A Guide to Baroque Music
It's hard to avoid some knowledge of Baroque music (even if you wanted to), but what were its origins? And where does the term 'Baroque' come from anyway? Here is our guide to one of the most momentous musical eras in history
When was the Baroque period?
From about 1600 to 1750.
Where does the term 'Baroque' come from?
The word is probably derived from the Portuguese word 'barroco', meaning 'oddly-shaped pearl'. It was originally used to describe the elaborate German architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries - and it was not intended as praise.
In the minds of critics, who preferred restraint, the works of artists such as Bernini and Pietro da Cortona appeared bizarre — like the misshapen pearl. Eventually the term came to be used to describe the style of music from the same period.
What's the historical backstory to the Baroque era (in a nutshell)?
The Baroque period was a time of great religious, political and philosophical development. Protestantism was sweeping through northern Europe, taking deep root in England and Germany, where Johann Sebastian Bach spent all of his life (he wrote much of his music for the Lutheran church).
As monarchs amassed ever greater wealth and power, the state was increasingly challenging the authority of the church. Enlightenment ideology was gathering momentum, placing new emphasis on progressivism and human reason.
Sir Isaac Newton, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler and the English physician William Harvey were making huge strides in science, round about the same time that literary giants such as Shakespeare, Racine and John Milton were drilling down into the details of human psychology: it was between 1599 and 1601 that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. So it's not surprising that the music of the period went through some fairly significant changes of its own.
It became more emotive, elaborate and dramatic, as composers became more aware of music's potential as a means of communication. With the introduction of the pianoforte, an early version of the piano which could play both loudly and quietly, composers began to harness dynamics as an expressive tool.
More like this
They also increasingly embraced the possibilities of instrumental music: some of the most popular Baroque works, such as Vivaldi's Four Seasons, are instrumental. As with Baroque architecture, ornamentation became ubiquitous; even the simplest melodies were decorated with trills, acciaccaturas, appoggiaturas and mordents.
But perhaps the biggest development was the emergence of equal temperament (a tuning system in which the octave is divided into twelve equal semitones) and the establishment of the 12 major and minor keys that we still use in Western music today.
What were the musical forms of the Baroque period?
Among the most popular forms were the Prelude and Fugue, the cantata, the concerto, the oratorio, the sonata and opera, the latter of which became firmly established during the Baroque era, building on the foundations laid by Monteverdi.
Here are some of the leading composers of the Baroque period
And the most famous Baroque works?
Among the many, many popular works of the period, there are the blockbusters: Handel's Messiah and Zadok the Priest; Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Gloria; and any number of works by Bach: the St Matthew Passion; Mass in B minor; the Toccata and Fugue in D minor; Goldberg Variations; Brandenburg Concertos; and the Well-Tempered Clavier. But this really is the tip of a colossal iceberg. Have fun chipping away at it yourself.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.