Baroque music – a misshapen pearl


What does Hallelujah Chorus by G.F Handel, Canon in D Major by Pachelbel, Jesu Joy of Man Desires by J.S Bach, and four seasons by Antonio Vivaldi have in common?
Truly, there is more than one similarity between these great music pieces. Certainly, they have lived through time and will continue to be relevant through the years as distinct music pieces. However, the first common ground that is shared between these music pieces is the fact that they are music from the Baroque period.
The Word Baroque was gotten from the Portuguese word “Barocco” which means Misshapen pearl which is used to describe the style of music in this period. With time, the term Baroque has been widely used to describe music from 1600 to the early part of 1750.
The Baroque period is the period between the Classical period of Western European Art music and the Renaissance period. Many critics described Baroque music as a misshapen pearl because they thought that the Baroque period couldn’t measure up to its predecessor or successor, but were they wrong down the line? Hallelujah Chorus by G.F Handel, Canon in D Major by Pachelbel, Jesu Joy of Man Desires by J.S Bach, and four seasons by Antonio Vivaldi confirms their assertions as false.
To compare the aforementioned music to a misshapen pearl may sound strange to many of us now, but to most of the critics at that time, they found the music of the likes of Handel and Bach to be exaggerated and overly decorated. The Baroque period is today one of the richest, creative, and highly diverse music era in history.

What are the core elements of baroque music?

One of the dominant element that guides the Baroque period is the belief that music can be used as an effective medium of communication and to evoke emotions in listeners. Although a single philosophy cannot describe 150 years of music from all over Europe, several other important concepts are tied to the Baroque period.
This idea of using music to communicate and evoke emotions was an offshoot of the Renaissance era which inculcated many Greek and Romans practices. Composing music in the Baroque era was followed through with a deliberate intent to tap the inherent power in the music to touch the heart of listeners.
Claudio Monteverdi in 1605 explained that initially, harmony and counterpoint were given preference over the lyrics of the music in the Baroque period but, with time, the focus shifted to the lyrics to communicate as intended correctly to the audience. This later became dominant throughout the Baroque music era.

Baroque music formed by patronage

Nowadays, music writers focus on their interests, and they pen down words to describe them. In the Baroque period, however, music writers were not totally independent like they are now. Music writers were mostly under the payroll of institutions that determines the focus of their writings. For example, most of Bach’s Cantata were not written because he draws inspirations from them, he wrote them for the liturgy of the Church that employed him in Leipzig.

Characteristics of baroque music

The attendant successes realized from the direction pursued by musicians in the Baroque period opened up the music scene to more interesting directions within the same period. All of these interesting directions have significant contributions to what we term today as the characteristics of Baroque music.

The use of dramatic elements

Music in the Baroque period was heavily reliant on contrast. Contrast played a major role in the vivid description of drama as it clearly depicts the differences in the intensities of loud and soft music, and it was used in concertos to separate ensembles and solos. Music composers know this as a strength so they select specific instruments like the violin and trumpet, to perform a certain piece instead of leaving the performer to decide which instrument to use in the performance.

The Melody, Harmony, and Monody Tripod

In the era or period that precedes the Baroque period, the common practice is a piece of music will have only a single melody and this is usually accompanied by an improvising instrument. However, with the advent of the Baroque period, melody and harmony became a concept that was largely accepted and in use. Not wanting to do away totally with the practices of the century that preceded the Baroque era, Baroque music composers began to focus on writing solo music usually accompanied by a simplified accompaniment or monody instead of the complicated polyphony method used in the past. Ever wonder why the Baroque period was called the age of the thorough-bass? This is because the use of Basso continuo was predominant throughout the Baroque period. Basso continuo is a kind of music notation where the bass line and melody are written and the harmony is usually indicated on the notation in shorthand.

The dawn of Instrumental music

Unlike preceding periods in music history where the use of musical instruments outside of the church was considered devil-inspired, the Baroque period witnessed a shift in practice and it draws so much from the judicious use of instrumental music. Although most of the instruments may not be used in modern ensembles like the Harpsichord which was the primary instrument and important member of the Continuo then. Most instruments at that time are still in use like the Viol, and the Lute. Violin and the remaining member of the bowed strings family were made with gut strings in the Baroque period. The gut strings made them sound better, unlike the metal strings that are now in use today.

Performance styles

Most Baroque music scores contain little or no information about the dynamics, elements, or patterns that were employed in the original composition hence, modern performers have to make those choices before performing the music. The differences between the modern instrument and those used in the Baroque era means performances of the same songs then and now will be done in different ways.
Some examples of common differences in performance styles are prominent with the different violin finger vibration techniques, and the varying bow vibrations.

Baroque music also characteristically features:

I. Progressive flowing melodies across lines accompanied by different trills and turns.
II. A predominant use of Harpsichord continuo.
III. Merger of melodic lines.

Opera in the baroque era

Various music forms associated with the baroque era particularly opera, oratorio, and cantata. Opera is the most significant one.

Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi baptized on May 15, 1957, in Cremona Italy – died November 29, 1943, in Venice is considered to be the bridge between the Renaissance and the Baroque period. He is regarded as one of the earliest writers of opera in the 1600s.  He also did much to bring a “modern” secular spirit into church music.

The word opera is an Italian word that literally means work. Opera is a composition that combines music, poetry, and dance. Stories were expressed using dramatic text and music which were usually about classical Roman and Greek Myth. The crave for something simpler than monody at the end of the Renaissance period where emotional messages can be conveyed to listeners lead to the evolution into opera. It is argued that Jacopo Peri wrote the first Opera, but because of its lost track in history, L’orfeo by Monteverdi holds that position.

Other composers who significantly contributed to Baroque music includes:

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach, the most venerated composer of the Baroque period was born into a famous musical family in March 1685, at Eisenach, in present-day Germany. He was taught how to play the Harpsichord, violin, and organ at a young age. He accepted the religious settings of his native town Eisenach, which was renowned for her adherence to the Reformation movement of Martin Luther which immensely influenced his work. Bach’s parents died when he was 10 years old and his elder brother took care of him till he was age 15 when he established himself musically. He started by singing Soprano in St. Michael’s church in Luneburg till he moved to Weimar when he was 18 years old to become a court musician where he played the violin in Prince Johann Ernst’s chamber orchestra for few months before moving to Arnstadt where he worked as a church organist. He left Arnstadt to Leipzig in 1723 to work as a music director at St. Thomas church and school. Bach had a reputation for always being at loggerheads with most of his employers due to his independent and rebellious nature, and this often rubbed off negatively on his creativity. He changed job multiple times and he was also imprisoned for breaching his contract after taking up a new job which displeased his former employer. Despite being on a meager salary, Bach composed some of his brilliant music during these difficult periods. He got married to his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach in the year 1707 and settled in Leipzig in 1723, where he lived till he died in 1750. He was always referred to as “a stuffy old man who clunged stubbornly to outdated musical form.” Upon his death, Bach’s music didn’t receive any attention until Felix Mendelssohn arranged and performed Bach’s “The passion of St. Matthew.”
Bach has over 1000 music works to his name, with his works influencing great musicians including Mozart and Beethoven, including present-day musicians. Although most of his works were intended for church worship, Bach made sure to capture many elements of the church Cantata and he drew elements from other periods except Opera.

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel was born February 23 1685 in Halle Brandenburg in present-day Germany and he died on 14 April 1759 in London. He is a famous composer of the Baroque period and he is well known for his numerous works some of which include Oratorios, Operas, and instrumental works. He is the composer of the famous Messiah, Water Music, and music for the royal fireworks. Handel’s height and body size earned him the nickname – “The Great Bear.”
Handel lived a private life, he never married. 9 years before his death in 1750, Handel arranged a performance of Messiah to raise benefits for the Foundling Hospital in a record first UK Children’s charity, which still runs till today.

Antonio Vivaldi

Termed by many to be the most famous Italian Baroque music composer, Antonio Vivaldi born March 4, 1678, in Venice in present-day Italy, and he died on July 28 1741 in Vienna. He performed mostly as a violinist. He was a priest in Venice until he was kicked out in 1706 for his preference for music over mass. He is nicknamed the ‘Red Priest’ because of his flaming red hair. He laid claims to about 90 operas but some of these claims have not been confirmed. He is the famous composer of the Four Seasons – a violin concerto. Vivaldi has more than 400 concertos and some vocal works which include his famous Choral Gloria in D, RV 589.

Domenico Scarlatti

Domenico Guiseppe Scarlatti was born on 26 October 1685 in Naples Italy, and he died July 23 1757 in Madrid Spain. He is an Italian composer who was well known for his 555 keyboard sonatas which became the forerunner to the exploration of possibilities of the Harpsichord. He has much in common with Handel and Bach as they were contemporaries. Scarlatti was appointed as an organist in Naples at the age of 15 and he wrote his first opera titled “L’ottavia restituita al trono and Il Giustino,” in 1703. He was sent to Venice in 1705 by his father so he studied under Francesco Gasparini, a famous composer at that time.

Baroque music has transcended time and defeated the critics and the naysayers. Music is a gift that is unwrapped by time, and while the many greats described above have contributed immensely to the growth of Baroque music, you can rest assured that more interesting music pieces will morph from their works. It is only a matter of time.

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