have never given “classical” music more time than the two seconds it takes to turn it off.
(Messiah is the one that goes “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia,” and is often sung in church.)
To get a sense of the scale and scope of Messiah, consider that it has fifty-three movements organized into sixteen scenes and three parts. If this all means nothing to you, then think of Messiah as a concept album containing fifty-three songs. It takes about three hours to perform (“Messiah (Handel)” par. 34).
When it came to vocal music, Handel had no rival. His compositional genius was even attested to by the foremost of all musical masters—Beethoven—who praised Handel’s skills by saying the following: “…Handel is the greatest, the most solid of composers; from him I can still learn something…” (Goulding 204).
Despite Beethoven’s endorsement, when it came to instrumental music, Handel’s efforts were eclipsed by the Italian violin virtuoso called Antonio Vivaldi.
Another important composer of the Baroque period was Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Born in Venice, Italy, Vivaldi learned the violin from his father as a child, became a priest as a young man, and became a famous composer as an adult.
Vivaldi spent most of his life in Venice working at a girl’s orphanage known as Pio Ospedale della Pieta (Randel 721).
The orphanage had a conservatory at which Vivaldi maintained one of the best orchestras in all of Europe. Almost unbelievably, Vivaldi’s orchestra at the Pieta was comprised entirely of orphan girls and young women.
Part of Vivaldi’s job description was to provide new instrumental works for all of Venice’s recurring festivals. This means that Vivaldi was constantly producing new orchestral works and having his outstanding all-orphan-girl orchestra perform these works.
Because of his heavy output, Vivaldi massively influenced instrumental music, particularly concertos, and especially violin concertos. A virtuoso violinist himself, Vivaldi focused on this genre and wrote some 230 concertos for the violin. One of these, his most famous, and perhaps one of the most famous classical pieces on Earth, is “The Four Seasons,” which is a set of four concertos from a larger collection of such pieces called Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione that was published in 1725 (Goulding 445).
Vivaldi’s take on the concerto became much imitated by his contemporaries, especially after his publications spread to northern Europe. To get a sense of Vivaldi’s influence here, consider that Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps the most sublimely gifted musician ever witnessed by mankind, studied Vivaldi’s model for the concerto (Norton/Grove 867).
With Vivaldi, music history finally has its first viral video. Check out this version of “The Four Seasons” that has over 80 million Youtube hits:
The crucial point to remember from this lecture is that the Baroque Period saw the rise of operas, oratorios, and concertos. And that Handel was the master of vocal genres and that Vivaldi was the master of instrumental genres—though they both participated in each.
Another takeaway from this lecture is that the music from the Baroque period is the oldest that is still routinely played by modern orchestras. For example, it is not uncommon to see Handel and Vivaldi on a philharmonic orchestra’s playbill.
The Baroque period also has music’s first superhero: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). He is the subject of the next, and final, lecture.
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Burkholder, P.J., Grout, D.J., Palisca, C.V. A History of Western Music. 9th ed. W.W. Norton and Company, 2014.
“George Frideric Handel.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Goulding, Phil, G. Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and their 1,000 Greatest Works. Ballantine Books, 1992.
“Messiah (Handel)” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. Edited by Sadie, Stanley, and Alison Latham W.W. Norton and Company, 1994.
Randel, Michael D. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Swafford, J. The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House Books, Inc: New York, 1992.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Edited by Michael Agnes. IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 2000.
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