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Style of Western Classical Music 1600 - 1750

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* Describes a style of Western Classical music approximately extending from 1600 to 1750

* Derived from the Italian barocco, meaning bizarre, though probably exuberant would be a better translation more accurately reflecting the sense.


Contrast as a dramatic element

Contrast is an important ingredient in the drama of a baroque composition. The differences between loud and soft, solo and ensemble (as in the concerto), different instruments and timbres all play an important role in many baroque compositions. Composers also began to be more precise about instrumentation, often specifying the instruments on which a piece should be played instead of allowing the performer to choose. Brilliant instruments like the trumpet and violin also grew in popularity.

Monody and the advent of the basso continuo

In previous musical eras, a piece of music tended to consist of a single melody, perhaps with an improvised accompaniment, or several melodies played simultaneously. Not until the baroque period did the concept of "melody" and "harmony" truly begin to be articulated. As part of the effort to imitate ancient music, composers started focusing less on the complicated polyphony that dominated the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and more on a single voice with a simplified accompaniment, or monody. If music was a form of rhetoric, as the writings of the Greeks and Romans indicate, a powerful orator is necessary--and who better for the job than a vocal soloist? The new merger between the expression of feeling and the solo singer come through loud and clear in Monteverdi's preface to the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda from his Eighth Book of Madrigals (1638), in which he writes: "It has seemed to me that the chief passions or affections of our mind are three in number, namely anger, equanimity and humility. The best philosophers agree, and the very nature of our voice, with its high, low and middle ranges, would indicate as much." The earliest operas are an excellent illustration of this new aesthetic.

Along with the emphasis on a single melody and bass line came the practice of basso continuo, a method of musical notation in which the melody and bass line are written out and the harmonic filler indicated in a type of shorthand. As the Italian musician Agostino Agazzari explained in 1607:

Because basso continuo, or thorough bass, remained standard practice until the end of the baroque period, the era is sometimes known as the "age of the thorough bass."

Different instrumental sounds

After being ignored for decades, baroque music has become increasingly popular over the last fifty years. As part of this new interest, scholars and musicians have spent countless hours trying to figure out how the music might have sounded to 17th and 18th century audiences. While we will never be able to recreate a performance precisely, their work has unearthed several major differences between baroque and modern ensembles:

pitch: In 1939, modern orchestras agreed to tune to a'=440hz (the note A pitched at 440 cycles per second), which replaced a previously lower pitch (a'=435hz) adopted in 1859. Before 1859, however, there was no pitch standard. The note to which baroque ensembles tuned, therefore, varied widely at different times and in different places. As a result, the music notated on a score might have sounded as much as a half tone lower than how it would traditionally be performed today. In an effort to allow for this discrepancy, many baroque ensembles adjust their tuning to the repertoire being performed: a'= 415hz for late baroque music, a'=392hz for French music, a'=440hz for early Italian music and a'=430hz for classical repertoire.

timbre: While most of the instruments in a baroque ensemble are familiar, there are several prominent members no longer featured in modern ensembles. The harpsichord was the primary keyboard instrument (and an important member of the continuo group), and instruments important in the 16th and 17th centuries like the lute and viol, still continued to be used. Variations in instruments still popular today also gave the baroque ensemble a different sound. String instruments like the violin, viola and cello used gut strings rather than the strings wrapped in metal with which they are strung today, for example, giving them a mellower, sweeter tone.

performance technique: A baroque score contains little (if any) information about elements like articulation, ornamentation or dynamics, and so modern ensembles need to make their own informed choices before each performance. Mechanical differences between baroque and modern instruments also suggest that the older instruments would have sounded differently, so ensembles like Music of the Baroque often adjust their technique to allow for this. Because baroque and modern bows are structurally different, for example, string players using modern bows often use a gentler attack on the string and crescendos and diminuendos on longer notes. 17th and 18th century performance treatises also imply that finger vibrato (a technique in which a string player rocks his or her fingertip on the string to enrich the tone) was used sparingly for expressive moments, while bow vibrato (an undulating movement of the bow) was generally preferred.

Unity of Mood:

A baroque piece is famous for its doctrine of mood. What is happy will be happy throughout and what is sad continues to the end. Composers moulded the musical language to fit moods and affections. Some definite rhythms and melodic patterns are used to define certain moods and expressions.

The prime exception of this characteristics is an exception to this baroque principle of the unity of mood. Drastic changes of emotions in the text may inspire corresponding changes in music. But even in such cases, the certain mood continue for quite some time before it changes to another.


Unity of mood in baroque is first conveyed by the continuity of rhythm. Rhythmic patterns heard at the beginning of the piece is reiterated many times throughout the piece. This relentless drive compelled the music to push forward. This forward motion is hardly ever interrupted. The beat are also far more distinct in baroque music.


Baroque music creates a feeling of continuity. An opening melody will be heard over and over again in the course of the piece. Even if the character of the piece is constant, the passage is varied. Many



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