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Baroque Instrumental Music

Baroque Music

Baroque is the name used to describe the music written from around the time of Monteverdi (about 1600) to the death of Bach in 1750, though this term was not used until much later. It was a time of rapid forward motion in the sciences, of exciting new discoveries by explorers and the colonisation of foreign lands which brought great wealth to Europe. Painters, architects and composers of the Baroque period added a sense of the dramatic to their work, aiming to impress with virtuosic music or decorative architecture. The period had a wide range of styles and genres, however, with secular music becoming as common as sacred, and instrumental music as common as vocal. The obsession with drama fueled the growth of opera, and church music continued to be important in all composers’ outputs. Most composers of this time had a patron – most commonly the church, but sometimes a wealthy aristocrat, and some countries such as Italy, Germany and France developed their own musical, stylistic language. As well as opera, instrumental genres such as the concerto and sonata developed quickly, and better-trained more adept performers playing technologically advanced instruments allowed composers to write more complicated music which was, for the first time, idiomatic. The strings and woodwind family developed in particular, and dance-styles became extremely popular. Keyboard instruments – in particularly the harpsichord – also became very common.

Characteristics of Baroque Music

Stylistically, one of the most important developments in the Baroque Period was the gradual establishment of the major and minor tonality that we know today, and for the first time composers felt that functional harmonic progressions with cadences at the end of phrases were as important as the complex polyphony that had been inherited from the previous Renaissance period. Whilst polyphonic and imitative textures continued to dominate, there was more homophony at important harmonic and structural moments, and a tonal plan governed most music written in the middle and late Baroque. These are some of the key features, many of which are likely to be found in a piece of Baroque music:

A large importance placed on melody, which was often decorated with ornaments

Functional harmony with clear cadences and modulations to related keys

A large importance placed on rhythm which, in fast pieces, was often very exciting

Busy textures with a contrast between polyphonic and homophonic

Showy virtuosic instrumental and vocal parts

The use of a keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ) and bass instrument to underpin the music (called basso continuo)

A greater interest in repetition and contrast, along with the use of related major and minor keys, caused music to have a greater sense of organised structure

The importance of drama, tension and emotion in the music

The beginning of links between music and the wider world through devices like word painting

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

One of the most famous of all composers, Bach did not enjoy such notoriety during his lifetime, working in various parts of Germany first as an organist, then as musical director and concertmaster for members of the nobility before ending his career in a prestigious job as cantor and music director in the city of Leipzig. He became quite well-known in Germany as an organist and composer, but his wider fame only came about when his music was discovered and championed in the 19th century.

Bach came from a large and successful family of musicians, and indeed contributed to the extension of this musical family through his own twenty children. He studied music with his father and brother, and as a young man became familiar with the styles of all the major European composers of the time through copying and arranging their music.

With the exception of opera, Bach wrote a prolific amount of music in all the popular musical genres of the time, either through necessity as part of his job (particularly with his sacred music) or in response to requests from wealthy patrons or for his own pupils. Much of his instrumental music came from his time as music director at the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen between 1717 and 1723, a time when he wrote chiefly secular music.

The Harpsichord

The harpsichord (known in Italian as the cembalo) came to prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in the late Renaissance and throughout the Baroque Period, and soon became the most popular keyboard instrument of the day due to its improved technology in terms of its sound and range. Its keyboard is arranged like a piano (indeed, the piano replaced the harpsichord as the most popular keyboard instrument in the late 18th century) but the principal difference between the two is that harpsichord strings are plucked (by a plectrum) rather than struck by a hammer.

Whilst the piano replaced the harpsichord and caused it to be almost invisible during the 19th century, it began to be popular again in some circles more recently, thanks to the growth of ‘authentic’ performances of Baroque music and also the experimentation of bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, both of whom used the harpsichord in their songs.

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