New Instruments

Alongside the many changes in vocal genres at the onset of the 1600s, music for instruments alone saw significant changes, as did music for instruments and voices together. The affective, expressive manner of the monodists and the proponents of seconda pratica was infectious, and instrument players were interested in exploiting similar nuances. Older instruments like the viol or the lute by no means disappeared, but newer ones such as violins and guitars were prized for their greater brilliance, volume and agility. And as in vocal music, new forms of instrumental music began to appear.

Musical instruments are most often classified by how they produce their sound — sometimes described with earthy verbs by their respective detractors as ‘bang,’ ‘blow,’ ‘pluck’ or ‘saw.’ But they may also be separated into those which produce Viola da gamba
Viola da gamba
(Wikimedia Commons)
one note at a time, and those which can produce two or more at a time. Keyboards and strung instruments are the most obvious members of the latter.

A common stringed instrument of the ‘sawing’ persuasion during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the viola da gamba, literally “leg viol.” Its most familiar analogue is the modern cello insofar as it was held between the knees while played using a bow in one hand, stopping the strings with the other by pressing them against the fingerboard. But the viol was otherwise quite different: its fingerboard was fretted like a guitar, its shoulders sloped, and it had a darker, throatier sound. And it was rather more adept at playing polyphonically, i.e. more than one note at a time: the bow curved away from the bow-hairs.

Instrument–making observed no hard–and–fast standards, however, and there were many stringed instruments played by bowing. The violin Violin
Violin
(Wikimedia Commons)
family of instruments emerged during the sixteenth century and caught on quickly. For one thing, it was louder and brighter, because front and back were curved, allowing greater string tension and faster damping of sound. The fingerboard had no frets, and there were four strings instead of the gamba’s six, contributing to a more agile yet subtle instrument. Like the gamba, it came in various sizes, but was normally played by holding it on one arm, and was therefore called — at least at first — the viola da braccio, an “arm viol.”

Guitar and Lute
Guitar and Lute
(Wikimedia Commons)
Equally as popular was the guitar, originally from Spain, where a host of similar instruments of Arabic and middle–eastern origin served as ancestor and contemporary. Like the lute, the guitar could be played as a melody instrument by plucking strings with the fingers of one hand and stopping — pressing — the strings against the fretted fingerboard with the other — the punteado approach. But it was more compact, with flat front and back, and like the violin had considerably more volume, and thus lent itself well to strumming (rasgueado) to accompany singing or dancing.

Chitarrone
Chitarrone
(Wikimedia Commons)
The chitarrone was specially adapted from the lute to play accompaniment. In addition to the normal six or so courses of a lute that were traditionally played punteado, the chitarrone — sometimes called a theorbo — was fitted with an extra long neck and unstopped bass strings. In early Baroque music, it is the continuo instrument of choice.

Naturally the new–fangled instruments were at first considered less ‘noble’ than their more traditional counterparts. The violin, for example, was not allowed in some churches, where cornetti were thought to be more suitable. That situation changed, however, as more musicians learned to play the new instruments and, more especially, composers wrote music for them.

Applying labels is fraught with pitfalls. The subject of musical form — architecture — is a pertinent object lesson. A sonata–shaped box, for example, holds an exposition–shaped box, along with a development box and a recapitulation box. They go into the sonata box one way only, and only in that order. The exposition box holds a first–theme box and a second–theme box to which the same rules apply. But for composers, form was less an outline to be followed as it was a consequence of composing, of the problem they were trying to solve or the ideas they wanted to express. This is one reason why musical forms are not eternal. Everything in and about sonata form had pretty much been said by the end of the nineteeth century. If you really had to travel with a work in sonata form, it came with an enormous amout of baggage.

Formal expectations for music of the early Baroque are quickly stymied. Words such as ‘canzona,’ ‘concerto,’ even ‘madrigal,’ meant different things to different composers, and were even used inconsistently by the same composer. One needs to bear a few things in mind in this light. For one, there was no burden of tradition behind such labels, no canon of custom: some terms were being used for the first time ever. Moreover, composers took a pragmatic, in–the–moment approach during a time of exuberant experimentation. Labels were not meaningless, they were just more plastic than our computerized, compartmentalized minds are accustomed to.

One sort of music that was not new was dance, popular among the gentry and at court. Dance music has formal structure for obvious Shall we Dance?
Shall we Dance?
(Wikimedia Commons)
reasons: speed and stress depend on the steps of the dance. You cannot very well dance a beguine to polka music.

Dances of the late Renaissance and early Baroque were often paired, so a ‘stepped’ dance in duple or quadruple time was followed by a ‘leapt’ dance in triple time. Common were the pavane and galliard, but these gradually saw their popularity wane in favour of the newer allemande and courante. Collections of dance tunes featured numbers in no particular order, many times grouping all dances of a single kind together with one another, from which selections could be made as needed.

Other forms were pattern–based, originating either in dancing or the singing or declamation of songs or poetry. A particularly popular song tune might be used for other verses of poetry in the same meter, and eventually became patterns in their own right, on which players and singers could improvise. The portable guitar was perfectly suited for just that.

Combining instrumental sounds with voices in new ways was inevitable, and enjoyed spectacular successes, especially in a suitable venue like Saint Mark’s in Venice. The terms concerto and concertato came to be applied to the style in the early years of the Baroque to denote groups of instruments and voices performing together. Composers were soon publishing works for instruments alone.

Adriano Banchieri ⇒

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