What were the historical periods of music history? And how did they shape music as we know it today?

In this series, we’re diving into the music of the past, from Ancient to Modern times.

Today, we’re exploring the music of the Baroque period.

The Baroque Period

The Baroque period spanned a century and a half, from 1600-1750.

Built on the arts revival that occurred during the Renaissance period, it produced some of the greatest composers, pieces, and developments in the history of Western music.

Baroque Composers

Lucia Quinciani was an Italian composer in the early Baroque period. Her setting of Udite lagrimosa spirit d’Averno, udite is the earliest monody to be published by a woman

Claudio Monteverdi was an Italian composer of sacred music and one of the chief composers of early opera.

Dieterich Buxtehude was a famed church organist and composer in early Baroque Germany. He was a significant influence on another German composer, J.S. Bach (see below).

Johann Pachelbel, best known as the composer of the famous Canon in D, was also a virtuoso organist.

Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli was a famed violinist and one of the founders of the concerto grosso genre.

Isabella Leonarda, a devout Italian nun, published over two hundred sacred compositions, four of which were dedicated to her fellow nuns.

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquette da le Guerre, a French harpsichordist, was one of the first women to compose for more than one genre. She dedicated most of her music to King Louis VIV, one of her most loyal patrons.

Henry Purcell, a composer of multiple genres, was one of the greatest English composers during the Baroque period. He is especially remembered for his tragic operas.

Alessandro Scarlatti, known for his chamber music, was also the most significant force in the development of the Neapolitan school of opera.

Domenico Scarlatti, the son of Alessandro, helped shape the sonata into the genre we know today.

Francesca Caccini was one of the first women to hold a full-time position as a paid professional musician. With patronage from the Medici family in Tuscany, especially Grand Duchess Christine de Lorraine, Caccini composed vocal chamber music, musical works for the theater, duets, spiritual madrigals, and other works.

Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi made a name for herself in chamber music, publishing over one hundred vocal works.

George Philipp Telemann was a German composer known especially for his sacred compositions. Interestingly, he was almost completely self-taught.

Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau were both composers at the court of French kings Louis XIV and Louis XV, respectively. Lully was a master of ballet and opera, while Rameau specialized in opera and repertoire for the harpsichord.

A dramatic work and two oratorios of Maria Margherita Grimani were performed at the court of Vienna in the early 1700s.

An unnamed Baroque woman published a collection of trio sonatas for violin in 1715 under the pseudonym “Mrs. Philharmonica”. Her exact identity is unknown.

Italian musician Maria Teresa Agnei was one of the first women to compose opera.

Elisabetta de Gambarini, a skilled English singer and instrumentalist, published music for the voice and harpsichord and sometimes gave concerts featuring her own compositions.

Antonio Vivaldi was the Italian violinist and composer who wrote The Four Seasons. He was a prolific composer in a multitude of genres, and he was famous all across Europe.

German church organist Johann Sebastian Bach, arguably one of the greatest composers of all time, was a master of all genres except opera. His work shaped the Baroque period so much that scholars consider it to have ended with his death in 1750.

George Frideric Handel, a German composer who became an English citizen, is best known for his many oratorios. His most famous oratorio by far is his famous Messiah.

Baroque Innovations

Perhaps the most significant innovation during the Baroque period was the development of major and minor tonality

Previously, almost all music in the Western world had been modal: that is, it was composed in one of the Greek modes. By the end of the Baroque period, however, the modal system had been almost completely replaced by the major and minor keys that we know today.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact this had on music – without major and minor keys, most of the Western world’s most beloved music could not exist!

Baroque musicians also developed a system of ornate and highly technical ornamentation. Trills, mordents, acciaccaturas, and other embellishments added variety and artistic flair to the melody of a piece.

Composer Ronald Roseman gives a detailed explanation of the ornamentation process in this article.

Figured Bass was another common practice during the Baroque era. In this system, just the bass line would be written down with accompanying numbers and symbols that indicated which chords should be played with it.

A hallmark of Baroque music was counterpoint, or the overlapping of more than one independent musical line. J.S. Bach, in particular, was considered a master of counterpoint.

Baroque Instruments

Out of all the instruments in use during this time period, the Baroque organ reigned supreme. Organ music was one of the most respected and established genres, and nearly all church music was composed for the organ.

The harpsichord and clavichord were also very popular, and the majority of the repertoire for these two instruments was written during this period.

This was the period in which instruments of the violin family rose to fame. There was a wealth of music written for Baroque string players.

Brass instruments and woodwinds were also common during this time, and became increasingly popular as time moved towards the eighteenth century.

The piano was invented during the Baroque years; however, it was overshadowed by the organ and did not reach anything close to popularity until the later Classical period.

Baroque Musical Styles

Opera came onto the scene during the Baroque period, making waves all across Europe. It especially flourished in Italy, Germany, and France.

Interestingly enough, the English never really jumped on the opera bandwagon – they much preferred the spoken dramas of William Shakespeare.

Oratorios, the sacred equivalent of operas, also developed during these years. Many composers wrote oratorios. Handel’s Messiah is the most well-known.

Bach, in particular, was known for his cantatas: multi-movement choral and orchestral works that were part of the Lutheran church liturgy.

The art of fugues was well known to Baroque musicians. This fascinating, complex instrumental genre takes a subject and develops it between multiple voices.

Sonatas also developed at this time, and would become even more popular during the Classical and Romantic periods.

Another interesting instrumental genre during the Baroque period was the dance suite. A suite consisted of a series of stylized dance tunes, usually performed on their own for entertainment instead of accompanying an actual dance.

Below is a recording of the prelude from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, on of the most famous pieces in the instrument’s repertoire:

What do you think of music from the Baroque period? Let me know in the comments!

Other Periods of Music History Featured in This Series:

The Ancient Period, The Medieval Period, The Renaissance Period, The Classical Period, The Romantic Period, The Modern Period

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