Before the Baroque

For the tidy-minded, the Baroque period in music began in 1580 or 1600, depending on how thick your textbook is, and ended in 1750 when Bach died, or 1759 when Handel died. It began in Italy and spread throughout Europe, boasting an impressive van Balen, Minerva among the Muses (Wikimedia Commons)

van Balen, Minerva among the Muses, ca. 1625
(Wikimedia Commons)
collection of achievements, including the birth of opera, the triumph of tonality and chordal thinking over modal theory, idiomatic writing for instruments, the emergence of distinctly national styles, and a decided emphasis on the words in vocal music.

Professional historians like to call it the “early modern period” or something similar, the time during which attitudes, institutions, and social and political patterns became recognizably more similar to our own than to those of antiquity and the middle ages. The watershed was, of course, the Renaissance which preceded the Baroque and brought to light ideas like scientific method, nationalism, and automation, all of which we take for granted. The New World had been discovered, the rift between Catholics and Protestants appeared to be more or less permanent, a distinct middle class was growing in political and economic influence, and the Age of Enlightenment was on the horizon.

The dividing lines marking one historical period from the next are naturally somewhat arbitrary, and if nothing else provide convenient questions to ask on an exam. Of the various trends in music that delineate the Baroque, all were discernible in some form well before the turn of the seventeenth century. On the other hand, it is not inaccurate to say that several Detail of a baroque piano keyboard

A baroque piano keyboard (detail)
(Wikimedia Commons)
movements were afoot close to 1600 whose proponents worked consciously toward sudden and radical change in the ways music was written and performed.

Nor was there a single Baroque period in music: it happened at different times in different places. Just as there was a confounding variety of styles of music in the twentieth century, there were dozens of species of music during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Experimentation in the early days was unrestrained, and startling fusions of style popped up.

Thus the Baroque is customarily divided into early, middle (or high) and late Baroque, periods of approximately forty– or fifty–year chunks, depending on the region, each with its own defining attributes, yet similar enough for a musician in 1750 to be comfortable with music from 1600.

Ultimately, however interesting the biographies of various composers are, or engaging the historical background, the greatest reward is listening to the music. Baroque music has an immediate appeal, but repeated listening — and a little bit of work — are repaid bountifully.

⇐ The Baroque | Venice ⇒

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