The Baroque Music Characteristics, History and Sounds
4 (80%) 3 vote[s]

The baroque music constitutes a great part of the overall classical music; it’s not for less since such talented musicians as Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Beethoven lived on this period of time and they came up with their most notorious works throughout it. This kind of music has always had some kind of enchantment upon itself, capable of hypnotizing crowds of people since the baroque period to our current days. Many of the most famous pieces from this era are still preserved and recognized, played by some of the greatest orchestras in the whole world.

Now, on this blog, we are going to dig a little deeper within this interesting musical style, getting to know its history, characteristics and many of the other traits that make such unique and iconic.

What’s the baroque music?

The baroque music is an art, strongly related to the homonym famous cultural era, which revolves around the European musical style. Its birth and dominating years comprehends the years 1600, with the birth of the opera, until 1750, with the death of the great compositor Sebastian Bach, in the year 1750.

baroque music style characteristics

Know what is baroque music and what is the philosophy of baroque music

What’s “baroque”?

The term “baroque” comes from the Portuguese word “barroco” which means “irregular shaped pearl”; the term has been widely used since the 19th century for naming the cultural movement and historical period that took part in the occidental Europe since approximately 1600-1750. This particular word was used to describe the period of time since it was also colloquially used for describing something “elaborated and complicated”, making direct reference to the era’s extravagant fashion; as well, it matched the music style of JS Bach, Henry Purcell, Frideric Handel, and more other musicians, which the critics found excessively pompous and exaggerated. Nowadays, we only know the word “baroque” as the name given to the one of the richest and most diverse period of the history of music.

Characteristics of the baroque

There are 7 different characteristics of the baroque which are: the painting, the architecture, the sculpture, music, dance, theatre and literature.

The theatre in the baroque

The theatre is one of the main characteristics of the baroque period, which faced a time of great magnificence when it started to write and act a huge variety of plays about several topics that quickly became the public’s favorites. The most prominent ones were the themes for honoring the feudal traditions, as well as the peasant, historic and mythic ones; and also the religion. It outstood for the common use of symbolic characters for representing imaginative and creative roles, like the viciousness of greed, the betrayal of sin, among others.

Another one of the distinctions that the baroque theatre had is the extent of the plays, which could prolong themselves for several hours. Due to this reason, there were included little spaces of time for the play to pause such as the snacks, the fables, the mocks, the praising and some small breaks during the play for the actors to rest and change their outfits. In short words, this is why the middle times were born.

The baroque period also was noted for the birth of the opera, a comic and theatric playing where there were music and singing for expressing monologues and dialogues. The opera caused sensation back on those days, because there had never been such a display of art that combined both music and theatre, at least not in the way the opera did. There was a big audience for it, making itself popular among the different social classes.

the baroque music history

George Frideric Handel Baroque musical characteristics

The baroque in the painting

While the theatre was special for the opera, the painting outstood for the luminous effects like the contrasts between light and shadow, which led to create the technique of the Tenebrism, a practice that used the clear-obscure as the most highlighted element.

Another trait of the baroque painting was the dynamism between the characters it represented, whom were given an expression of movement due to the drama that was captured at the moment, bringing up emotions such as joy, euphoria and sadness. All of this was followed by the loss of the classicist symmetry, doing a favor to the idealization of the painted characters for the higher expressiveness of the latter’s emotions, along with the gathering of the decorative motives.

The baroque painting emphasized itself for having a kind of realism which is called Naturalism, and it could lead to the feism, as it is proven in some works like Goya’s paintings.

The baroque in the architecture

In the baroque, the most accentuated aspect of the architecture was the search for dynamism and movement, along with the decorativeness in the facades of the windows and doors, as well as the use of Solomonic and Ofidic columns. Through this type of architectonic elements, it was searched to give the construction the impression of movements and imprint it with lots of life, contrasting with the Renaissance classicism. All of this was done by the inclusion of curve, convex, concave and inclined straight lines in the facades of the windows, achieving the effect of an apparent movement.

Apart from having counterpoising elements such as the curvy and straight lines, giving the buildings perspective, there was also the use of low reliefs, with which it was made emphasis to the clear-obscure.

There also existed classic elements but with original modifications proper from the baroque, like the use of ovals in the domes, differencing itself from the classicism, when the circle was the most used shape. There was also an extreme decoration of walls, columns, facades, roofs, windows, inside doors and more; following the principle of extravagance of the overall baroque and looking to take advantage of every little space or corner, procuring not to have empty spaces. For this sort of ornamentations, there were used paintings and some other decorative elements, highlighting with them the geometric and botanic motives, except in some little alterations were it was pretended to give a bigger illusion of amplitude through big mirrors and large windows as well as warehouses in the Palace of Versailles.

This exuberance in the ornamentation was spread in the construction by geometric gardens with fountains in which this liveliness is highly shown.

The baroque in the sculpture

baroque era music

Johann Sebastian Bach The baroque music history

The sculpture is other of the characteristics of the baroque that was distinguished by the tendency of movement and naturalness, differencing itself with the sculpting art of the Renaissance where the preferred poses for each sculpture were the idealized ones. In the baroque, the sculptures evidenced the expressiveness that the sculptor plastered in them, exposing diverse emotions such as joy, sadness, anger, or love, in a way that the represented action that the sculpted character was performing felt vivid. The characters could be real or imaginary, like nymphs or other mythological beings that were pretty recalled during this period. The religious sculptures were also very popular during the baroque era, like the Bernini’s works in Italy for example.

The baroque music

One of the most important characteristics of the baroque was the music since this period outstood for being the one in which there were the biggest changes in this art.

The baroque music characterized itself by genres such as sonatas, operas and symphonies; it was also classified in 3 phases called primitive, medium and late baroque, each of those periods having their very own tonalities. It was during this time where there were born different musical genres that in the current days are known as classics: the cantatas, sonatas, operas, suites, and oratories.

It was during the baroque that the orchestra was born. Within this new musical aggrupation, they were predominant the string instruments like the violin, viola and violoncello, to which there were added the other instruments such as the wind instruments and the drums.

It comes from this era the performing of the continuous bass, being mostly performed by one or more low-melody instruments such as the viola, the fagot and the violoncello; including a harmonic instrument for the accords such as the harp, the lute, the clave and the organ. It was also given the tonal harmony in which the accords were subdued and the rhythm of the harmony was fast, continuously changing the accords. It highlighted due to the strong sound constants between the string and wind instruments, the drums, and the chorus; or a soloist and the orchestra.

 The dance in the baroque

The dance during the baroque was acquiring a guideline that make it difference itself from the Renaissance and feudal dances. The new dance style was characterized by a certain disorder persisting in the movements and there were later born plenty of distinctive dances in this period such as the chaconne, the tarantella, the minuet, the ballet, the giga, the allemande, and the courante.

Each of the new dances was coordinated with the times in which it was defended to make some of the movements through slow, quick, ternary or binary rhythms; with different compasses. The characteristic dance of the baroque is the ballet which was born in the dances of the French court, transforming itself for later becoming a dance that slowly evolved to be performed by professional dancers.

It is accentuated that different current movements of the ballet were created by Louis the 14th, who was a dedicated dancer.

The baroque in the literature

The literature outstood during the baroque period due to the expression of the author through a wide vocabulary, filled with syntactic resources that were used to represent the complexity of the texts. Embodied by symbols, using emblems and metaphors, a complex syntaxes, pun-games, and some other rhetorical resources. It distinguished itself by the virtuous shake of the writers of the time and the expression of day-to-day problems; it focused the most in the negative aspects like the shortness of life and the problems of each human being, which was showed in the novels where the characters personified the phases of the common life. Fables and tales were also used to express this ideas. Some of the authors of the baroque literature were Luis de Góngora, Miguel de Cervantes and Francisco Quevedo.

What’s the philosophy of the music in the baroque?

This period doesn’t limit itself to only one philosophy, as it was encircled by numerous concepts regarding its different art baroque disciplines but especially relating to the music, which was the most prominent of them all. Several of the composers and musicians from the era shared different thoughts and points of view about the music and their own goals within their works, all agreeing that the music was a resource used for showing devotion and praising God. Overall, the dominant philosophies about the baroque music are the following:

Although a single philosophy cannot describe 150 years of music from all over Europe, several concepts are important in the baroque period.

the baroque music characteristics

Today, baroque music is played exclusively on modern instruments

A belief in music as a powerful method of communication

One of the main philosophical currents of the baroque music comes from the interest of the Renaissance in the ideas of the antique Greece and Rome, and the Greeks and the Romans believed that the music was a powerful tool for communication and it could awake emotions within its listeners, so there are no questions about why this became such an important philosophy regarding the baroque music.

As a result of the revival of this ideas, the composers became more and more aware of the potential energy of music and the belief that they held in their own compositions was that they could have similar effects by emulating the antique music.

There was also the belief that the music had power over humans themselves, over their own emotions and mind, as it could bring calm to a troubled soul and more. This was recalled by the French humanist genius, Artus Thomas, described in an acting at finals of the 16th century and anecdote abou Sieur Claudín Le Jeune, who had sung a piece that he had composed in parts and that when it was practiced in a private concert, a man took his guns and started swearing out-loud. It looked impossible to keep him from attacking someone but when Claudín started singing, the man relaxed and kept calm for the rest of the performing. The whole story was confirmed to Thomas by several other attendants that witnessed the events; after that, it was confirmed to him the power and force of the music, rhythm and harmony held over the human mind.

The realities of the sponsoring

This particular line of philosophy refers to the composers, their living circumstances and their inspiration to make music. Nowadays, the artists frequently win their income producing exactly the same type of art that they are moved to create. As a consequence, we usually think the artist and the level of its artistic inspiration as the source of an artistic piece. Nevertheless, through most part of the baroque era the composers only win their income by writing music if, and only if, they were lucky enough to be in the nominal of a religious or political institution. Due to this, the musical needs of the institution dictated the music that the composer shall write. J.S. Bach wrote the number of cantatas that he wrote not necessarily because he found a way of inspiration, but due to the ritual exigencies of the Leipzig church who was employing him.

What are the characteristics of the baroque music?

The new interest in the dramatic and rhetoric possibilities of the music gave place to a great amount of new ideals of sound in the baroque period.

Contrast as a dramatic element

The contrast is an significant ingredient within the drama of a baroque composition.  The differences between the strong and soft, the soloist and the groups (in the concert), the different instruments and timbers; they all play an important part in a lot of baroque compositions. The great baroque composers also started to be more precise about the instrumentation, frequently specifying the instruments what shall perform a determined piece instead of allowing the performed to choose. Bright instruments such as the trumpet and the violin also grew in popularity due to the required contrast.

Monody and the arrival of the continuous bass

In past musical eras, a piece of music tended to consist in only one melody, perhaps as an improvised companionship; or in various melodies played at the same time. It wasn’t up until the baroque period that the concepts of “melody” and “harmony” really started to be articulated. As part of their effort to emulate the old music, the composers began to center themselves less in the complex polyphony that dominated the 15th and 16th centuries, and more in an only voice that worked as a simplified companionship, also called monody.

Also, along with the emphasis in one line of melody and the bass, it came the practice of the continuous bass, a method of musical writing in which the melody and the bass line were written and the harmonic filling indicates a type of cryptography. As the Italian musician Agostino Agazzari explained in 1607: “From the true style for expressing the words, it has been finally found through the reproduction of its sense in the best way possible, what has more success with an only voice (or no more than just a few) as in the modern air by several capable men, and, as it is the constant practice in Rome for the concert music, I say it is not necessary to make a punctuation. A bass with its indications for the harmonies is enough. But if someone told me that, for the reproduction of the antique pieces, filled with fugues and counterpoint, a bass is not enough, my answer is that the vocal works of this type are already in use.”

Due to the continuous bass being a common practice until the final of the period baroque, the era is known at times as “the era of the continuous bass”.

3 characteristics of baroque music

Bach family. Difference between renaissance and baroque music

Different instrumental sounds

After being ignored by decades, the baroque music has turned more and more popular during the last 50 years. As part of this new interest, students and musicians spent hours and hours trying to find out how the music could have sounded for the audiences of the 17th and 18th century. Despite not being able to precisely recreate an acting, their work discovered several important differences between the baroque and the modern groups:

Timber: Although most of the instruments in a baroque group are related, there are several noticeable members that no longer appear in the modern groups. The clavecin was the main element of the piano and an important member of the continuous group, and the prominent instruments from the 16th and 17th century, as the lute and the viola, were still being used. The variations in the remaining current popular instruments also gave the Baroque Ensemble a different sound. The string instruments such as the violin, viola and violoncello used strings made of animal guts instead of strings surrounded by metal, as the ones that are used nowadays, for example; giving them a softer, sweeter tone.

Execution technique: A baroque punctuation contains little (to none) information about the elements such as articulation, ornamentation or dynamic that the modern groups need for taking their own decisions over each function. The mechanical differences between the baroque and the modern instruments also suggest that the old instruments would have sound different, just as the musical groups from the baroque, whom had to adjust their technique to allow this. Due to the baroque and modern bows are structurally different, the modern bows are frequently played with a softer attack during the chain of crescendos and diminuendos on the larger notes. The utility treatments of the 18th century also implied that Bend (a technique in which a performer moves its finger over the string to enrich the tone) was used with moderation for expressive moments, meanwhile the vibrato bow (a wavy movement) was the most preferred technique during the era.

As you can see the baroque music has been and it will be one of the best things born in the baroque period.