Music history, Studying music

A History of Classical Music – Part 2: Baroque

J S Bach

Baroque (“baah-rock”) is a style of art, which includes music, architecture and painting, and which lasted from around 1600 to around 1750. The greatest composer of the Baroque period is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

Baroque is a style of music, rather than an exact period of time. In other words, some composers lived during the Baroque period, but their music isn’t necessarily “totally Baroque” in style (for example, Domenico Scarlatti, or Georg Frederic Handel). The best way to get to know Baroque music is to listen to it (this is true for all classical music!). When you listen to Baroque music, you will begin to notice two distinct features:

  1. ‘Twiddly bits’. Baroque music has lots of twiddles on notes. The proper name for these twiddles is “ornaments”, “decoration” or “trills”. These were often used to add interest to the music, especially during a repeated section, or to add “sound” if the piece was played on the harpsichord which cannot sustain sound in the same way as the piano. If you look at Baroque architecture, you will see lots of twiddly bits in that too. All this decoration helps to make the architecture much more interesting – just like in the music. One of my students, Eli, is a big fan of Bach’s music and describes the trills and mordents (a kind of ornament) in the Menuet in G minor which he learnt for his Grade 2 exam as “the last bit of topping on the pizza”, or the “icing on the cake”.
  2. Baroque music is made up of many different strands or “tunes” which all come together – or sometimes oppose each other – to create the whole piece. This is called “counterpoint” and is a key feature of music from the Baroque period.
Baroque decoration

Baroque music often seems very ordered, and logical, but it’s never boring. Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (1674-1741) wrote The Four Seasons, which is a wonderful piece for orchestra which describes the different seasons: try listening to the Tempest (storm) in from ‘Summer’ for some really descriptive music.

Baroque music remains very popular today and is widely performed, sometimes on “period instruments” – instruments which are either from the Baroque period (and therefore very rare) or are authentic copies of Baroque instruments.

The piano as we know it didn’t exist during the Baroque period, so composers such as Bach and Scarlatti were writing for other keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord, spinet (baby harpsichord), clavichord and organ. Today many pianists play Baroque music on the piano. One of the most famous works for keyboard is the Goldberg Variations, by J S Bach. Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) made two definitive recordings of the Goldberg Variations, in 1955 and 1982. Here he is playing the ‘Aria’, which is the first piece of the work:

Further listening:

J S Bach: Brandenberg Concertos, the Well-Tempered Clavier, Cantatas, Harpsichord and Violin Concertos, St John Passion (written for Easter)

George Frideric Handel: The Messiah (includes the “Hallelujah” chorus), Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, Keyboard Suites, operas. (Although German by birth, Handel lived in London, and you can still visit his house and play some of the harpsichords there.)

Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, many concertos for solo instrument (for example, two mandolins) and orchestra, operas

Domenico Scarlatti: 100s of keyboard (harpsichord) sonatas, of many contrasting styles and moods

Other composers from the Baroque period: Teleman, Rameau, Couperin, Albinoni, Allegri, Lully, Purcell, Corelli, Pergolesi

‘Summer’ from The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by Europa Galante

Baroque Playlist – a short playlist of some of the best known Baroque pieces

50 Best Baroque Pieces

Handel House Museum

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