Learn more about Baroque Music with notes by Henry Kirby
THE BAROQUE PERIOD
The Baroque era connected the late Renaissance with the Classical period of music, roughly spanning a century and one-half between 1600 to 1750. The old French word baroque, the Portuguese baroco and the Italian barocco originally described an irregularly shaped pearl. Baroque music became characterized by defined forms, chromaticism and elaborate ornamentation. The Baroque age saw not only the flourishing of new musical forms but the brilliant astronomical discoveries of Galileo, the physics of Newton and the philosophical expositions of Descartes, Spinoza and Locke – and the birth of the scientific method itself that underpins the development of the science and technology of modern Western societies. Baroque musical language is the earliest musical language we generally recognize as familiar today. Baroque musicians customarily worked under the patronage of the church, the state or the aristocracy. Lavish musical and theatrical spectacles were staged to delight the courts of royalty. The music was performed in the palaces of princes of the church, and in addition to a welter of these new secular compositions, there was also a flowering of sacred works written to compliment liturgical ceremonies in the cathedrals of Catholic Europe, America, and the Lutheran churches of the Germanic states. The rising class of prosperous financial and commercial professionals created and supported musical events that took place in their own handsomely constructed and appointed homes; the perfect setting for the flourishing chamber music genre. Despite the rigors of travel, compared to modern times, Baroque musicians were a peripatetic bunch. The musicians relied on the system of post coaches to travel around Europe without the formality of passports or the fear of terrorism. Thus the musicians travelled freely, crisscrossing state boundaries to meet and play with fellow musicians. It was also in this manner that copies of their compositions were widely distributed; resulting in a melding of the prevalent geographic styles, such as those of Italy, France and Germany.
MUSIC AND MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS OF THE HIGH BAROQUE: 1650-1750
OF LUTES AND LYRES, VIOLS AND VIOLINS, VIOLA DA GAMBAS AND VIOLONCELLOS
From Arabia to Spain to Italy and Beyond
The century spanning the years 1650-1750 was the age of the high Baroque in music. Following this period, a battle took place between instruments little used and largely abandoned today – the Viola da Gamba family, in their treble, tenor, and bass guises, and plucked string instruments – and the instruments that have become the mainstays of modern classical ensembles – the violin, violonchelo, and forte piano in a style first championed largely by Italian artists and composers.
The high Baroque and the viola da gamba family became, in great part, a tale of two cities – London and Paris – where the old instruments held-sway during their best of times early on and saw their demise during their worst of times as the hundred years drew to a close. The Italians, who had adopted these musical artifacts from Spain, christened the stringed, fretted, and bowed instruments “Viola da Gamba”. In France the Viola da Gamba family was referred to generically as “violes,” and in England as “viols;” the voices of particular instruments were noted in more complete descriptions - as in the epithets “basse de viole” and “bass viol.” Curiously, considering the more northern locations where these instruments eventually became most popular, the viol family was actually invented at a much earlier time in Spain. In the Greek and Roman eras there were no bowed instruments, nor did they exist in more remote times when harps, psalters, lutes, lyres, and flauta dulces figure in the earliest history of the artistic endeavors of humankind. The sweet sound of plucked instruments continued to fill the music halls into the Barqoue era - the lute and the giant lute called the tiorba were favorites, as were the keyboard inventions, the clavecin and its kindred.
Obviously, the invention of bowed instruments that became so popular in the Barqoue, and are dominant in modern music, depended on the presence of a bow. The latter was first applied to previously plucked instruments in the East and introduced into Europe by the Arabs who brought their bowed rabab to Spain in the 10th century.
The ancient, shrill-voiced rabab possessed only 2 strings, and was generally played resting on the musician’s lap to accompany spoken or sung words. In the 13th century, a new, more complicated, string instrument had already made its appearance based on the rabab: the bowed vihuela de arco, the first true member of the viol family. The vihuela can also be considered the predecessor of the modern guitar and became popular with the Spanish nobility. Soon it displaced that old Arab plucked favorite, its predecessor, the lute, which continued, however, to enjoy great popularity in the rest of Europe.
The reign of the viola da gamba family and faint-voiced plucked instruments was brought to its final end by the new custom of the presentation of music open to the general public, simultaneously introduced in London and Paris, and soon taken up in other countries, by entrepreneurs with enormous success. The “concert” was born, and performances for large numbers of people in spaces much vaster than the music rooms even of palaces soon became the custom throughout Europe: the soft voice of viols, lutes and clavecins could not produce the volume of sound required to fill the big concert halls, nor did they lend themselves to bravura performances that the new audiences craved. Violins and violonchelos and the newly invented forte piano came to dominate the scene: showy performances on these instruments were what the ticket-buyers demanded. Viols and such were largely swept away into the dustbin of musical history until the Early Music revival of the latter half of the twentieth century and famous guitar players like Andrés Segovia, brought these old instruments back to wider public attention.