Baroque: The era of elaboration (1600-1750)
The term ‘baroque’ was first coined to describe the architectural style of 17th and 18th century religious buildings in many parts of Europe. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the word ‘baroque’ was applied to musical composition. Today, the term refers to a specific musical genre which originated in the 1600s and reached its peak in the early to mid 1700s.
So what exactly is baroque music? It is a style intended primarily to invoke a particular emotional mood in the listener. The intended mood can vary from piece to piece but is generally consistent within the piece – for example, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, perhaps the most well-known example of baroque music, was written to create a mood of joy and celebration in the listener. The ideal Baroque style can be summed up in the words of composer Johann Joseph Fux.
“A composition meets the demands of good taste if it is well constructed, avoids trivialities as well as willful eccentricities, aims at the sublime, but moves in a natural ordered way, combining brilliant ideas with perfect workmanship.”
Baroque music often contains a feeling of continuity, achieved by repeating a musical “theme” throughout the piece. These compositions tend to be extremely intricate and are frequently not easy to play or sing. The dynamics of baroque music tend to shift abruptly within a piece, rarely using gradual changes such as crescendos. This is probably due to the limitations of the musical instruments at the time – keyboard instruments such as harpsichords were unable to create subtle changes in volume, so the composer had the choice of piano (soft) or forte (loud) but not gradual transitions between the two. The development of the orchestra also influenced this characteristic, since the composer could now induce abrupt changes in tone and volume by adding and removing instruments.
Baroque had a tremendous influence on musical evolution. Some of the world’s most cherished composers wrote during this era – Bach, Vivaldi, Gluck, Hendel and dozens more. Opera was invented during the Baroque era and still bears the fingerprints of the style, with its elaborate harmonies and emotional appeal. The baroque era also represents the beginning of a shift in emphasis from religious to secular music. Perhaps for this reason, during the Classical Era (from roughly 1730-1820) most religious music was written in the Baroque style, while secular music was developed using the new techniques. For example, Mozart’s oratorios and masses are distinctly Baroque in their harmonic style, while his secular compositions generally are not.
Baroque music was also the distant ancestor of jazz. Not only were most Baroque pieces written for small ensembles similar to a jazz quartet, they also required a level of improvisation by the performers. Many compositions employed a method known as ‘Figured Bass,’ which is a way for pianists to improvise a bass line to support the pre-written chords – and as a result, performances of the same piece of Baroque music could vary greatly from day to day.
In many ways, the Baroque era was the “Great Enlightment” of music – the time of discovery and exploration when the musical world exploded with ideas and insights. An understanding of this time is critical to understanding music as a whole.