What Are Baroque Orchestras?

Liz Thomas

The term "Baroque orchestra" originally referred to those orchestral music groups that existed during the Baroque period. Currently, they refer to modern orchestras that play only Baroque music and contain all the instruments typically found in the original baroque groups. Baroque music incorporated the fundamental ideals of the period and produced some new orchestral forms, including the concerto.

Baroque orchestras feature violins.
Baroque orchestras feature violins.

The original orchestras were formed during the Baroque period, from the early 1600s to the middle of the 1700s. During this time period, the concept of an orchestra was born. Composers of this era began to focus on the importance of more complete instrumentation to accompany ballet and opera. Eventually, they began composing pieces specifically for instruments without the benefit of actors, dancers, or vocalists.

Baroque orchestras may feature lutes.
Baroque orchestras may feature lutes.

The orchestras that played during the Baroque period were small, typically containing about 30 musicians. The first Baroque orchestras can be attributed to Jean-Baptiste Lully, a French composer. He designed a transverse flute and hautboy to be used in his orchestra.

The transverse flute refers to flutes that are played horizontally, as modern flutes are. Originally, flutes were held vertically, played in a style similar to the recorder. A hautboy is the first version of the modern oboe.

Instrumentation of these orchestras also included standard woodwind and violin sections. The harpsichord and the theorboe, two continuo instruments, were also part of the orchestra. A theorbo can best be described as a long necked lute or early guitar that contains two pegboards on the neck.

The music composed for Baroque orchestras was made with specific instruments in mind, and is very different from the large orchestrations used by composers from future periods, such as Beethoven and Wagner. Once Baroque music became popular in France, it quickly spread to the rest of Europe.

Current Baroque orchestras use the same instruments as those that played during the Baroque period. Typically, these groups exclusively play historic music composed and performed during the Baroque period. These orchestras became popular in the 1970s when period orchestras were revived.

The concerto is a popular type of music that is played extensively with Baroque orchestras. In this style of music there is a solo instrument that is featured with the orchestra accompanying. As with the rest of the Baroque period, the music began to incorporate themes of nature and religion. One example of a famous concerto played during this time is Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.

Organs or other chordal instruments are often used in Baroque concertos to play harmonies.
Organs or other chordal instruments are often used in Baroque concertos to play harmonies.

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