The Baroque period in music dates from approximately 1600 to 1750, and applies to most European compositions of that era. It was a shift from the previous Renaissance Period, which included Masses and Madrigals. Though some Baroque composers continued to produce masses, the emphasis was on developing counterpoint, with stronger rhythmic elements than music of the previous period, and greater stress on emotional content. The fugue, based on a central theme with gradual additions is most characteristic of this period.
The most easily identifiable of the Baroque composers is Bach. Bach’s works are mathematical masteries of point and counterpoint, and they are frequently studied for their sound mathematical principals. Bach is actually one of the later artists of the period, preceded nearly a full century by the early composers.
The earliest Baroque composers include Claudio Monteverdi, Jacopo Peri, and Gregorio Allegri. Some of the middle period composers are Jean-Baptiste Lully, Johan Pachelbell, and Henry Purcell. Including Bach, other late composers are Handel, Telemann, and Vivaldi.
Baroque music also introduced a very new trend that would be continued to later forms: the solo voice. Before this period, most vocal music would have been performed in choral arrangements. Though choral arrangements still existed, for the first time, music was written specifically for soloists. Handel’s Messiah for example, blends the choral arrangements and solos pieces, greatly enhancing the variety of the music.
Instrumental solos were also more common at this time. This is particularly noticeable in the work of Bach and Vivaldi. Vivaldi in particular, favored solo concertos for violinists, and he created some of the best and still most popular music for strings. Vivaldi is most easily recognized for The Four Seasons, which is actually four concertos, combined into a concert.
The Baroque period is also the last to truly feature the harpsichord, which would soon be replaced by the piano. To play harpsichord pieces on the piano will probably offend musical purists, as it lends a very different tone to a performance. However, harpsichords are not widely available and much of the compositions from this period, particularly at a student level, are performed with a piano.
There are several fundamental pieces that can help one study and understand the Baroque era. Opera is the invention of this period, with the first operas composed by Monteverdi and Cavelieri. Operas of this time generally took Greek myths for themes, and the most famous is probably Orfeo, a retelling of the story of Orpheus, composed by Monteverdi.
The Pachelbell Canon is an absolute must have for listening to Baroque. It is very familiar to modern listeners, as it enjoyed much usage in the 1980s after Robert Redford’s film, Ordinary People was released. It is often used in place of the Wedding March composed by Wagner. Most musicians simply detest this piece as they have had to play it so frequently, but yet, it is a great representation of period.
Any of Bach’s works, particularly his fugues, are a great place to start. Many recommend the Brandenburg Concertos . Bach was one of the only composers to write fairly exclusively for the church in Germany. There are so many excellent Bach pieces, it is difficult to recommend simply one, however, this wisegeek author must side with Bach’s variation of the 1642 hymn “Werde Munter,” by Johann Schop, which results in “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” a beautiful study in counterpoint.
The Four Seasons of Vivaldi, and Handel’s Messiah are both important representations of Baroque music. They are also without regard to period some of the best orchestral and choral music written. Additionally Handel’s Water Music is an important and much enjoyed piece.
An old orchestra joke revolves around the pun, “If it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it.” Orchestral music after this era clearly demonstrates the modernizing influence of Baroque. Even pop musicians owe their solo vocal performances to it. In other words, there is little to “fix,” as its forms are inventive, holistic, and absolutely delightful to listeners.