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Music of the Baroque Period

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: For those new to music history, a very short overview of the most important aspects of the period.

Introduction

The Baroque period in European music lasted from about 1600 to about 1750. It was preceded by the Renaissance and followed by the Classical period. It was during the Baroque that the major/minor tonal system that still dominates Western Music was established. This period is best known for the complex counterpoint of the mature Baroque, as typified by the work of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

Historical Background

This was the European period that is often called the “Age of Reason” . Brilliant minds such as Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, and Francis Bacon were laying the foundations for modern science and mathematics. Impressed with the insights that were gained in those fields, other influential thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke sought to apply similar strict rules of observation and reasoning to philosophy and political science. Many historians believe that this was a critical period that set Europe on its course away from the static or backwards-looking viewpoints of the middle ages and Renaissance, and towards the forward-momentum stance that led inexorably to our modern world.

There is discipline and order underlying much of Baroque music, perhaps reflecting the ideals of the age of reason. In particular, the orderly progression of the harmony and the discipline of complex counterpoint are hallmarks of this era. Yet Baroque composers also displayed a very strong interest in expressing emotions or “affections” through music. The fantasies and toccatas exhibit a freedom of expression that has very little to do with reason, and there is no mistaking the joy, pathos, or passion expressed in much of the era’s most popular works. Even the more staid religious works often seek to express an affective element of mysticism or massive grandeur.

This new exploration of emotion in music may have had its origins in another important historical influence on the music of this period. Previously, most composers were employed by the church, which usually, and often severely, limited their freedom to experiment. During the Baroque period, although churches were still important employers for many composers, the nobility became much more active patrons of music, and their courts became important venues for performances. This era thus saw a flowering of secular (non-church) musical forms, compositions for specific instruments (previously a rarity), and experimentation - with harmony, rhythm, and form as well as affect - that greatly and permanently altered the musical landscape.

Musical Background, Development, and Influence

The Renaissance Springboard

The Baroque is the earliest period in European music whose music is still widely heard. This is probably because music before this period has an exotic, unfamiliar sound to most modern Western listeners. The music of the middle ages was modal rather than tonal; in other words, it was not based on chords and harmonies in major and minor keys. Most people strongly prefer the musical tradition that they grew up hearing; it “makes sense” to them in a way that unfamiliar traditions do not. In a fundamental way, the Baroque marked the beginning of our familiar tradition.

One of the most obvious differences – a difference that you can hear even if you don’t realize it or can’t explain it – in medieval music is the lack of thirds, the interval that modern (triadic) chords are built from. Medieval music was based instead on the intervals of the perfect fifth and perfect fourth. This gives early music an open, hollow texture and harmonies that are unfamiliar to the modern ear.

It was during the Renaissance that thirds began to be used more often, particularly in the parallel-thirds and parallel-sixths style of fauxbourdon. (Sixths are closely related to thirds in the same way that fourths are closely related to fifths; see about inverted intervals for a full explanation.)

Listen to a phrase accompanied by parallel fifths (medieval-style harmony), and parallel thirds (Baroque-to-modern-style harmony).

The Baroque Sound

The basic sound of the Renaissance was not the parallel harmonies of fauxbourdon, but a complex polyphony of equal, independent (i.e., not moving in parallel) voices. The sound most closely associated with the Baroque kept the independent, contrapuntal voices, but with some important differences.

The most important change, as mentioned above, was the development during this era of tonal harmony. The composers of the mature Baroque were not only using major and minor chords, but were using them in the kinds of chord progressions and with the kinds of cadences that have continued to be used throughout the following centuries to our own times. This is not to say that there were no later changes to the system of harmony developed during the Baroque; the Romantic and early modern eras in particular saw a great deal of experimentation with harmony. The experimentation of the Romantic period expanded the harmonic possibilities inherent within the tonal system; its sound has also strongly influenced subsequent developments, including in popular music. Many modern composers rejected the tonal system altogether, seeking to replace it with other possibilities. Their efforts have been much less influential in other genres, probably since their non-tonal offerings are simply too far outside the range of the familiar for most listeners.

Another development of the Baroque period that is still strongly with us was the rise of the bass line. The voices, or lines, of Renaissance music, and of some Baroque counterpoint, were typically equal in importance. But in much of Baroque music, the various parts were rapidly losing their equality. Instead, the highest line (what we hear as the melody), and the lowest line (the bass) became the most important parts, with the middle lines simply filling in the harmony. In fact, harpsichord players were often expected to improvise an accompaniment given only the bass line with some extra notations. This melody-and-bass-dominated texture, with the bass outlining or strongly implying the harmony, still predominates in most Western music genres and styles.

As mentioned above, there was a great variety of musical forms popular with Baroque composers. Some of these, such as the highly contrapuntal fugues and inventions, are closely associated with this period. Others, including fantasies, variations, suites, sonatas, sinfonias, and concertos, proved more influential, with many major composers using, developing and experimenting with these forms throughout later eras.

Classical Rejections and Continuity

The composers of the Classical period were strongly influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, which strongly preferred the “natural” over the formal, and egalitarianism over elitism. Concluding that the complex counterpoint of the Baroque was too formal and elitist, they consciously set out to develop a new style, with simpler, slower-moving harmonies and dominating melodies, that was easier for the public to follow and understand. Although counterpoint certainly did not disappear from music, the true equal-voices-style counterpoint, that had been so common in the Renaissance and Baroque, became much rarer. (When independent voices were added to music of the Classical and later periods, they were often clearly subjugated to the main melody.) The simpler texture and harmony of the Classical period produced such a markedly different sound that even the casual listener can easily distinguish the typical Baroque piece from the typical Classical.

And yet, most other elements of Baroque music were not rejected. The most important element that remained was, of course, tonal harmony. The tendency to emphasize the melody and bass lines was, if anything, intensified in the simpler textures of the Classical period. Also, many of the forms and ensembles developed during the Baroque were adopted and developed and expanded in the Classical and later periods.

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