ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Baroque Period

1600 - 1750 A.D.

Painting by Johannes Verkolje, "An Elegant Couple With Musical Instruments" 1674

Mastery of the fugue became a benchmark of a composer’s skill, and examples were written well into the 19th and even 20th centuries by such composers as Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Hindemith and Shostakovich.

Baroque music is also distinguished by a quick harmonic rhythm, which is to say that the chords accompanying the melody change frequently, sometimes on every beat. This is in marked contrast to what would happen to music in the second half of the 18th century as the Classical style emerged, in which lengthy passages are sometimes set to a single harmony.

Instruments were changing; the viol, which had a fretted finger-board (like a modern guitar) was yielding to the unfretted violin, and the myriad wind instruments of the Renaissance consort began to be replaced by recognizable forerunners of the modern trumpet, trombone, oboe, bassoon and flute. This may partly account for the fact that Baroque music, or at least representative selections of it, have always been part of modern concert life. Since the mid-19th century, long before the current craze for “original” or “authentic” instruments got underway, music by Bach, Handel, Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), Henry Purcell (1659-95), François Couperin (1668-1733), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) and Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) has been regularly played on “modern” instruments—a tradition that continues to this day.

A composition from Bach's own hand.

There is room in the world of classical music for both approaches: stylistically informed performances on modern instruments as well as performances recreating as accurately as possible the music as the composer might have heard it. These attempts are complicated by the fact that musical notation has always been somewhat vague, and while the history of notation has been a continual quest to make it ever more precise, there are many questions still left unanswered as to exactly what composers in the Baroque period intended. Musicologists have perhaps aroused as many controversies as they have definitively answered questions.

A contributing factor is the degree to which 17th- and 18th-century musicians were expected to improvise or elaborate on what the composer actually wrote down. Baroque music, like Baroque architecture and painting, is often encrusted with ornaments, short musical figures—often indicated by symbols—that were expected to be added by performers both to show off their own virtuosity as well as enhance the musical line. It’s a subject that has generated some of the most heated debates in musicology.

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