Previous PageContents PageNext Page

Baroque Music - Part One


Elaine Thornburgh

The html code, hyperlinks, and linked knowledge webs associated with this chapter are not part of the original chapter cited above, and are authored by Jack Logan, Ph.D.

"Odd pearl or strained syllogism, baroque music was to both Pluche and Rousseau bizarre, extravagant, and unnatural."

--Claude V. Palisca

The Era of Baroque Music

The Baroque period of European musical history falls between the late Renaissance and early Classical periods, that is, roughly the century-and-a-half between 1600 and 1750. During the Renaissance, Europe had assimilated the humanism and rationalism of Greco-Roman civilization, had undergone the theological and political turmoil of religious reformation, and had, for the first time in the history of our species, begun to outline the contours of that scientific method which was to provide Europe with its technological impetus. During the era of Baroque music, European civilization emerged to a preeminence on the planet which was to endure into the twentieth century.

The era of Baroque music was an age of spectacular progress of knowledge. It was the age of the scientific discoveries of Galileo and Newton, the mathematical advances of Descartes, Newton and Leibnitz, and the philosophical explorations of Descartes, Spinoza and Locke. There was a new and vibrant intellectual, artistic and social atmosphere which in so many ways signaled the birth of modern Europe.

The flourishing of an autonomous European culture also produced a musical language which we hear today as familiar. Music from the Baroque period is the earliest European music which we still generally recognize, whether it be the theme from Masterpiece Theatre (Mouret's Suite de Symphonie), the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah, or any number of other pieces. Most of the Baroque musical instruments and forms which evolved during the Baroque period survive today, particularly as they were embodied in the most familiar European art music, the music of the Classical and Romantic periods of the nineteenth century.

Baroque musicians served patrons, whether nobles, state or church. It was not until well into the eighteenth century that some musicians, like their twentieth century counterparts, began to work without patronage as independent professionals, earning a living from teaching, composing and performing.

As does all great art, Baroque music speaks to something that transcends time and place, but it also derives much from the social and cultural context of the world for which it was written. The emerging financial, commercial and professional classes created their own musical experience in the home and at church, and artistic schools flourished portraying their everyday life. Here, the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer were in the forefront. However, by far the greatest number of musicians and artists flourished under the patronage of the church, the state or the aristocracy. This is the domain of such examples of Baroque expression as the luxuriant music of Vivaldi, the exuberant paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, and the flamboyant architecture of Francesco Borromini.

This was also an era of absolute monarchy, where the entire government of a country could be the personal property of an individual. The monarch of the most powerful state then on the European continent was Louis XIV of France. He tersely explained his absolute monarchy with the aphorism, L'…tat, c'est moi--"I am the state"--which he had demonstrated by centralizing the political and artistic life of his nation at his grandiose court in Versailles. There, the unified conception of buildings, gardens and interiors served as a daily reminder of his absolute power. Lavish musical and theatrical spectacles were staged to charm and disarm his aristocratic courtiers and to dazzle and subdue his foreign visitors. Musicians at Versailles, and at the other courts of Europe, were merely a few of the myriad craftsmen whose purpose was to enhance the glory and power of the sovereign.

The Baroque composer thought of himself as a craftsman rather than as an artist. Unlike later European art music, a great deal of Baroque music was written on demand for specific occasions, and musical scores were often treated with the care we would accord to yesterday's newspaper. Despite this disregard for posterity by many Baroque musicians, we are still the fortunate inheritors of an enormous and magnificent body of work.

The Elements of Baroque Music

Music from the Baroque period is of many styles. There is Italian, French, English, and German Baroque music. There is early, middle and late Baroque music. There is secular and sacred Baroque music. And there are distinctive personal styles of many of the composers. One result of this diversity is a certain difficulty in defining Baroque music in terms of a large number of common elements. However, there are three areas where it is useful to make generalizations about Baroque music: (1) Baroque musical instruments, (2) Baroque stylistic elements and (3) The Baroque musical esthetic.

Baroque Musical Instruments


The human voice is the oldest and, in some ways, the most natural of musical instruments. Of course if by "musical instrument" we meant "tool for music making", the voice would not be an instrument at all. But the singing voice of Baroque singers was not the natural untutored voice. Rather it was highly trained, and trained for a musical sound which is in many ways quite different from that which today's opera singers seek. Instead of the uniformity of tone color for which today's voice strives across the vocal range, the Baroque voice accentuated the difference in tone color between the lower and higher registers. Generally, the qualities most valued in the Baroque voice were agility, purity and clarity, even at the expense of the power which characterizes today's operatic voice.


The principal ensemble instruments in Baroque music, as in all subsequent European art music, are the unfretted (that is, without frets), bowed, string instruments of the violin family. Violin making reached its highest point during the Baroque period. Indeed, the best violins in the world today were made then in Cremona, a town in the Po River valley of northern Italy. The names of Cremona's great violin-making families, such as the Stradivari and Guarneri, are familiar today because their instruments continue to be the most prized by our greatest violinists. (Note, for example, that the Dutch Baroque virtuoso, Jaap Schroeder, plays a violin made in 1709 by Antonio Stradivarius) All the modern members of the violin family were available to Baroque composers, that is, the violin, viola, cello and double bass. Baroque composers responded to the new refined instruments with music that demanded great virtuosic and expressive skill.

The Baroque period also inherited from the Renaissance a gamut of fretted, bowed instruments. The most important among these was the viola da gamba, or gamba, an instrument with the approximate range of a cello. The gamba was most often used as a continuo instrument, and it disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century. There has recently been a revival of this instrument resulting from an increased interest in the performance of Baroque music using the instruments of the period.


The recorder, (Ex.: Handel's Sonata in D Minor: Vivace (Keith Jarrett - Michala Petri, HANDEL: SONATAS: RCA Victor Red Seal , Released Jun 11, 1991) oboe, and bassoon were common instruments during the Baroque era. The recorder was the only one of these instruments which did not survive the transition to the Classical period. Baroque woodwinds were all made of wood, even the flute, and had few or no keys, unlike their nineteenth century descendants. These instruments generally have a softer sound than their modern counterparts.


The main brass instruments of the Baroque era were the trumpet (Ex.: Altenburg's Concerto in D for Seven Trumpets and Timpani: Allegro (Gerard Schwarz - The New York Trumpet Ensemble, The Sound of Trumpets: Altenburg - Biber - Vivaldi - Torelli - Telemann, Delos, Released Jan 1, 1987) and french horn. Although the examples above are performed on 20th century instruments, these instruments in the Baroque period were known as "natural" trumpets and horns because they had no valves. Valves, a nineteenth century invention which increased the number of pitches easily available to the player, caused a revolution in the music that could be performed by trumpets and horns. Because of their technical limitations in the Baroque period, these instruments were used essentially for orchestral color.


The two principal keyboard instruments of the Baroque era, the harpsichord, a plucked keyboard instrument, and the organ, are associated, respectively, with secular and sacred music. Harpsichord construction and composition reached its zenith during this period. Prized both as a solo and accompanying instrument, the harpsichord flourished throughout Europe. The lute, like the harpsichord, was used as a solo and accompanying instrument and enjoyed four centuries of favor, from the later Middle Ages until the end of the 17th century. Although a primitive piano was invented during the Baroque period, it remained a curiosity until the middle of the eighteenth century. The Classical period's Haydn and Mozart were the first great composers to write for the piano.

The Baroque Orchestra

The orchestra settled into a recognizable entity of instrumentalists in the 18th century. It was much smaller in scale than the modern orchestra and generally the musical scores were adjusted to accommodate the number of players available. They were mainly, and sometimes exclusively, composed of string players. Woodwinds usually played the same notes as the strings, but occasionally the woodwinds and brass were given short passages for color contrast.

Sylistic Elements of Baroque Music

The two most universal stylistic elements of Baroque music are continuo, also called thorough bass, and ornamentation. Both involve the difference between what the composer wrote down and what the performer played. Both are elements of musical style which derived from Renaissance music and persisted into early Classical music.

The continuo, typically consisting of a harpsichord and a cello, provided the rhythmic and harmonic foundation of Baroque ensemble. It was usually written as a bass line with numbers under each note to designate the harmony, much like a modern jazz chart, and the performers decided how to fill out this "figured bass".

Ornamentation is the embellishment of the musical line, with devices such as trills, mordants and grace notes. Ornaments were rarely written out, and often were not even indicated, but simply left to the taste of the performer. Vibrato was considered an ornamental enhancement of a given note or musical moment, not the ubiquitous element of tone production which it has become today.

The Baroque Musical Aesthetic

Music has always provided emotional enhancement to the expressive powers of verse. During the Renaissance, music theory focused on music as an extension of a text. Using the terms of Greco-Roman communication theory, Renaissance thinkers categorized music as an element of rhetoric, that is, the persuasive, engaging, emotional aspect of discourse. Baroque thinkers also conceived of music as rhetoric, but they added to this a rationalist belief in the objective, scientifically definable nature of the emotions.

In 1649 the French mathematician and philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), wrote Les passions de l'me (The Passions of the Soul), the best statement of that era's understanding of emotions such as of love, hate, joy, sadness, anger, fear, or exhaltation. The emotions had an objective nature which was susceptible to rational description, particularly in the language of music. Baroque composers used varied musical descriptions of a given emotion as building blocks of a particular piece.

Baroque musicians were not concerned with expressing their own feelings and emotions, rather they sought to describe with objectivity, feelings and emotions which were distinct from what they actually felt. One result of the musicians' distancing themselves from the emotions they depicted was a certain emotional detachment. Some critics have, as a result, found Baroque music to be somewhat cold. However, this evaluation ignores the ultimate goal of Baroque music, a goal attained then as now when Baroque music is properly performed. Composers' and performers' skillful and accurate musical depictions of objectively described emotions did and still do evoke emotional, feeling responses in its listeners. Baroque music stirs "the passions of the soul".

A distinctive feature of Baroque music is that each piece (or single movement within a multi-movement piece) limits itself to only one of the emotions. Baroque thematic development is thus quite different from the later Classical thematic development which juxtaposed themes of contrasting emotional content in the same piece. The particular emotion being described in a given piece is called that piece's affect. Notice how the poem in Appendix C, A Song for St. Cecelia's Day -- St. Cecelia being patron saint of music -- associates a given emotion with each of the instruments: the trumpet with bellicosity, the flute with melancholy, the lute with sorrow, and so forth. Dryden is ascribing a single given affect to each instrument, just as a Baroque musician generally elicits a single given affect in each piece of music.

Instrumental Music

Most instrumental music was played in chamber settings during the Baroque period, given the patronage of the aristocracy and the lack of public performing spaces until the 18th century. Instruments were built to sound full and rich, but in small sized halls. A variety of instrumental forms emerged during this period that reflected the new instruments and their individual colors. Dances, variations, counterpoint (point to point or part to part), and alternation between solo and tutti passages became the predominant molds of musical expression.

The full development of instrumental music, that is, music without a text and with no purpose other than being listened to, was a particular achievement of the Baroque era. Generally speaking, Renaissance instrumental music did not stand alone, but rather provided a background for singing or dancing. Baroque dance forms which evolved from Renaissance music include the allemande, gavotte, and gigue, each with its own identifiable rhythmic individuality.

The rise of the virtuoso style, easily recognizable in the solo concerto, also served to enhance the importance of instrumental music. Bach and Handel were great virtuosi on the organ and harpsichord, Corelli on the violin. Audiences loved to applaud virtuosity and improvisation, when performers of the day, like today's jazz musicians, were expected to fill out the score, offering their own extemporaneous creation.

Solo Instrumental Music

The dance suite and the prelude and the fugue are the forms most frequently used in solo instrumental music, and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was their most powerful exponent. Renaissance composers had invented imitative polyphony which Baroque composers fashioned into the fugue, perhaps the most developed musical form of the era. Bach became the undisputed master of the fugue. Bach's Invention No. 1 in C Major, written in 1723, points in the direction of all of his magnificient contrapuntal compositions.

Johann Sebastain Bach (1685-1750)

As composer, teacher and performer of the organ, harpsichord, violin and viola, Bach had an astonishing ability to blend a variety of national styles into existing musical forms. Composing solo works for organ, harpsichord, violin, cello, and flute, his extraordinary abilities created music which has remained alive and accessible through the centuries regardless of the instruments used, all the way from the harpsichord to the electronic synthesizer. This is due primarily to his harmonic inventiveness and the marvelous clarity with which he realized contrapuntal lines. The Prelude and Fugue in D Major from Book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier provides an excellent example of his superb craftsmanship. The prelude grandly introduces us to the key of D Major, setting up the expectant ear for the spirited but eloquent fugue that follows. Watch a film entitled Glory to God Alone: The Life of J. S. Bach courtesy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This introduction to the life and work of J. S. Bach includes commentary by Christoph Wolff and Robin Leaver.

Look at an example of Bach's music to see the genius of a pure musician. Now, listen to Bobby McFerrin as he vocalizes Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C Major, as his audience vocalizes Charles Gounod's Ave Maria as a duet. In this wonderful concert, McFerrin demonstrates Bach's genius, which allows his music to be heard today and by generations of the future.

French composers excelled in music written for solo harpsichord. A tradition that had begun with solo lute music was continued with the harpsichord, in some senses a mechanical lute, after the lute fell from favor at the end of the seventeenth century. They delighted in music that imitated the sounds of nature and in the character piece, that is, a musical portrait of a friend, colleague or patron.

Francois Couperin (1668-1733), court composer to Louis XIV, wrote harpsichord music which has maintained its charm to this day. Le dodo ou l'amour au berceau ["Beddy-bye or Cupid in the cradle"] and L'evapore ["The airhead"] are excellent examples of character pieces. The first is undoubtedly the musical portrait of a patron's cherubic sleeping infant, while the second would be a description of one of the ebulliently frivolous ladies of the French Court. The first piece is a rondo, a form developed during the Baroque. The first theme, or "rondeau" -- here, the tune from a French lullaby -- is repeatedly presented in alternation with other material in an ABACADA pattern. The rondo was also a very important form in Classical and Romantic music.

Character pieces could also be very serious and grand. For example, the music theorist and composer, Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764) composed La Dauphine to play on the harpsichord at the French Court in celebration of the wedding of the Dauphin and Dauphine -- the French Crown Prince and Princess. -- and the musical portrait was of a possible future Queen of France.

The composer who understood the harpsichord best, who brought harpsichord composition to its greatest heights, was Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), a Neopolitan who spent the most important part of his career in service to the Queen of Spain. He is remembered for his harpsichord pieces, just as Chopin a century later was to be remembered for his piano compositions. Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas have an enormous emotional range. They evoke lyric mellowness, languid hours, somber solemnity, dazzling pyrotechnics, and cheerful sprightliness. Scarlatti is often considered merely the author of sonatas of insuperable technical difficulty, but his real power lies in his dynamic strength, pouring forth in runs, cascades and harmonic richness.

Solo and Trio Sonatas

The solo sonata and the trio sonata were very popular forms of composition with Baroque composers. Consisting of one or two solo instruments supported by a continuo for rhythmic and harmonic definition, the sonatas gave ample opportunity for the soloists to show off their virtuosity. Soloists developed their technique with pieces such as The Sonatas for Violin and Continuo by violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). These pieces were published January 1, 1700, and quickly became a standard teaching tool for violin technique and musical inventiveness. Corelli's Folia Variations offer a rousing example of the musical effectiveness of solid violin technique and of the variation form. The violin begins quietly, builds to a musical climax, then returns to the calmer atmosphere in which it began.

Concerto Grosso and the Solo Concerto

The concerto grosso became the most common instrumental form for the newly developed orchestra. This genre, first popularized by Corelli, was composed chiefly for string instruments with alternating solo and tutti sections. This contrast was essential in giving the form its musical vitality. Generally opening and closing with the full orchestra, the brilliant solo passage work allowed the soloists to show off their technical prowess which was greatly enhanced by their marvelous new violins.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) expanded substantially on the ground laid by Corelli. Perhaps the best distinction that can be drawn between the solo concerto and concerto grosso form is that in the solo concerto the contrast between the solo and orchestral sections are even longer and more vivid. By the middle of the eighteenth century the solo concerto emerged as the central musical form of this genre. The Classical symphony clearly evolved from the Baroque concerto grosso, especially the symphony's three or four movements with alternating tempos and its ensemble texture broken by short solo passages for different instruments.

One of the most popular Baroque instrumental works, Vivaldi's Four Seasons is fundamentally a concerto grosso for solo violin. It is also an example of program music, that is, music that tells a story, often with the mimicking of everyday sounds. This excerpt (the first movement of the Autumn concerto) tells the story of an autumn harvest festival. The fast passage work in the violin and orchestra, representing the celebratory atmosphere of an autumn harvest festival, gives way to the ingesting of spirits, which yields to an atmosphere of slumber; then, a wakeful and lively mood finishes the celebration.

Bach's popular six Brandenburg Concertos (Example: Movement 3 of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major), probably sent as a set in 1710 to the Margrave (or Count) of Brandenburg in search of a new post, demonstrate the transition from concerto grosso to solo concerto. Each concerto uses different combinations of instruments, some only appearing once. The vivid tone colors of the varied instruments enhance the contrast between soloists and orchestra. The solo group for Brandenburg No. 5 is flute, violin and harpsichord. As with Vivaldi's solo violin concertos, the harpsichord offers a dazzling cadenza before the movement closes with a satisfying return to the original orchestral material. Although short cadenzas were occasionally used in concerti grossi, the long elaborate cadenzas closing the first movement is much more typical of the later solo concertos. Both Bach and Vivaldi were crucial to the development of the solo concerto, and their compositions helped prepare the way for Mozart's sublime piano concertos of a half century later.

Previous PageContents PageNext Page