Music of the Baroque Era

Due Monday, May 17

You will probably want to print out this page and use it while you are listening to music; but you should also spend time online with these notes exploring some of the hyperlinks for further information. If you find that you already familiar with most of what is provided here, you will discover more advanced information in the several links to the Encyclopedia Britannica. (Extended Degree Program students click here for instructions.) Remember that if you get lost out there in cyberspace, you can always get back here via the "back" button on your browser or by using the "Go" button.

Note to Non-WSU students: The hyperlinks in the body of the text to the Encyclopedia Britannica will work only if your Internet service provider gives you free access to that encyclopedia. Of course, you could always go to the nearest library and use the Britannica there, but if you have not used it before, be sure to ask a librarian to show you how: it doesn't work like other encyclopedias. The links provided under "Weblinks" should work for everyone.

When you see a citation like "Bach: Prelude in D minor," the part before the colon is the composer's name, and part afterwards is the name of the composition. When you refer to the work itself, you can call it either "the Prelude in D minor" or "Bach's Prelude in D minor."

In the 2-CD set you bought from the bookstore as part of your course materials ("Discover Classical Music" Naxos 8.550008-9), read all the introductory material in the accompanying booklet up through page 21.

Explain briefly (about 20-50 words, more if you wish) something that you learned by reading this material or that you thought was interesting. Did it change your impressions of classical music?

Listen to the following selections on CD 1 and read the relevant notes in the accompanying booklet.

In the following notes, the word "classical" is mostly used in the popular sense of European art or concert-hall music rather than in its more traditional and proper sense of "works from the period after the Baroque and before the Romantic era."

Track 3: Bach: Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D - Air

European classical music has its roots in two main sources: chant for the church and dances for both courtiers and commoners. Baroque music has many dance-like qualities. Renaissance and Baroque suites, whether for a solo instrument like a lute or an orchestra, as here, consist most often of a series of dance movements like jigs, minuets, and gavottes. It was also common in Baroque suites to insert a movement called an "air," a term which means simply "melody" or "song" and is familiar to us in the context of opera in its Italian form as "aria." Although Johann Sebastian Bach (German, 1685-1750) has long been admired for his skill in creating complex contrapuntal textures, he could also write simply constructed melodies of breathtaking loveliness. This is one of the most famous examples.

Note how the deeper instruments of the orchestra provide a steady rhythmic pulse underneath the melody carried by the violins on top. This combination of steady rhythm and melody is one of the main characteristics of modern popular music and is one of the reasons that Baroque music is so appealing to listeners with modern tastes.


Bach biography & list of recommended recordings.

More Bach resources

Track 4: Handel: Messiah - Hallelujah Chorus

George Frederick Handel (German, 1685-1759) made his early reputation in England as a popular composer of operas in Italian; but in the latter part of his life he took to writing oratorios, vocal works which told stories without enacting them. Some thought such works were more edifying than operas with all their sensational costuming and staging, especially since the texts were generally drawn from the Bible.

Although it is popularly known as "The Messiah," Handel always referred to his most popular oratorio simply as "Messiah," and music professionals usually refer to it in that way as well. It is the story of Jesus Christ as told in the Bible, drawing on Old Testament sources that Christians supposed to have predicted his coming, the gospels, and the book of Revelation. Although it is now usually performed at Christmas, it was premiered in the fall and covers Jesus' entire career, including his death and resurrection, and goes on to foretell his eventual triumph in the Last Judgment. The text (or libretto) was put together by Charles Jennes, using the King James Version of the Bible.

The text of this chorus comes from the Biblical book of Revelation (19:6 and 11:15):

Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah!

The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah!

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah!

"Hallelujah" is simply Hebrew for "Praise be to God!" Note the lively, dance-like pace at which this performance is taken. Modern scholars believe that such lively rhythms were much more characteristic of the 18th century than the slow, over-dramatic performances you may have heard elsewhere.

There are good examples of counterpoint in this piece. Note how after initially singing the first line in unison, the various parts break apart, with the sopranos singing "The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth while the men singing "Hallelujah, Hallelujah" underneath, and then how the two groups switch roles (0:48). Listen to the way in which each of the groups enters separately on top each of other singing "and He shall reign for ever and ever" (1:30). This sort of imitation in which the delayed repetition of a musical phrase creates a rich harmonic texture was one of the earliest kinds of polyphony, dating back to the Middle Ages. It is the source of forms like the round, canon, and fugue.

Note that it is standard practice to repeat words and phrases in musical settings for special emphasis. With practice, you'll be able to grasp when this is happening, even when the text being sung is in a foreign language.


More information on Handel

Track 5: Telemann: Concerto for 2 Horns - Vivace

Georg Philipp Telemann (German, 1681-1767) was one of the most prolific composers who ever lived, creating fifty operas and hundreds of other works. In the past he has been rather overshadowed by Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, but more and more of his works are being performed and recorded for appreciative audiences these days.

One of the most popular forms in the 18th century was the Concerto grosso ("large concerto"). Originally, the term "concerto" simply indicated that several instruments were playing together, but by the 18th century, it had become a well-defined form. One or more featured instruments would play against a background provided by a string orchestra. Think of these featured instruments as vocalists being accompanied by a band. Almost always, a Concerto grosso is in three movements of which the first and last are fast and the middle is slower. This pattern is usually adhered to even in much later concertos which otherwise depart from Baroque practice.

We are hearing the final movement of a concerto for two horns (formerly called "French horns"), instruments which are often associated with hunting on horseback. If you listen carefully to the rhythm, you can hear the horses galloping through the woods. Note how sometimes the horns alternate with the orchestra, bouncing phrases back and forth. Indeed, occasionally, it is the horns that accompany more elaborate passages in the strings. When the initial section of the movement is played once, it is repeated, a practice familiar from popular songs where verses are repeated to the same melodic accompaniment one after the other.

As is often the case, the movement is labeled by the tempo (speed) at which it is to be performed. "Vivace" means "lively" and indicates that the piece should be played in a quick, spirited fashion.


Naxos page on Telemann

A list of other recommended works by him

Track 6: Rameau - La Timide (Rondeaux 1 & 2)

Jean-Philippe Rameau (French, 1683-1764) was proudest of his operas, and more of these are beginning to be appreciated now as interest in Baroque opera spreads; but he still best known as a composer of keyboard music, originally performed on the harpsichord (French clavecin). The sound is produced in this instrument by jacks that pluck the strings, unlike in the piano, where the strings are struck by hammers. Imagine a guitar played with a keyboard. The result is a clean, sharply defined sound which lends itself to rapid runs and trills which are so characteristic of the Baroque style.

This piece is supposed to sound slightly hesitant--or timid-- in its rhythms. Note that some notes are trilled in quick flutters that decorate them. This is very characteristic of Baroque style, and was also done by all instrumentalists and singers. In this piece, the refrain (main melody) is played through twice, then (at 0:47) different material is introduced in the first episode (alternate melody), then (at 1:10) the refrain is repeated, then (at 1:34) a different episode occurs, and so on, back and forth; but the piece always returns to the initial refrain. This technique appeals to the human desire for both familiarity and variety. Even babies playing peek-a-boo like to see a familiar face disappear and reappear; something related is going on when we recognize the reappearance of a familiar in the midst of varied material. Rondeau is a French term for this simple form, because the theme is always coming back around.


Information on Rameau

Samples of various harpsichord recordings in .wav format

Track 7: Couperin - 23rd Ordres, Les Tricoteuses (The Knitters)

François Couperin (French, 1668-1733) was also known as "Couperin le grand" ("The Great") to distinguish him from the many other distinguished composers in his family. His great influence came partly from his appointment as harpsichordist at the royal court at Versailles.

It is not clear whether " Les Tricoteuses" is supposed to imitate the clacking of knitting needles or the chatter of the knitters; but it's a sprightly and cheerful piece filled with catchy rhythmic and melodic motifs. Note that each phrase is an elaboration of these basic elements. This sort of "development" is one thing that sets classical music apart from most popular music (and links it to jazz).


Recommended recordings

Track 8: Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata in D, L. 465 - Allegro

Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti (Italian, 1685-1757) is chiefly known for the 555 keyboard sonatas he wrote at the Spanish court in the later years of his life. They have little in common with the "sonata allegro" form which was to dominate much classical and romantic music. These are single-movement works, some of which were meant to be performed in pairs. His work is of exceptional brilliance and originality, and all sorts of keyboard players continue to play it. This performance is on a piano, an instrument which did not exist when Scarlatti was alive; but the pianist uses a fairly conservative technique which shows off his skilled fingerwork without obscuring the clear lines of the piece. Again, note how trills frequently punctuate the piece.


Information about Scarlatti

Recommended recordings

Track 9: Vivaldi: Four Seasons: Spring - 1. Allegro

After Bach and Handel, Antonio Vivaldi (Italian, 1678-1741) is generally considered the next greatest of the Baroque composers. Like Telemann, he wrote a vast quantity of music, including the 500 concerti (plural of "concerto") for which he is chiefly famous. Recordings of the set of four concerti grossi entitled The Four Seasons in the 1950s began the vogue for baroque instrumental music which has lasted to this day. For the past half-century this has been the most popular group of classical compositions ever written, and you will probably recognize the first movement of the first concerto as soon as you hear it, if only from the background music in restaurants. " The catchy tunes in The Four Seasons have been recorded by all manner of instruments, including flute, guitar, and Japanese koto; but they were originally for Vivaldi's own favorite instrument, the violin. "Allegro" means fast, but not so fast as "vivace." (Click here for a page explaining Italian musical terms.)

Vivaldi's style is characterized by its repetitive, thrusting motifs. Note how at about 30 seconds into the piece the solo violinist plays alone against one other violin in a set of dazzling variations on the theme. At 1:30 the orchestra develops a new, contrasting theme to take the piece into a new key). This ranging from one key to another is an essential characteristic of the emerging classical style of the later 18th century. The "birds" and "thunder" in this piece are easy to identify, but one can also enjoy it as purely abstract music for its lively, dancing character.


Information on Vivaldi

Recommended recordings

My own recommendation for The Four Seasons: Ton Koopman's recording (Erato 4509-94811-2).

Track 10-11 Pachelbel: Canon and gigue

Until recently, Johann Pachelbel (German 1653-1706) was known chiefly as an important organ composer and influence on the organ works of J. S. Bach. A romanticized arrangement of his canon in D conducted by Jean-Francois Paillard on a popular album caught the public's attention in the 1980s, and ever since it has been the single most often played classical composition. Pachelbel probably never intended the piece to be played as slowly as it is on this and many later recordings, nor with a large, modern symphony orchestra. Many "authentic performance" musicians have since produced more lively recordings with smaller orchestras. This recording is something of a compromise, with a typically small Baroque orchestra, but still at a slow tempo.

Unfortunately, overfamiliarity has not always led to understanding of what this piece is all about. It does have a lovely main theme; but its form is what makes it a canon. A canon is a sort of elaborate round. Whereas a simple round like "Row, Row Your Boat" repeats the same melody over and over, in a canon like this the tune is subjected to increasingly elaborate variations. First the bass lays down a simple rhythmic and melodic pattern which it will repeat throughout the piece. This is called a "ground bass." Then (at 0:12) a violin states the principal theme, and when it has gotten far enough along (0:21), another violin follows in its footsteps, repeating the very same notes, which have been ingeniously designed so that the first and second violins together create harmony. When the third "voice"--third violin--enters (0:30), the canon is fully underway. Gradually the theme is varied--developed--so that it becomes more complex and virtuosic; but every time the lead violinist does something new the second and third ones faithfully follow. These complex passages have to be alternated with simpler ones, however, so that the harmonies will not become impossibly thick and tangled.

This sort of musical game of tag dates back to the late Middle Ages and is one of the basic techniques for creating counterpoint. Further elaborated in the course of the 18th century, it develops into the fugue , the most famous examples of which come from the organ works of Bach, as for instance the very popular Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Try to hear how the two voices imitate each other throughout the work while the bass continues to perform its accompaniment, just like the bass accompaniment to a jazz number. Counterpoint of this sort is one of the great contributions of Europe to the history of music.

People who love the modernized versions of this piece are sometimes alienated by more historically accurate ones; but they can be refreshing and stimulating. Try Christopher Hogwood's recording on L'Oiseau-Lyre 410 553-2. This CD also contains attempts at recreating the original sound of a number of other familiar Baroque classics. When it was first published, the canon was accompanied by a gigue (French for "jig") which is now often performed with it.


Information on Pachelbel

Track: 12: Albinoni: Adagio

If the way we usually hear Pachelbel's canon is rather inauthentic, this piece is extremely so. Tomaso Albinoni (Italian, 1671-1750) was famous in his own day for his many operas; but in the late 1940s Remo Giazotto took a six-bar fragment from Albinoni's works and developed it into a romantic piece for string orchestra and organ. It is more reminiscent in tone of Barber's popular 1936 Adagio for Strings than of anything genuinely Baroque.

Information on Albinoni

Writing assignment:

Choose two or more of these pieces to make brief remarks on, including your own personal reactions to the music. You may also include questions that you would like to have answered.

Created by Paul Brians, June 6, 1998

Revised May 5, 1999

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