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Purcell: Music for a While

Baroque Vocal Music

The Baroque period of musical history is long and complex covering some 150 years (c.1600 to c.1750) and it is fair to say that the shape of the musical world was very different at the end of the Baroque period than that in which it was begun. Music in the Baroque was concerned mainly with drama and contrast and both instrumental and vocal music developed enormously in this era. Harmony became more complex along with layered contrapuntal textures; and the diatonic system (major and minor keys) became established. A list of key composers is included below, but the names of Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel and Purcell tower above many other writers of music in this and later periods.

General Characteristics of Baroque Music

Opera: At the heart of Baroque music was drama, and how words were expressed. As with art and architecture, the story of Baroque music begins in Italy. It was there in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that a small group of ground-breaking composers found a new way to express a wide range of emotions, such as joy, sadness, anger, desire and so on. This new method of composition was seen most influentially in the development of opera around 1600.

The combination of Arias, Recitatives, Choruses and Instrumental sections (see below) with dramatic libretti (scripts), staging and even wondrous stage machines was to provide the starting point for a musical style that influenced not only further operas, but also many othertypes of music.

  • Basso Continuo: this was a new idea in the Baroque era, where a small group of instruments (normally an instrument that could play chords – a harpsichord, organ or theorbo –  plus a bass instrument, such as the bass viol or a bassoon) would improvise (make up) an accompaniment based on a written out bass line, as support to a melody instrument or voice.
  • Ornamentation: it was expected that the performers of the melody line would decorate their music with ornaments of various kinds (see ‘melody’ in the analysis section below) to show off their skill and to add to the emotion of the music.
  • Tonality: Renaissance and earlier music was built on ancient modes (listen to medieval plainsong, and the music of Josquin, Tallis and Palestrina), but Baroque music gradually progressed to what we now know as the system of major and minor keys. J.S.Bach’s famous Well-tempered Clavier (also known as ‘The ‘48’ Preludes and Fugues’) was the first major work to systematically work through each major and minor key.
  • Word-painting: a key feature of Baroque vocal music was the idea of expressing or reflecting the meaning of specific words or phrases in the music. Purcell, who was considered to be a master at setting the English language, was particularly fond of illustrating certain words in his compositions with musical depictions. Music for a while exhibits a number of examples (see analysis section below).

Some Key Composers of the Baroque Era:

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676)
Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)
John Jenkins (1592-1678)

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1707)
Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)
Dieterich Buxtehude (1639-1707)
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)

Georg Telemann (1671-1767)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
George Frederick Handel (1685-1759)

For a more detailed composer timeline for the Baroque era: 



This was a new style of singing in the Baroque period, where a character delivers lines of a play in free time, accompanied by simple chords in the basso continuo. This made possible the delivery of normal speech, dialogue and dramatic scenes in a musical way.


These were solo songs for principal characters, and were intended not only to form part of the dramatic sequence of events in the opera, but also as a means of showing off the vocal abilities of the actor / singers.


These are sections of music for multiple voice parts singing together (much like a church choir). The chorus or larger company of actors was a long-established tradition in the theatre (going back to Ancient Greece) and enabled crowd scenes, groups of priests, soldiers, witches etc, to play their part in the musical drama.

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