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The Baroque Era

(1600-1750 C.E.)

     The term Baroque era describes the style or period of European music between the years of 1600 and 1750. The term Baroque was derived from a Portuguese word meaning "a pearl of irregular shape." The word Baroque was initially used to imply strangeness, abnormality and extravagance, applying more to art than music. It is only in the 20th century that this term has been employed to refer to a period in music history.

     When compared with its predecessors, Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, and intense. The music of this time period was characterized by rich

counterpoint and a highly decorated melodic line. The music of this period has a number of defining characteristics including the use of thebasso continuo and the belief in the doctrine of the affections. The doctrine of affections allowed composers to express emotions and feelings in their compositions. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baroque era was the emphasis on contrast of volume, texture, and pace in the music, as compared to music of the late Renaissance which did not concentrate on these elements. In addition, Baroque music broke away from the harshness of the Medieval and early Renaissance style with new emphasis on the use of vocal and instrumental color.
Secular types of music were now in abundance and used as widely as those of the liturgical musical styles.

 Imitative polyphony (more than one line of music) still was an extremely important factor in writing and playing music, while the homophonic method (a musical technique that displays a vast separation amongst the melody line and the accompaniment) was gaining acceptance and use quite rapidly. This homophonic style eventually became dominant in instrumental forms of music as well. Musical works containing a continuo part in which a keyboard (usually an organ or harpsichord) and a bass instrument (usually a bassoon or a cello) helped to convey the harmonic support of chords under the melodic lines.

      Although homophonic music was becoming increasingly popular during this time in music history, new forms of

polyphonic music were also developing simultaneously. Similar to composers during the Renaissance, composers during this period felt that the art of counterpoint was essential to their artistry. Two extremely strict forms of imitative polyphony,cannons andfugues, were very popular at the time of the Baroque era. To prove their very expertise, composers were sometimes expected to improvise complex fugues at a moment"s notice.


It is also important to note that opera and the orchestra were both conceived during the Baroque era as well.

 Around 1600, opera came about because Italian intellectuals wanted to recapture the spirit of ancient Greek drama in which music played a key role. Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), was the first great opera. The homophonic musical style played a significant role in opera and solo vocal music because it focused the listener’s concentration on the poetic melody of the singer.

      During the beginning of the Baroque period, as a companion for operatic and vocal music, the orchestra evolved. By the mid-1600s the orchestra was growing into its own entity and the concerto was one of the most popular forms of music performed. The concerto featured a solo instrumentalist, or small ensemble of soloists, playing in opposition to the orchestra, thus creating an interesting contrast of texture and volume. In addition, during the Baroque period composers began exploring music"s ability to express the human spirirt and to depict natural phenomena. Vivaldi"s The Four Seasons was the most famous set of concertos that typified this.



     Baroque opera developed from the stories of ancient Greek tragedy. Italian musicians sought to express the emotion and depth of these Greek tragedies and thus integrated them into their own modern form, the opera.

     There are certain things that make up an opera. The music, orchestra, libretto, performers, costuming, and stage design (complete with scenery and lighting). There would almost always be some sort of solo part, whether it be a solo aria, duet, or trio. The opera would open with the overture, the instrumental piece that the orchestra would play to introduce the performance. Along with the orchestra a chorus was also present in the opera.

Italian Opera

Florentine Opera
     At the end of the 1500s, a group of Florentine noblemen wanted to bring back ancient Greek tragedy. Calling themselves the Camerata, they created the stil rappresentativo, or theater style. This was a new style of singing of drama, and, consequently, became the earliest operas. This new form of music developed because composers of thepolyphonicmadrigal style were looking for ways to convey dramatic expression. This new "theater style" became prevalent and was used consistently in opera.

Roman Opera
     In the 1630s, Rome became the center of opera. Roman opera differed from the Italian form in that it focused more on religious subjects than on Greek mythology. Roman opera also employed the use of its chorus to a greater extent. The aria and therecitative were beginning to become more distinct and greatly differed from one another. The intermezzi, a comedic interlude between acts, would be the model for the future comedic opera style.

Venetian Opera
     Venice became the center of Italian opera in the early to mid 1600s. In 1637, the first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano, opened its doors in the city of Venice.

     The Venetian opera had its own special attributes. It used less choral and orchestral music and placed more emphasis on formal arias as well as on elaborate stage machinery. The bel canto, or "beautiful singing" style, started to appear. This style placed more focus on vocal elegance than on dramatic expression. Two final characteristics of venetian opera were its complex and improbable plots and the prototype of its overture, which was a short instrumental fanfare performed at the beginning of the opera.

Neopolitan Opera
     European opera was dominated by the Neopolitan opera form during the later 1600s and early 1700s. During this period, operas became more artificial and formalized from the dramatic standpoint. An A-B-A sectional structure, called the da capo aria, and a siciliana, another aria in a minor key with six-eight meter and slow tempo, were widely used. As far as other components of the Neopolitan opera, the orchestra’s role was greatly diminished and the chorus was almost nonexistent. Recitatives were now being used, although they did not hold the same level of importance as the aria. The recitativo secco, or dry recitative, which had a declamatory melody with sparse continuo accompaniment, and the recitative accompagnato, which used and orchestral accompaniment were featured.

     A compromise between these two main types of musical form, the aria and the recitative, emerged in the creation of the arioso. Male sopranos, or castratti, were the "superstars" of opera, with their showy and often improvisational use of vocal technique. The sinfonia, or Italian overture, was developed with a fast-slow-fast scheme. It would later develop into what is now known as the classical symphony.

French Opera and Ballet

      French opera didn’t develop until the second half of the 1600s. It was inspired by popular French dramas and from court ballet. The French took opera and made it their own, by putting unique characteristics into the basic Italian opera"s mainframe. The French overture became common. It placed a unique spin on the traditional overture. It was made up of two repeating sections; the first was in slow tempo and dotted rhythm, while the second was in lively tempo and fugal texture.

     French opera also made less use of virtuosity and paid attention to the accentuation of the literature. It used shorter and simpler dance-like airs, more expressive and melodic recitatives, and put greater importance on the drama. It also added ballet and increased the use of the orchestra.


     During the Renaissance, it was typical in France for court dances with scenery and costumes to take place. This was an early form of ballet. However, the first actual “ballet” or extant ballet didn’t occur until 1581. It was called the Ballet Comique de la Reine. It is important to note that in the beginning, royalty would take part in the ballet, a tradition that started at the court of King Louis XIV at Versailles. Additionally, Lully and Moliere worked together to create a new form of ballet, the Comedie-ballet, a combination of a play and ballet. Beginning with Lully, ballets were entered into operas. He called this tragedies-lyriques or opera-ballets.


     English Opera never advamced the popularity it had in both France and Italy. Since Italian operas were typically performed in the city of London, the English did not feel the need to make their own operatic form. Instead, they were more involved in theater music forms, especially that of the Masque, Incidental and Entr’acte.

     A Masque was an extravagant play performed privately for nobility. It was a play based on an allegory or mythology and had songs, dances, poetry, sometimes recitatives, and instrumental pieces.

Incidental and Entr’acte music
     Incidental music was composed to be played during the action scenes in plays. Entr’acte music was to be performed between acts or scenes in a play, with instrumental pieces called curtain tunes or act tunes. Some incidental and entr’acte music was so complete and developed in some works, that the play could almost be seen as a true opera.


     The opera seria was little too serious for some, and, consequently, the comedic opera appeared in the early 1700s as a way to lighten the emotions of the time. In it, parody, satire, and humor were present.

     Comedic opera had some general characteristics. Spoken dialogue replaced the recitatives of serious opera, except in Italian comic opera. The characters, aria texts, and melodies of serious operas were often parodied, and subjects were now light, frivolous, and humorous. Small ensemble groups and choirs were used at the conclusion of acts. Commonplace characters replaced the exalted or heroic figures of serious operas and popular tunes replaced the dramatic and formal arias.

     Some famous types of comedic opera are the Italian opera buffa, the French opera comique, and the English ballad opera.


     This was a form of music that was non-theatrical less important than opera, and composed for a few performers and an intimate audience in a small room.

Solo Song
     Solo song was vocal music that was a solo piece for one performer. By the 17th century, a huge number of solo songs had developed. This form was most famous in Spain, England, Germany, and Italy. Often, it would have lute accompaniment to go along with the performer"s voice.

Chamber Cantata
     The Chambercantata developed after 1650. It was a non-theatrical composition, short in length, and based on texts of a narrative character. It was written for one or two solo voices with an accompaniment by the basso continuo. It had secco recitatives alternating with da capo arias, usually two or three of each.


     The Baroque Era brought monumental changes to instrumental music. During this time, instrumental music became just as important as vocal music both in quality and quantity, as many new developments occurred in the instrumental world.

General Characteristics

     During the Baroque Era, the use of imporvisation increased. This change was most important in instrumental music. However, as important as it was, improvisation caused problems when musicians attemped to understand and perform Baroque music accurately.


Basso continuo, or figured bass, was purely an instrumental concept. It is music that is played by one or more bass instruments and a keyboard instrument. Basso continuo gave bass parts an importance of their own in all areas of ensemble music. It is one of the most distinct features of the Baroque Era as a whole.

     Thematic variation occurred in all aspects of instrumental music, during this time period. In addition to thematic variation, sequencing was also used. This was a repetition of melody patterns on successively higher or lower pitches. It became a typical part of instrumental music during the mid-Baroque period.

     Another characteristic of the Baroque Era was the distinction between the chamber ensemble and the orchestra. This started to take place around the late 1600s. Equal tempered tuning of keyboard instruments was now commonplace. The old method of tuning, which was called

intonation was no longer practiced. Bach"s The Well Tempered Clavier was composed to show equality of keys in the new tuning system.


     The Baroque Era saw the continuation of all the instruments that were used during the Renaissance. During this period, there were mechanical and technological improvements to the instruments, and they started to develop into the instruments that we know today. Another important development of the Baroque Era was the development of the violin family, which occurred at the end of the 1600s.

Keyboard Instruments

     Keyboard instruments were used for basso continuo parts and solo music. They were involved in a major portion of the instrumental literature of the time. During this era, three types of keyboards existed; the clavichord, the organ, and the harpsichord.

     The clavichord produced sound by striking a metal wedge striking against a string when a key was pressed. The sound quality was weak, but the instrument was able to produce some dynamics. It was mainly used inGermany and usually played as a solo instrument or in a small ensemble.

     The Baroque organ was more powerful than its predecessor, the Renaissance organ. Organs were mostly associated with church music and used as solo instruments or accompaniment instruments. A vast growth in organ literature took place during this period.

     The Harpsichord was very popular and was known by various names in different parts ofEurope. In Italy, it was called aclavicembalo. InEngland, it was referred to as a virginal. InFrance it was termed aclavecen, and inGermany, it was namedklavier. The harpsichord usually had two manuals or keyboards. Its tone was produced with quills which plucked the strings mechanically every time a key was pressed. The tone of the harpsichord was stronger than the clavichord but it could not produce dynamics. The harpsichord was the main instrument employed in the basso continuo. It is one of the most distinctive sounds of the Baroque Era and was the most favored instrument in solo music.

String Instruments
     The principal string instruments of the 1600s were the viol family. The new violin family of instruments slowly replaced them. The violin soon became the new leader of the stringed instruments, and its sound became the dominant timbre in late Baroque ensemble music. The bass viol commonly known as the contrabass, or double bass was still utilized, even though the other viols died out. During the 1600s, the lute started to lose its dominance in the music world. A few pieces of lute music were still being produced, mainly inFrance and Germany.

Wind Instruments
     During the Baroque era the principal woodwind instruments used were the bassoon, flute, and oboe. Older end-blown recorders were still in use during the late Baroque period. The transverse flute started to become a common solo and ensemble instrument. Brass instruments such as horns, trumpets, and trombones were used in large ensembles, but rarely as solo instruments.

Percussion Instruments
     Timpani were the only percussion instruments in common use at this time. They were used sparingly in the orchestra.

Orchestral Music

     The Baroque orchestra did not have standardization. It was composed mainly of strings, while wind instruments and percussion instruments were used less frequently. The bass part of the orchestra played the basso continuo. Instruments of different kinds doubled on each part as there was not much color definition to the Baroque era’s orchestration.

      The solo concerto was fully developed towards the end of the Baroque Era. It was a concerto for one instrument and an orchestra. It was written in three movements using a fast-slow-fast plan.

     The concerto grosso was an important form of Baroque orchestral literature. It consisted of a group of two or three solo instruments (concertino) playing in opposition to the orchestra as a whole (tutti). It was often played in alternating and contrasting sections.


Johann Sebastian Bach, (1685-1750)

     Johann Sebastian Bach was known as "Old Bach", a name given to him by King Frederick ofPrussia. This title was given to him because of his reputation as a very serious person.

     Bach had an innate musical talent. As a child, he learned to play the organ and the clavichord and sang in a choir. He was able to support himself by his music at the age of fifteen and held several organist positions in nearby towns.

     He was a master at composing concertos,

cantatas,oratorios ,chorales, piano inventions, and other religious music. TheF Major andA Minor piano inventions are very well known. For most of his life, the organ and clavichord were his instruments of choice. He is considered the father of counterpoint.

     Bach was not introduced to the piano until he was sixty years old. Once he discovered the instrument, Bach wrote a six-part

fugue for King Frederick as a "musical offering". Today that fugue is considered one of the most remarkable fugues in all of music history.

     Later on in life Bach was stricken with blindness. He underwent an operation to try to correct the blindness, but it was unsuccessful and only aggravated his condition. As a result, he suffered a paralytic stroke and died. He is considered one of the most influential composers of all time.

Corelli, Archangelo (1653-1713)

     Archangelo Corelli was born inFusignano, Italy in 1653. He was a violinist who composed

concerti grossi andtrio sonatas. His composition style is considered very typical of the Baroque period. A distinguishing feature of Corelli is that he only composed music for instrumentalists. His compositions were among some of the most popular pieces of the time period. His music was richly spirited and had a touching and refined melodic sense.

Handel, Georg Friedrich (1685-1759)

     Born in the year 1685, George Friedrich Handel became the second most prominent composer of the High Baroque era. He was second only to J.S . Bach.

     Handel composed sonatas, concertos, operas, and modern oratorios. He helped develop the modern opera and modern oratorio form further, while his sonatas and concertos made great use of his melodic techniques. A famous song from the oratorioJudas Maccabeus, is "

Sing Unto God." Another famous work that is recognized world wide is the"Hallelujah Chorus" (from theMessiah) which is also written in oratorio form.

Monteverdi , Claudio (1567-1643)

     Claudio Monteverdi was born in Italy in 1567. Monteverdi is most famous for his contributions to the early operatic form. He was an Italian composer of opera,

sacred, andsecular music who was ahead of his time in musical technique. As the Medieval era was a very conservative time in music, Monteverdi went against the grain. He felt that rules should be broken when they had to be, especially if it was in the interests of meaning and expressiveness.

     Monteverdi was very interested in new musical techniques. Far advanced for his time, he employed a complete orchestra as opposed to using a few instruments which played the same part. This yielded a crude

polyphony, much unlike the typical sound of the time. Monteverdi taught the viol section of the orchestra to play with bows instead of plucking strings. He further introducedtremelo andpizzicato to the strings. Monteverdi had a hard time explaining to the violists that they had to play a single note sixteen times in rapid succession. When he suggested plucking strings pizzicato to the violists, they almost revolted against him

     At age forty, Monteverdi composed his first opera, called

Orfeo. This was an instant success, as it was written expressively and dramatically. His second opera,Arianna, received just as much, if not more, praise for being emotionally overwhelming. A lament inArianna, called "Lasciatemi Morir" often moved the audience to tears. Other famous works of Monteverdi"s are his operasIl Ritorno d"Ulisse in Patri, L"incoronazion di Poppea, andIl Combattimento di Clorinda. He died at the age of seventy-six but left a lasting impression on the musical world, one that would change the face of music forever.

Henry Purcell, 1659-1695

     Throughout his life, English born Henry Purcell composed music in all forms and styles. He is most known for his lively trumpet voluntaries and sweet vocal airs. He was also a composer of multiple forms, such as court, church, stage, and chamber music. At age six he became a choirboy in the Chapel Royal. When his voice changed at age fourteen, he then became the "keeper, maker, mender, repairer and tuner of the regalls, organs, virginals, flutes, and recorders and all other kind of wind instruments, in ordinary, without fee, to His Majesty (Kaufmann, 103)."

     By the time Purcell was fifteen years old, he was paid two pounds (or ten dollars) a year to tune the organ in Westminster Abbey. By age twenty, he became organist of Westminster Abbey. Additionally, it was his job to compose music for the King"s violins. This task helped him to attain an audience for his organ works, songs, and instrumental compositions.

     Some of Henry Purcell"s more famous works areA Song to Welcome Home His Majesty from Windsor andThey That Go down to the Sea in Ships.Dido and Aenas is his only surviving opera. This opera contains the powerful musical pieces "Lament" and "When I Am Laid in Earth." It is still performed often today. His last anthem,Thou Knowest Lord, the Secrets of our Hearts, was so emotionally written that it was played at the funeral of Queen Mary. Six months later, this piece was performed in Westminster Abbey at Purcell"s own funeral. Today he is remembered as one of the greatest composers who ever lived and is known for his exceptional and pleasant use of harmonies.

Rameau, Jean-Philippe (1683-1764)

     Born in 1683, Jean Philippe Rameau became one of the greatest French theoreticians of all time. He broke the rules on harmonic practice of the time, and suggested new forms through his music. The Nouvelles Suites

Allemande,Courante,Sarabande, andGavotte written for theclavecen display some of these new principles. He was courageous in his philosophies, inventive in terms of harmony, and had an extreme command of orchestration. He was always interested in adding new effects, such as storm scenes, and choruses into his music.

Vivaldi, Antonio (1680-1743)

     Antonio Vivaldi was an Italian composer who was well known as a violinist and composer of solo violin concertos. He had a different musical philosophy regarding composition. He felt that the soloist and orchestra should be in musical conflict with one another, (similar to the give and take that happens when two people are speaking to one another). He is believed to have composed over 750 works of music. He set precedence by adding drama and strong rhythm to basic harmonies. Vivaldi previewed what were to become the sonata-allegro form and the typical sound of the 18th century. One of Vivaldi"s most famous works is theFour Seasons, a four part concerto. Each section is named after a season.

"La Primavera","L"estate","L"inverno", and "L"Autunno".

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