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Music In The Baroque Era

Characteristics of Musical Style

Peter Kun Frary


The first distinctly Baroque music appeared in Italian solo song and opera during the late 16th and early 17th centuries: a single vocal melody accompanied by chords from a harpsichord or lute, creating a simple homophonic texture. This style of music is called monody. However, polyphonic texture was still used and existed side by side with homophonic sections in music written during the middle and late Baroque. Here's an example of solo song from the early Italian Baroque:

Amarilli mia bella | Giulio Caccini (1551-1618)

Amarilli, mia bella,
non credi, o del mio cor dolce desio,
d’esser tu l’amor mio?
Credilo pur, e se timor t’assale,
prendi questo mio strale
aprimi il petto e vedrai scritto in core:
Amarilli è il mio amore.

Amaryllis, my beauty,
don't you believe, sweet desire of my heart
that you are my love?
Believe it, and if you fear
take this my arrow,
open my breast and you shall see written in my heart:
Amaryllis is my love.

Allegory of Music, 1649 | Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656) | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Characteristics of Baroque Music

Baroque composers tended to give the outer voices—soprano and bass—more importance. In contrast, Renaissance voices were treated with relative equality. While monody was the rage in 17th century Italy, polyphonic textures continued to be favored in Northern Europe.

Major-Minor tonality rather than modality formed the basis of most music by the latter half of the 17th century. The focus on major and minor scales allowed harmony to become became more deliberate and formalized. In other words, harmony was no longer a chance result of combinations of melodic lines but a deliberate organization of chords into patterned progressions. Composers also wrote melodies to fit with particular chords.

Five Course Baroque Guitar c.1630–50 | Matteo Sellas (1599–1654) | The use of frets on guitars and lutes helped spread acceptance of equal temperament tuning. | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Equal temperament tuning allowed increased pitch range and the ability to modulate to distant keys. Equal temperament is a tuning system in which adjacent notes in the chromatic scale are spaced exactly the same distance apart, i.e., equidistant spacing of half steps. Non-tempered tuning systems used varied interval spacing, rendering register extremes and distant keys too out of tune for use.

Double Virginal | Hans Ruckers (c.1581) | Metropolitan Museum of Art | Keyboard instruments such as this virginal became popular during the Baroque, eventually superseding the lute as de rigueur household instrument.

Basso continuo—bass line with chords improvised above it—was the foundation of harmony in solo song and ensemble pieces. Figured bass symbols—numbers placed under bass notes—were a short hand system of indicating chords. The example below shows figured bass on the left with a simple realization on the right:

Basso continuo instrumentation was left up to the performers. However, it typically used a combination able to play chords and bass: cello (bass) and harpsichord (chords); bassoon (bass) and lute (chords), bass violin (bass) and harp (chords), etc. If a separate bass player was unavailable, both bass and chords were played on a single instrument such as lute or harpsichord.

Handel's Minuetto has clear-cut basso continuo parts and is performed here with guitar on chords and cello on bass line:

Sonata in E minor HWV 375: Minuetto | George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Terraced dynamics—change from loud to soft or vice versa—are typical in Baroque ensemble music. Terraced dynamics were primarily the result of pitting a large group of performers against a small group of soloists. Vivaldi's Recorder Concerto in C Major pits a larger ensemble against a soprano recorder, resulting in terraced dynamics:

Recorder Concerto in C Major RV 443 | Antonio Vivaldi (1685-1759)

Continuity of Mood, Rhythm and Melody

Baroque music sticks to one mood or feeling throughout a movement. Certain scales, keys, rhythms, etc., were used to represent specific emotions. For example, sadness may be evoked by descending chromatic scales and minor keys. Calculated emotional expressions were characteristic of Baroque art in general.

Rhythmic patterns established at the beginning tend to be used continuously throughout the movement, creating a feeling of driving forward motion. The beat is rarely interrupted until the end of the movement.

Melody or sections of melody are repeated in different guises. Melody may unfold into elaborate phrases but retain a similar character due to repeated motives and melodic sequences.

Bach's Prelude No. 1 introduces an arpeggiated motive and repeats this basic idea incessantly throughout the piece, maintaining a similar mood and feeling from beginning to end:

Prelude 1 in C Major BWV 846 | Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Similar techniques as the above piece are used, but on a larger scale, in the fist movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3:

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major BWV 1048 | Johann Sebastian Bach


monody, equal temperament, virginal, basso continuo, figured bass, terraced dynamics

©Copyright 2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved