Music of the Baroque: A Study Guide

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This page is a part of the Musical Study Guide Masterclass. For other related articles, see Category:Musical Study Guide
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The purpose of this tutorial is to provide an outline of prominent dates, terms, composers, compositions, social contexts, and ideas that may be encountered in a western study of Baroque music history. This is by no means a complete list, but it should serve as a solid overview of the time period (roughly 1600 to 1750, the year of Bach's death). For additional information I recommend reading Music of the Baroque by David Schulenberg.


Stylistic Differences Between Music of the Renaissance and Music of the Baroque


  • dissonance is highly restricted, usually limited to passing dissonance on a weak beat or a suspension on a strong beat
  • intervallic harmony
  • dissonance usually resolves down, stepwise
  • melodic lines imply a modality
  • steady tactus for rhythm
  • limited styles and genres


  • freer use of dissonance
  • chordal harmony
  • dissonance may resolve up or down
  • tonality comes to replace modality
  • great rhythmic contrast
  • composers write in numerous genres
  • basso continuo, figured bass, and soprano/bass polarity really define the genre
  • idiomatic writing (certain sounds can only be achieved by certain instruments)

The Move from Modality to Tonality

Please check back later for this section!

Understanding Basso Continu

The use of basso continuo, or simply continuo, is a defining characteristic of Baroque music. Basso continuo is an instrumental accompaniment and an independent part, either written or improvised, that requires a chordal instrument (such as organ, harpsichord, or lute) and usually the realization of figured bass, or thoroughbass. During the late Baroque it was typical for multiple instruments to play the continuo part (they were known as the continuo group), and the bass line was often doubled by instruments such as the viola da gamba or bassoon. It was typically left to the performers to decide which instruments would play basso continuo.

Basso continuo originally developed as organ accompaniment to aid choirs in the singing of their parts, and it became particularly important in holding polychoral works together. Basso seguente (“following bass”) was an instrumental part that doubled the lowest voice. Figured bass developed out of figures that Renaissance organists used to facilitate their reading of choirbook format. Agostina Agazarri was an Italian composer and theorist who wrote Del sonare sopra il basso, the first book on how to play figured bass, in 1607. From him we also learn that there were foundation and ornamental instruments, wind players were advised against performing continuo unless they were very good (due to intonation problems), and one instrument at a time was typically used for continuo in the early Baroque.

Venice and the Early Baroque

Venice was built in a lagoon, and out of necessity its inhabitants became good aquatic navigators. It is no surprise, then, that the Venetians were leaders in world trade, that is until others started traveling around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. The 16th century was the age of exploration and Venice began a slow decline due to increased trade competition. Politically, Venetians were ruled by the Doge, an elected official of the oligarchy who ruled for only two years. The lack of ruling families brought about a decreased private patronage of art; instead art became more public.

Basilica San Marco (St. Mark's Cathedral)

  • This religious site was the center for musical innovation in Venice for many years. It contained not one, but two organs, many choir lofts (lofts led to the development of polychoral music), it was blessed with amazing maestros di cappella (Willaert, Rore, and Zarlino), and its talented organists included Claudio Merulo and Andrea Gabrieli.
  • In 1568 the first permanent music ensemble was appointed with three players to assist the singers. By 1576 there were four instrumentalists and by 1580 there were six. During these years the basilica boasted a thirty member choir and had more performers than anywhere else in Europe.
  • polychoral music[list][*]The polychoral style of Venice involved separated choirs singing in alternation. The term for the separated choirs is cori spezzati. The style was defined and developed by Adrian Willaert and Giovanni Gabrieli, and its influence spread across Europe. Willaert's and Gabrieli's stylistic differences are illustrated below:


  • salmi (psalms)
  • strictly liturgical
  • strict alternating performance
  • always uses two groups of singers
  • texts are always psalms
  • uses a cantus firmus
  • no physical separation of choirs
  • no non-vocal instruments


  • concerti, sacrae symphony
  • more ceremonial
  • more rapid interchange between choirs
  • varying numbers of choirs
  • texts are incredibly varied
  • rarely, if ever, uses a cantus firmus
  • physical separation of choirs
  • may use non-vocal instruments
  • Polychoral music laid the foundation for the concerto principle.

Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1555-1612)

  • Gabrieli studied in Bavaria then returned to Venice and became the permanent second organist in San Marco.
  • His publications include Concerti per voci et stromenti (a 1587 collaboration with his uncle, Andrea Gabrieli), Sacrae symphoniae part 1 (1597), Sacrae symphoniae part 2 (1615, posthumous publication), and Canzoni et sonate (1615). From just this list it is apparent that many new names and genres were emerging in the Baroque era, such as concerto, symphony and sonata; keep in mind that the terms have very broad and changing definitions. His Sonata pian e forte of 1597 is the first composition to contain written dynamics. His Sacrae symphoniae part 2 contains songs for six to nineteen voices (quite a large number) and is the first instance of idiomatic writing (instruments are assigned parts).
  • In Ecclesiis of 1615 is his best known composition.
    • The piece is a concertato motet, a theatrical or dramatic polychoral work, written for four soloists, choir in four parts, six specified instruments, and continuo. It contains solo sections, duets, a sinfonia (instrumental interlude), and tuttis. Instruments are in the foreground at times, which is another feature that separates Baroque music from Renaissance music (remember that the use of continuo with figured bass accompaniment also separates the musical styles, along with a display of soprano/bass polarity – the soprano/bass lines and the interactions between them really stand out in Baroque music). The piece goes for effect rather than voice leading.
  • Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) became an organist at Saint Mark's and eventually the maestro di cappella in 1668. He was a composer who could write proficiently in the polychoral style, however he is best known for his operas. Many consider him the most important Baroque opera composer, next to Monteverdi.

Florence and the Early Baroque Opera

The idea of opera, or a sung play, goes back to the ancient Greek dramas. In early Western music, there was the liturgical drama (such as Hildegard's morality play, [i]Ordo virtutum[/i]); around 1300, with the writings of Petrach and Dante and the spread of humanism, there was a renewed interest in Latin, ancient Greece, and Roman ideas. But by the 15th century Italy still had very few original dramatic vocal works. That would change in the 16th century.

The Florentine Camerata

The Florentine Camerata, founded by and run under the patronage of Giovanni de' Bardi circa 1573, was a group of intellectuals and musicians who gathered to discuss and guide, supposedly according to ancient Greek ideals, trends in the arts. The Camerata believed that ancient Greek music used one melodic line, had rhythms based on text, and had a narrow range (and the range was chosen to express a specific emotion conveyed by the text). It also claimed that Greek tragedies were sung throughout and polyphonic music could not adequately reflect text. Most importantly, text took precedence over music. These ideas were based on a review of ancient Greek plays and on the writings of Plato. The Camerata began its decline when Bardi moved to Rome in 1592.

  • Girolamo Mei was a Florentine humanist whose letters reveal many activities of the Camarati.
  • Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo) was a member of the Camerata who wrote a 1581 treatise (“Dialogue on Ancient Music and Modern Music”) that is another big source of information on the Camerati.
  • Perhaps the most famous Camerati composer was Giulio Caccini (1551-1618). Caccini, while rather unscrupulous, can be admired for his 1602 publication of Le nuove musiche, a book of madrigals and arias (Caccini's arias are differentiated from the madrigals in that they are strophic) considered to be the earliest collection of monody. Monody (“to sing alone”) is a style of early Baroque music that features a single vocalist with instrumental accompaniment. [Lodovico Grossi da Viadana composed and published the first collection of sacred monody in 1602, known as Cento converti ecclesiastica.] This type of writing came directly from the Camerati.
    • One of the most dramatic pieces from the publication is Sfogava con le stelle. It is a continuo madrigal, an evolved form of the madrigal noted for its monodic texture and virtuosic vocal ornamentation. It is sung in a limited range, it is through-composed, syllabic, and delivered very freely. The stressed syllables (natural accents) are elongated in an impressive manner, and there is an attention to the text and language that even overshadows the detail of musique mensureé.

Early Opera

  • In the 16th century plays were common, and intermedii (sometimes intermezzi; intermedio, singular) were musical entertainments between the acts. The most famous play was La Pellegrina (“Female Pilgrim”), and it was full of classical mythology and references to the power of music. It had seven acts and six intermedii; the texts of the intermedii were written by Bardi. Intermedii were precursors to the opera and helped train composers such as Giulio Caccini, Emilio de' Cavalieri, and Jacopo Peri.
  • Early pieces of opera were fostered by the Camerata and performed without break in private functions (the first public opera was in Venice in 1637). Opera began around 1600 in Florence and Mantua, and by the 1630s it spread to Rome and Venice.
    • The first multi-sectional dramatic musical work that was sung throughout and staged with costumes (the first opera as we know it) was [i]La Dafne[/i], performed in 1598. Prior to 1598 there were many revisions and the music was first by Corsi, then Caccini, but the final version is attributed to Peri. The libretto, by Ottavio Rinuccini, has survived, but much of the music has been lost. At the time the opera was called a favola.
    • Cavalieri's Rappresentazione di anima et di corpo (“The Representation of Body and Soul”) was performed in 1600 and, although it contains many aspects of opera (it is even staged), it is usually considered an oratorio. As such, it is the earliest surviving oratorio (or the first sacred opera, depending on your terminology).
    • L'Euridice was commissioned in 1600 for the marriage of Maria de Medici (the Medici's were a powerful ruling family in Florence at the time) and Henry IV of France. About 3/4 of the music is by Peri and 1/4 is by Caccini (later Caccini would do his own complete setting). The libretto is by Rinuccini, and this is the first surviving opera.
      • Performers sang what would later be called recitative, a form of monody in which the singer is given rhythms of ordinary speech, and there were two types: narrative (syllabic, repeated notes, narrow range, slow chordal accompaniment) and expressive (less monotone, more dramatic, more chromatic). As time passed on, arias would become more common in opera and a greater distinction between recitative and aria would develop.

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)

Though not a part of the early opera scene, Girolamo Frescobaldi was notable in Florence between 1628 and 1634 as an organist at the Medici court. More notably, he is considered the most important early Baroque keyboard composer. He is best known for his books of toccatas and partitas called Libro 1 and Libro 2; these are his most forward-looking works. A toccata (“touch piece”) is typically a piece for keyboard that is meant to sound improvised; it is fairly vituosic. A partita is a set of variations for one instrument; the term is sometimes used synonymously with suite. Some of his works were reprinted for organ, complete with registration changes. It should be noted that the Baroque was the golden age of organ playing.

The Difference Between Opera, Oratorio, and Cantata

The terms opera, oratorio, and cantata all emerged around the turn of the century. In early instances lines between these musical genres may have been blurred, though they slowly developed into their own distinct entities.


Opera is a dramatic multi-sectional musical work that is staged and sung throughout. During the Baroque, themes were based mostly on history and mythology.

Oratorio (also Historia or Passion)

Today we tend to think of an oratorio as a large concert piece for orchestra, choir, and soloists, but in the early Baroque it was a bit more intimate. It has remained, however, an extended musical setting of a normally sacred story or text, most commonly based on a biblical story or the life of a saint. It is not typically staged. It uses a singing narrator (testo, sometimes called historicus or storicus) and usually a chorus, though the chorus becomes increasingly unimportant. Latin oratorios tend to be in one part, while those in the vernacular are in two parts, separated by a sermon. The oratorio was the forerunner to the Passions of Bach.

In the mid 1500s, Saint Filippo de Neri gathered his followers together to give talks and pray. The place where they met came to be known as an oratory, or prayer hall. Prayer meetings grew out of the Counter Reformation impulse and it did not take long before music was used to make them more enjoyable; the oratorio grew out of this setting, and was even permitted during the Lenten season.

Cavalieri's Rappresentazione di anima et di corpo (1600) literally set the stage for the creation of more oratorios, such as Jephte (c. 1649) by Giacomo Carissimi. The oratorio as a genre seems to have culminated with the Messiah (completed in 1741) by George Frideric Handel, although his last orario, Jeptha (1751), is also a masterpiece.


The cantata (from cantare, “to sing”), also called serenata or dramma per musica, is trickier to define. It is generally longer than an aria or madrigal, it began as a multi-sectional work that evolved into a multi-movement piece, and it is typically for solo voice(s) plus continuo (although additional instrumental parts are not uncommon).

  • Cantatas come in two types: secular and sacred. Many people are familiar with sacred cantatas thanks to Johann Sebastian Bach, but Dieterich Buxtehude and Georg Philipp Telemann also greatly contributed to the genre. The secular cantata was exhausted by the Italians. Carissimi, Barabara Stozzi, Antonio Cesti, and Luigi Rossi were the early secular cantata composers (the last two also made important contributions to opera), while Alessandro Scarlatti, Allesandro Stradella, and Agostino Steffani wrote secular cantatas during the latter half of the Baroque.
    • Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was important not only because she was a rare female composer, but also because she was the most published composer of Italian cantatas during her lifetime.
      • One fine composition is her Ardo in tacito foco cantata or strophic aria of 1654 that features syncopation, chromaticism, shifts in meter, and text painting.
    • Scarlatti's Correa nel seno amato, a cantata from the 1690s, is another representative work. It features a motto aria, or an aria that opens with a motif, followed by an instrumental interlude, followed by the bulk of the singing. The motto aria contains a del segno (“at the sign”) which was expected to be ornamented, although the standard aria of the Baroque was the da capo aria. The singing style may be referred to as bel canto, although the term is vague and usually reserved for a refined singing style exhibited in late 17th and 18th century opera.[/list][/list]

Claudio Monteverdi: Music, Drama, Spectacle

Monteverdi (1567-1643) was born in Cremona and studied voice and string playing with Marc Antonio Ingegnari. His first publication was in Venice, 1582, and his first position was as a string player in Mantua. He was able to travel with the Duke of Mantua and gain international exposure. After the Duke died, Monteverdi was fired and moved to Venice to become a maestro di cappella. He remained in Venice for the rest of his life. His music is considered revolutionary, aiding in the transition from Renaissance music to Baroque. He was one of the greatest Baroque composers in large part because he was forward-thinking, was one of the first to write for idiomatic instruments (after Gabrielli), and he composed works in all genres during his life.


]Three of Monteverdi's operas have survived in full: L'Orfeo (performed in 1607, published in 1609), L'Incoronazione di Poppeo (1640, unique because the bad guys live happily ever after), and Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (1643, Ulisse is Odysseus from Homer's Odyssey). Another opera is called L'Arianna (1608), but all is lost except the lament of Arianna. Orfeo is his most popular opera and it is still performed today.

  • Posento spirio is a strophic aria from Orfeo, published with both a plain part and an ornamented part in 1609, in which Orpheus pleads with Charon to ferry him across the River Styx. Monteverdi specifies the instruments to be used in the aria and incorporates a rather chromatic sounding double harp. The level of orchestration is incredibly impressive for the time.
  • In Orfeo, Monteverdi frequently employs ritornellos, or recurring passages for orchestra. Ritornellos are largely associated with Baroque opera.


[list][*]He published eight books of madrigals (secular, usually through-composed, vocal works) during his lifetime, the first five in a Renaissance style (although the fifth book uses basso continuo) and the last three in a Baroque style. In these books one can see a transition from a capella madrigals to madrigals in the concerted style, where groups of vocalists or instrumentalists share a melody in alternation, often over a basso continuo. [list][*]Book eight, [i]Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi[/i], is perhaps the most profound. It contains juxtapositioned songs about war and love, a sinfonia, duets, theatrical pieces, and even dance music.[*]In 1600 and 1603 Monteverdi's compositional style was attacked by music critic Giovanni Maria Artusi (c. 1540-1613) for it unusual dissonances. In 1605 Monteverdi replied to Artusi in the introduction to his fifth book of madrigals. In the introduction he coined and defined the terms prima pratica and seconda pratica (previously known as stile antico and stile moderno). Stile antico refers to early Baroque music that looks to the style of Palestrina, where words are the mistress of harmony. Stile moderno refers to a modern style in which there is a descent after a sharpened note or a rise after a flattened note, and where harmony is mistress to the text; it was perpetuated by Ingegneri and Monteverdi. In Monteverdi's [i]Scherzi musicali[/i] of 1607, Monteverdi's brother, Guilio Caesare Monteverdi, defended the composer as well. [*][i]Zefiro torna[/i] is another madrigal from about 1932. It is the first piece in which a ciacona (better known as a chaconne) appears. A chaconne is repetition on a short harmonic progression (or a composition that uses the repetition throughout). A passacaglia, on the other hand, involves a bass line ostinato, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. [*][i]Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda[/i] from about 1624 was called a madrigal by Monteverdi. It is known today as a balletto or dramatic madrigal and its text is from Tasso's [i]La Gerusalemme liberata[/i] (“Jerusalem Liberated/Delivered”). It uses stile concitato, or “excited/agitated style,” categorized by tremolos and pizzicati. This is one of the first compositions to use tremolos (the earliest example of pizzicato usage comes from a 1605 print by Tobias Hume). The piece also uses a testo, or a singing narrator.[/list][/list] 1610 Vespers [list][*]Monteverdi's masterpiece is the [i]Vespers of 1610[/i], as it showcases all of his talents. The [i]Vespers[/i] contains sacred music for the Vespers of the Office, specifically Marian psalms and vocal/instrumental concertos of sorts. It is comprised of thirteen sections, each with specified instruments (six to ten part vocal ensembles with ten or more instruments). The piece contains sections of falsobordone, or recitative over a chord in which each singer stays on one note, and this practice was common in church music.


Germany was not a major musical force until the Classic period. Major setbacks to German musical innovation during the Baroque included famine, disease, and the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), one of the most destructive conflicts in European history. The Thirty Years' War began as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, although it developed into a feud between the Hapsburg powers and France. The Defenestration of Prague of 1618 acted as an important catalyst to the war. Despite living in a generally ravaged country, some musicians were able to make a name for themselves during the Baroque.

Joachim Burmeister (1564-1629)

Burmeister was one of the first theorists to write about the idea of chords and the rules for note doubling. He was important in developing musical rhetoric, and he taught others how to be effective speakers on music. Building on the ideas of Lassus, he became the first person to analyze a piece of music much like a theorist would today.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)

Praetorius was a versatile and prolific composer who even wrote in the polychoral style.

  • Terpsichore (1612) was an important collection of dance music, named after one of the nine muses in Greek mythology. Terpsichore chiefly ruled over dance.
  • As a theorist he is noted for his three volume work, Syntagma Musicum, published between 1615 and 1620.
    • Vol. 1 is about the history of sacred music, as well as about secular music of the ancient world.
    • Vol. 2 is the most important section, called the Organigraphica. It is important for its information on musical instruments of his time; he discusses ranges, fingerings, and instrument construction.
    • Vol. 3 contains information on musical forms, notation, solmization, transpositions, and polychoral writing.

Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667)

Froberger was thought to be a student of Frecobaldi. He is known for writing the first keyboard suites. He is also known for transcribing lute music and bringing style brisé to the harpsichord (a “broken style” of keyboard arpeggiation).

Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)

Schein is known for his Banchetto musicale, a 1617 collection of suites for instrumental ensemble. It was the most significant German publication of instrumental music up to that point.

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)

Schütz is considered the most important German composer before Bach. He wrote about 500 pieces of music, overwhelmingly sacred, and they circulated almost exclusively in Germany during his life. He studied with Gabrieli in Venice and Praetorius in Dresden (an important city for Protestant musicians). Today his music is labeled with the prefix SWV (Schütz Werke Verzeichnis).

  • His first published work was a collection of five-voice madrigals in 1611. In 1619 he published Psalmen Davids, musical settings of the psalms influenced by Gabrieli. He had many collections of motets and sacred concertos for one to four voices plus basso continuo. Additionally he was known for his Symphoniae sacrae (three volumes of compositions from 1629, 1647, and 1650), Musikalisches Exequien (a German requiem for one of his patrons from 1636), Dafne (a 1627 oratorio), and Historiae (settings of biblical stories, one for Christmas, one for the Passion, and one for Easter, with chantlike recitative).
  • Two representative works are Herr, neige deine Himmel and Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich, both concertato motets. Saul, Saul... is especially interesting as a polychoral work in the Colossal Baroque style, a 17th and 18th century style that featured large-scale performance forces.

Buxtehude, Telemann, and Bach, as previously mentioned, wrote the most famous sacred cantatas. Buxtehude also contributed greatly to the organ repertoire and is one of the most important composers of the mid-Baroque. Telemann is one of the most prolific composers of all time; he is believed to have written over 3,000 compositions spanning all genres. He was, unlike Bach, widely appreciated for his compositional abilities during his lifetime (Bach was better known as an organist). Bach, however, is in a category all his own.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Bach was born into a musical family. He was orphaned at the age of 10, lived with his brother until he was 15, then became a choirboy in Lüneburg (where he learned to play organ) until he was 18. He began his professional career in 1703 as a a court violinist in Weimar. From 1703 to 1707 he was an organist in Arnstadt. Next he traveled 250 miles (each way) by foot to learn from Buxtehude in Lübeck. Between 1707 and 1708 he had a brief job as a Mühlhausen organist, followed by a 1708 to 1717 tenure as an organist and harpsichordist in Weimar (he became concert master in 1714). From 1717 to 1723 he worked for the Duke of Cöthen, then he spent the rest of his life in Leipzig at a court that would have preferred to hire Telemann. In Leipzig Bach was in charge of music for the four main churches, he had to prepare music for civic ceremonies, and he had to write a new cantata for each Sunday. He had many children, the most famous being W.F., C.P.E., and J.C. Bach. He was underappreciated as a composer during his life, but soon after his death he became one of the most performed and studied composers of all time. Today his compositions are given the prefix BWV (Bach Werke Verzeichnis) or Schmeider, and they are given numbers based on genre.


Bach wrote both secular and sacred cantatas, though he composed more sacred ones. Sacred cantatas began in Germany and tended to be multi-movement works, while secular cantatas were multi-sectional.

One of his representative cantatas is BWV 127, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott, a sacred work in five movements written for Quinquagesima. Each movement is less complex than the previous one, and the musical material is generated from the chorale of the fifth movement, making the piece a chorale cantata (an idea similar to that of a cantus firmus mass). In a chorale cantata, melodic material is typically showcased in the opening movement through points of imitation or a similar process. The chorale of the fifth movement is unusual in that it is not in bar form (AAB), as was typical for the time. Also, the fourth movement features recitative and an aria, which is an unusual combination within a cantata.

Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard Practice”)

Clavier-Übung was a common title for German keyboard music collections between the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but the term often refers to Bach's multi-volume publication intended as an overview of styles of his time.

Goldberg Variations (1741)

This collection was a commissioned work (not by Goldberg) that consisted of an aria and 30 keyboard variations organized in 10 groups of 3: 1) formal structure, 2) technical exercises, and 3) canons. The last variation is a quodlibet, or a piece made up of tidbits from popular music.

Die Kunst der Fuge (“The Art of the Fugue”)

This work is a collection of keyboard fugues arranged in order of increasing difficulty. It is essentially an instruction manual on how to write a fugue. It contains, in proper order, 4 simple fugues, 3 stretto fugues, 4 double fugues, 4 canonic fugues, 3 mirror fugues (which generate 2 fugues each), and 1 unfinished quadruple fugue; sadly Bach died before completing the work.

Messe in h moll (“Mass in B Minor”)

This piece, which began in 1724 and was written over many years, is Bach's most famous concert work. It was not conceived as a unified whole, it doesn't use da capo arias or recitative, and it uses pieces from earlier works (contrafactum).[/list]

Musikalisches Opfer (“Musical Offering”)

This piece was derived from music Bach improvised while visiting Frederick the Great of Prussia. Its inscription reads: Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta (“A Theme and Other Things Worked Out in Canon at the King's Command”) and lends itself to the word ricercar, an alternate term for a fugue. The work consists of 2 keyboard fugues for 3 and 6 voices, 10 canons (one of which is a fugue), and a trio sonata for harpsichord, violin, and flute.

Orgelbüchlein (“Little Organ Book”)

Written between 1708 and 1714, this work was intended as a pedagogical tool. It is a set of 46 chorale preludes (with an unfinished sketch for a 47th) all in 4 voices except 2 (one is in 5 voices and another is in 3). It was originally meant to be a set of 165 to span the liturgical year.

Das Wohltemperirte Clavier (“The Well-Tempered Clavier”)

This famous work is a collection of solo keyboard music meant to be played using the well-tempered tuning system. It is comprised of two books which each contain 12 prelude and fugue pairs. The work spans all 24 major and minor keys.

Brandenburg Concertos

This is a collection of 6 concertos presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. These virtuosic pieces feature dense textures that make it difficult to distinguish between ritornello and tutti sections, as well as very precise motives derived from Italian influence.

Other Works

His other famous works include cello suites (BWV 1007-1012, unaccompanied cello was unusual for the time), violin sonatas and partitas (BWV 1001-1006, the sonatas are patterned after the Italian sonata da chiesa), and orchestral suites (also known as ouvertures; BWV 1066-1069, English and French suites are posthumous designations for the works). There is also the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and the St. John Passion (BWV 245).

The Baroque (Dance) Suite

During the Baroque, a suite was typically a collection of small-scale instrumental pieces (in binary form) based on dance forms and unified by a common tonal center. Suites were also known as partitas (common in Germany), ordres (a term favored by Couperin), sonatas da camera, and even ouvertures (a label for Bach's orchestral suites). The term first emerged as “suyette” in France, used by Estienne du Tertre in a 1557 publication. During the life of Froberger the order of dance pieces was clearly standardized. The typical order of movements in a Baroque dance suite is as follows:

[b]A[/b]llemande – a stately dance in 4/4 [b]C[/b]ourante/Corrente – a moderately fast dance (the term comes from “to run”) [b]S[/b]arabande – the slowest dance piece, usually in triple meter [b]O[/b]ptional – an optional dance piece (passepied, air, bourée, minuet, galliard, pavanne, etc....) [b]G[/b]igue – a quick and playful dance generally in 3/8 time and often using imitative texture

Simply remember [b]ACSOG[/b] as an acronym for the names and order of the dance pieces.[pagebreak]


French musical culture was heavily influenced by Louis XIV, the Sun King ("le Roi Soleil"). Louis reigned from 1643 to 1715, which gave him many years to exert his influence. He built the Palace of Versailles and continued the tradition of les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roy, a set of twenty-four talented string players created under Louis XIII that acted as the heart of the court orchestra.

Air de Cour[list][*]One popular type of secular French vocal music in the late Renaissance and early Baroque was the air de cour, originally for solo voice accompanied by lute. The term was first used in Adrian le Roy's Airs de cour miz sur le luth, a collection of lute music from 1571. It was the predecessor to the aria or air and the forerunner to the operatic writing of Lully.[/list] Marin Mersenne (1588-1648)[list][*]Mersenne was a mathematician, philosopher and music theorist who is known as the first person to accurately describe how sound is transmitted. His [i]Haronie universelle[/i] of 1636 is an important source of information on 17th century music, particularly French music and composers. He also described harmonics and tried to get ti added to the six-note solmization.[/list] Ennemond (“le vieux”) and Denis (“le jeune”) Gaultier [list][*]Ennemond and Denis Gaultier were two French composers, lutenists, and cousins whose works are often mixed up. They were the most important French lutenists of the 17th century and they also developed the tombeau, an instrumental piece (or pieces) in the character of a lament that commemorated an individual's death.[/list] Viola da Gamba [list][*]The 17th and 18th centuries were the golden age of the viola da gamba, especially in France. Marin Marais, Jean de Saint-Colombe, Antoine Forqueray (“le père”), and Jean-Baptiste Forqueray (“le fils”) were the most important viol composers and performers of the Baroque.[/list]

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

[list][*]Lully was an important French composer of Italian birth who had great influence with Louis XIV. Learned as a musician, he made his way to the court of Louis XIV as a dancer, and one of his dance compositions led to a promotion as composer of instrumental music and conductor of the Vingt-quatre Violons du Roy. He grew tired of the lack of discipline in the ensemble and was allowed to form his own smaller band. After the king grew older and lost interest in dancing, Lully turned his attention to opera; he is considered the father of French opera. [list][*]Through opera, Lully worked with or influenced many great playwrights and librettists, such as Molière, Corneille (known as the father of French tragedy), Quinault, and Racine. [*]Unlike the Italians, Lully did not divide musical numbers into separate recitatives and arias. [*]The French overture, a festive musical introduction to an opera, ballet, or suite, originated with Lully and his ballet overtures of the 1650s. It was typically in binary form with a slow opening followed by a lively fugal section. The overture eventually gave way to the Italian sinfonia.[/list][/list] Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) [list][*]Rameau was the most important French composer of the 18th century, and he was equally gifted as a theorist. He replaced Lully as the dominant force in French opera (one of his representative works is Les Indes galantes, an opéra-ballet with exoticism) and he was an influential keyboard composer, though he is probably best known for his writings on harmony. In 1722 he published Traité de l'harmonie (“Treatise on Harmony”) in which he discussed the overtone series, clarified musical practice of his time, said that the chord was the primary element of music and was built on thirds, said that chords were the same no matter what the inversion, defined what we now call the pivot chord, and said all melody is derived from harmony. This work was influential for about 200 years.[/list] French Keyboard Music[list][*]The most important French keyboard composers were François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. Much music was written for the clavecin or klavier (harpsichord), and this music often made use of agréments, or ornaments (agréments is used specifically for French keyboard ornamentation).[*]The French ordre differed from the German partita in that it had between four and twenty-two movements, the movements did not have to be in the same key, and the movements were not always in binary form.[*]Élisabeth de la Guerre (1665-1729) was not only a great keyboard composer, but she was a child prodigy and was the first woman to have an opera performed in Paris. She, along with Couperin and others, wrote some unmeasured preludes for harpsichord. An unmeasured prelude is often a piece in a free notation that looks more like a sketch than music, and it was up to the performer to decide upon the length of the note values. One example is de la Guerre's [i]Prelude from Suite III in A Minor[/i]. The first published unmeasured preludes appeared in Nicolas Lebègue's [i]Pièces de clavessin[/i] of 1677 and quickly became a popular French genre.[*]In 1716 Couperin wrote a famous treatise on how to play the harpsichord, called [i]L'Art de toucher le clavecin[/i]. He also made use of notes inégales (“unequal notes”), as practiced in his Vingt-unième ordre. The practice involved the lengthening of one note followed by the shortening of the next and could be likened to swing music for the Baroque. There was no special notation; notes inégales was a performance practice popular in the 17th century, and it did not begin with Couperin. The practice had been in occasional use since at least the 16th century.[/list


England has a complex history of absolute monarchies, and during the Baroque the political system was highly volatile. The English Interregnum (1649-1660) was a period of unrest that began with the regicide of Charles I (the age of Oliver Cromwell) and ended with the English Restoration, which returned power to Charles II. During the Interregnum, English music making almost went underground; theaters closed due to a ban on public stage performances by the Puritan regime and music was confined to private gatherings. After the Restoration, political life in England, Ireland, and Scotland had a renewed stability, and musical life returned to normal. It should also be noted that there was very little English opera, though music played a large role in Shakespearean plays, and music was especially important in the courts of James I (technically James VI) and his son, Charles I.


  • The masque was a type of English entertainment that developed in the 16th century out of a masked dance. It featured music, dance, and eventually scenery and costumes. Allegory and symbolism were important, and masque themes were often based on mythology and stories of Classical Antiquity. Masques were held at court and by noblemen to celebrate, most commonly, Twelfth Night and Shrovetide, although they were also held for marriages, births, and other festive ocassions.
  • The Jacobean masque of the 17th century, which was developed during the reign of King James I, was the height of the art and typically lasted 4 to 5 hours. There were roughly 13 parts to the masque: 1) procession, 2) allegorical speech/dialogue, 3) antimasque, which consisted of songs and dances that set the stage for evil forces to come out, 4) discovery of the scene of the masque, in which a staged scene would be unveiled, 5) song I, which let the antimasquers rest, 6) entry dance of the masquers, 7) song II, 8) main dance, 9) song III, 10) revels with audience, 11) song IV, 12) final dance, and 13) banquet. No complete score of a Jacobean masque remains.
  • The Caroline masque, under the rule of Charles I, was similar to the Jacobean masque, although it was much more fluid.[*]Poet laureate Ben Jonson and stage architect Inigo Jones were master masque-makers who worked under James I and Charles I, although they had a falling out in 1631 that led to a decline in masque quality. Johnson felt that the masque should be a literary masterpiece worthy of being performed many times, while Jones thought of the masque as a dispensable art form created for a one-night party and treated like a one-night stand.
  • English composers with ties to the masque include Thomas Campion, Nicholas Lanier, William Lawes, John Coprario (also known as Giovanni Caprario or John Cooper) and John Mundy.[/list]

Restoration Theater

Between about 1660 (the end of the Interregnum and the end to a ban on public stage performances) and 1710 there was a rebirth of English drama, particularly comedy. The socalled Restoration Theater brought about many changes, such as changeable scenery and machines for special effects, orchestras used to accompany plays and perform incidental music, and it finally became acceptable for women to be actresses. A musical play that was not sung throughout became known as a semi-opera, and often concluded each act with masque-like entertainment.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Purcell was considered the best English composer for about 100 years after his death. He wrote glees and catches (light-hearted social merrymaking music for private entertainment, usually in the company of men, that grew out of the madrigal tradition; catch is another name for round), theatrical music, and odes. Odes were welcoming songs for celebratory occasions. They were a sort of extended cantata, originating shortly after the Restoration, sung as an act of loyalty to a monarch, an act of thanksgiving, or a tribute to St. Cecilia. Purcell's most famous ode is Come ye sons of art, written for the birthday of Queen Mary in 1694.

Purcell's semi-operas include Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen, King Arthur, The Tempest, and The Indian Queen. He wrote one opera, Dido and Aeneas, in 1689 (other English opera includes Venus and Adonis by John Blow and Albion and Albanius by Louis Grabu, libretto by the famous John Dryden).

The Orpheus Britannicus, a compilation of Purcell songs, was published posthumously in two volumes in 1698 and 1702. One representative work from the collection is From rosy bowers, a multi-sectional piece of recitatives and arias.

During the Classic period much music would be imported to England. Edward Elgar, a late 19th century composer, would put English music back on its path by reviving an interest in older music, especially Purcell. Benjamin Britten also loved Purcell.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Handel was another giant of the Baroque, famous for his operas, oratorios, and concerti. He was born in Halle, Germany and traveled to Hamburg to learn opera (Hamburg had its own public opera house by 1678 known for its dislike of castrati and use of singspiel, or spoken dialogue within an opera). He wrote his first opera at the age of 19, then traveled to Italy to further his studies. In 1710 he became Kapellmeister in Hanover for the soon-to-be King George I of Great Britain, and soon after he established himself in London and became a big hit as a composer, initially focusing on opera writing. Giulio Cesare, written in 1724, is Handel's most famous opera. It is in the style of opera seria, although it does contain some deviations.

As Italian opera slowly faded from England, Handel began to focus more on oratorios and strengthening the English choral tradition. Of course his most famous oratorio is the Messiah of 1741 (premiered in 1742). Many arrangements have been developed and the number of performers is not set in stone. A 1758 performance used a 33 member orchestra and a 19 member choir; in 1784 there was a performance with 300 singers and an orchestra of 250. In a 1791 version more than 1000 people performed it! Needless to say even during the Baroque it was an immensely popular piece.

The Sonata

The sonata was a very broad genre of instrumental music that originated during the Baroque. Early sonatas were usually in one movement with contrasting sections, while later ones were often multi-movement works. Unaccompanied sonatas were rare and solo sonatas were typically for violin and continuo. Trio sonatas were normally written for two soloists and continuo (usually four performers total), and they were very popular in Bologna, an Italian city known for its instrumental music. Violin was the most common instrument to use as a soloist, followed by flute and oboe. Movements became standardized in two types of sonatas: the sonata da camera was similar to a dance suite, while the sonata da chiesa (sacred sonata) was in four movements (slow, fast, slow, fast). Sonatas tended to be published in sets of six or twelve, each in a different key.

Biagio Marini (c. 1587-1663)

[list][*]Marini was a vituoso violinist and composer who worked with Monteverdi and wrote some of the earliest instances of double stops. [list][*]La variata, a multi-sectional sonata for violin and continuo from Marini's Opus 8, is an excellent example of an early solo sonata. Later sonatas would rarely bare descriptive titles.[/list][/list]

Heinrich Biber (1644-1704)

[list][*]Biber is best known for his “Mystery” or “Rosary” sonatas, a collection of fifteen sonatas and one passacaglia. They have a programmatic organization, which is rare in the Baroque, that deals with the life and times of Mary and Jesus. The original publication even had an illustration for each sonata. No. 9 of the collection is unique in that it is for scordatura (literally “mistuning”) violin and continuo. (On another interesting note, his Requiem is a 54-voice polychoral mass!)[/list]

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)

[list][*]Corelli was an instrumental composer, impassioned violin performer, teacher, and ensemble director. He wrote comparatively few compositions, with only six publications and a few manuscript works to his name, in only three genres: solo sonata, trio sonata, and concerto. However, he was the first composer to become famous solely for instrumental works, the first to gain fame solely through his publications, and the first composer to write instrumental works that were studied and became “classics,” even after styles changed. He influenced composers such as Handel and Bach and was to instrumental music in the Baroque what Palestrina was to choral music in the Renaissance. [list][*]One representative work is his Sonata in C for violin and continuo. It is a sonata da chiesa with five movements (slow, fast, slow, fast, slow). It is notable because not all movements are in the same key, the second movement is a fugue (though it's not strict), and the last movement is really a gigue, which almost makes the piece feel like a sonata da camera.


The fugue is not a form, but a compositional process or technique in which a theme is extended and developed mainly through imitative counterpoint. In the Middle Ages the term was widely used for any work in a canonic style, and it was not until the Renaissance that the fugue became standardized as the imitative style that we recognize today. A fugato is a section of a composition that involves fugal writing.

A Baroque fugue begins with a subject (theme) stated in the tonic. The subject is followed by an answer in a different voice, and the answer is the subject transposed to the dominant or subdominant. A tonal answer slightly alters the subject, generally to avoid accidentals, while a real answer is an exact transposition of the subject. Next, often after a brief contrapuntal interlude, a third voice enters with the subject back in the tonic. This process may continue with additional voices. A recurring theme played simultaneously with entrances of the subject is known as a countersubject. An exposition of a fugue involves a complete statement of the subject in each voice, and an exposition is followed by an episode (an episode is sometimes called a development).

Episodes do not always include a complete subject. When a voice begins a subject but doesn't complete it, it is known as a false entry. A redundant answer is an extra entry of an answer in a voice that already stated the subject. Stretto (“tightening”) is an overlap of the subject in two different voices in which the subjects do not begin and end at the same time. Stretto is typically employed near the end of a fugue to build toward a climax. For contrapuntal variation in an episode, augmentation, diminution, inversion, and retrograde inversion may be applied to the subject. A fugue often involves invertible counterpoint (or double counterpoint), a process in which two lines of music can be switched so that the upper melody is placed below the lower melody and the rules of counterpoint are still upheld. A double fugue is a fugue on two subjects (and, of course, there can be more). The subjects may always be played together or they can occur at different times in the composition. Finally, a counter-exposition may come after an exposition. A counter-exposition involves all of the voices stating the subject in full, but the first voice will have an accompaniment instead of being stated alone.

Opera Seria

Opera seria was an Italian opera form of the 18th century that considered itself noble and serious, but in reality it was very rigid and often laughed at by critics for how seriously it took itself. The term did not come into being until after the form died out. Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio were the most important librettists of the genre. Opera seria was rivaled by opera buffa, a more popular comic opera that lasted from the early 18th century to the mid 19th century.

Conventions of Opera Seria

  • The main characters (leading male soprano, leading lady, and tenor) must have five arias each; one aria must be pathetic, one virtuosic, one speech-like, one of mixed character, and one brilliant.
  • There may be no more than six or seven characters total.
  • The second male and second female characters must have four arias each, while the remaining characters have three.[*]No two arias of the same type may be sung consecutively.
  • There must be six or seven scene changes.
  • All arias are exit arias, or arias that end with the singer leaving the stage.
  • There is little to no ensemble/choral singing and rarely any dancing.
  • The characters are of noble birth.
  • The theme of the opera usually deals with love versus duty.
  • Like in most opera of the Baroque, da capo arias are the convention.
  • There is a lieto fine, or happy ending.

Opera seria was essentially a succession of recitative and exit arias. The recitative was classified as recitative secco (“dry”), which involves only a singer and continuo, or recitative accompangnato, which involves orchestral accompaniment.

The Beggar's Opera was an English reaction to an Italian dominated opera scene, specifically a reaction against opera seria. It was the first ballad opera, or a racy English stage entertainment featuring lower class characters and short songs. The satirical and highly successful opera, written in 1727 or 1728 with libretto by John Gay and music by John Christopher Pepusch, was the antithesis of opera seria.

The Concerto

The concerto is an instrumental genre consisting of solo/soli sections alternating with orchestral ritornellos. It has fuzzy origins, but it is considered to be an outgrowth of trio and solo sonatas. The first printed concertos came from Bologna and were written by Guiseppe Torelli in the 1690s. The standard Baroque concerto was in three movements (fast, slow, fast), and Tomaso Albinoni of Venice was the first composer to consistently use this formal structure. Arcangelo Corelli was the most prolific concerto composer in Rome; he helped combine the trio sonata with an orchestra to create the concerto grosso. Corelli is probably most famous for his Christmas Concerto, a concerto da chiesa that does not use ritornello form. Antonio Vivaldi (sometimes published as Lotavio Vandini, a perfect anagram for his real name) was important in laying the foundation for the mature Baroque concerto by helping to formalize the ritornello structure, and he was studied by the likes of Telemann and Bach.

There were two types of concerti: the solo concerto used a soloist (usually violin) and orchestra (often with only one player per part), while the concerto grosso used a small group of soloists, called the concertino, and an orchestra. The orchestra was known as the ripieno (or sometimes confusingly called the concerto grosso).

Ritornello form was usually reserved for the fast outer movements, and the movements typically had four to six ritornello sections. The ritornello was basically an orchestral refrain, derived from the da capo aria, used to establish tonality (solo/soli sections would contain the structurally important modulations). The non-ritornello sections were called episodes, and they usually involved contrasting themes and figuration. Slow movements were in related keys.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Vivaldi was an important composer, orchestrator, and developer of violin technique. Aside from laying the foundation for the mature Baroque concerto, he demanded more virtuosic violin solos (being a virtuosic player himself) and was one of the first composers to emphasize the cadenza. He was a fantastic orchestrator and expanded orchestral colors with careful use of bowing, pizzicato, and mutes.

Vivaldi was the son of a professional violin maker who traveled widely, and his relations with his father helped him to develop a strong musical background. He was ordained as a priest, though he was censured by the church after having a liason with an opera singer. He was afflicted with both asthma and red hair, the latter being a source of his nickname, il Prete Rosso (“the Red Priest”). Eventually he taught at Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls, which was highly unusual, that gave musical training to its children. He was vain, did not make dedications in his music to his patrons, was criticized for routine composing, and he was popular and wealthy, though he was buried in a pauper's grave in Vienna. His music nearly disappeared after his death, but it was brought back to popularity when it was transcribed by Bach.

He only published twelve opuses because he made more money from selling by the manuscript. In 1711 he published L'Estro Armonico (“Harmonic Inspiration,” op. 3), a collection of twelve concertos that became one of the most published works of his era. Of course his most famous work today is Le quattro stagioni (“The Four Seasons”), a collection of four out of twelve concertos from his op. 8 (1723-1725).