The music of the baroque

by Daniel Ungermann

The music of the Baroque era is generally referred to as the era of the basso continuo. Even if this is not entirely correct – especially in church music the basso continuo was used far beyond the Baroque period, and there is, albeit quite rarely, music without a basso continuo – the term “basso continuo age” is certainly a useful basis. The epoch of Baroque music is considered to be between 1600 and 1760.

Baroque music must be divided into two different directions. The first subdivision concerns the provenance: the most important countries are Italy, France and Germany. The second subdivision relates to the epochs within Baroque music: early Baroque, high Baroque and late Baroque; it goes without saying that the boundaries are fluid and geographically not congruent. The Early Baroque can be placed in the period between about 1600 and 1650, the High Baroque from about 1650 to 1720, and the Late Baroque from about 1720 to 1760. The transition from the Late Baroque to the Early Classical epoch cannot be precisely defined either.

The Early Baroque

The most important starting point for the beginning of the musical baroque age is to be found in Italy, where shortly before 1600 attempts were made to revive the ancient Greek tragedy. While until then the primacy of music over the word had been undisputed in vocal music (see, for example, the highly complex contrapuntal arts of Franco-Flemish vocal polyphony, which paid little attention to the sung text), the ideology began that music had the function of supporting the affects of the words, that the word was above music, in other words, that the word was above music to break its own ground.

Outstanding is the dispute between Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Artusi: Monteverdi coined the terms “prima pratica”, for the dominance of music demanded by Artusi, and the “seconda pratica”, in which music had to be a “servant of the text”. The idea of seconda pratica gave rise to monody, a musical form of vocal music in which a single voice was instrumentally accompanied.

Here begins the age of the “basso continuo”, the thorough bass.

This is a practice in which the bass line in all music was amplified with an instrument capable of harmonies (harpsichord, theorbo, organ), whereby this instrument on the one hand played along with the bass line and on the other hand enriched the harmonies in chords, which were notated by a number under the bass line and – according to precise rules – gave the player within certain limits the freedom to improvise the required harmonies. This practice of the basso continuo opened up possibilities to create completely new musical forms.

One of the most important creations of the seconda pratica was the recitative, a song accompanied by the basso continuo, whose rhythm and melody followed the metrics of the text and was rhythmically very free, i.e. it could be performed “speaking”. This led to the creation of the first opera, “Dafne” by Jacopo Peri, written in 1597, the music is unfortunately lost.


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The first important opera that is still preserved today is “Orfeo” by Claudio Monteverdi from 1607, which opened up new possibilities for instrumental music, resulting in compositions for one to four instruments with basso continuo.

This is where the beginnings of the “Sonata” are to be found, even if the terminology was rather inconsistent. Thus the term “concerto” was common for various forms – even for vocal music. “Sonata” and “Sinfonia” also had different meanings. For a long time, “Sinfonia” was also used, for example, for opening movements of operas and cyclical (i.e. multi-movement) works, and occasionally also for vocal music.

The term “fugue” also had various precursors: imitative instrumental movements – often very close to the pre-Baroque motet – were called Ricercare, Canzona or Fantasia. The term “fugue” only became established later.

In Germany some composers adopted the idea of vocal music interpreting the word.

First and foremost, Heinrich Schütz must be mentioned here, who adopted the stylistic devices of the “seconda pratica” and wrote vocal works accompanied by continuo for one or more solo voices (which he called, for example, “sacred concertos” or “Symphoniae sacrae”, here, too, one can still see the unclear terminology), as well as choral compositions with rich text-interpreting figures.

France’s contribution in the early baroque period consisted in the development of the suite, a sequence of dances, which was practised in all imaginable instrumentations, from solo instruments to richly endowed instrumental ensembles. However, the selection of dances was still quite wild.

It was the German Johann Jakob Froberger who, in his harpsichord suites combining French and Italian stylistic elements, used the sequence of dances which later became the basis of the suite: Allemande – Gigue – Courante – Sarabande, with Gigue and Sarabande changing places in the classical suite form. The dance movements of the suite were often in two parts, each part being repeated.

In the French Baroque, ballet was of great importance, which also explains why the names of the dances in the Dance Suite remained French throughout the Baroque period, even outside France.

The High Baroque

Clearly defined forms began to emerge in the High Baroque.

The “Concerto” took the form of an orchestral work, usually in three movements, in which one or more solo instruments alternate with the tutti of the whole orchestra – often a pure string orchestra.

The idea of dividing two juxtaposed groups goes back to the practice of Venetian double choir, as was already practiced in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice in pre-Baroque times. From the Sinfonia, the Italian form of the opera overture, the Concerto received the movement order fast – slow – fast.

The most important contribution to the development of the concerto were the works of Arcangelo Corelli, called “Concerto grosso”, in which two solo violins and a solo cello were juxtaposed with the string orchestra with basso continuo. In the Concerto grosso, the first fast movement generally had as its formal scheme the sequence of tutti – ritornelles, which only had to be complete and in the fundamental key at the beginning and end, and episodes of the solo instruments. Here we have an already mature form that was to last until the end of the Baroque as a basic principle.

From there it is not far to the solo concerto, in which a single instrument is juxtaposed with the tutti ensemble (ripieno). The moulding arrangement is basically the same. The solo sonata for one (or more) instruments and basso continuo began to take on its classical form, with the sequence of movements fast – slow – fast – often supplemented by further movements, very often by a slow movement at the beginning of the sonata.


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In the High Baroque period, there was a lively international exchange, so that country-specific forms were quickly adapted by other countries. Nevertheless, there were some country-specific musical forms in the High Baroque.

In Germany, a diverse world of forms of organ arrangements of Protestant chant developed. Free organ music also experienced a heyday (Dietrich Buxtehude, Georg Böhm, Nicolaus Bruhns).

In France, the harpsichordists called “Clavecinists” developed the harpsichord suite in such a way that the dance movements – which in France were very often called multi-part instead of two-part parts with a couplet played at the beginning, at the end and repeatedly between the recapitulations – mutated into real character pieces; usually the movements were also given titles of various kinds (François Couperin as the climax).

Through Louis XIV, the “Sun King” and his castle in Versailles, representative music experienced a hitherto unknown upswing. Jean Babtiste Lully was appointed Kapellmeister in Versailles and wrote numerous suites, with the “French Overture” as the opening movement. In contrast to the Italian Sinfonia, the form of the French Overture was slow – fast – slow, with the slow part being characterized by sharp dotted lines and rapid short opening figures.

The opera began its triumphal procession from Naples, of which Alessandro Scarlatti became the most important representative; the “da capo – aria” was created: in two parts with – often decorated with improvised ornamentation – a repetition of the first part after the second part.

And with the triumph of the opera went the triumph of the castratos, who became the real stars of the opera. Especially for the castrati, arias of exorbitant virtuosity were composed in the opera, which led to a competition of opera houses shooting up like mushrooms.

The content of the opera was usually taken from mythology – often from antiquity – or they were heroic tales of real historical events. In addition to soloists and orchestra, the opera house could also accommodate a choir.

Related to opera was the cantata and the oratorio; in Italy the solo cantata experienced its heyday, with recitatives and arias, often in the da capo form.

The oratorio developed from the medieval mystery play and resembled the form of the opera, with a choir usually forming the instrumentation together with soloists and orchestra.

England, whose music was mainly influenced by the French style, experienced a peak in the High Baroque in Henry Purcell, whose opera “Dido and Aeneas” is one of the most important operas of the High Baroque.

The Late Baroque

The epoch of the late baroque is the culmination of the developments in music to date. The national differences in musical style that were still clearly discernible at the beginning of the Baroque era are now blending into a style of a certain uniformity across national borders.

Instrumental music is now dominated by the concerto, the suite and the sonata, forms in which a certain basic structure has crystallized.

In the concerto – with one or more solo instruments – the sequence of movements dominates fast – slow – fast.

In the Suite, Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Gigue form the framework (although deviations from this sequence are still common), complemented by dance movements often referred to as “gallantries” such as Menuet, Gavotte, Bourée and many others. The suite is often preceded by an opening movement, such as an overture, a prelude, or a differently titled movement. Polyphonic forms are also built into the suite, such as the fugue. Suites are available in all conceivable instrumentations, from the suite for a solo instrument (often the harpsichord, occasionally a melody instrument without basso continuo) to orchestral suites. The dance movements usually retain their two-part form with the repetition of the respective part.


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Sonatas are written for various solo instruments with or without basso continuo, or for various groups of instruments (the trio sonata for two instruments and basso continuo was popular), usually in three movements with the sequence fast – slow – fast, or in four movements with an introductory slow movement.

The technical and tonal possibilities of the instruments are often explored to the utmost and exhausted.

Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Tartini write violin concertos of hitherto unknown virtuosity, Georg Philipp Telemann uses almost all existing instruments as solo instruments and elicits hitherto hidden playing possibilities from them. The Concerto Grosso – now mostly more than three movements – finds its climax in the Concerti Grossi by Georg Friedrich Händel.

The music of the late baroque period becomes more and more complex. For example, in the tutti of the Concerto there are elements of polyphony as fugal ritornello forms, the solo episodes contain thematic material of the ritornello and much more.

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach undoubtedly represents the absolute pinnacle of the entire era of Baroque music. His works fuse all national stylistic elements in the most natural way, the six “Brandenburg Concertos” being an example of this. They combine the Italian concerto form with polyphonic elements in a wide variety of instrumentations, combined with motivic-thematic work.

Bach’s unrivalled mastery of all conceivable musical forms, from the strict fugue to the gallant suite movement, which already points to the coming epoch of the early classical period, culminates in his late work: in the “Kanonische Veränderungen” (“Canonical Changes”) via “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her” (“From Heaven High, Here I Come”) for organ with canons at various intervals, the “Musikalisches Opfer” (“Musical Offering”), a collection of the most diverse pieces, from the six-part Ricercar for harpsichord solo to the galant trio sonata, on one theme, that King Frederick the Second played to him on the flute, and the “Art of the Fugue”, a collection of fugues and canons in which contrapuntal artistry is taken to its absolute peak – similar to the Franco-Flemish vocal polyphony of the 15th century. And 16th century.

Vocal music reached its peak in the oratorios written in London by George Frideric Handel, as well as in the cantatas, the Passions and the “High Mass” by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Italian opera was outshone by the works of Handel, and the two superstars among the castrato singers Senesino and Farinelli.

France’s magnificent opera culminated in the masterpieces of Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Above all, Johann Sebastian Bach developed a form in his two-part pieces with repeated parts, mainly for harpsichord solo – suite movements, preludes and the Fantasy in C minor – the first part of which is processed in the second part, only to end again in a (more or less free) recapitulation of the first part. This ultimately developed into the sonata form of the Viennese Classicism, the following great epoch in music history.

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