Classical Music: The Baroque Period

To me, the Baroque (c. 1600-1750) is where classical music begins. Changes in musical theory and technology, such as the arrangement of tone into cords and the invention of modern-style stringed and brass instruments, mean that the music of the Baroque sounds more familiar, and less ancient and foreign, than that which preceded it.

Baroque organ: because why should only the music be beautiful?
Baroque organ: because why should only the music be beautiful?

If you think you’ve never heard Baroque music before, you may be surprised:

‘Spring I’, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

‘Canon in D’, by Pachelbel

‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’ by J. S. Bach

‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s ‘Messiah’

Early Baroque music has a restrained elegance which contrasts with the elaborate visual art and architecture of the time. The fact that most composers relied on the support of a wealthy patron, either a member of the nobility or the Church, means that much of the music they produced was composed for specific occasions, either court events and celebrations (such as the many pieces of dance music Jean-Baptiste  Lully composed during his time in the court of King Louis XIV of France, 1653-1672, or Handel’s ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’, 1749), or Church Masses and feasts (Palestrina’s ‘Missa Papae Marcelli’, c.1562; J. S. Bach’s ‘St. John’s Passion’, 1724).

By contrast, this was also the age when opera (popularised, though not invented, by Monteverdi), with all its attendant spectacle and virtuosity, was born. Solo performances on the newly-invented harpsichord and piano, chamber music and concertos were other popular forms which developed during the Baroque, while the French love of dance led to the birth of ballet.

Edgar Degas 'Ballet Rehersal', 1873. During the Baroque the French love of dance led to the birth of ballet.
Edgar Degas ‘Ballet Rehersal’, 1873. During the Baroque the French love of dance led to the birth of ballet.

Regardless of the style, music piracy was a significant problem throughout the Baroque due to the ease of producing multiple copies of a score on the printing press (invented 1440), and composers dealt with this in a number of ways. Some, like J. S. Bach, refused to entrust their work to printers and instead continued to cling to handwritten manuscript form. Telemann ran his own imprint and engraved his own plates, while Handel struck a deal with a printer, giving him the right to produce as many copies of his work as he wanted provided he forked over a royalty for each one (thus succeeding both in ensuring an income for himself and making piracy the printer’s problem rather than his own).

Georg Friedrich Handel did not regard his music as open-source.
Georg Friedrich Handel did not regard his music as open-source.

The restraint and elegance of Baroque music, coupled with the religious themes which permeate much of what has survived, make this one of my favourite musical periods, and I’ll often have it on as incidental music around the house. In this I take after my mother, who played Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ so often while she was pregnant with my younger brother that as a baby he would smile whenever it was played.

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