General Characteristics of the Baroque
The dominant trends in Baroque music correspond to those in Baroque art and literature. Among the general characteristics of Baroque art is a sense of movement, energy, and tension (whether real or implied). Strong contrasts of light and shadow enhance the dramatic effects of many paintings and sculptures. The term Baroque denotes the inner stylistic unity of the period. The most important unifying feature of all Baroque music is the characteristic accompanying part, the basso continuo (Baroque era is usually referred to as the ‘thorough-bass period’). A bass line is followed by a continuo player(s) above which a figure is written to indicate what additional notes should be played to fill in the harmony (figured bass). A typical Baroque piece consists of a melodic line for a voice (more typically two melodic lines as in trio sonata), a bass line for a continuo instrument such as cello or bassoon playing the written line, and a plucked (chitarrone) or keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ) playing the figured chords (mainly improvising) to fill the intervening space between the two poles. The result is the polarity of outer parts.
During the Renaissance , harmony was the master of the word; in Baroque music, however, the word is the master of harmony or, music is subservient to the words. The outermost voices (bass and soprano) acquired a dominant position forming the skeleton of the composition. The rest could be filled in by the improvising continuo player in this structural contour. Choral music had risen to its apogee in the 16th century and the turn of instrumental music had come.
Generally speaking, the Baroque era is a period of ecstasy and exuberance, and of dynamic tensions in contrast to the assuredness and self-reliance of the Renaissance period. Particularly the early Baroque music (prior to 1650) shows, in its canzonas and toccatas, striking traits of capriciousness, exuberance, and irregularity while later composers such as Carissimi and Corelli brought about a trend towards greater restraint and regularity of style.
A great variety of forms, techniques, and idioms were created in the Baroque era for the first time. The development of the opera, oratorio, passion, cantata, da capo aria; the creation of the ostinato forms, solo sonata, trio sonata and chamber duet; the prelude and fugue, chorale prelude and chorale fantasy all happened during Baroque era. It instituted the important forms of the concerto grosso and the solo concerto. In music, the Baroque era is the era of style-consciousness. The means of verbal representation in Baroque music were indirect -intellectual and pictorial-. In Baroque music, representation of extreme affections called for a richer vocabulary. Opera is one of the foremost innovations of the Baroque era which allowed the realization of extreme affections in music. It represents melodic freedom. In early Baroque era, no tonal direction existed, but experiments in pre-tonal harmony led to the creation of tonality.
The philosophy of Baroque music is that music represents the emotions (called the "affections" in the Baroque Era) of real life and, in so doing, excites the listener’s emotions. The intention of Baroque music is to express emotions and it must move the listener. It is generally agreed that Italian Baroque music expressed the emotions best. Baroque music was the end-result of a search for new modes of expression. During this process, a concern for formal organization resulted in the development of the Major-Minor Tonal System, which eventually replaced the older modal system of the past.
For Baroque musicians, the music of the Renaissance, referred to as stile antico was too rigid and structured for modern tastes. The new Baroque style, stile moderno, was a vehicle of spontaneous expression, but failed to displace the stile antico for some time. Some composers used both styles; stile antico in church music and stile moderno in secular vocal music. One of the most important creations of Baroque was the concept of contrast as in Baroque art (like loud and soft, solo and tutti, high and low, fast and slow). Numerous composers used the concerto or concertanto style (meaning a style with a marked contrasting element).
Baroque music has unique idioms, suggesting the usage of specific style or character, and as an idiomatic form. Composers began to write music specifically for a particular medium, such as the violin or the solo voice, rather than music with interchangeable or no idioms that might be either sung or played by almost any combination of voices and instruments, as had previously been the case. Before 1600, as the church had been the center of music, vocal music had been dominating, and the instrumental music had been written for any instrument. After 1600, the violin became the main instrument and developed its idioms. Instrumental and vocal styles began to be differentiated, eventually becoming so distinct that the composers could borrow vocal idioms in instrumental writing, and vice versa. This transfer of idioms between instruments forms one of the most fascinating aspects of Baroque music. In the late Baroque music, a rich interchange and interpenetration of idioms is observed, i.e., transfer of lute ornaments to keyboard or vocal techniques to violin. Nobody can mistake the violin character of a Baroque concerto grosso (persistent figuration to maintain the same affect).
The Baroque preference for extreme contrast had a decisive influence on the range of musical instruments. The desire for deeper bass resulted in lowering the register of harpsichord and organ, addition of bass strings to the lute and enlargement of the lute family by bigger members. The double bassoon and contrabass trombone were created. With its treble character, the violin became the queen of the instruments. Among the wind instruments, the bassoon and shawm, reborn as oboe, survived. At the close of the seventeenth century, the French horn and clarinet were added to the wind ensemble. Because of their quiet sound in the enlarging ensemble, the viol family, recorder and harpsichord did not have a long life span and eventually became obsolete.
Summary of Baroque Characteristics
Early Elements of National Style
Following an essentially international lingua franca and the rigorous counterpoint of the Renaissance, the national stylistic awareness began to increase brilliance and expressiveness. In the early seventeenth century, the new Italian musical style swept over Europe eventually dominating virtually everywhere with the exception of, to some extent, France. Italian attitudes dominated the musical thinking of the period from the mid-sixteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries. France was the last country affected by Italian national style. The commonest Italian genres, the canzona and sonata, appeared as outgrowths of vocal music genres (solo monody), whereas, in France as the preference was for music that grew out of dance, the commonest genre was the orchestral suite. Tonality remained important in both in France and Italy.
The French classical music had its golden age in the late seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth century. During that period, ballet entered its glorious phase. A great achievement was the re-organization of the orchestra: its make-up, style of performance and the music written for them were re-organized mainly by Jean Baptiste Lully. The orchestral Overture was established as a genre. The Suite also relies on contrast like the Sonata, where paired dances provided the contrast. Dances were organized in a suite to achieve the slow-fast progression. The peak of this form’s achievement is represented in the harpsichord suite in D minor by Marchand. An indigenous operatic tradition (recitatives and changing time signatures), and some conventions of ornamentation (precisely indicated by signs) and rhythm (subtle and discontinuous, strongly influenced by dance) were also established.
Italian: The commonest genre: concerto/sonata. Music that is not about anything. Large-scale abstract, instrumental genres. The principal musical forms of the Baroque era arose in Italy. It was there that the cantata, concerto, sonata, oratorio and opera were conceived and developed. Instruments: Violin/Harpsichord-Cello. Rhythm that is often continuous by the late Baroque, made up of repeating patterns - the ‘decorative frieze’ effect. Texture: Simple, thematically clear-cut, pattern- and sequence-employing. Harmonic and melodic sequences based around the circle-of-fifths. Chromatic chords against a consonant background. Seventh chords as a means to an end (i.e., to propel the music to another tonal area-by means of sequence), also surprise chords: Neapolitan sixths, augmented sixths and tonic minor triads in major keys. In the early monodic literature, three methods of achieving musical coherence can be found: repetitions and imitations between bass and melody, and the most characteristic one strophic variation (strophic bass). Ornamentation: not indicated in the score, improvised by the performer. Italy’s stylistic dominance made unnecessary its musicians’ familiarity with other practices.
French: The commonest genre: Suite. Music that is about something (literary and visual associations); dances, character pieces. Music that aims above all to please, to be in good taste. French preference was for music that grew out of dance rather than songs, and emphasized characteristic rhythmic detail. Instruments: Viola da gamba/Harpsichord-Lute. Texture: Often light, flowing, seamless melody. Complex, asymmetrical look (even on paper), large variety of note values within each phrase. No visible patterns and small use of sequence. Arpeggiated chords (style briese), broken counterpoint. Vocalism based on the special characteristics of the language that was not shared by other countries. The measured declamation characteristics of French theatre (tragedie lyrique) had little in common with the flamboyant, virtuoso manner of Italian operatic writing. Ornamentation: No style aspect of Baroque performance distinguished more sharply between French and Italian styles than ornamentation. French musicians wrote out all ornaments in precise details and expected the performers to adhere to them strictly. In Baroque music, notated dotted rhythm was performed freely virtually everywhere with the precise value of the dotted note being variable according to the mood or affect. In France, musicians habitually introduced dotted rhythm in succession of conjunct notes, usually quavers, even where it was not indicated. This unequal playing of quavers may have stemmed from a Renaissance practice. In France, no Italian tempo markings were used until the late Baroque.
The Lullian French Overture (slow/fast) influenced most composers of the later Baroque era. It consists of two contrasting halves repeated twice (AABB). It can be called in binary form although it is an exceptional example since one would not expect a complete change of mood, tempo and meter to occur at the double bar.
German: German Baroque is mainly contrapuntal, hence Germany is the land of fugue, the main instrument being the organ. The typical seventeenth century keyboard form is the prelude and fugue. Also in vocal music, homophonic bel canto and contrapuntal style existed side by side (combination of the rigorous counterpoint of the Renaissance with an expression of the affection, by way of bold dissonances and word painting). As Purcell did in England, mainly protestant Germans set their native tongue to music (as opposed to Catholics using Latin). the Italian. Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672) and JS Bach (1685-1750) were the greatest German composers of the Baroque period, with Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) in between them.