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Derived from the Portuguese barroco, or “oddly shaped pearl,” the term “baroque” has been widely used since the nineteenth century to describe the period in Western European art music from about 1600 to 1750. Comparing some of music history’s greatest masterpieces to a misshapen pearl might seem strange to us today, but to the nineteenth century critics who applied the term, the music of Bach and Handel’s era sounded overly ornamented and exaggerated. Having long since shed its derogatory connotations, “baroque” is now simply a convenient catch-all for one of the richest and most diverse periods in music history.
In addition to producing the earliest European music familiar to most of us, including Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the Baroque era also greatly expanded our horizons. The acceptance of Copernicus’s 16th century theory that the planets didn’t revolve around the earth made the universe a much larger place, while Galileo’s work helped us get better acquainted with the cosmos. Advances in technology, such as the invention of the telescope, made what was believed to be finite seem infinite. Great thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke tackled the big questions of existence. Geniuses like Rubens, Rembrandt, and Shakespeare offered unique perspectives through their art. European nations grew more and more involved with foreign trade and colonization, bringing us into direct contact with parts of the globe that were previously unfamiliar. And the growth of a new middle class breathed life into an artistic culture long dependent on the whims of church and court.
The new interest in music’s dramatic and rhetorical possibilities gave rise to a wealth of new sound ideals in the Baroque period.
Contrast is an important ingredient in the drama of a Baroque composition. The differences between loud and soft, solo and ensemble (as in the concerto), different instruments and timbres all play an important role in many Baroque compositions. Composers also began to be more precise about instrumentation, often specifying the instruments on which a piece should be played instead of allowing the performer to choose. Brilliant instruments like the trumpet and violin also grew in popularity.
In previous musical eras, a piece of music tended to consist of a single melody, perhaps with an improvised accompaniment, or several melodies played simultaneously. Not until the Baroque period did the concept of “melody” and “harmony” truly begin to be articulated. As part of the effort to imitate ancient music, composers started focusing less on the complicated polyphony that dominated the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and more on a single voice with a simplified accompaniment, or monody. If music was a form of rhetoric, as the writings of the Greeks and Romans indicate, a powerful orator is necessary—and who better for the job than a vocal soloist? The new merger between the expression of feeling and the solo singer come through loud and clear in Monteverdi’s preface to the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda from his Eighth Book of Madrigals (1638), in which he writes: “It has seemed to me that the chief passions or affections of our mind are three in number, namely anger, equanimity and humility. The best philosophers agree, and the very nature of our voice, with its high, low and middle ranges, would indicate as much.” The earliest operas are an excellent illustration of this new aesthetic.
Although the baroque period ended over 250 years ago, vestiges of the era can be heard everywhere. Some of the most influential and beloved compositions are regularly performed in concert halls, and a wealth of recordings make the baroque available on demand. Many of the musical genres still in use today, like the oratorio, concerto and opera, originated in the period. Twentieth century composers such as Ralph Vaughn Williams, Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten paid homage to the baroque in their works. Its influence can even be heard outside the realm of art music: the free movement between solo and group in jazz is sometimes compared to baroque music, and snippets of Bach and Vivaldi frequently appear in the solos of heavy metal guitarists. And the spirit of the baroque—an unwavering belief in the power of music to touch people’s lives—changed music history forever.
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Etymologically speaking, the term “baroque” stems from…
What does the term currently comprehend?
What notorious breakthrough opened the citizenry’s mind?
Who had been influencing the arts to their own leisure?
Accurateness gained importance when it came to…
According to whom was music sort of an oratory device?
What elements can be unified in just one single voice?
Who’s creations worship baroque?