Music of The Baroque Period

The Baroque Period (1600-1750) Divided roughly into 50-year sub-periods, Early, Middle, and Late (High) The word “baroque” means “irregular in form.”  It was originally applied to a pearl of distorted shape.  The word was originally applied to art, architecture, and music in a derogatory sense.  The intense emotion in the artistic expression during the Baroque Period was a stark contrast to the quiet beauty of the Renaissance.

The 17th Century was bitterly divided between Catholic and Protestant.  Protestant sects were not as interested in religious art, and some even banned all art and music in their churches, so artists turned to more secular subject matter.  Artists such as Rembrandt turned to everyday life and portrayed the feelings of man, his happiness, and his torments.  The rising Middle Class was increasingly interested in concerts, art, and music, and the subject matter reflected the patrons of the arts, who more and more were average citizens.

Doctrine of Affections:  the depiction of states of emotion in musical sounds, sadness, gladness, anger, passion, and so on. Greater melodic range, more dissonance, rise of functional harmony.  Rise of importance of soprano and bass lines. Sets, props, and costumes added to madrigal cycles were the precursors to opera.  The first complete opera, Euridice, was composed in 1603 by  Peri and Caccini with a libretto by Rinuccini.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was the greatest Italian musician of the Early Baroque.  He worked in several important positions, but finally ends up at St. Mark’s in Venice, where he remained until his death. 1607 – Monteverdi’s first opera, Orfeo, performed.  Striggio wrote the libretto so that Monteverdi could choose a happy or sad ending.  Monteverdi chose to end the opera sadly.  Monteverdi suggested around 40 different instruments to accompany the opera, divided into melodic instruments and harmonic instruments.  The conductor can then choose among these instruments. There were important places in the opera, however, where Monteverdi specified the instruments specifically.

Orfeo is the first masterpiece in opera.

Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-87)

Lully was one of the most important composers in the Middle Baroque style. Lully was born in Florence, Italy, but left at the age of 14 to seek a career in France.    In 1652, he entered the service of Louis XIV as a dancer.  His musical compositions impressed the king, and he was appointed court composer.

Opera became Lully’s chief focus, and Lully is responsible for including ballet in opera.  Lully was a good politician, and eventually Lully had complete control over all music performed in France until his death. Lully was known as a libertine.  Lully created scandals with his affairs with both men and women, and several times was reprimanded by the king.  However, Lully always was always successful in getting back into the king’s good graces.  The king regarded Lully as one of his true friends. Lully’s death was as unusual as his life.  He was beating a stick, a precursor to the baton, on the floor, and he struck his toe.  The wound became infected, and Lully refused to have the toe amputated.  The gangrene spread and Lully died of the wound. Lully’s music is known for its power and liveliness.  He introduced lively ballets into repertoire.  Lully founded French opera, having found the Italian style inappropriate to the French language.  Lully is regarded as the chief master of the French Baroque style.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

J.S. Bach is regarded as the most important composer in the entire Baroque Period, and is regarded as one of the most important composers of all time.  Bach came from a musical family.  It is estimated that more than 200 Bachs have been musicians of note.  Bach’s parents both died, and at age 10, J.S went to live with his older brother.  From his brother, he learned keyboard, harmony, and continued study with the violin.  Bach had several important positions as organist, composer, and music director.  He excelled in both sacred and secular music.  Finally, in 1723, Bach received his most important position, as cantor of Leipzig.  His duties included composing, overseeing all musical productions in Leipzig, and running a school at St. Thomas’s, where he taught music and Latin.  Bach did not write opera.

J.S. Bach was married twice.  His first wife, Maria Barbara, died while Bach was on a trip, and Bach came home to find that she had already been buried.  He married Anna Magdalena about a year later, and she became a musical assistant as well as wife.  Bach had 20 children.  Four became noted composers, with Carl Philip Emanuel Bach being the most important.

Bach was a proponent of the tempered scale.  He wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier to demonstrate that equal temperament would allow the composer to compose satisfactorily in any key.  Equal temperament was not fully accepted until the end of the 18th Century.  The Well-Tempered Clavier was published in its entirety in 1799.

Bach knew that he would be the last composer of the Baroque period.  His four sons were already composing in the Classical style.  Because of this, Bach decided to write The Art of the Fugue.  In this large work, all of the contrapuntal techniques are explored.  It serves as the culmination of the music of the Baroque period. The music of J.S. Bach fell out of favor with audiences at the time of his death.  The composer, Felix Mendelssohn, directed a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, and Bach’s music has been popular with audiences ever since. It’s interesting to note that Bach’s music was not especially popular in his own lifetime.  The composer, Telemann, was the most popular composer in Europe during Bach’s lifetime.

Georg Friderich Handel (1685-1759) Handel was born in Germany, but later emigrated to Italy and then to England, where he eventually became a citizen.  Unlike J.S. Bach, who never composed an opera, Handel composed 42 operas and 29 oratorios.  An oratorio is simply an opera, but without sets, costumes, or acting.  Handel’s most often performed work is the oratorio, The Messiah.  It is one of the most often performed works of any composer.  Rinaldo is one of Handel’s operas that are still in the standard repertoire.  Handel was best in the larger forms.

Handel was born in Halle, in the Duchy of Magdeburg.  His father was a barber/surgeon in the service of the Duke.  His father was planning for Georg to enter law school, and forbade him to practice any musical instruments.  However, Handel found a way to hide a clavichord in an attic room, where he would play after the family had gone to sleep.  At an early age, Handel became a skillful performer on the harpsichord and organ.  At the coaxing of aristocracy, Handel’s father allowed Georg to start studying harmony and composition.  Handel did enter law school, but focused most of his energy on music. In 1706, Handel travelled to Italy where he enjoyed and learned from the glittering opera scene in Florence.  In 1710, Handel became the Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, who later became George I of England.

In the year 1729, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, was premiered and was very successful.   The opera was satirical and made fun of the Italian opera style of Handel and other English composers.   This opera ushered in a new concept of opera.  Handel was unable to, or simply didn’t care to, adapt to the new style.  Handel sought to preserve the Italian opera style, and he and other investors founded The Royal Academy of Music, where he remained until 1734.

The Italian style was quickly becoming unpopular among opera-goers in England.  Handel moved his focus to the oratorio, partly because his “old” style of music was more suited to these religious and serious works. The Messiah is the most important of these oratorios.  It is based on the life of Christ, and uses Biblical passages, much like The St. Matthew Passion of J.S. Bach.  The piece lasts about three hours.  There is a legendary story that George I was so impressed by The Hallelujah Chorus, that he stood to listen to it.  Because no one was allowed to sit in the King’s presence while he was standing, then entire audience stood as they listened.  As a result of this, it is now customary to stand while this chorus is being performed.  The Messiah is also one of the first pieces that were performed in consecutive years as a benefit concert. Handel worked at the Royal Academy from 1719-1741, and then lost his contract with them.  As a result, instead of quitting work, he founded the opera company at Convent Garden, where he remained from 1734-1741.  Finally, in 1741 Handel gave up the opera business entirely.

Handel composed in various genres.  Two of his large suites are the Water Music Suite, composed in 1717, and Music for the Royal Fireworks, composed in 1749.  The Water Music was performed with musicians on barges on the River Thames.  King George I liked the music so well he had the musicians play it three times.  Legend has it that The Water Music may have been composed for Handel to regain favor of George I.  There was a possibility that Handel had angered George by leaving him to go work in London for Queen Anne while he was still the Elector of Hanover, but also there is a possibility that George knew that Handel would again be in his employment because he was certain that he would take the throne after the death of Queen Anne. Music for the Royal Fireworks was also successful.  It was originally written for wind band, but Handel later scored it for full orchestra.  The composition was written to accompany a fireworks display to celebrate the signing of a treaty.  The music was successful, but the fireworks started the building on fire and the presentation was a disaster.  Fortunately, the work had been “previewed” three days earlier for an audience of 12,000 people.

Handel’s health deteriorated after 1750.  He was in a serious carriage accident while visiting The Netherlands.  He suffered blindness, a stroke, and other physical problems.  Handel died in 1759, a wealthy man.  Handel had never married, and he left much of his estate to a niece.  Other possessions were given to various family members.  Handel owned a significant amount of art, much of which was auctioned after his death. Questions for


1.  Describe the Baroque style.  (3)

2.  How is the Baroque period divided?  (3)

3.  Discuss the evolution of opera.  (4)

4. Discuss Monteverdi’s Orfeo. (4)

5.  Discuss Lully’s relationship with King Louis XIV.  (4)

6.  Discuss The Art of Fugue. (4)

7.  Discuss Handel with respect to The Beggar’s Opera. (4)