Dramatic, exciting and exhilarating. If we were to describe the Baroque period in three words, those would just about scratch the surface of what has come to be one of the most characteristic and influential genres of classical music.
Today we aim to explore the term ‘Baroque’, what it means, where it came from, the key figures of the genre and perhaps most importantly, how you can bring Baroque music to life through your piano, or as part of an orchestra. From the mighty opera to the subtleties that can be found within the music, Baroque has an immense amount of content to explore and we hope this guide offers a quick insight into how you too can begin getting started with Baroque music.
What is Baroque Music?
Baroque music can perhaps best be described as the period roughly between 1600-1750 and was a large distinction between the Gregorian or chanting music that came prior. Namely, the Baroque period saw the creation and mass appeal of operatic music as well as advancements in musical expression and technique. While most people do not have the option to play on historically accurate instruments from the Baroque period, it is still one of the most played genres on piano and within orchestral music. By understanding a little more about the history, time setting and nuances within Baroque works, we can begin to understand composer intent that little bit further, an art which many have devoted their lives to.
What does make Baroque music particularly interesting is unlike how many later composers found fame in the public domain, many of the most famous Baroque compositions were only performed in churches for a service, or as part of a private concert or celebration in the home of a wealthy patron, as such it was a very high society style of music. Contrary to the music that predeceased Baroque, the genre is known for its grandeur, dramatic turns and plots, and stylistic diversity.
Much of Baroque music was performed and composed on a harpsichord such as this as the piano had not yet been invented! (Source)
Understanding Baroque Music
To begin with, Italy was the driving force of the Baroque movement, with the likes of Moteverdi, Vivaldi and others greeting their masterpiece operas that are still widely performed today, however towards the end of the era, attention shifted more towards the German composers such as Bach and Handel.
(Bach & Handel)
The Baroque era was also home to the creation of the following musical formations:
- Opera (Known for being dramatic pieces that blend powerfully sung vocals with express feelings)
- Sonatas (most commonly designated to a work in several movements for one or more instruments)
- Concertos (until the early 18th century, a concerto was simply a composition that united a diverse ensemble consisting of voices, instruments or both. Later in the seventeenth century however, the concerto became more defined as being a multimovement work for instrumental soloist or an orchestra).
- Suite (Based on the traditional pairing of dances in the Renaissance, the suite was the first multi-movement work for instruments.)
The general connection between all of the composers within the Baroque era was a belief that music could act as a potent tool of communication and could arouse any emotion in its listeners; this is why many Baroque and opera pieces are full of tragedy and tribulation as themes or topics. This can be explored further when reviewing some of the key works by the following composers:
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Monteverdi is widely considered the grandfather of Baroque opera and was a key driving force in the creation of opera as a whole. His works are often described as being visionary and that he mastered, exhausted and crafted the musical tradition that he was first given, introducing polyphonic styles and textures in all of his compositions.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Arguably the most distinguished and famous composer of the genre, Bach today stands as a crucial pillar in all of piano, classical and progressing music. For many, the Baroque period can start and end with Bach. His works are memorable, detailed and iconic. Many see his The Well-Tempered Clavier publication as the ‘old testament of piano music’ and with good reason. He has been generally regarded as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music.
Techniques and Playing Baroque Music
When it comes to playing Baroque music, there are a few key things to observe and consider within your playing. Understanding these concepts will not only help enhance your technique and musical understanding, but add another layer of depth to your expression when playing.
Contrast: Contrast is an important ingredient in the drama of Baroque compositions. Pieces frequently and sharply shift between loud and soft, solo and ensemble. As such, it is worth developing your understanding of piano techniques such as dynamics and developing a further understanding in pianissimo and fortissimo, we will explore this a little later as this is technically not ‘historically’ correct when playing Baroque music on the piano.
Melody: Baroque music also made huge advancements in the use of melody and harmony within music. In previous musical eras, a piece of music tended to consist of a single melody. Not until the Baroque period did the concept of “melody” and “harmony” truly begin to be articulated. This is perhaps best seen within operatics and the use of high, low and middle ranges, however can be easily translated within your own playing by appreciating where you sit in the melody and ensuring that you are enhancing the overall piece.
Using your own interpretation: As we explored further in our guide to whether or not Bach should be played on a piano, because of the restrictions of the instrument (the piano had not been invented yet and the harpsichord did not allow for dynamic control), elements like articulation, ornamentation or dynamics are rarely written on original Baroque era pieces, so modern ensembles and musicians are able to have little fun exploring and expressing as they wish when making their own informed choices before each performance.