Baroque music is immediately recognizable for its instrumentation, ornamentation, and orchestration. It’s full of unique stylistic trends and fashions that make it incredibly recognizable. While some of the unique characteristics died at the end of the era, we still have plenty of examples to celebrate the baroque style.
So, let’s explore what baroque music is and look at some timeless examples.
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The standard baroque music definition refers to music written between 1600-1750. Some of its most composers include:
- J.S. Bach
- Michael Prætorius
- Georgg Phillipp Teleman
And, of course, we can’t forget Pachelbel, the man behind Pachelbel’s Canon. But what does baroque music sound like?
Baroque music has several distinct characteristics.
The first of these is terraced dynamics. Today our instruments have a wide range of dynamics and musical nuances they can express. But this wasn’t true of baroque instruments. Instead, they had two modes, loud and soft.
A harpsichord could switch abruptly from extremely loud to delicate and quiet depending on a musician’s precision when hitting the keys. Coronets – the precursor to the trumpet – were similarly drastic.
To accommodate these abrupt switches in dynamics, musicians invented what we now call terraced dynamics. Instead of graceful crescendos and decrescendos, a sequence of terraced dynamics might veer from piano (soft) to forte (loud) to piano again.
The abrupt, often symmetrical shifts in dynamic tone echo the levels of a terraced house, hence the name.
Another characteristic of baroque music is the basso continuo, a musical line played by two instruments, but their parts count as one. In a basso continuo, you may hear:
- Double bass
Instead of one player playing a two-handed accompaniment, like today’s modern accompanists, the cello or double bass played the bass line. Simultaneously, the keyboard part for organ or harpsichord played the treble clef line.
The basso continuo doesn’t sound that exciting on paper, but it's an excellent opportunity to show your keyboarding skills because the treble line was never composed in the traditional sense. Instead, the musician of the hour would sketch in his choice of chords, and the continuo keyboardist would flesh out the line with improvisations.
It wasn’t just the keyboardists who got to show off, either. Another characteristic of baroque music is ornamentation.
You hear this kind of extravagant musical decoration most often in da capo arias, which means ‘from the head.’ This phrase is a way of telling the singer to go back to the beginning.
As such, music with a da capo has a ternary or three-part form. It has an A section, followed by a B section, and then the A section repeats. But, to keep it musically interesting for an audience, the singer gets to play with the melody.
They do this through ornamentation. It may be subtle, like a trill, or lavishly embellish the original phrase. There are many excellent examples of how singers use embellishment, but one of the best for the novice baroque listener is Handel’s Where’er You Walk. Every singer does something different with the repeat.
Finally, baroque vocal music had one of two styles. Whether composers wrote for opera or oratorio, we can evenly divide the vocal music into songs or arias and recitatives.
Recitatives are sparser than arias and chorus, And unlike the arias, there’s less expectation that the singer will decorate them.
Recitatives also come in two types. The secco recit is unaccompanied. The rhythm is speech-like and may have interspersed dialogue. If you’re planning to write a baroque-sounding opera, this is an excellent way to move the plot forward.
Accompagnato recitative has a basso continuo supporting the singer. A good organist or harpsichordist accompanies the singer because accompanied recitatives don’t elaborate on the harmonic line. Instead, you get something called a ‘figured bass’ that features unembellished chords. The accompanist must be very good at interpreting the keys and extrapolating a fleshed-out harmony line for the singer.
The accompanied recitative is also more obviously musical. Its rhythms are still fairly speech-like, but it’s more expressive and usually leads into an aria.
Handel’s accompanied Behold I Tell You a Mystery, from The Messiah, is one of the most famous examples of the accompagnato recitative.
Baroque history is a rich, complex musical tapestry, and no two composers approached it the same way. Here are some of the best-known examples of baroque music.
One of the primary places to showcase baroque music was church. For that reason, many composers took work as church composers or organists. Allegri’s Miserere Mei is one of the most famous Mass settings to come out of this era.
Its title is from the Agnus Dei and is Latin for ‘Oh God, have mercy upon me.’
Originally, Allegri’s Miserere was intended for use only in the Sistine Chapel and only during Tenebrae. That’s the three days of Holy Week before Maundy Thursday. The name is Latin in origin, meaning ‘darkness.’ This title is apt because it precedes the last gasp of Lent, which culminates in the death of Christ.
As it turned out, Allegri’s Miserere was too beautiful and too moving to stay the property of the Pope and his Catholics. Today, you’re just as likely to hear it at an Anglican choral Evensong or classical music concert as you are at a Lenten Mass.
Musically, the Miserere is one of twelve falsobordone settings Allegri composed for the then-Pope. Folsobordone features four-part harmony. It uses plainchant tones recognizable to baroque singers, but instead of fleshing them out with melisma, falsobordone is homophonic.
By taking the root positions of the plainchant chords, falsobordone moves through chordal progressions and ends on a closed cadence. Folsoborone was prevalent throughout the Baroque era because it made psalmody more interesting, and it also was a way of keeping Lenten music appropriately subdued.
The other standout feature of falsobordone is that it shifted these root chord positions to the top melody line. As such, the most arresting part of the Miserere is the sopranos’ floated and ethereal top line.
Today, traces of the technique persist in Anglican Chant, which is similarly chordal and divided into two recognizable sections.
You can’t talk about the Baroque era of music without talking about Bach. Bach was one of the musical backbones of the age. And because he was a church organist, he had quite literally a song for every occasion.
Perhaps you are looking for a Christmas prelude for the organ. Well – Bach has one. What about a choral motet for the Wednesday after Ascension Thursday? Bach has that, too. One of the expectations of church organists like Bach in the Baroque era was writing a new mass setting or motet for every service they played.
Allowing for the fact that Baroque society was considerably more religious and often attended multiple church services spanning High Mass to Evensong and Vespers, that’s a lot of music.
But Bach also wrote secular or non-religious music. One of his most famous secular pieces is The Well-Tempered Clavier. In addition to being a technical masterpiece, this was the composition where Bach laid out a radical new approach to music.
Instead of constantly tuning keyboard instruments like the clavichord to the key you wanted to play in, musicians could do something called well-tempered tuning. This way, they could tune each key relative to the others.
Musicians could now play in any major or minor key without sounding out of tune.
Here we have one of the most famous and recognizable Christmas choruses there is. Handel wrote the Hallelujah Chorus as part of his oratorio, The Messiah. And although modern audiences associate it with Christmas, the piece was commissioned by George II for Easter.
The Hallelujah Chorus is also best-known to audiences as the chorus where everyone stands up. At least one story says this is because when George II heard it, he thought the chorus was about him. He was so delighted he stood up, which meant everyone else had to, too.
However, there are no sources to verify this.
However, we know that Handel used the King James Bible as his source text, and specifically, Revelation 19:22 for this chorus. Reflecting the jubilation of the text, Handel uses the key of D major.
The most apparent structural refrain here is the titular ‘Hallelujah,’ but the music oscillates between this and a sustained legato line.
At the structural nexus of the piece, the sopranos float this long sustained, high phrase overtop the lower three parts, punctuating it with Hallelujahs.
They then swap, and the sopranos’ piercing Hallelujahs contrast the grounded and legato phrasing of the altos, tenors, and bases with the bright and staccato Hallelujah section.
There’s also a grand tradition in baroque music of stealing from each other or yourself – it doesn’t matter. Originality wasn’t fashionable. And Handel was an expert at a bit of self-plagiarism. So, when asked to compose a piece for the Foundling Hospital, he wrote The Foundling Hospital Anthem N. 7.
Monteverdi is another composer that, although typically associated with sacred music, also wrote his share of secular works. He lived through the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and many of his musical compositions reflect this – just like this piece.
It takes the beloved Renaissance structure of the madrigal and incorporates it into the nascent baroque style. As time went on, the madrigal would also figure prominently in the baroque era, and that’s thanks to pieces like Les Arts Florrisants.
People usually sing the madrigal a capella or unaccompanied. It’s also unusual to find a religious madrigal. Typically, they take poems and secular texts as their source of inspiration.
Musically, the madrigal relies on polyphony. This term means that the multiple harmonic lines all have slightly different rhythms and come in and out of sync to create harmony. They also incorporate melisma, and it’s not uncommon for whole words to stretch across several lines of music.
While instrumental madrigals rose in popularity during the baroque era, Les Arts Florissants isn’t one of them. It also incorporates homophony. Notice how the singers go in and out of rhythmic unison in the early bars, as if someone is stacking and unstacking nesting dolls.
This homophony allows Monteverdi to add importance and weight to the unified sections while still playing with the musical conventions of the period.
When I am Laid In Earth, sometimes called Dido’s Lament, is the signature aria of the soprano singing Dido in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
The opera retells the doomed love story of Dido and Aeneas as found in book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid.
The opera’s first performance was by students at an English girls’ school, and for that reason, it continues to be popular with aspiring singers.
But perhaps the most striking part of this aria is how Dido’s soaring melody line contrasts with the continuo. It uses ostinato and sinks increasingly lower down the musical scale. As it does this, it echoes Dido.
Combined with the minor key, the result is a mournful and legato piece that acts as a funeral dirge for Dido as she climbs onto her funeral pyre.
Purcell also indulges in word-painting here, a musical technique where the style matches the words. Pay attention to the dissonance on the appoggiatura of ‘laid’ and in the solemnity with which Norman sings ‘troubled.’
Both the dissonance and the sobriety of the music here echo Dido’s emotional state.
Interestingly, although musically baroque, When I Am Laid in Earth is also a favorite with jazz musicians. Now, this connection might initially surprise you. However, it makes more sense to understand that the jazz convention of improvization owes to the baroque’s characteristic preoccupation with ornamenting music.
And the ostinato rhythms of When I Am Laid in Earth are perfectly suited to modern musicians who want to swing the melody.
Rameau’s Les Cyclops is a classic example of the baroque rondo. The rondo uses a theme and variation structure.
Typically, the rondo opens with the initial theme. Sometimes musicians call this the ‘refrain,’ as the theme the music loops back to with each repetition. It segues into the B section, sometimes called an ‘episode,’ a ‘digression,’ or a' couplet' in homage to the rondo’s poetic origins.
Rondos can have many digressions and lead to formations that range from a simple binary ABA pattern to more complex structures like ABACA.
Notice that irrespective of how many new themes the rondo introduces, it always comes back to its primary theme.
Rameau uses this structure to narrate the story of Polyphemus the Cyclops, and Odysseus. According to Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus blinded the Cyclops using a sharpened twig or stick, but not before several rounds of trickery and combat.
You can hear the battle play out in the music. Light-footed Odysseus with his stick gets the opening, fast-paced section. The Cyclops, equally fast if less dexterous, appears in the competing B section. It’s more disjointed, presumably because of the Cyclops’ partial sight.
The result is a tour-de-force performance that takes dexterity to play well.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons first took the world by storm in 1725. The four movements involve a series of four concertos, each designed to showcase a different instrument.
All are technically brilliant, but the most ubiquitous is Spring. Classically trained or not, even a casual radio listener can recognize its dancing violins and sprightly melody.
Technically speaking, Vivaldi’s seasons are also a type of programmatic music since each movement contains three movements of its own.
The vivacity and zest of Spring begin by capturing the atmosphere of a bright, clear spring morning. As the piece escalates, a thunderstorm punctuates it. The tone is darker, more obstreperous, and also more solemn than previously.
But as the middle movement concludes, we hear the return of the motif Vivaldi associates with birds and sunbursts. It then ends with a dance.
These dance melodies aren’t uncommon for baroque pieces, where dancing was also a standard part of young people’s education.
But Vivaldi’s inclusion of it here hearkens back to traditional folk dances associated with the celebration of the Spring and Mayday in particular.
It wasn’t just music that was significant to the baroque era. It was also full of impressive composers, many of whom altered the course of music history. Here are the five most famous baroque musicians.
Bach’s output was prolific. He wrote so much that scholars are still finding new Bach pieces squirreled away in the margins of manuscripts.
He worked as the church organist for much of his life at New Church in Arnstadt. Bach regularly turned out a mass setting a week for the choir to sing. He also produced motets for Sundays and other special occasions.
Bach’s understanding of music theory was profound. The rules he introduced didn’t just affect how people wrote baroque music; they changed how all composers wrote music.
Atypically for composers, Handel lived a happy life. He also wrote an astonishing amount of music, though he is best known for his oratorio, The Messiah.
Although he was born in Germany, Handel lived for years in England, and only occasionally do singers notice that English wasn’t his first language.
Claudio Monteverdi wrote during the Renaissance as well as the baroque era and his music reflects this. And because of the way he straddles musical styles, he’s considered a significant figure in musical history.
Like Bach and Handel, much of his work had a religious theme. But he is best known for his secular music, especially his operas:
- L’Incoronazione di Poppea
Henry Purcell was an English composer best known for his operas:
- Dido and Aeneas
- The Fairy Queen
In addition to these famous operas, Purcell wrote hundreds of songs in various languages, including:
Purcell stands out among his contemporaries as being a highly original composer both in theme and subject at a time when originality wasn’t fashionable.
Antonio Vivaldi is best known for his baroque music, especially his concertos. But before that, he took holy orders and became a priest.
He became the master of violin for the Ospedale della Pietà when he was 25. There he composed the majority of his signature pieces. These were primarily choral and instrumental, though he began writing opera in 1715.
Baroque music began in Italy. There, composers took the musical conventions of the Renaissance and began pushing their boundaries. But in a world where musicians traveled to earn their keep, it quickly picked up Germanic and even English influences.
The often-nomadic existence of composers also ensured that the stylized musicality of baroque playing soon spread across Europe.
Bach was particularly influential to the movement, not least because of his prolific output. His death in 1750 marked the end of the baroque movement.
Since then, baroque music has enjoyed a renaissance. Groups like Taffelmusik have brought the music back into the popular consciousness and rely heavily on period instruments and techniques.
Baroque music has a lightness and vivacity resulting from its small orchestras, sudden dynamic shifts, and complex harmonic lines.
It can be secular or sacred and encompasses various musical structures. It’s easy to overlook Baroque music in favor of more florid Romantic works or more current selections, but there’s a lot to recommend.