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Music Essays – Baroque Music

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Published: Mon, 22 Jun 2015

Baroque Music

In the book The Enjoyment of Music, Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney state, the word “baroque” comes from the Portuguese word “barocco” which means a pearl of irregular shapes that was used to make jewelry of the time. (299)

According to online data the word was first used to describe the style of architecture in Italy during the 17th and 18th century. Later on the word baroque was used to describe the music styles of the 1600’s to the 1700’s. The Baroque period was a time when composers experimented with form, styles and instruments. This period saw the development of opera and instrumental music. (About.com)

Although we use the term baroque today, the appropriateness of the term baroque has been questioned. In music, the term ‘Baroque’ applies to the final period of dominance of imitative counterpoint where different voices and instruments echo each other but at different pitches, sometimes inverting the echo, and even reversing thematic material. Baroque music too many in the sixteenth century was bizarre, extravagant, and unnatural.

According to the data from online Encarta, Baroque music was very different to the music before its time such as medieval and early renaissance music and the development of new harmonic and melodic lines added difference in pace and variation to the compositions giving them a new shape and form. The structure of the music also changed different forms such as fugues and cannons developed and different instruments were introduced.

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Composers of the early baroque period placed an emphasis on melody. Developments began in Italy and first took place in vocal music, especially opera. Instrumental music started out as an accompaniment of voice but over the course of the baroque era, it achieved an independent identity. Melodies were embellished with ornaments of different types, rapid alternation between the main note and the note just above it. All composers in countries used ornamentation, but it was favored by French composers. Baroque melodies, vocal and instrumental, made prominent use of melodic sequence, the repetition of a short motif at a higher or lower pitch. (Encarta).

The principle melody in baroque music was supported by a written bass line, the basso continuo, played by a viol, cello or bassoon. Other parts were added between the melody and the bass by a keyboard instrument, usually a harpsichord or organ. Only they melody and the bass line were written out. Numbers placed over or under the bass notes indicated the type of chord to be played, and they keyboard accompanist added the appropriate notes. (Encarta)

According to Manfred F. Bukofzer in his book Music in the Baroque Era the baroque style went through several phases that didn’t even coincide in different countries. They were grouped into three major periods: early, middle and late baroque. Although the periods overlap in time, they can roughly be dated as the first from 1580 to 1630, the second from 1630 to 1680, and the last from 1680 to 1730. These spans indicate only the formative periods of the new concepts with which the previous ones may run parallel for some time, and the start of the baroque period only applies to Italy. In other countries the periods began ten to twenty years later.

The middle baroque period brought the bel-canto style in that cantata and opera, with the distinction between aria and recitative. A single section of musical forms began to grow and contrapuntal texture was reinstituted. The modes were reduced to major and minor and the chord progressions are governed by a rudimentary tonality which restrained the free dissonance treatment of the early baroque.

The late baroque style was distinguished by a fully established tonality which regulated chord progression, dissonance treatment, and the formal structure. The contrapuntal technique culminated in the full absorption tonal harmony. The forms grew to large dimensions. The concerto style appeared and with it came the emphasis on mechanical rhythm. (17)

Along with the different phases of the baroque period there were also different styles, according to Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney in their book The Enjoyment of Music they explain the different styles. Machlis & Forney states that the transition form Renaissance to Baroque brought with it a great change, the shift of interest from texture of several independent parts to one in which a single melody stood out, from polyphonic music to homophonic. The monodic style which originated in vocal music, was named monody wand literally means “one song,” music for one singer with instrumental accompaniment. The monodic style was known during the beginning of the baroque era. The recitative style is a half-spoken, half-sung delivery, which is often used to link songlike numbers in an opera, oratorio or cantata. Recitative can be dry or accompanied. Secco recitative has only very simple chordal accompaniment; accompanied recitative involves the orchestra more actively. Continuo is the accompaniment part within a homophonic texture, in which a keyboard instrument or sometimes a lute plays a supporting bass line. The composer would write out a single melodic line, and then add figures beneath it to indicate which harmonies the performer should add to it in order to fill out the texture. An aria is a solo song, normally occurring in the context of a longer work but sometimes autonomous. It is usually formally closed, meaning that it could be removed from its setting and performed independently as a complete musical unit. The cantata is a work for solo vocalists, chorus and instrumentalist based on a lyric or dramatic poem. It is generally short and intimate, consisting of several movements that include recitatives, arias, and ensemble members. (395-412).

There were many composers that wrote music throughout the baroque era, some more significant than others but each contributing a large amount to the development throughout this period. In Claude Palisca book Baroque Music Arcangelo Corelli was one of the first prominent composers of the Baroque era; he was an Italian composer and violinist writing music in a chamber style and in the form of the late baroque era. Corelli was born in 1653 in Fusignano, Italy not far from Bologna, he spent four years of study in the latter center of violin music before settling in Rome. Corelli separated church and chamber sonatas, grouping them in dozens or half dozens. The content of the two types of sonatas show, an interpenetration of the two manners of writing. Corelli would begin his church sonatas with a severe, majestic, solemn mood, passed on to a resolute and contented one, then to a tenderly melancholic affection, and finally to a light and carefree one. (152)

In Donna Getzingr and Daniel Felsenfeld book, Johann Sebastian Bach and the Art of Baroque Music. Bach was a prolific German composer and organist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity. Getzinger and Felsenfeld states that Bach’s music wasn’t appreciated during his time he never played his music in public places because his music was not always well received. He was often criticized for writing music many considered overly complicated, and he quit jobs when his employers could not understand what he had hoped to accomplish with his music. (11-14)

Machlis and Forney state that Bach was one of the greatest religious artists in history. He believed that music must serve “the glory of God.” Bach produced works that spoke for the entire Lutheran faith. The prime medium for Bach’s talents was the organ, and during his life he was known as a virtuoso organist. In Bach’s last works it revealed a master who raised existing forms to the highest level. His sheer mastery of contrapuntal composition has never been equaled. (416-417)

It is a still-debated question as to what extent Baroque music shares aesthetic principles with the visual and literary arts of the Baroque period. A fairly clear, shared element is a love of ornamentation, and it is perhaps significant that the role of ornament was greatly diminished in both music and architecture as the Baroque gave way to the Classical period. I had the pleasure of listening to some of Bach music, and say I will definitely add his music to my music collection.

Works Cited

Bukofzer, Manfred F. Music in the Baroque Era, from Monteverdi to Bach. London: Dent, 1948.

Getzinger, Donna. Felsenfeld, Daniel. Johann Sebastian Bach and the Art of Baroque Music. Greensboro, North Carolina: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, Inc. 2004

Machlis, Joseph, Kristine Forney, The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

Palisca, Claude V. Baroque Music. Prentice-Hall history of music series. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981.


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