Baroque era covers the period between 1600 and 1750 beginning with Monteverdi (birth of opera) and ending with the deaths of Bach and Handel. The term Baroque music is borrowed from the art history. It follows the Renaissance era (1400 to 1600). It was initially considered to be a ‘corrupt dialect of Renaissance’ by conservatives.
The dominant trends in Baroque music correspond to those in Baroque art and literature. Among the general characteristics of Baroque art is a sense of movement, energy, and tension (whether real or implied). Strong contrasts of light and shadow enhance the dramatic effects of many paintings and sculptures. In music, the Baroque era is the era of style-consciousness. The means of verbal representation in Baroque music were indirect -intellectual and pictorial-. In Baroque music, representation of extreme affections called for a richer vocabulary. Opera is one of the foremost innovations of the Baroque era which allowed the realization of extreme affections in music. It represents melodic freedom. In early Baroque era, no tonal direction existed, but experiments in pre-tonal harmony led to the creation of tonality.
The philosophy of Baroque music is that music represents the emotions (affections) of real life and, in so doing, excites the listener’s emotions. Music must express emotions and it must move the listener. It is generally agreed that Italian Baroque music expressed the emotions (passions or affections) best. Baroque music was the end-result of a search for new modes of expression. During this process, a concern for formal organisation resulted in the development of tonal system (replacing the modal system).
Renaissance music (stile antico) was so rigid and structured and learnt by academic training. The new concept (stile moderno) was a vehicle of spontaneous expression. Both practices existed side by side. Some composers used both styles; stile antico in church music and stile moderno in secular vocal music. One of the most important creations of Baroque was the concept of contrast as in Baroque art (like loud and soft, solo and tutti, high and low, fast and slow). Numerous composers used the concerto or concertanto style (meaning a style with a marked contrasting element). The term Baroque denotes the inner stylistic unity of the period. The most important unifying feature of all Baroque music is the characteristic accompanying part, the basso continuo (Baroque era is usually referred to as the ‘thorough-bass period’). A bass line is followed by a continuo player(s) above which a figure is written to indicate what additional notes should be played to fill in the harmony (figured bass). A typical Baroque piece consists of a melodic line for a voice (more typically two melodic lines as in trio sonata), a bass line for a continuo instrument such as cello or bassoon playing the written line, and a plucked (chitarrone) or keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ) playing the figured chords (mainly improvising) to fill the intervening space between the two poles. The result is the polarity of outer parts.
Baroque music has unique idioms (specific style/character) and it is an idiomatic form. Composers began to write music specifically for a particular medium, such as the violin or the solo voice, rather than music with interchangeable or no idioms that might be either sung or played by almost any combination of voices and instruments, as had previously been the case. Before 1600, as the church had been the centre of music, vocal music had been dominating, and the instrumental music had been written for any instrument. After 1600, the violin became the main instrument and developed its idioms. Instrumental and vocal styles began to be differentiated, eventually becoming so distinct that the composers could borrow vocal idioms in instrumental writing, and vice versa. This transfer of idioms between instruments forms one of the most fascinating aspects of Baroque music. In the late Baroque music, a rich interchange and interpenetration of idioms is observed, i.e., transfer of lute ornaments to keyboard or vocal techniques to violin. Nobody can mistake the violin character of a Baroque concerto grosso (persistent figuration to maintain the same affekt).
The Baroque preference for extreme contrast had a decisive influence on the range of musical instruments. The desire for deeper bass resulted in lowering the register of harpsichord and organ, addition of bass strings to the lute and enlargement of the lute family by bigger members. The double bassoon and contrabass trombone were created. With its treble character, the violin became the queen of the instruments. Among the wind instruments, the bassoon and shawm, reborn as oboe, survived. At the close of the seventeenth century, the French horn and clarinet were added to the wind ensemble. Because of their quiet sound in the enlarging ensemble, the viol family, recorder and harpsichord did not have a long life span and eventually became obsolete.
In Renaissance , harmony was the master of the word; in Baroque music, however, the word is the master of harmony or, music is subservient to the words. The outermost voices (bass and soprano) acquired a dominant position forming the skeleton of the composition. The rest could be filled in by the improvising continuo player in this structural contour. Choral music had risen to its apogee in the 16th century and the turn of instrumental music had come.
Summary of Baroque characteristics
* Basso continuo (two principal contours -melody and bass polarity- with the intervening space filled in by improvised harmony) - single unifying element in Baroque music. While the treble expresses the mood, the bass supports the melody
* Figured bass
* Unbroken lines with long phrases and well-spaced cadences
* Unchanging affekt
* Fast harmonic rhythm
* Series of first inversion chords, series of suspensions, seventh chords on any degree of the scale, Phrygian cadence, hemiola, circle-of-fifths, sequence, tierce de Picardie, lack of dynamic markings and performance directions, only rarely distant modulations (usually to one degree flat or sharp)
* Contrast /the pursuit of striking effect (stile concertante): like solo-tutti alternation of the concerto grosso
* Expressive use of dissonance (the dissonance treatment is a major stylistic difference between Renaissance and Baroque)
* Contrapuntal independence of voices and instrumental parts, a turn to chordal harmony from intervallic harmony
* Instrumental music dominating vocal music: new instrumental genres
* Improvisation (as in the realization of figured bass) and ornamentation (particularly in France)
* Interchange of idioms (especially between vocal and instruments; Vivaldi, JS Bach)
* Fully established tonality in late Baroque
* Homophony: In late Baroque music homophony was held in check by the fast-moving continuo. In the relation between melody and chord progression, the consideration of the latter began to weigh more heavily (a process finally led to the homophony of the Mannheim school). The continuo-homophony differs from the plain homophony of the Mannheim school in its fast harmonic rhythm, and its energetic and sweeping rhythmic patterns that prevailed in both melody and bass
* Variation: variation appears so consistently as an element of Baroque music that the whole era may justly be called one of variation
Summary of the features of a Baroque score: Figured bass, continuo, treble-bass polarity, continuity of figuration and motifs, consistency of orchestral texture, lack of remote modulations, modal key signatures (missing flat), no key with more than four flat or sharp in its signature, tierce de Picardie, Phrygian cadence, series of suspensions and first inversion chords. Smaller pitch range in keyboard pieces.
The Baroque era can be divided into three major periods:
1. Early (  1600-1630), 2. Middle (1630-1680), 3. Late (1680-1750). These rough dates only apply to Italy. The periods overlap in time and do not coincide in different countries. In early Baroque style, two ideas prevailed: the opposition to counterpoint and the most violent interpretation of the words, realized in the affective recitative in free rhythm. The early Baroque composers were interested in stylistic rather than formal innovations like the recitative and concertato styles. An extra-ordinary desire for dissonance was noted. Harmony was pre-tonal (not yet tonally directed chords). Because the music was not quite tonal, the power to sustain a longer movement was lacking, and in consequence all forms were on a small scale. Exploration of new desires included chromaticism, dissonance, monody, recitative, and new vocal and instrumental combinations. In all phases of Baroque music, the echo had an important dramatic function. Even in strict solo songs, the composers hinted at the dialogue by means of playful echoes. A general stylistic and formal principle that distinguishes Renaissance from early Baroque music is discontinuity. The desire for contrast abandoned both rhythmic and melodic continuity. The monodic madrigals of Caccini and Peri were completely discontinuous and rhapsodic in melody, harmony and rhythm.
The middle period is associated with the bel-canto style in cantata and opera. The single sections of musical forms began to grow and contrapuntal texture was reinstituted. The modes were reduced to major and minor, and the chord progressions were governed by a rudimentary tonality which restrained the free dissonance treatment of the early Baroque. Vocal and instrumental music were of equal importance. In this relatively stable period genres such as the trio sonata and the da capo aria enjoyed sureness.
In the late period, tonality was fully established. The contrapuntal technique culminated in the full absorption of tonal harmony. The forms grew to larger dimensions. The aria, concerto and sonata reached an elaborate state. (The concerto style appeared in this period.) The exchange of idioms reached its highest point. Vocal music was dominated by instrumental music.
It should be noted that the distinction of the three stylistics groups within the Baroque is made even more complex by the national styles.
A great variety of forms, techniques, and idioms were created in the Baroque era for the first time. The development of the opera, oratorio, passion, cantata, da capo aria; the creation of the ostinato forms, solo sonata, trio sonata and chamber duet; the prelude and fugue, chorale prelude and chorale fantasy all happened during Baroque era. It instituted the important forms of the concerto grosso and the solo concerto.
Generally speaking, the Baroque era is a period of ecstasy and exuberance, and of dynamic tensions in contrast to the assuredness and self-reliance of the Renaissance period. Particularly the early Baroque music (prior to 1650) shows, in its canzonas and toccatas, striking traits of capriciousness, exuberance, and irregularity while later composers such as Carissimi and Corelli brought about a trend towards greater restraint and regularity of style.
In the late Baroque, the sequence, the circle-of-fifths formula, seventh chords on all degrees, and the descending series of 6/3 chords (first inversions) are all important harmonic resources. Also, the seventh chord on the leading note in minor keys was frequently used at climactic points placed before the final cadence.
Following an essentially international lingua franca and the rigorous counterpoint of the Renaissance, the national stylistic awareness began to increase brilliance and expressiveness. In the early seventeenth century, the new Italian musical style swept over Europe eventually dominating virtually everywhere with the exception of, to some extent, France. Italian attitudes dominated the musical thinking of the period from the mid-sixteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries. France was the last country affected by Italian national style. The commonest Italian genres canzona/sonata appeared as outgrowth of songs (solo monody), whereas, in France as the preference was for music that grew out of dance, the commonest genre was the orchestral suite. Tonality remained to be important both in France and Italy.
The French classical music had its golden age in the late seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth century. During that period, ballet entered its glorious phase. A great achievement was the re-organization of the orchestra: its make-up, style of performance and the music written for them were re-organized mainly by Lully. Orchestral overture was established as a genre. The suite also relies on contrast like the sonata. Paired dances provided the contrast. Dances were organized in a suite to achieve the slow-fast progression. The peak of this form’s achievement is represented in the harpsichord suite in D minor by Marchand. An indigenous operatic tradition (recitatives and changing time signatures), and some conventions of ornamentation (precisely indicated by signs) and rhythm (subtle and discontinuous, strongly influenced by dance) were also established.
Italian: The commonest genre: concerto/sonata. Music that is not about anything. Large-scale abstract, instrumental genres. The principal musical forms of the Baroque era arose in Italy. It was there that the cantata, concerto, sonata, oratorio and opera were conceived and developed. Instruments: Violin/Harpsichord-Cello. Rhythm that is often continuous by the late Baroque, made up of repeating patterns - the ‘decorative frieze’ effect. Texture: Simple, thematically clear-cut, pattern- and sequence-employing. Harmonic and melodic sequences based around the circle-of-fifths. Chromatic chords against a consonant background. Seventh chords as a means to an end (i.e., to propel the music to another tonal area-by means of sequence), also surprise chords: Neapolitan sixths, augmented sixths and tonic minor triads in major keys. In the early monodic literature, three methods of achieving musical coherence can be found: repetitions and imitations between bass and melody, and the most characteristic one strophic variation (strophic bass). Ornamentation: not indicated in the score, improvised by the performer. Italy’s stylistic dominance made unnecessary its musicians’ familiarity with other practices.
French: The commonest genre: Suite. Music that is about something (literary and visual associations); dances, character pieces. Music that aims above all to please, to be in good taste. French preference was for music that grew out of dance rather than songs, and emphasized characteristic rhythmic detail. Instruments: Viola da gamba/Harpsichord-Lute. Texture: Often light, flowing, seamless melody. Complex, asymmetrical look (even on paper), large variety of note values within each phrase. No visible patterns and small use of sequence. Arpeggiated chords (style briese), broken counterpoint. Vocalism based on the special characteristics of the language that was not shared by other countries. The measured declamation characteristics of French theatre (tragedie lyrique) had little in common with the flamboyant, virtuoso manner of Italian operatic writing. Ornamentation: No style aspect of Baroque performance distinguished more sharply between French and Italian styles than ornamentation. French musicians wrote out all ornaments in precise details and expected the performers to adhere to them strictly. In Baroque music, notated dotted rhythm was performed freely virtually everywhere with the precise value of the dotted note being variable according to the mood or affect. In France, musicians habitually introduced dotted rhythm in succession of conjunct notes, usually quavers, even where it was not indicated. This unequal playing of quavers may have stemmed from a Renaissance practice. In France, no Italian tempo markings were used until the late Baroque.
The Lullian French Overture (slow/fast) influenced most composers of the later Baroque era. It consists of two contrasting halves repeated twice (AABB). It can be called in binary form although it is an exceptional example since one would not expect a complete change of mood, tempo and meter to occur at the double bar.
German: Genre: German Baroque is mainly contrapuntal, hence Germany is the land of fugue, the main instrument being the organ. The typical seventeenth century keyboard form is the prelude and fugue. Also in vocal music, homophonic bel canto and contrapuntal style existed side by side (combination of the rigorous counterpoint of the Renaissance with an expression of the affection, by way of bold dissonances and word painting). As Purcell did in England, mainly protestant Germans set their native tongue to music (as opposed to Catholics using Latin). Italian Gabrieli’s student Schutz (1585-1672) and JS Bach (1685-1750) were the greatest German composers of the Baroque period, with Buxtehude (1637-1707) in between them.
M.Tevfik Dorak, B.A. (Hons)
updated on Dec 31, 2000
edited on Apr 5, 2008