Have you ever enjoyed listening to some of Handel’s Messiah, or perhaps his Water Music? How about Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? Or Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos? Or Pachelbel’s Canon? If so, you have enjoyed some great Baroque music. The era of Baroque music lasted from about 1600 – 1750 A.D.
Characteristics of Baroque Music
Many scholars have called Baroque music ordered, ornate, and increasingly emotional. Baroque music also had a certain grandeur and elegance. Baroque composers believed that music was a powerful tool of communication and expression. Many consider this era of music the richest and most diverse of music history. The music of the Baroque era emphasized a single melody and a bass line. An entire piece of music reflected a single mood. Composers became more interested in the sounds of individual instruments.
Musical Changes in the Era of Baroque Music
One thing that changed considerably during the Baroque Era was the orchestra. Wind instruments were added to the orchestra, the size of the orchestra increased, and the overall sound of the orchestra changed as well.
The idea of figured bass, or basso continuo, changed the way musicians wrote and understood music. Basically, figured bass was a way of musical shorthand for composers. The composer wrote the bass notes (the lowest notes), and possibly a melody. The bass notes had additional number markings that indicated what chords to play along with the bass note. The bass players and the melody line were fairly easy to follow – the rest of the players had to do a lot of improvising. You might think of figured bass as an early form of a lead sheet. This changed the way composers and keyboard players worked with chords. It allowed composers to put down a minimum amount of information on their scores. It also helped composers write music faster. This also gave performers more artistic freedom.
Another important change during the Baroque Era was the development of major and minor keys, or the concept of Equal Temperament. Prior to this each octave was divided into 19 separate tones. This included specific different tones for things like F# and G♭. (If you find those two notes on a keyboard today, they are played by the same key.) Music and science came together and divided the notes of an octave into 12 equal divisions. Today we call these divisions half-steps. This allowed instruments to play in many different keys and still be in tune with themselves. Bach promoted this new concept by writing his Well-Tempered Clavier (or Keyboard). The book consisted of sets of two pieces for each of the 24 major and minor keys now available.
Baroque music also gave us the concept of counterpoint – the ultimate set of rules for music composition, Counterpoint has to do with how the different lines of music in a piece relate to each other, both melodically and rhythmically. The Baroque idea of counterpoint blended a mathematical manipulation of a melody with great artistry. And Johann Sebastian Bach was definitely the Baroque master of the art of counterpoint.
Instrument Changes in Baroque Music
One of the major instrumental changes related to the harpsichord. Harpsichords were keyboard instruments, but they had major limitations. Plucked strings produced the sound of a harpsichord. They went out of tune easily. Also, they could not vary their dynamics much. You could play them loud, or soft, but not both. So, in 1700 Bartolomeo Cristoforo invented the piano-forte, the precursor to our modern piano. The piano-forte (which meant soft-loud) could play both loud and soft. Instead of being plucked, little hammers hit the strings of the new piano-forte. So if you changed how hard the hammers hit the strings, you could change the volume.
Another big change in instruments came in the string family. The modern violin took precedence over the viol (viola da gamba). The modern violins produced a bigger sound and had better projection than the viols. This was also the time period of the three most famous violin makers: Giuseppe Guarneri, Nicolo Amati, and Antonio Stradivari.
Key Composers of Baroque Music
Many famous composers came from the Baroque Era. You ought to be familiar with many of them. Here is a list of some of the best-known composers from the Baroque.
Pachelbel – Music of Pachelbel
Vivaldi – Music of Vivaldi
Monteverdi – Music of Monteverdi
Corelli – Music of Corelli
Johann S. Bach – Music of Bach
Handel – Music of Handel
Frescobaldi – Music of Frescobaldi
Domenico Scarlatti – Music of Scarlatti
Couperin – Music of Couperin
Lully – Music of Lully
Rameau – Music of Rameau
Telemann – Music of Telemann
Purcell – Music of Purcell
Quantz – Music of Quantz
Buxtehude – Music of Buxtehude
Take some time to listen to some music from the Baroque Era. Let me know what you think – do you like it? This era gives a great foundation for all the music that comes after it.