ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Baroque Period

1600 - 1750 A.D.

Numerous new forms of music were being invented and developed throughout the Baroque period, including the toccata, fugue, solo and trio sonata, the solo concerto, the concerto grosso, cantata and oratorio, all of which crop up on modern concert programs.

Listen to Corelli: Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 2, first movement

Perhaps the most far-reaching new development, however, was opera, which was invented by Italians in somewhat the same way that Europeans “discovered” the Americas—by accident. Just as Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World by trying to sail to India, a group of intellectuals in Florence (known today as the Florentine Camerata) concocted the first experiments in opera around 1600 by trying to recreate the lost tradition of ancient Greek drama.

To this end, the Camerata members invented the stile rappresentativo, or what today is most commonly called recitative (pronounced retch-eet-ah-teev). This was a form of singing that sought to mimic the natural cadence and rhythms of speech, most often accompanied only by the basso continuo. The earliest operas, including those of Claudio Monteverdi, are primarily in stile rappresentativo, with only brief and relatively simple interludes of more melodic singing.

Listen to Monteverdi: L’Orfeo excerpt from Act I “In questo lieto”

These interludes—which came to be known as arias—became more and more complex and lengthy as the Baroque era went on, reaching an apotheosis in the operas Handel composed for audiences in London from 1721 until 1742.

Listen to Handel: “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto” from Rinaldo

Opera was a perfect form for the Baroque, which championed the so-called doctrine of the affections, or the belief that only one emotion should be portrayed at a time, and then in its most pure and distilled form. Unlike the later music dramas of the 19th century, Baroque operas progress in stages: recitative passages dispatch the dramatic action, after which an aria will express the character’s reaction to the newest plot twist.

This same one-emotion-at-a-time principle guided instrumental music as well. Entire movements may evoke the same mood, which changes completely for another movement or section. The use of crescendo (gradually growing louder) and decrescendo (gradually growing softer) was limited, with so-called “terraced” dynamics or echo effects more frequently encountered.

Bach and Handel, both born in 1685 (along with Domenico Scarlatti), are viewed today as the apotheosis of Baroque music, although their styles diverge considerably. Both were of German birth, but while Handel was educated in Italy and lived most of his life in England, earning international fame for his Italian operas and English oratorios, Bach remained a provincial church organist for most of his career, renowned for his organ technique, Lutheran liturgical music (called cantatas), and awesome mastery of counterpoint in instrumental—especially keyboard—music.

Listen to Bach: Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542

By the end of his life, Bach was considered old-fashioned. New winds were beginning to blow through the world of music, creating a current of change that would continue, almost unbroken, to the early 20th century.

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