Show Summary Details

p. 494.locked

Repertories: Baroquelocked

  • Kelly Thomas Forrest

Abstract

‘Repertories: Baroque’ covers the music of the Baroque era. Baroque music was filled with passion, drama, rhetoric, and gesture, with opera spanning the entire age. Baroque musical style tends to have a single mood with a regular rhythm suited to dancing. Opera is essentially theatre in song, the melody allowing the literary quality to become clear. Over time these operas became codified into a combination of recitatives and arias. Baroque instrumental music can be divided into sonatas and concertos (modelled mainly on the work of Corelli and Vivaldi), and has been influential throughout Europe. Baroque was key to the professional early music revival, and has never really left our repertory.

Passion, drama, rhetoric, gesture: these are the qualities that are common to Baroque art and to its music. The creation of opera was almost inevitable in an age that was so concerned with the expression of affective feelings, with heightened speech as a means of communicating passion. From Monteverdi to Handel, composers were in one way or another concerned largely with dramatic music; and even those who, like Bach, were not composers of opera, were nevertheless imbued with the rhetoric of the opera house.

Opera houses were the palaces of the people. In an age when Versailles was the model of a princely house, the creation of a public drama—for a paying audience—allowed for a kind of democratization of music that is surprising in the context of a time when a great deal of music was supported by aristocratic patronage. Princes had orchestras, some even had their own opera houses; and public concert rooms were very rare in the period. The church and the opera house were the most accessible venues for music. We admire the splendid festivals at Versailles, but we are more likely to have had access to the public opera houses of most of the cities of Europe.

Singing, dancing, and orchestral music are all available at the opera; and they were all translated for domestic use into cantatas, p. 50dance music of all kinds for the ballroom, and chamber music; the styles are similar, but the performing forces vary with the venue.

Opera, the characteristic new genre of the age, spanned the entire period and influenced almost all music, whether the music being composed was vocal or not—for opera, as musical drama came to be called, has all the defining elements of the style: acting, gesture, dramatic words, passionate language, all gathered into musical expression. A concerto by Vivaldi, a cantata by Bach, a harpsichord piece by Rameau, all share in the drama, the rhetoric, the passion of the stage.

The characteristics, and the forms, of opera are so pervasive in Baroque music that even those listeners who like only harpsichord music, or Bach concertos, or Handel oratorios, are listening to music affected by the dramatic and formal aspects of Baroque opera.

Baroque musical shapes

There are some essential characteristics of almost all Baroque music that give it its characteristic, almost instantly recognizable character. These include the expression of the emotions; the dramatic-rhetorical way of making a melody; the polarity of tune and bass line; and the dancing rhythms characteristic of most Baroque music.

Baroque music tends to have a single mood, a single intention, in each piece, expressed in part by a characteristic regular rhythm. Some call it the “affections,” the idea that human emotions are directed and stirred by rhetoric, and that composers should do the same with their music. Embracing the belief that the four bodily humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile) control our emotional balance, and that they allow us to shift from one emotional state to another only gradually, Baroque composers sought to express a single passion in each piece. In the case of vocal music, it is usually p. 51the emotion expressed by the words being sung; for instrumental music, it is up to the listener to receive the emotional message embedded in the music as interpreted by the musician.

The regularity to be found in many Baroque pieces is partly related to this desire for a consistent mood; it is also in many cases the result of a desire for dancing rhythms, or a constant rhythmic activity. It is one of the characteristics of this music, sometimes expressed by a firm regularity of the bass line, sometimes by a complex of rhythmic activity in the various voices of a polyphonic piece that taken together add up to a completely steady rhythmic flow. “Sewing-machine Baroque” is a term once used to describe the regular rhythmic patterning of a lot of Baroque music; but it sounds like a sewing machine only if you play it that way. The regularity is there, and it can be a joy.

Baroque dance music is found everywhere—in sonatas, concertos, keyboard suites, danced in opera, and sung as arias. Clearly recognizable dance rhythms are found in Bach’s church cantatas, in his keyboard variations, in his preludes and fugues.

The stylized French dances that were an essential part of Baroque music, on the stage, in the ballroom, and in music for listening, were all cast in the same general “binary” form: a first part, usually cadencing in a secondary key, is immediately repeated; and a second part, beginning in that secondary key and ending in the home key is also repeated: AABB. But beyond that form, the characteristic meter and rhythm of individual dances is often so clear-cut that it takes only three or four notes before the experienced listener can say “minuet!” or “gavotte!” or “sarabande!”

Individual dances may appear anywhere; but a standard suite of dances tends to be arranged in an order that makes psychological sense; they are all in the same key, perhaps originally for reasons of tuning. A suite may or may not have an introductory piece: an overture, a prelude, or something of the sort (Bach’s English p. 52Suite and Partitas do have opening non-dance movement; the French Suites do not). Orchestral suites, often called Overtures, consist of an overture in the French manner (a solemn slow section followed by a lively imitative section), followed by a suite of dances.

Such a series, in the most common form, consists of the following order:

Allemande Courante Sarabande [“Galanterien”—optional additional dances] Gigue

These dances all have Italian names as well: Allemanda, Corrente, Sarabanda, Giga. They are international in origin: German (allemande), Italian (courante), Spanish (sarabande), English (jig=gigue); but it is the French who put them all together.

Before the final gigue any number of additional dances can be inserted; here is where the composer puts his minuet, passepied, gavotte, bourrée, or whatever other form seems appropriate. Each dance has very strong characteristics: it would be tiresome to rehearse them all here, but a couple of examples may be useful.

Dances in triple meter include the slow sarabande, the moderate minuet, and the quick passepied. The sarabande often features an accent on the second of the three beats. The minuet is danced in groups of two measures which are often combined in hemiola rhythm (hemiola—“one and a half” in Greek—is the phenomenon of alternating, or superimposing, two triple units—two dotted quarter notes, say—with three duple units—three quarter notes; a good example is Leonard Bernstein’s “I want to be in America”). The passepied is a quicker version of the minuet, but with an upbeat, often written in 3/8 or 6/8 time.

p. 53Melody, for Baroque composers, is prose, not poetry. It does not come in paired lines (like a folk song, or a Schubert Lied), but in rhetorical sentences or paragraphs. The essential melody is like a well-wrought phrase of Shakespeare or the King James Bible, consisting of an opening gesture, an amplification, and a close:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; But when I became a man, I put away childish things (1 Corinthians 11).

A Baroque melody very often works like that: a gesture, or statement; an amplification, usually by way of sequence; and a conclusion, or cadence. (Music theorists sometimes use the German terms Vordersatz-Fortspinnung-Epilog.)

A sequence, in Baroque musical terms, is the repetition of a small musical phrase at progressively higher or lower pitch; it sounds complicated, but if you happen to know the Christmas carol that begins “Angels, we have heard on high,” and then think of the long melody sung to the first syllable of “Glo……ria in excelsis Deo,” you’ll recognize that the music to the first syllable of “Gloria” has the same music sung three times, each time lower. That is a sequence; sequences may also be rising sequences; they may change key; they may involve just a melody, or the whole texture of a polyphonic piece. They are extremely useful for the amplification of an opening statement, especially when, as often happens, the sequence is often related to the opening statement by using its closing notes as the material of the sequence.

Perhaps that sounds complicated, but it is central to Baroque aesthetics. Ritornellos, those instrumental introductions whose recurrences shape so many Baroque compositions—are made this way; vocal phrases are made this way. The orchestral beginning of p. 54the chorus “And the Glory of the Lord,” from Handel’s Messiah, the vocal part of Handel’s “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” and the opening unison ritornello of Bach’s D-minor harpsichord concerto, exemplify the technique. The sequences on “exalted” are a perfect example of the sequences that serve to amplify an opening statement (“Ev’ry valley”).

The result of making music in this way is that it is like speaking in a sense. It is like an actor or an orator delivering well-wrought lines—it is theater.

The central aesthetic of Baroque music—and here I am perhaps on shaky ground with those who love Bach fugues for the organ and harpsichord—is the idea of a melody and its harmonic accompaniment. The focus on the drama of the melody is supported by the basso continuo (“continuous bass”), the chord-playing instrument or instruments that provide rhythmic and harmonic context.

This basso continuo, often shortened to “continuo,” is an essential part of all Baroque music except for solo keyboard music and the very few pieces for an unaccompanied solo instrument (like the Bach suites and partitas for solo cello or violin—and even there it is implied). Composers indicated the rhythm and the chords of the continuo, not by writing everything out, but by giving the bass note of each new chord—thus giving the rhythm of the chords; the player or players knew what chord to play from seeing its bass note. When the composer wanted some chord other than the obvious one, this was indicated by numbers indicating intervals above the bass note, or a figure of some kind (a sharp-sign for a major chord, for example); this is why it is sometimes referred to as “figured bass.”

Players improvised accompaniments, using the sequence of chords and the rhythm indicated. An organist will “realize” the continuo very differently from a lutenist: the organ can sustain a p. 55chord indefinitely at the same volume, but is not very effective at arpeggiated or rolled chords. Conversely, the lute is soft, and if it plays all the notes of a chord at once it will have a too-sharp attack and the sound will decay, so the player is likely to roll the chords to keep the sound alive (although a short sharp attack might be very useful if the singer were singing a word like “pierce” or “strike”). A harpsichordist will perform from the same bass-line differently from either. There is a great deal for the continuo player to think about, and one of the joys of playing Baroque music is to play continuo, for one is always making the music for the first time, and making every effort to respond to the meaning and expression of the melodic line, while taking account of other colleagues playing in the same continuo group.

The old idea of the “passepartout” continuo group of cello plus harpsichord (or organ for sacred music) has in recent years been enriched by many fine players of lute, Baroque guitar, chitarrone, lyra-viol, organ, harp, and many other instruments. The sound of a large competent continuo group is as satisfactory to a lover of Baroque music as the opening chord of Das Rheingold is to a Wagnerian.

Opera was itself a sort of early-music revival; at its origin it was an attempt to recover the affective power of classical tragedy. If ancient Greek characters sang their roles to the accompaniment of the kithara, actors who seek a similar effect should do the same: this idea led to sung drama, and to the invention of a new instrument, the chitarrone, to accompany the singers, and to a new reciting style, the recitativo, that turned imitation into invention. Thus a revival became the leading-edge artwork for the future.

It was Florentine humanists who were interested in recovering the tragedy of the ancient Greeks, and it was Florentines around 1600, Emilio de’ Cavalieri, Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini, and others, who devised a means of singing roles in drama, to a p. 56fairly simple chordal accompaniment. And that is the origin of Baroque music. This is only a little bit of an overstatement: the focus on declamation, on drama, on rhetoric, on the one hand; on the other hand, the use of chords as a continuous accompaniment, a basso continuo, are the features, almost the only features, that are true throughout the long period of 1600 to 1750.

At its origin, in the early seventeenth century, opera is essentially a play, in which the characters happen to sing their parts instead of speaking them. This has always been true of opera, and it was there from the very beginning; the idea was that what we were hearing is speaking, not singing. This style of reciting, in the rhythm of the language, without all the repetitions of little phrases that would be true in a musical version, was called stile recitativo, recitative style. If you are not interested in what the characters are saying, in the elevated language in which they say it, you will likely be bored by recitative. But for the early Florentines, for Monteverdi in Mantua and Cavalli in Venice, and for many others, this style is what allows the literature of the play to be clear—and more than clear, expressive in the way that only melody can provide.

The recitative style began with opera itself, and the accompaniment provided for it was of the simplest. The chittarrone was devised to play appropriate chords to provide a background for the singer. A large, single-strung, lute-like instrument, the chittarrone is ideal for this purpose, and the revival of the chittarrone in recent years has done a great deal to help us understand the beauties of the early recitative style.

The earliest operas were sung in this style throughout; they were, it must be said, not especially rich in musical variety—but they were not supposed to be musical events, but dramatic ones, “authentic” revivals of the style of Classical antiquity: they were drama, they were literature. And if you were a literate Italian who p. 57

7. A performance of Handel’s opera Admeto, 1727. This anonymous engraving caricatures two famous singers: Francesca Cuzzoni embraces the castrato Senesino as she sings, “Yes, beloved, yes, finally I embrace you thus, on the beloved breast.” The engraving is on the title page of a printed letter claiming to be from Senesino to Cuzzoni.

View large

did not know what to expect from opera, you probably found it absolutely delightful.

But not everybody found it delightful; there are those contemporary Italians who speak of the tedium of the recitative, and almost at once operas began to contain songs. It was easy to do: one of the characters invites another to sing a song, and he does so. (In some of the earliest operas, like Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), the character who sings a song is the greatest singer of classical myth.) The problem is, of course, that if the characters are already singing, and we are to understand that singing in their world is the equivalent of speaking in ours, then how does a character sing a song? Again, it’s easy: make it sound like a song: regular phrases, lively accompaniment, steady rhythm, and it’s done.

p. 58The difference between song and speech, or aria and recitative, is a key characteristic of Baroque opera, and the relationship between the lyrical and the narrative has been one of the defining tensions in the whole history of opera.

Baroque opera is not a single thing, of course, but except for some of the very earliest operas, with a preponderance of recitative, opera comes to consist of a mixture of recitative and arias. By the late seventeenth century this became so codified that operas were almost as predictable in their form as other kinds of conventional forms that we adopt because they provide a focused pleasure: detective novels, or television situation comedies.

The form of a song in a Baroque opera is either ritornello or da capo. In the first case, there is an instrumental introduction that recurs at the end and throughout; in the second, the opening section of the song is repeated after a second, contrasting section.

Not all arias are like this, but there are thousands that are, and many others that are modified versions of it. There are two characteristic features: an instrumental ritornello that serves as a sort of refrain, and a breathing space for the singer (it also usually provides the singer’s musical material); and a song that has a first part, a contrasting part, and a repetition of the opening. (In fact composers did not bother to write out the return; in a score it’s enough to write up through Section B, and then just indicate da capo, “from the beginning,” to remind the performers to repeat the ritornello-section.)

Why on earth would this form be so much used? Probably because it is so flexible, and because it provides everything a singer could want: an opening section, depicting some mood or state (anger, joy, sadness, longing); a second section that comments and amplifies; and then the chance to sing the first section again. This is in a way what the audience is waiting for—the repetition: it sounds different, first because it is now familiar; second because it p. 59

The da capo aria

In the standard Baroque da capo aria, the orchestra plays an introduction, called the ritornello because it will return. The singer then sings. The orchestra plays the ritornello again. The singer sings a new section that contrasts in key or in some interesting way with what she or he sang before; the orchestra plays the ritornello again. The singer sings the opening portion over again, probably in a varied or ornamented version, and the orchestra plays the ritornello for the last time. In sum:

Ritornello

Section A

Ritornello

Section B

Ritornello

Section A

Ritornello

takes on a deeper meaning after the comment of the second section; and third because the singer jazzes it up with all sorts of flourishes.

The progress of an opera, at least of the classic high-Baroque Italian opera, composed and performed all over Europe, and imitated in oratorios, passions, and other kinds of vocal music, is fairly straightforward. The characters speak their parts, as in the earliest operas, in recitative style; now and then the plot advances to a point where one of the characters has an emotional moment worth pausing over. At that point, time stops, the orchestra begins to play, and the character comes downstage center, strikes an p. 60appropriate pose, and sings a passionate aria about how her character feels at this point, expressed in beautiful music. At the end we all applaud, the plot is usually arranged so that she makes an exit (provoking more applause), and then real time starts again with more recitative, until a character’s situation is interesting enough to warrant another aria.

This alternation of real-time drama and freeze-frame commentary is the essence of Baroque opera; the recitative is there to get us to the next aria, and the arias are the reason for the whole thing. The plots may sometimes seem contrived or overly complex, but they are not intended to be realistic: they are meant to provide as many interesting emotional situations as possible, each one of which is explored in a characteristic aria.

Instrumental music

There are lovers of Baroque music who prefer instrumental music: they may not know much about opera; they may not much like the elaborate decoration that was the stock in trade of singers; they may not admire the plots of such pieces, or the seemingly interminable string of solo arias. And yet that operatic style informed almost all music, not just in the vocal sphere.

Baroque instrumental music can essentially be considered in two categories: solo (mostly keyboard) and ensemble music. Or it could be considered in two other categories: church and chamber music.

The essential instrumental genres are sonatas and concertos. A sonata may be for one instrument plus continuo (called a solo sonata), or two instruments and continuo (called a trio sonata—nobody is required to be consistent), or occasionally, for more instruments (quartets, etc). Sonatas tend to consist of several movements, alternating in character and tempo. Solo sonatas tend to be more virtuosic than trio sonatas.

p. 61A distinction between church and chamber is also evident in sonatas: a church sonata (sonata da chiesa) is a series of movements, in some order like Grave—Allegro—Adagio—Vivace; although they owe their origin to liturgical needs, it is clear that they were played for enjoyment in other places as well. A chamber sonata is essentially a suite of dances, each given its name. Suites of dances are familiar also from keyboard music and orchestral music; with chamber sonatas, however, the standard dance suite of the late Baroque—allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, with optional extra dances before the gigue—was not so standardized. The dance form, however, and the idea of a series of dances, is the standard shape for a so-called chamber sonata.

The concerto has a somewhat complicated history. In the early years of the seventeenth century, especially in Italy and Germany, the term was applied to sacred vocal music for voices and instruments; Monteverdi used the word for his Seventh Book of Madrigals (which is actually a collection of pieces for voices and instruments), and Bach actually used the word sometimes for what we now call church cantatas. But mostly a concerto is a piece for orchestra with one or more solo instruments.

By the high Baroque period, the concerto came in two styles: the Roman type of Corelli and Handel, and the Venetian concerto of Vivaldi and Bach. Arcangelo Corelli, whose publications established the norms for solo sonatas and trio sonatas, also established a “type” for the concerto grosso in his Opus 6 concertos.

A Corelli concerto is essentially an amplified trio sonata; a group of two violins and continuo (called the concertino) plays continuously, and the larger group (the concerto grosso) plays occasionally, usually to emphasize beginnings and cadential moments. When the larger group does play, it plays the same music as is being played by the solo group—the orchestra is a sort of way of turning up the volume. Such concertos were wonderfully p. 62effective in larger spaces and were enormously influential on many composers; Handel is one of many composers whose concerti are modeled on Corelli’s. Like his trio sonatas, Corelli’s concerti (published 1714) are either “church” concerti, with several movements alternating slow and fast; or “chamber” concerti, presented as series of dances.

In Venice, the concerti of Antonio Vivaldi established another model, and one that was to be enormously influential. Vivaldi was not the first to compose concerti of this kind, but his influence was far greater than that of his predecessors.

There are two basic principles in a Vivaldi concerto that set it apart from the Corellian model: (1) separate music for solo and orchestra, and (2) the use of the ritornello principle.

They are very simple ideas, but very important. Consider a typical Vivaldi concerto (often a concerto for a single instrument; but there are hundreds of concerti by Vivaldi, for a variety of combinations of instruments—and not all of them are “typical”). The first movement begins with a characteristic opening ritornello by the orchestra (just as at the beginning of an aria in the opera house). Then the soloist or soloists (just like the singer) begins with new material. (Almost always the soloist also goes on to perform highly difficult music different from that of the orchestra and that contrast, of size versus agility, has been the backbone of the concerto ever since.) Sections of ritornello alternate with sections by the soloist, and the movement ends with a statement of the ritornello. Most Vivaldi concerti have three movements, with a slow movement in the middle; many second movements and finales have other formal shapes.

All of what is said here about Vivaldi concerti (and Corelli’s for that matter) is highly generalized, and there are lots of exceptions. But it still holds true that those models were clearly understood elsewhere and were influential on composers all over Europe.

p. 63Johann Sebastian Bach’s discovery of Vivaldi’s Opus 3 concertos, called L’Estro armonico (“Poetic inspiration,” 1711), was an acknowledged turning point in his life. He copied the concertos out in 1713–14 and transcribed some of them for organ, and his composing style changed forever: essentially what Bach learned was the use of the ritornello principle to structure the texture of a movement, and its larger form. His later music included a lot of concertos, including the famous six “Brandenburg” concertos; but Vivaldi’s influence went much farther, and the ritornello principle was applied by Bach to movements in cantatas, passions, and many other genres.

Early Baroque music for keyboard, whether it be Italian, German, or French, can be played successfully on organ, harpsichord, or clavichord. Later composers tend to make more distinction between the organ (with its sustaining power, its colors and variety, and its pedals) and the harpsichord and clavichord.

Several lines of influence can be observed: the great Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck in Amsterdam influenced composers in England, and also a series of North German composers: Scheidt, Scheidemann, later the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude, an important influence on Bach.

Girolamo Frescobaldi, organist of St. Peter’s in Rome (he published two impressive collections of toccatas, capricci, and canzonas in 1626 and 1637, and a lot of liturgical music), was the teacher of Johann Jacob Froberger, the widely traveled court organist of Vienna. Froberger established the standard for the keyboard suite; his own suites were “rearranged” after his death (the printer, about 1697, moved the gigues that Froberger had usually placed before the sarabande and thereby established the pattern allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue). Froberger’s music was influential not only on later German composers (Bach admired him) but also on the very important school of French keyboard composers.

p. 64French music for the harpsichord is a substantial and idiomatic repertory, drawing its inspiration from lute music and from dance patterns. Chambonnières, Louis Couperin (an admirer of Froberger), his nephew François Couperin “the Great,” Rameau, and others produced characteristic pieces, arranged in suites called ordres, often with fanciful or descriptive titles.

The eclectic and unique Domenco Scarlatti, son of the Neapolitan composer Alessandro Scarlatti and harpsichordist to the king of Spain, produced hundreds of sonatas, mostly in the binary form used also for dances, that are dazzlingly inventive and idiomatic, and that had a profound influence on late-Baroque and later composers.

The keyboard works of Bach, like his instrumental and vocal works, are in a way a summary and a transcending of international styles of his time. His collections of suites (French and English suites, the Partitas) summarize a French tradition; the Italian Concerto and French Ouverture reference other traditions. Many of his collections are designed, at least in part, for teaching: the Inventions and Sinfonias, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the trio sonatas and the Orgelbüchlein for organ. The amazing Goldberg variations, the many concertos for harpsichord, all attest to Bach’s amazing skill as a player, an improviser, a composer, and a teacher.

His organ music, more than half of it based on Lutheran chorales, is equally impressive and virtuosic. Including influences from other composers (Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Vivaldi, and others), his preludes and fugues, toccatas, and other independent pieces have been the proving ground for organ students, and the mainstay of the organ repertory, ever since the revival of interest in Bach’s music in the nineteenth century.

The range of Baroque music

So far this section on Baroque repertory has dealt mostly with forms and genres, vocal and instrumental. Since Baroque music is p. 65so closely defined, in its own times, by conventions and categories, these are useful things to pass in review. It will be worth noting that a great deal of influence seems to come out of Italy and spread abroad. (In Renaissance music a lot of composers from elsewhere go to Italy.)

But not everything fits into the view of Baroque music we have just explored; what follows here is a series of remarks, or vignettes, of aspects of Baroque music that ought not to be overlooked.

The combination of Lutheran chorales from the Renaissance with the influence of Venetian sacred music of Gabrieli and Monteverdi made for a thrilling variety of sacred music in North Germany. Michael Praetorius (1571–1621), the enormously prolific writer and composer in Wolfenbüttel, discovered the new Italian style and speedily retrofitted much of his music to reflect the magnificent Venetian polychoral style, with basso continuo, ritornellos, embellished solo voices, and contrasting groups. He composed much new music in the style as well and made a marvelous combination of chorale and new style.

Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), Kapellmeister at Dresden, was a student of Giovanni Gabrieli and deeply influenced by the music of Monteverdi (he made two separate trips to Italy). His Sinfonie sacrae, his Kleine geistliche Concerte, and other works, though they are not generally based on chorale melodies, brought the modern Italian style to Germany, and it spread widely through Schütz’s fame, his printed works, and their quality.

A magical combination of French and Italian style, with a unique English quality, is found in the music of Henry Purcell (1659–1695), whose music for the theater is special for its quality, for its abundance, and for its brilliant setting of English texts. The so-called semi-operas of the London stage—spoken dramas with much music—included masterpieces of Purcell: p. 66The Indian Queen, King Arthur, Diocletian, The Fairy Queen; his little opera Dido and Aeneas, though unfortunately incomplete, is a perpetual delight; and his sacred music, chamber music, keyboard music, all together make him one of the greatest English composers of all time.

The traditions of France have long been proudly different from those of other parts of Europe; even though opera was brought to France by an Italian (Giovanni Battista Lulli, later Jean-Baptiste Lully), the French version of Baroque music has many characteristics of its own, and was widely influential in its turn.

The operas of Lully and his successors, especially Jean-Philippe Rameau, do not follow the Italian model, but feature a much richer recitative, fewer showy arias, and lots and lots of dancing and instrumental music.

The highly stylized quality of French dance music, of French opera, of harpsichord and organ music, fits in well with the strictly codified style of acting and dancing on the stage. French style in all these matters, as well as in dress, literature, philosophy, and much else, were highly influential throughout Europe. The contrast of French and Italian style was one of the defining issues of Baroque music; even within France, the adherents of Italian music caused interminable arguments in the artistic and literary community about the relative merits of the two styles. Purcell, Bach, and many others owe much of their success to their skill in combining aspects of both styles in their music. Those who know Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas will know a lot of French-inspired dance music, and will also know a classic Italian-style lament on a repeating bass line in Dido’s famous “When I am laid in earth.”

What’s missing?

A chapter about Baroque music, about the repertories being rediscovered and reinterpreted, cannot mention everything. So far p. 67we have suggested the importance of categories, genres, and national styles, along with mention of some of the most famous composers. What we have not done is suggest the vast variety of music that is not by Corelli, Vivaldi, Purcell, Lully, Rameau, Bach, or Handel.

Many whole repertories, many fine composers, much music of high quality, remains to be discovered, performed, and recorded. This is one aspect of early music that is an important one, but in the case of Baroque music it has at times been overshadowed by that other theme of early music, the “authentic” performance of music perhaps already known. It is more dazzling to hear Handel’s Messiah in a period performance for the first time than to hear some unknown piece, for the difference between one’s accustomed version and the new early-music version is more striking for a piece one knows.

But there is a great deal of Baroque music waiting to be rediscovered. Marvelous things that we have not discussed include the Italian opera of the earlier seventeenth century (Cavalli, Cesti, Stradella); the underrated high Baroque German operas of Keiser, Hasse, and Graun; the virtuoso court music of Dresden, so admired by Bach; the richness of French opera apart from Lully and Rameau; the storehouse of French Baroque lute music of Denis Gaultier and others; the Spanish zarzuela. And much more.

Baroque music today

Baroque music is the keystone of the modern early-music revival, at least with respect to professional music making, just as Renaissance music is the key repertory for modern amateurs. The revival of the harpsichord was followed by other instruments that play Baroque music: gambas and recorders at first, in the hands of those who had already mastered the often less-challenging technical difficulties of Renaissance music, and only then the key instruments of the period, the voice and the violin.

p. 68Baroque music has never really been absent from the repertory; Handel’s oratorios have never been out of favor, and Bach’s keyboard music and his great passions and cantatas are the mainstays of performers, choruses, and orchestras. Church organists have never been far away from Bach’s music. But performance styles changed over time, and the earlier styles of performance are what has been revived, along with some neglected repertories.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, the place of Baroque music shifted a bit. The early-music performers, recording in the 1970s, created a new world of Baroque music, partly by giving a new, airy sound to familiar pieces (Gustav Leonhardt’s recording of the Brandenburg Concerti, Christopher Hogwood’s of Messiah, various performances by Concentus Musicus Wien), and by bringing to our attention a vast number of pieces that had never been part of the repertory.

Since then, there has been continuing and increasing collaboration between the “standard” performing groups and the early-music world. Major orchestras program much less Baroque music, perhaps knowing that their setup and personnel are not really adapted for getting the best sound out of the music; and when they do perform Baroque works, their performing style is often informed by what they have learned from the early-music performers. Some orchestras invite distinguished leaders in the early-music field as guest conductors; some have Baroque ensembles drawn from their membership.

Early-music ensembles have achieved a level of expertise that makes their performances as inspiring and just as authoritative when they play Baroque music as those of the major orchestras when they play Brahms.