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The Baroque period was a revolutionary time in music history that saw a full embrace of polyphony, ornamentation, and harmonic sophistication.

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About the Baroque Period of Music

The Baroque period of music occurred from roughly 1600 to 1750. It was preceded by the Renaissance era and followed by the Classical era. The Baroque style spread throughout Europe over the course of the seventeenth century, with notable Baroque composers emerging in Germany, Italy, France, and England.

The Baroque era was not limited to music. Baroque painting (by masters like Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens), Baroque sculpture (led by Gian Lorenzo Bernini), and Baroque architecture (particularly in the Catholic church) were other celebrated forms of Baroque art in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The term Baroque can refer to all of these art forms in addition to music.

A Brief History of Baroque Music

After its inception in Italy, Baroque music expanded throughout Europe thanks to composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

  • Origin in Italy: The early Baroque era of music centered in Italy. Italian composers based in Rome and its surroundings composed music that drew on the traditions of the Renaissance era but also expanded its harmonic and ornamental boundaries. Notable Italian Baroque composers include Alessandro Scarlatti (and his son Domenico Scarlatti), Antonio Corelli, and Claudio Monteverdi. Antonio Vivaldi was the last major Italian Baroque composer. He worked in the later Baroque era, overlapping with George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach.
  • German influence: As musicians traveled throughout Europe, the Baroque style caught on, and new composers added new elements. The English composer Henry Purcell and French composers like Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Phillippe Rameau made marks, but it was the German school of Baroque music that was most influential. Georg Philipp Telemann, Michael Praetorius, Johann Pachelbel, and most of all Johann Sebastian Bach helped define the high Baroque period. Another prominent German was George Frideric Handel, although he spent nearly his entire career in England.
  • End of an era: The Baroque period's end is tied to the death of Bach in 1750. The second half of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century marked the Classical period, where composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn built on the foundation laid by Baroque composers.

Baroque Period Musical Forms

Popular Baroque musical forms include the prelude and fugue, the cantata, the concerto, the oratorio, the sonata, and even opera. Like prior Renaissance compositions, many Baroque pieces have religious themes. Baroque composers were aligned with both the Catholic church and, following the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, other denominations like Lutheranism.

4 Characteristics of Baroque Music

Baroque music made notable advances from the Renaissance period, many of which are still employed by contemporary musicians and composers. Baroque music often has the following characteristics:

  1. Emphasis on dynamics: During the Baroque era, the pianoforte (an early version of the piano) replaced the harpsichord as the primary keyboard instrument. The pianoforte (called a klavier in German) struck strings with felted hammers, whereas the harpsichord plucked the strings. This meant the pianoforte could play both soft and loud, opening new dynamic possibilities. Other new Baroque instruments, like the valve trumpet and the violin, also had immense dynamic potential. Renaissance instruments like the lute were still played, but they were eclipsed in popularity by newer, more dynamic options.
  2. Embrace of instrumental music: Prior to the Baroque era, a great amount of music was vocal music used in liturgical settings. While Baroque composers still embraced singing in the form of chorales, cantatas, and opera, instrumental music became increasingly popular. Some of the most renowned pieces of Baroque music, such as Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Bach's Brandenburg Concerto, are instrumental pieces.
  3. Ornamentation: Much like Baroque architecture and sculpture, Baroque music embraces flair. Even the simplest melodies were often embellished with ornamentations like trills, acciaccaturas, appoggiaturas, mordents, and turns.
  4. Basso continuo: Basso continuo notation became popular during the Baroque era. This form of music notation includes a complete bass line, which is usually played by a cello in a Baroque ensemble. A player of a keyboard instrument like a harpsichord or piano then improvises chords using figured bass notation. Solo organ players often play basso continuo notation entirely on their own.