ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Baroque Period

1600 - 1750 A.D.

Bach and Handel

The term Baroque music today conjures for most people the names of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), both of whom worked during the last third of the Baroque period and brought it to its highest fruition in many genres.

Listen to Handel’s Water Music, Suite 2, “Alla Hornpipe”

With Baroque music, we enter the era of Italian supremacy; most Baroque developments originated there and traveled, with some time delay, to the rest of Europe. Starting toward the end of the 16th century in Italy, Baroque style extended to approximately the middle of the 18th century. (Some commentators like to think of it as ending in 1750, because that’s the year Bach died.)

All sorts of things happened to music with the development of the Baroque. One of the most far-reaching and long-lasting developments of this period was the establishment of tonality, which became the basis for virtually all of the music composed since that time. Common to virtually all Baroque music was the convention called basso continuo, an essential element of any performance group, consisting of one instrument to play the bass line (usually a cello or its earlier cousin, the viola da gamba) and another (usually a harpsichord, but sometimes an organ or even a lute-like instrument) to improvise harmonic chords above it. These improvised harmonies were based upon numbers written underneath the bass line to indicate which chords were intended; for this reason, basso continuo is often referred to as figured bass.

The Arp Schnitger Organ of St. Jacobi in Hamburg is one of the largest baroque organs in Europe. The organ was central to many of the compositions of this era.

This bass accompaniment assumed such predominance because musical textures became more polarized, that is to say that instead of numerous equal voices, like in the madrigal, there was one high-lying melody supported by a distinct bass line, with harmonic filler in between. A surprisingly apt comparison would be to a modern rock band, with a strong bass guitar line at the bottom, a soaring lead guitar above it, and the rhythm guitar filling in the chords in between. The rock band’s overwhelming drums are a modern addition to the texture, but a strong rhythmic pulse was a prominent feature of Baroque music, too. If played insensitively, it can sound mechanical—what used to be dubbed “sewing-machine music.” When played with taste, however, the accumulated rhythmic energy can be truly exhilarating.

Listen to Bach: Fugue No. 9 in E Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 854

Conversely, Baroque music also continued to develop contrapuntal, or multi-voiced, music, perfecting that most complex of imitative forms, the fugue. The epitome of this style of writing was reached by Bach in the two volumes of his Well-Tempered Clavier, which comprises 48 preludes and 48 corresponding fugues, with two of each in every one of the 24 keys.