Unidade 3

(1600 -- 1750)

The Baroque musical era immediately follows the Renaissance. Around 1600 a new, more expressive musical style began evolving. In Italy, a couple of musicians became interested in the great dramas of Classical Greece. They came to the conclusion that those dramas had not been spoken, but sung. In an attempt to reconstruct that practice, the group who called themselves "La Camerata" created a new form of music--opera--and helped precipitate a new musical era.

There were three principal centers of Baroque musical culture: Italy, France, and Germany. The movement spread throughout Europe influencing people of other countries, but these three became the leading centers of music.

Like most other historical titles, the Baroque era was given its name by posterity. The name Baroque is probably derived from a word meaning "irregular pearl", in other words, something that was very elaborate but badly misshapen. The name was not given out of affection, but out of contempt for the style that the next generation found badly out of date.

While certain pieces and certain composers have always been popular, the Baroque period in general had to wait until the mid 1800s before general listening audiences became interested in it. This first appreciation of "golden oldies" continues through today, as Baroque music remains very popular with modern audiences.

The Baroque musical style is very ornate, theatrical, elaborate, grandiose, and occasionally pompous. This also is a description often applied to Baroque art, painting, literature, and architecture. This should suggest some kind of a link between all of these and the era.

A very old saying, one often repeated with sarcasm and occasionally bitterness is known as 'the Golden Rule of the Arts and Sciences'--"he who has the gold makes the rules." Whether good or bad, it's often true and can explain a lot of seemingly odd things throughout history.

Who had the gold and the power in the Baroque era? It was concentrated in two areas--the Church and the monarchy. Don't forget that the period ended several decades before the American and French revolutions, so the concept of "by the people and for the people" was only a faint glimmer on the horizon.

Imagine you were a musician (or other artist) wishing to make a living at your craft. You would probably gravitate toward the sources that could pay you a living wage. Composing for the popular audience and musical freelancing were two things unknown to Baroque musicians. They operated under what is known as the "patronage system". Wealthy and powerful patrons (the Church being one of them) often retain a group of musicians to perform at their beck and call--a trade off of flexibility for job security. Most musicians of the era worked for patrons.

Think about this next idea for a few seconds--if you were to write music to please an important, powerful, and very rich boss, how would you go about it? What style would your work take on? While you're thinking about your answer, take a look at the ornamented and grandiose work produced by Baroque painters, architects, craftsmen, etc. and you'll probably come to the same conclusion as they did. Music with a powerful social message, one that appealed to the masses would not be conducive to keeping one's job very long.

Is it any wonder that later eras, whose music was written to appeal to the common man, find Baroque art to be excessively ornate, pompous, and grand?

Baroque performing ensembles were generally small and extensively used the harpsichord, recorder, and organ. The music is lavishly composed with a great complexity in each musical line. Music in general was far more polyphonic during this time than in later eras. Melody was less important than we are used to.

Common types of instrumental music found in the Baroque era include the fugue, the suite, the concerto, and sonatas. Common types of vocal music included the opera and the oratorio, which was basically an opera with no action or staging--the singers stood still. The cantata, a smaller scale vocal piece, was very common to those who worked for the church.

A great deal of modern musical theory is based on J. S. Bach's music. This means that musically, many of the things we do today are based on the way he chose to work with them almost 300 years ago.

The modern form of the orchestra began to take shape in the Baroque era. Musical notation evolved to the point where it became very similar to what we use today.

In Cremona, Italy, the violins being made by the Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri families reached a quality that has never been topped--some would say has never even been matched.

The Baroque era represents an age of exploration and discovery and what we would call the beginning of modern music. Similarly, many other non-musical disciplines find the Baroque era to be the beginning of their own modern thought, among them painting, philosophy, and the mathematical theory of probability.

Among the most important Baroque composers were Handel, J.S. Bach, Buxtehude, Lully, Monteverdi, Purcell, A. Scarlatti, D. Scarlatti, Corelli, Telemann, and Vivaldi. Bach's music and influence were so strong that his death date is considered to be the end of the Baroque era.

As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, a new type of music was invented at the beginning of the Baroque era: opera, Latin for "works".

Opera is primarily staged drama set to music. Many of the works we know as operas contain little, if any, spoken dialog--the entire story is told exclusively through music, vocal and instrumental. Before the age of cinema, opera represents perhaps the most involved multi-media artistic collaboration to come along. They represent elaborate and intricate staging, costumes, lighting, acting, dance, vocal and instrumental music all combining to tell a story.

Operas generally began with an overture, a polite signal to the audience that they should sit down and be quiet. Many opera overtures have become familiar to audiences as stand-alone pieces.

In its vocal music, early opera generally has a clear division between two different styles of music that it uses to tell its story--aria and recitative.

Certain sections in an opera emphasize the music, often in a very florid and well developed vocal line. A segment of this kind in an opera is called an "aria". Quite often the text being sung in an aria is very simplistic, with perhaps a phrase or two being sung over and over. To the uninitiated, this tends to sound a little silly, but the purpose of an aria is to emphasize the music and to convey emotions.

Recitative is the other style of music, having completely the opposite purpose. A recitative is usually light on the music and heavy on the text, sometimes with the singers accompanied only with a harpsichord instead of the full orchestra. Recitatives are generally used to advance the plot along. Because of this starting and stopping of the action, early operatic plots tend to be simplistic, but that certainly didn't seem to bother the audiences for which they were written.

Minstrel songs describing historical events and the miracle plays of the Middle Ages are the spiritual forerunners of opera. The earliest operas were generally based on very grandiose and larger than life themes--many of them on Greek mythology. During this time, another type of opera called opera buffa evolved. Opera buffa (buffa coming from the same source as "buffoon") was generally satirical, based on everyday people and subjects, and often performed by less than the best singer/actors. Until Mozart came along, opera buffa was generally looked on as very "low-brow" entertainment.

Baroque composers who took advantage of this new form of expression include Scarlatti, Monteverdi, Lully, Handel, and Purcell.


                30 Years War 
                King James Version of the Bible 
                Louis XIV 
                Beginning of the age of Enlightened Despots 
                Reign of Peter the Great 
                Herculaeum and Pompeii rediscovered 
                Beginning of Classical Revival 


ANTONIO VIVALDI (1675 -- 1741)

Vivaldi was one of the most prolific of the Baroque composers. It is estimated that a complete library of his music would run into 600 printed volumes.

Vivaldi also held the distinction of being one of the few major composers who was also ordained as a Roman Catholic clergyman. His nickname "the Red Priest" reflects not only his lesser known profession, but his distinguished red hair.

He was very widely traveled and his music was influential in many ways. J.S. Bach paid homage to his talent by "borrowing" and arranging several of his compositions for organ, transcribing some of his violin concerti into harpsichord concerti. Today, such a practice of of borrowing is deeply frowned upon (and generally known as plagiarism), but in those times, it was considered a tribute.

Vivaldi is admired for his many violin concerti, and to a lesser extent his other concerti for diverse instruments. He was also noted for his ability to compose music very rapidly. He could compose a piece of music in less time than it would take for someone to copy off the individual parts. Cranking out so much music in a short span of time would seem to stifle the variety elements in his music, and to a certain extent, it does. The joke among those who don't think that much of Vivaldi is that he didn't actually compose 400 concerti, he composed one concerto 400 times. This really is an unfair evaluation, though, as there is a very listenable amount of variety in his compositions. Among his most famous compositions are four concerti for violin, each one dealing with one of the four seasons, appropriately called "The Four Seasons". They are often heard in commercials, on television, and prominently used in an Alan Alda movie entitled "The Four Seasons".

RECOMMENDED MUSIC: The Four Seasons; Gloria; other concerti from L'Estro Armonico.


Bach was the greatest Baroque composer--so influential that music historians consider the date of his death to be the end of the era. Many even consider him to be the greatest composer who ever lived. With his list of compositions numbering in the thousands, Bach still had the time to be the greatest organist of his time, an outstanding string player, and the father of over 20 children. He also had the astounding ability to compose complex polyphonic compositions on the spot. In addition Bach must have been an excellent teacher, because over a third of his children are remembered as outstanding composers of the next generation, although none came close to achieving the historical status of their father.

Bach was a very religious man, so religious that he thought music to be a sacred expression of joy. In his own thinking, Bach considered all of his compositions to be sacred, even if they were never intended to be performed in church.

For nearly 100 years after his death Bach's music was all but forgotten by the public. A lot of the traditional thinking has been that he was just ignored, but musicologists are finding that most of the greatest musicians in his "forgotten period" were well acquainted with his music. The answer probably lies in the fact that until the early 1800s, music was generally written for a specific time and event, and once it was performed, it was put on the shelf. The early 19th century seems to be the first major era where the public began to be interested in the best of past eras, sort of a "golden oldies" movement. After some of Bach's major compositions were reintroduced to the public in a concert by Felix Mendelssohn they became permanent staples of concert music. A century later, Bach has the distinction of being the most studied composer who ever lived.

"The Speakers of Mathematics" at the beginning of Unit 1 describes a spaceship with the music of Bach on it--that part of the story is true. When NASA scientists decided to put sound recordings on the Voyager spacecraft, they chose the Second Brandenburg Concerto of Bach to be the greeting should any alien civilization find the craft. For having published less than ten pieces of music in his lifetime, he would be quite shocked to find where his music has gone over the last 300 years.

Bach composed many concerti, over 300 cantatas (a religious composition with choir, orchestra, and vocal soloists) at the rate of one per week--each one roughly a half hour long. He also composed many organ and harpsichord works, sonatas for various instruments, etc.

RECOMMENDED MUSIC: The Six Brandenburg Concerti; Toccata and Fugue in D minor (and other organ music); Mass in B minor; Cantata No. 140; Violin Concerti; Harpsichord Concerti Nos. 1 and 2.


A contemporary of Bach, Handel represents a more urban, grandiose side to Baroque music, as opposed to Bach's deeply religious musical aura. Born in Germany, Handel eventually emigrated to England where he wrote the most beloved English language music to date.

Handel was an extraordinarily prolific composer, successful in nearly all of the major forms of the time--sonatas, concerti, operas, chamber music, and his specialty, the oratorio. An oratorio is very similar to an opera, in that it tells a story, has recitative (parts that tell a story using little music), aria (very little text, but musically developed), choruses, and beginning with an overture. It differs from an opera in that there is no staging or action--being sung by a stationary chorus and soloists. His most famous oratorio is "Messiah", using text from the Bible. Although it was meant as secular music, it is deeply religious in feeling. It is hard to imagine a piece of music more fervent in its faith than the "Hallelujah Chorus".

Tall and heavy-set, Handel could be quite jocular as well as occasionally bad tempered. There is the story that during a rehearsal one of his singers refused to do something the way he wanted. He dragged her to the nearest window and dangled her by the ankle, threatening to drop her if she didn't do the music his way.

Born in the same year as Bach, the other musical great of the late Baroque, Handel also went blind at the end of his life, and like Bach, dictated his last few compositions. Unlike Bach, he was widely celebrated at his death and his music remained popular.

RECOMMENDED MUSIC: Water Music; Royal Fireworks Music; Messiah; Organ Concerti; Concerti Grossi


Concerti Grossi -- A. Corelli
Orfeo -- C. Monteverdi
Canon -- J. Pachelbel
Dido and Aeneas -- H. Purcell