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Baroque Instrumental 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.

A concerto is a piece written for soloists and orchestra, but in Bach’s day the ‘orchestra’ was more defined by its accompanying role than by its size and would often only have one or two players to each part, unlike the large orchestra we know today.

The concerto was an Italian genre, either written for one soloist (a solo concerto) or a group of soloists (a concerto grosso). Concertos would have features such as:

  • Three movements arranged in fast-slow-fast format. Often the outer movements would be in the tonic key and the central slow movement would be in a related key.

  • Ritornello form – a structure where a principal theme would return at various points in the music, punctuated by episodes where much of the soloists’ material would be.

  • A change of affectation (a bit like a change of emotion) for the central slow movement, which would be lyrical and expressive in contrast to the livelier outer movements.

  • A dance-like final movement, influenced by the popular dance suite and often in the form of a gigue or other lively dance.

  • A functional approach to harmony and tonality, with the music going on a journey through a variety of related keys before returning to the tonic.

  • A balance of repetition and contrast – either through a ritornello structure as described above or through a form such as ternary form.

  • A good amount of showy virtuosic writing for the soloist(s), with the orchestra very much in the background during the most showy passages.

The six concertos written by Bach in 1721 were dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg and show clearly how Bach had absorbed the styles of both German and Italian contemporary styles. Bach not only adopted but developed the concerto genre and gave it a new voice with these important works. In Brandenburg Concerto No.5, for example, he introduced the concept of the cadenza in the first movement – something which remained with the concerto genre for many years to come. He also made more of the conversation between soloists and orchestra (or concertino and ripieno) and introduced concepts like fugal writing – up to then a form mostly found in sacred music.

The fifth of Bach’s six concertos was completed in March 1721 but may have been in existence in one form or another for a number of years before as Bach became more interested in the concerto form and began to transcribe, arrange and copy works by Italian composers such as Corelli and Vivaldi. It features the harpsichord, flute and violin as solo instruments, and would have been influenced more than a little by the violin concertos of Bach’s Italian contemporaries. The accompanying ripieno instruments are violin, viola, cello and violone (often played on double bass in modern performances) and the concerto has three movements arranged in fast-slow-fast format.

It is thought that a new harpsichord had recently arrived at the residence of Bach’s employer in Cöthen at the time that Bach was there, and that he gave the majority of the solo passages to this instrument, making it one of the first keyboard concertos ever written. The harpsichord part is also very virtuosic and contains many difficult technical runs and trills – it was probably first played by Bach himself. However, the flauto traverso was also a newly designed and improved type of flute and Bach would have been keen to feature this instrument too.



The first and second movements are in ritornello form, meaning that they have a recurring theme interspersed with episodes. In the case of the second movement, which is in the relative minor B minor, only the three soloists play in the recurrences of the theme with either flute or violin taking the melody, and the harpsichord has the bulk of the material in the episodes. The ripieno does not play in the second movement.

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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