Music Styles: Baroque

THE BAROQUE: 1600 - 1750

The expression "baroque" was originally meant as an insult, describing an irregular shape of no particular beauty. It was adapted as a pejorative to describe a whole class of architecture and design, and to offend a genre of ornamentation and style in the visual arts that quickly found a correspondence in music. But over time, however, the Baroque came to stand for a grandeur, a stylishness, a sense of bravado and improvisation that called upon the best of composers of the era. In this period we find the first opera and oratorio, the development of the early sonata and symphony, a subdivision of musical identity into clearly national courts and commerce, and perhaps most audibly a commitment to embellishment in every style and genre.

The creation of nation-states, the growth of capital and colonization, the stirrings of a merchant class, and improvements in church and theatre architecture financed and provided the arenas for an enormous expansion of musical activity. The Church gradually lost its command of the fact and fashions of music, and in its place came the enduring secular forms we revere today. Discoveries in science and improvements in technology made possible the modern form of instruments in all classes, and the work of Bach, Rameau, and Morley (among many others) gradually led to a universal tuning system that allowed performance in all keys.

As with the Ars Antiqua and Ars Nova three centuries earlier, we see in the Baroque a polarity of opinion between the stile antico (also known as prima prattica) and the stilo moderno (seconda prattica) among composers. The Baroque Revolution came at a price, and conflict between the new and old schools was open and, occasionally, violent. However, it led to the achievement of incomparable composers. Below, we survey the leading among them.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
A child prodigy, his early works contained a daring dissonance and a commitment to the supremacy of text in story telling, be it in madrigal or motet. It was in 1607 that Monteverdi changed music forever: Drawing on the earlier work of the Florentine camerata, he wrote Orfeo, the first real opera. In it, his gift combined drama in story with drama in music. Human emotion suddenly became real and approachable, and stunned his first audiences. This success was followed by such works as 1624's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, his famous thirty-year collection ofMadrigali guerrieri et amorosi (Madrigals of love and war, 1638), and his later operas Ulysses (1640) and Poppea (1642). His orchestrations were as brilliant as his voice-settings. Monteverdi employed such string devices as tremolando and pizzicato, such harmonic schemes as 7th chords, and astonishingly dramatic recitative.

Recommended Listening:
Orfeo; Madrigals of Love and War; Coronation of Poppea; Aquilino Coppini, 1608

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
That he lived so briefly is a tragedy; that he left so much is a miracle. Like so many English composers, Purcell began training in choir school, and upon his voice breaking took up instruments and composition. He succeeded Blow as organist at Westminster in 1679, and a year later published his superb Fantasias for strings. In 1689 (or thereabouts) he wrote the first great English opera, the remarkable Dido and Aeneas. Thereafter he wrote a great deal of incidental theatre music, much of it still in repertory and including The Faerie Queene (1692).

Recommended Listening:
Dido and Aeneas; the 24 Sonatas; 4 Canzonas for Brass

Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613)
In time Gesualdo, Prince of Venoso and Count of Conza, was a citizen of the Renaissance. But in style and innovation, in boldness and in fearlessness, this was a man of the Baroque. When you listen to his music, pay particular attention to his harmonies, his odd and heart-wrenching chromaticisms, his strong contrasts in dynamics and voice-leading, and heightened registrations and expressiveness in text setting.

Recommended Listening:
Any of his Madrigals written for Five Voices

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759)
In the Baroque era, Handel was the only composer whose greatness rivaled that of Bach himself. Similar in genius, their careers took very different turns. Handel's early training and work took place in Germany, leading to his first Italian opera (Almira) in 1705. Its success led to many more of the same, often on Classical texts and themes. It also led to considerable travel and to a growing European reputation. HisResurrection oratorio was produced in 1708, and led to the second major tributary of his career. All the while writing such religious and secular dramas, Handel also excelled in solo and chamber writing, producing hundreds of such works across his career. From 1714 Handel lived in London under the special patronage of King George I, himself formerly Elector of Hanover. In this period Handel contributed his most famous oratorios, numerous suites and sonatas, and in 1742 his immortalMessiah, written in 21 days. Like others of his time, Handel was unrestrained in his borrowing: He took tunes from himself and others, and dressed them in new harmonic and instrumental (or vocal) clothing. The ingenuity with which he did so is breathtaking. Handel died full of honors, the beloved master of every genre he touched.

Recommended Listening:
Julius Caesar; 12 Concerti Grossi, Op 6; Ode for St Cecilia's Day; Judas Maccabbeus

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Born the same year as Handel, Bach came to create and to summarize. In his day, Bach's genius was barely recognized. He earned a living as a church organist, a parish teacher, and save for siring twenty children led an almost-reclusive life in comparison. (Handel appears to have been celibate.) There are more than one thousand individual works in the Bach catalogue. Many of them are the Mt Everest of their form: the 6 Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, the Chaconne for Solo Violin, the Art of the Fugue, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concerti, theGoldberg Variations, the St. Matthew Passion - the list is nearly as long as his catalogue. When first approaching Bach, start small and simple. Many are initially put-off by his complexity, but need not be. Bach's utter mastery of fugue and counterpoint is inspiring but not fearsome.

Recommended Listening:
Brandenburg Concerto No 5; the Wedding Cantata; the Italian Concerto, especially as performed by Glenn Gould; Concerto in A Minor for 4 Harpsichords; Suite No 1 for Unaccompanied Cello