An Introduction to Baroque Music

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If variety and striking effects are considered important, each subsequent artist has to produce more complex decorations and more astounding ideas so as to remain impressive. During the first half of the seventeenth century, this process of piling up more and more dazling new ideas for buildings and their decorations had gone on in Italy, and by the seventeenth century the style we call Baroque was fully developed.

E.H. Gombrich

Baroque art emerged in Italy as a Catholic response to Protestan art in the seventeenth century. Due to its nature, Baroque art is under massive influence of religion like its predecessors, but at the same time, it was an independent art movement apart from the religion, which enabled artists to decorate religious stories with non-religious, individual and expressive themes. The baroque period started with arts and architecture, yet, spread quickly to other ways of expression such as music, dance, sculpture, science and philosophy in different regions of Europe.

Essentials and Technical Capabilities of Baroque Music

Baroque music, was effective from 1600’s till 1750’s, is an extension of Baroque art. However, since arts and architecture are the most prominent forms of Baroque art, the Baroque music was overshadowed under the umbrella of the art movement, so it found its own way to exist.

It might differ than Baroque art in terms of it is more innovative on mediums rather than expression or context, for instance, new mediums such as; opera, cantata, classical ballet, new forms of chamber music, ouvertures, new forms of church music, oratorios, and novel forms of sinfonia and concerto, and new technologies as major and minor key systems, equal temperament of the instruments, have been implemented firstly in Baroque era of classical music.

Indeed, novel musical ideas have been invented during Baroque period, compared to predecessors, such as idiomatic writing, in which the composers write for a particular instrument. As Baroque invented the essentials of Western classical music, it can be defined as the foundation of Western classical music, even though there are evidences of previous and ancient musical activities. Also, according to Grout, within Baroque musical standards, composers were effort to express and represent wide range, communal, shared and standardized vocabulary of musical figures and devices.

Baroque music is that in which the harmony is confused and loaded with modulations and dissonances. The singing is harsh and unnatural, the intonation difficult, and the movement limited

J. J. Rousseau

Strings, brass and wind was in serve for Baroque, yet, keyboard music was composed for organ and harpsichord, since piano in the sense that we know from the contemporary usage had not been invented during those times.

The difference between piano and Baroque style of keyboard instruments are evident, not only in terms of sound and interpretations, but also in a way that their technicalities. Organs, had been used since ancient times, have multiple arrays of keyboarding mechanism, are tied with tuned pipes which sound is allowed to release.

On the other hand, medium of harpsichord is metal strings, to be plucked with the key mechanism. Indeed, piano is a strucked string instrument with hammering skills. Due to the difference in the material and the technology, characteristics and timbre of their sound is also different among those three instruments. Consequently, organ and harpsichord are in lack of dynamics and weighness, so had to stay stable in terms of volume and loudness, that led Baroque composers to reach out different expressions through inventing trills, rolled chords, and different articulations such as staccatos and legato.

This article deals with some essentials of Baroque music and composers, however, Baroque period is not, and should not be limited with the composers mentioned in this article. The period flourished variety of composers each was an innovator on particular instrument, or style, and conjuctures.

Antonio Vivaldi

Like his contemporaries, Vivaldi composed every work for a definite occasion and for a particular company of performers

Donald Jay GROUT

Vivaldi was born in Venezia, Venetian Republic in 1678, and he learned how to play violin before literacy. He first went on a ecclesiastical career, yet his father guided him how to teach violin; also became an instructor for violin in public schools and orphanage. He composed a number of concertos, religious choral works, and operas. His works gained reputation throughout Europe, as he involved in musical works and projects in Holy Roman Empire and France.
In the final years of his career, Vivaldi moved to Vienna and died there. Influencing J.S. Bach with his music, he will be remembered as a virtuoso violinist and great composer of Baroque era thanks to academic bibliographic work by J.S. Bach had conducted about him. Well-known of works of Vivaldi are, Four Seasons Violin Concertos, Nisi Dominus RV 608, Il Guistino RV 717.

Johann Sebastian Bach

German composer Johann Sebastian Bach is among crucial musicians in Western classical music history,  was born in 1685, and got his very fist musical education from his violinist and music director father and his organist brother. Every musician has something to learn from Bach, due to the fact that he is considered as among the founding fathers of Western classical music.

Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars

Frederic Chopin

Bach family is fruitful in terms of raising up musicians, yet, Johann Sebastian is the most remarkable one among the family. He emerged amid Thirty Years’ War, when European society was in economic struggle.  Regardless of these developments in the society, Bach managed to attend the Lüneburg Michaelis Music School with his soprano voice, and to attain multiple administrative, instructing and creative works after the graduation such as violinist in royal orchestra, church organ player, orhestra director, music school director, and royal composer. He published his first cantata in 1708; Gott ist mein König, BWV 71.

J.S. Bach appropriated music from Albinoni, Legrenzi, Corelli, Bonporti, Vivaldi, Frescobaldi for harpsichord; incorporating musical ideas from Italy and France to German Lutheran intellect. He contributed to music literature to infinite numbers of cantats, passions, oratarios, masses, pieces for organ; preludes and fugues, toccatas and fugues, pieces for harpsichord; capriccios, and inventions, sinfonies, French suites, British suites, partitas, variations, chamber music for sonats and partitas, concertos, orchestral suites and so on.

Bach also composed a variety of educational pieces for students to enhance their musical skills, especially for keyboard and violin. Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (English: The Well-tempered Clavier) is among those educational series of pieces, and is introducing the novel way of tuning of instruments that is still in use today; which had been invented pre-Baroque period as an alternative way of tuning to Pyhtagorian method.

He contributed a lot for music teaching, as his works are still being used for initial music education. Bach’s music is also considered as innovative as he managed to incorporate individual contrapuntal patterns and methods in religious and royal contexts.

Bach discovered  extraordinary and advanced chords no one have heard before; and no one have discovered and incorporated until 21st century. He left behind a library of music demonstrating the abilities of instruments, musicians and capabilities of frequencies to his successors. From now on, the later composers will be able to work on the discoveries of Bach. The major works of Bach that are mostly known are Orchestral Suites, St. Matthew Passion, Bradenburg Concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations, Air on G String.

The continuing vitality of his music is not, of course, due to its historical significance as a summation of the late Baroque, but to the qualities of the music itself: the concentrated and individual themes, the copious musical invention, the balance between harmonic and contrapuntal forces, the strength of rhythm, the clarity of form, the grandeur of proportion, the imaginative use of pictorial and symbolic figures, the intensity of expression always controlled by a ruling architectural idea, and the technical perfection o every detail

Donald Jay Grout

George Frideric Handel

Vivaldi was representing progressive Italian conjucture, and Bach was in his own fusion of Italian, French and German, consequently Handel was considered as a supreme international composer; as Grout agrees, “his music has German seriousness, Italian suavity and French grandeur”. Was born in 1685, exactly in the same year as J.S. Bach, Handel took harpsichord, organ, obue, violin and composing courses in a church in Halle, and composed multiple pieces for wind instruments.

In his earlier career, he moved to Hamburg, even though he was enrolled in Faculty of Law in University of Halle. In Hamburg, he spent years composing operas (He wrote the very first opera, Almira, at the age of 19.) and performing as a violinist in Hamburg. Once he had discovered that opera might be less appreciated in Hamburg, he moved to Italy with an invitation of Medici family aiming to vitalize Florence as a musical capital. 

Later, he moved back to Hannover and acquired political and administrative roles that will move him to England soon. Meanwhile, he was moving back and forth in between Germany and Italy, consequently found himself settled down in London. He got British citizenship in 1726, and continually composed in England until his dearth 1759. His works consist of cantatas, operas, oratorios, trios and duets, arias, chamber music, ecumenical pieces, serenatas, concertos and choral works.

Handel became prominent especially with his choral works giving more importance on melody and harmony rather than contrapuntal style as J.B. Bach. He also appealed upper and middle-class audience, specifically composing for their needs and tastes. Best of his works include; Messiah, Water Music Suites, Music for the Royal Fireworks, Serse, Organ Concertos.

References

BÜKE, Aydın (2017), Bach: Yaşamı ve Eserleri:  Istanbul.
GOMBRICH, Ernst Hans Josef (2018), The Story of Art, London: Phaidon.
GROUT, Donald Jay (1973), A History of Western Classical Music, New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.
ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques (1753), La Lettre sur la Musique Française.
N.A. (1992), Antonio Vivaldi, Classical Music Collection, Istanbul: Boyut
N.A. (1992),  George Frideric Handel, Classical Music Collection, Istanbul: Boyut
N.A. (1992),  Johann Sebastian Bach, Classical Music Collection, Istanbul: Boyut

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