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The Baroque Era Essay, Research Paper


Social and Cultural Background

Baroque is a term borrowed from the visual arts and one that is used

in many different senses. The Baroque Era applies to the years between

1600 and 1750. The most famous composers of this time were Bach, Handel,

Vivaldi and Teleman.

Politically it was an age of magnificent absolute Monarch s. The most

magnificent of all was Louis XIV of France. Louis ruled from 1634 until 1713.

During this time the need to create a national culture or a regional style

that would match or surpass the elsewhere created cultural models was

pressed for.

When looking at Baroque architecture it is noticeable that the

sculptures and paintings are never still: they are twisted, moving, struggling,

and dramatically lighted. Paintings of the Baroque Era focused more on

dramatic subjects and experimented with dramatic lighting.

The Baroque Era was concerned with feelings, the stronger the

better. This could be seen throughout the churches. In church structure

the proportions are grandiose, they are designed to impress and awe the

observers. Gold and rich textures and surfaces can be seen all through the


All of these themes that I have discussed are also clear in the music

of the Baroque period. It paints pictures of vibrant colours and triggers

strong emotions. The desire to discover these themes is evident in the

invention of the exciting new form music, opera, and in the use of operatic

techniques in dramatic music for the church.

Important Musical Developments

Composer-performers would strive at becoming Kapellmeisers in this

Era. A Kapellmeister is a music director at one of the great courts. They

were responsible for all the music performed in the court. These positions

were very unstable though and composer were always on the lookout for new


The responsibilities of performers during this era was to write music

at a furious pace due to the demand. Bach, for example, was responsible for

one cantata a week while he was music director at Leipzig. Due to the pace

the music was written, the performers of the pieces had to fill in the

details. Baroque music can therefore be classified as a type of jazz because

the soloists would play their own versions of a basic melody with rhythm

section improvises, based on a chord pattern.

Baroque music sounds different from music of other periods due to

its lack of dynamic range. The composers at this time usually did not specify

dynamics on their pieces, they simply wrote loud or soft.

The most prominent element in Baroque music was rhythm and

texture. Baroque s fast movement generally caused the feeling of rhythmic

drive. Tempos were always constant. The least prominent element was

melody. Gradual rise of tonality on the other hand was a great Baroque

innovation. This is the major-minor system that is still used today in the

twentieth century.

Opera was one of the most important developments in the Baroque

Era. It began in Florence in 1600. French operas featured more emphasis

on the orchestra and chorus. During this time Handel invented the oratorio.

An oratorio is a large work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra sung in

concert format, without costumes or staging, in a concert hall rather than as

part of a church service. Some other instrumentals formed during this era


Concerto Grosso: in three movements, fast-slow-fast, and pits a large

group of soloists against the larger string ensemble.

Suite: a less formal structure consisting of several binary dance


Fugue: Latin for flight or chase, denotes a standard Baroque

compositional process.

Johann Sebastian Bach,

Cantata No. 140

Bach is the giant of Western Art. Bach was born in Eisenach, North

Germany, and was raised by an older brother after he was orphaned. Bach s

most important position came in 1723 and lasted until his death which was

January 28, 1750. He was the Cantor at the church of St.Thomas in

Leipzig. He was best known as a keyboard performer. His greatest pieces

though, were his organ pieces. Bach was also known for his Cantata s. The

cantata was written in fairly free form. They were part of a long church

service. In most cantatas the highest point is during the opening chorus,

which is also usually the longest movement. Cantata no.140 Wachet Auf is

an excellent example of the chorale cantata form. Bach wrote it for one of

the final Sunday s after Trinity. The song is broken into a five-part


1) Chorus

2) Recitative and Duets-Soloists

3) Chorus

4) Recitative and Duet-Soloists

5) Choral- Chorus and Congregation

Another famous piece by Johann Sebastian Bach was Brandenburg

Concerto No.5. The Brandenberg concertos are examples of a Baroque

form known as the concerto gross that is based on the principle of contrast

between two groups, or sounds of different sounds and at the same time

dynamics. The first movement of this piece is in ritornello form. It is made

up of three basic patterns that work well with instruments. The second

movement heard contains soloists and continues without string orchestra.

The third and last movement is made up of soloists and orchestra.

George Friederich Handel,

For Unto Us A Child is Born from Messiah

Handel is known as the other Baroque composer. Handel contrasts

greatly with Bach, not only in their style of music but in their personalities,

lifestyles, and careers. Handel was not born into a musical family. It wasn t

until the death of his father that he quite his law career to become a

musician. After the genre of Italian opera faded Handel hit upon an English

adaptation of the early oratorio, originally a concert setting of a biblical

story in Latin. The success of his oratorios and a steady stream of new

compositions made Handel increasingly wealthy and famous. He passed away

in 1759, blind, but was still seen as a celebrity. Due to Messiah s length and it s contemplative rather than dramatic approach to nature, it makes it a not typical oratorio. For Unto Us A Child is Born is a splendid example of Handel s choral style, an element which makes oratorios so popular. As opposed to Bach s style of writing for only small groups of boys and men, Handel was fond of grandiose effects, such as double choruses. Handel s choruses were written strong enough to impress the audience who had paid admission to hear the cantata. The oratorio is written in a three part structure. The three ideas are distinct and are always kept separate, and never combined. Out of this simple, repetitive structure comes a satisfying effect: the listener of this piece feels the triumph and joy of the text due to it s easy to follow material.

Antonio Vivaldi,

Spring from The Four Seasons

Bach and Handel are not the only great composer of this era. Antonio

Vivaldi was another master of music during the Baroque period.

Vavaldi was born in 1678 in Venice. His father too was a musician, a

violinist at St.Marks s church in Venice. For thirty-six years, from 1704

until 1740, he was music director at the Ospedale della Pieta, a school for

illegitimate daughters of the aristocracy. He then left his job to conduct

opera in Italian cities. He eventually wrote concertos not only for violin and

standard winds-oboe, flute, bassoon-but also for instruments such as the

piccolo, mandolin, and guitar.

One of his best known works is the Four Seasons. It is a set of four

concerti grossi which relate to nature during these seasons. The spirit of

childlike playfulness can be seen throughout out this piece which is

important to Baroque style. It is very easy to see why Vivaldi s pieces are

still played and enjoyed to this day.

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