The Baroque Period (1600-1760)
The term Baroque is used to describe the style of music written from approximately 1600 to 1750. This title was originally used to describe a style of art and architecture of highly decorative and extravagant design in the 17th and 18th centuries. The elaborate detail of design during the Baroque period can also be seen in the furniture of the era. It was a time when people wore lavish clothes and ornamented themselves with ruffles, jewels, and powdered wigs.
Most Baroque musicians worked as servants of a royal court, church, or town. Their music reflected their occupations. Court musicians wrote dances and music for concerts and royal ceremonies. Church musicians wrote instrumental and vocal music for church services and oratorios and masses for special occasions. Some musicians were supported by patrons who expected the composer to write music for them. Most Baroque musicians were composers, performers, conductors, and also teachers. You can imagine how busy these individuals must have been!
Before the invention of the piano, keyboard music was written for the clavichord, harpsichord, and organ. The clavichord produces a small, delicate sound and was used mainly in small rooms as a practice instrument and also an aid for composition. The harpsichord has a bigger sound and was the favored keyboard instrument during the Baroque period. The organ was capable of producing a great sound and variety of effects. Used primarily for church services, the Baroque organ resembled the organs we still find in churches today.
Baroque keyboard music was frequently written in polyphonic texture, and a common form of composition was binary form. Much of the music was written to accompany dances, such as the minuet, gavotte, gigue, polonaise, march, bourree, and courante. The prelude was also an important type of composition during the Baroque era. Preludes are often intended to precede other pieces, as introductory music. The form of a prelude tends to be free and improvisatory. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote many preludes for his students, as exercises for developing keyboard technique.
A compositional technique known as counterpoint was developed and perfected in the Baroque era. Counterpoint involves combining two or more contrasting themes in a way that sounds unified. Examples of counterpoint are inventions and fugues.
The practice of embellishing a piece with ornaments was characteristic of the style of music performance in the Baroque period. Ornaments - such as trills, grace notes, turns, and rapid scale passages - were not always written in the musical score by the composer. It was customary that these be added at the performer’s discretion, to enhance the expressive quality of the music. This ornamentation was especially common for slower pieces, and also when repeating a section of a piece. It was considered unimaginative to repeat a section of music without adding any alterations. On the harpsichord or clavichord, where the decay of the sound occurs quickly after a note is struck, ornaments help provide resonance and give extended duration to the sound.
Composers of the Baroque period seldom wrote dynamic or articulation markings in the music. As with ornamentation, these issues of interpretation were left to the musical taste of the performer.
Baroque music reached its highest peak in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. To this day, many still believe that he is the greatest musician and composer to have ever lived.
Notable Baroque Composers:
Important musical characteristics of the Baroque Period:
- Polyphonic texture
- Use of ornamentation
- Compositions for dance forms (often a full dance suite)
- Limited use of dynamic and expression marks by composers
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