In the timeline of music history, nothing is ever exact. So it’s approximately speaking, then, that we say that the Baroque period falls from 1600 to the mid-18th century – preceded by the Renaissance and followed by the Classical period.
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So who were the Baroque’s finest exponents? Great names abound, but here are ten that should be on anyone’s list…
Born in Cremona, Italy, Monteverdi forged his career at the court in Mantua and then as maestro di cappella (director of music) at St Mark’s, Venice. One of the first ever composers of opera – his L’Orfeo dates from 1607 – he is equally revered today for his religious music, including the masterful Vespers of 1610. His championing of the seconda pratica style, placing music’s emphasis on the expression of words, caused some controversy in his time.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87)
Though Italian by birth, Lully spent the majority of his career as composer at the court of Louis XIV, having moved to France in his teens. Lully’s regal position saw him produce a wealth of sacred music for the royal chapel plus music to accompany the plays of Molière and several operas, often based on mythological themes. He caused his own death, in 1687, by stabbing his own foot with his conducting stick and then refusing surgery.
Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707)
So revered was the Danish-born Dietrich Buxtehude that, in 1705, a young JS Bach walked 250 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to see him play the organ and meet him in person. Handel was another admirer. In his post at Lübeck’s Marienkirche, Buxtehude wrote a substantial number of choral and organ works. His cantatas, including the famous Membra, Jesu nostri cycle, are still sung to this day, while organists enjoy the technical polish of works such as his 19 preludes.
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is largely considered the first English opera of major significance, and some would go as far as suggesting he was the last great British-born composer until the turn of the 20th century. Employed at both Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, Purcell produced a large body of sacred and secular music, including important works for state occasions. His fresh, immediate style was later admired by composers including Benjamin Britten.
Vivaldi is best known today for The Four Seasons, his set of brilliantly inventive violin concertos, but there’s a lot more to the Venice-born composer than that. Countless other violin concertos flowed from the pen of the ‘Red Priest’ (named after the colour of his hair), as did operas such as Orlando furioso and choral works including the famous Gloria in D. JS Bach was just one of many composers influenced by him.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Music’s great workaholic, Telemann is often referred to today for the sheer volume of music he composed. Unjustly so, as the German deserves to be remembered for quality, not just quantity. Whether writing for the keyboard (and, in particular, organ), instrumental ensemble or opera stage, Telemann broke new ground in incorporating influences from across Europe into his music. The godfather of JS Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, he turned down the post of cantor at St Thomas Church, Leipzig, paving the way for Bach himself to take it.
Born in Germany, but later made a British citizen, Handel’s musical output was as wide-reaching as it was impressive. His operas, such as Giulio Cesare and Serse, made him the toast of Georgian London, which also thrilled to ceremonial commissions such as his Music for the Royal Fireworks and Zadok the Priest. Add to this a considerable number of highly polished concerti grossi and keyboard works plus, of course, a string of oratorios that includes the uniquely popular Messiah.
Arguably the greatest composer of all time, and undoubtedly one of the most influential. A devout Christian, his religious inspiration manifests itself in a wealth of sacred cantatas, the B minor Mass and, above all, the quasi-operatic St John and St Matthew Passions. These are just the tip the iceberg. His staggeringly inventive music for solo instrument includes the six Cello Suites, six sonatas and partitas for violin, countless organ works and, for keyboard, the Goldberg Variations and the Well-Tempered Clavier. Despite such a prodigious output, produced while in post in the cities of Weimar, Cöthen and Leipzig, every note was meticulously crafted.
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Not to be confused with Alessandro Scarlatti (his dad), the Naples-born Domenico spent much of his career employed in royal courts in Portugal and, latterly, Spain. Above all, he is remembered for his 555 sonatas for keyboard, which pushed the boundaries of both technique and harmony and are still much loved by pianists today.
Pergolesi achieved a remarkable amount in his 26 short years on this earth. Listeners today know him best for the achingly plaintive vocal lines of his Stabat Mater, but it was largely operas – both light-hearted, such as La serva padrona, and serious, such as l prigionier superbo – that wowed audiences in early 18th-century Naples. Stravinsky’s 1920 ballet Pulcinella was once believed to be based on Pergolesi’s music, this was later shown to be untrue.