Discovering Classical Music
Discovering Classical Music

Chapter 5

The Baroque Period (1600-1750)

Chapter Ancillaries Composer Synopsis:J.S. Bach
Composer Synopsis:Nicola Porpora
Composer Synopsis:Dietrich Buxtehude
With the Baroque commences the period of music called the Common Practice Period.InformationThe Common Practice Period encompasses 1600-1900 and simply defines a time when composers accepted certain aspects of music as ideal, such as harmonic progressions and counterpoint. The Baroque is ushered in by the development of the modern orchestra and the establishment of opera as a major art form. People often like Baroque music because it is appealing, affecting, and accessible. The Baroque is a romantic period. From the previous lecture you will recall that romantic art is generally subjective, extravagant, and expressive in nature. The Middle Ages was a romantic period and the Renaissance was classic (ORB). One might observe that the pendulum tends to swing back and forth between classic and romantic art as we go through the style periods of music.

Baroque music tends to be listener centered in that it emphasizes the way the music will affect the audience. The goal of the composer is to evoke in the listener the same emotional state (affection) that he experienced when creating it. The ideal is that, if the composer knows his stuff and the performer is capable and sensitive, the listener will be moved to feel something in response to the music. Thus, it tends to be more about pathos than ethos.

A complete chronology of the years 1600-1750 is beyond the scope of this lecture. Suffice it to say that the first date represents the beginning of opera in Italy and the second the death of Bach in Germany. England and France also figure prominently into the scenario.

Claudio Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

The greatest composer of the 17th century is unquestionably Claudio Monteverdi, who excelled in all the important genres of his day: opera, madrigal, and sacred music. His first opera Orfeo is probably the first operatic masterpiece, and his last, The Coronation of Poppea is the earliest work still in the standard repertoire of modern opera companies.

Baroque instrumental music was driven by the development of the violin. Toward the end of the 17th century, a Roman violinist and composer, Archangelo Corelli, wrote sonatas and concertosInformationA composition for instrumental soloist and orchestra, usually in three movements. that would provide a model for subsequent generations of composers and establish the violin family as the heart of the modern orchestra. His concerto grossiInformationA concerto grosso is a work for a small group of soloists (concertino) and orchestra (ripieno) popular in the Baroque. are considered by some to be the forerunner of the symphony. Corelli's work paved the way for the more famous Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi, who composed an astonishing quantity of fine instrumental music, the best known of which is his output of violin concertos. None of this could have happened, of course, without the technical advances brought about by Italian violin makers like Antonio Stradivari.

This might be a good place to pause for a bit of terminology. Speaking etymologically, a sonata is music that is played, and a cantata music that is sung. Both these words are past participles of Italian verbs that mean, respectively, to play (suonare) and to sing (cantare). Although the terms take on more connotations at different times, they are fundamentally about instrumental and vocal music. A concerto is a composition that contrasts a solo instrument (or a group of soloists) with the full orchestra.

You have probably noticed that we are, for the first time, talking as much about instrumental music as vocal. Although opera is basically a vocal genre, it couldn't exist without the orchestra, so the coincidence of the appearance of the violin family and the operatic genre is more than just fortuitous. Beginning with the 18th century, the major composers excel at both vocal and instrumental composition. Compare that with the masters of the Renaissance, who composed mostly (or entirely) vocal music.


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The high Baroque (first half of the 18th century) is represented by three major figures: Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. They are contemporaries, and all composed in a variety of vocal and instrumental genres. Ironically, the one who was least famous internationally in his day is now considered to be the greatest of the three is Bach.

Bach is the only one of the three who wrote no opera, which partially explains why he was less well known outside of Germany than his compatriot Handel. Handel was a German composer who made his name and fortune writing Italian opera for the English public; as such he became an international celebrity. Today his operas are recognized as masterpieces but less often performed than his oratorios. The subject of Handel opera is usually mythological or historical, such as Hercules or Julius Caesar.

Oratorios are sacred works that differ from opera mainly in the way they are presented in concert: no staging, costumes, or scenery. The language of Handel's oratorios is English rather than Italian, as in the operas. Although MessiahInformationThis Handel oratorio was premiered in 1741 and features the famous, "Hallelujah Chorus". This work is frequently performed at Christmas time. is by far the best known, some of the other oratorios, like Samson, are more typical of the genre. Works like this became very popular in the 19th century and remain so today.

Choral societies that perform Handel oratorios also perform the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach. The word passion in this context refers to the suffering and death of Christ as recounted in the four gospels. Bach made a setting (in German) of the passion story according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but only two of them have survived. The St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion are two large Baroque masterpieces that rival any opera of the period in their musical and dramatic impact. But they are performed in concert halls or churches rather than in theaters. Music of the Baroque specializes in these works.

Although he is known primarily for his concerti, Vivaldi also wrote operas and sacred music. His modest but very appealing setting of the Gloria (in Latin) is a favorite of church and school choirs. His operas (in Italian) have been making a comeback, both in the opera house and on CD. His Montezuma is particularly interesting in its use of a New World subject.

Baroque opera often contains much beautiful music but presents certain performance problems. One of the reasons that these works fell out of production is that it is difficult to cast the leading male roles. The heroes of Handel's operas, for example, are almost always sopranos. In the early 18th century, they were typically sung by a now extinct species of opera singer known as the castrato.

That word means just what you imagine. The eunuchs who achieved celebrity status as leading men in the opera had undergone a surgical procedure during pubescence to prevent their voices from changing. The result was an adult male with the vocal range of a woman. Singers like Farinelli (about whom there was a movie some years back) were the darling of the English and Italian public. The French never went in for it and the practice was later outlawed by Napoleon.

Today, it is acceptable to have women take these roles. Even better is the casting of a countertenor, or male alto, when a suitable one can be found. Countertenors had been around since the Renaissance, flourishing in the Vatican choirs, where female singers were forbidden. Although most of the soprano parts were too high for countertenors, they could sing the opera roles written for mezzo-sopranos.

The 20th century revival of interest in early music included a rebirth of the countertenor; Alfred Deller was the first to achieve notoriety. Today there is a great countertenor named David Daniels who can even sing the soprano roles, and a whole new generation of countertenors has sprung up in Europe.

Bach's sacred output is inexorably bound to the Reformation and hence to Martin Luther. One must not suppose that Bach and Luther were contemporaries; they are separated by 200 years. Nevertheless, what Bach achieved as a church musician could not have happened outside the Protestant church in Germany, which he served as music director for the last and longest segment of his career. During those years, Bach composed service music for the Lutheran liturgy every week, producing hundreds of sacred works called cantatas with German text.

Bach's cantatas are based on Lutheran hymns, some actually written by Martin Luther himself, called chorales. They were performed by choirs of modest size but high attainment within the three-hour worship service on Sundays. The choir and soloists were accompanied by a small orchestra and organ. A typical cantata lasts between 15 and 30 minutes and is coordinated with the Gospel lesson of the day. There are usually three choruses, two or three arias (solo songs), and some links called recitatives. Recitatives are shorter vocal pieces designed to deliver the text efficiently, so the style is more speech-like than in the arias (songs), and the full orchestra is not used for the accompaniment. The cantata becomes an important sacred genre in the hands of J.S. Bach.

By stringing together a series of cantatas, Bach created his celebrated Christmas Oratorio. Like his Passions, this work is a major composition that would occupy a full afternoon or evening performance. Originally, Bach conceived it as six cantatas for six different services between Christmas Eve and New Years Day. Today it is usually performed as a whole oratorio and thus lasts three hours or more.

Bach's greatest work, and arguably one of the two or three greatest works of Western music is his Mass in B Minor. This is a large-scale setting of the Mass ordinary in Latin. Because of its length and the number of performers required, it is not practical to use it as service music. It is usually heard in the concert hall.

Chapter 5: Music for Listening