Baroque Instruments

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Baroque Instruments

Idiomatic Composition.

Baroque composers often wrote music for particular instruments, taking into account their special sounds and qualities—that is, their tonal and harmonic possibilities, their distinctive voice, and range of pitches—to produce works that often have been described as "idiomatic." Composers became increasingly prescriptive about the instruments upon which their music should be played. Hence, the music of the Baroque era differed fundamentally from the medieval and Renaissance periods that had preceded it. In those earlier eras the choice of particular instruments had largely been left up to musicians themselves, who were free to choose from all the available possibilities to perform a particular piece. Many Baroque composers, by contrast, became especially famous for their writing for specific instruments. Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757), for example, was widely known for his compositions for the harpsichord. Scarlatti himself was a virtuoso keyboard player, and his published works for the harpsichord became widely used exercises for students. These works showed off the full range of tonal possibilities and effects that could be gleaned from the best playing on the instrument, and they influenced many later composers' works for the harpsichord. What Scarlatti helped to accomplish for the harpsichord, Dietrich Buxtehude (1637–1707) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) came to do for the pipe organ, creating works that have remained since their time among the most brilliant and accomplished compositions for that instrument. Numerous examples might be cited of new repertory that came into being during the Baroque, which was written for the specific abilities woodwind and string instruments now offered.

Keyboard Instruments.

By the seventeenth century composers had a number of different kinds of keyboard instruments to choose from when they wrote their works, and each of these had its own distinctive characteristics. The chief keyboard instruments of the Baroque were the organ, harpsichord, clavichord, and at the end of the period, the pianoforte. Although the organ is played by virtue of a keyboard, its sounds are produced by wind rushing through pipes. Among keyboard instruments it is unique in its ability to sustain a particular tone so long as the organist holds down a particular key. The organ can also make a wide variety of sounds, depending upon the construction of its pipes. Baroque organs steadily grew in size and complexity and they came to offer the possibility of playing an independent musical line with the feet on a pedalboard. Use of the pedals was particularly advanced in the Baroque period in northern Germany, and this region of Europe had developed a number of organ virtuosi, including Buxtehude and Bach, by the early eighteenth century. Often a town's pipe organ was, like its clock or glockenspiel, a matter of intense pride, and the instrument was added onto, remodeled, and modernized to fit the changing tastes of the era. Figures like Bach supplemented their incomes by evaluating the organs of other churches, and suggesting to town and parish councils ways in which the instrument might be improved. Massive pipe organs, though, were hardly household instruments, although smaller scaled units were sometimes found in wealthy homes and the palaces of the nobility. By and large, the chief domestic keyboard instruments of the era were the clavichord and harpsichord, which produced their sounds by striking or plucking strings. Musicians and composers often used the clavichord, considerably smaller and less expensive than the harpsichord, as a practice instrument. It is a difficult instrument to play since it requires strength and dexterity of hand, and produces a much quieter sound than a modern piano. Later Baroque musicians often relied upon it to build technical strengths that they could then apply to harpsichord and pianoforte playing. Unlike the harpsichord, the instrument provided a considerable dynamic range, and when struck vigorously it produced a much louder tone. Few Baroque composers, though, exploited the instrument's strengths, with the exception of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788), one of Johann Sebastian's sons, who wrote a number of works for the clavichord in the later eighteenth century. The harpsichord was more popular with composers, and since the mid-seventeenth century this instrument had been undergoing constant technical innovations. At that time the harpsichord had become popular as an instrument for solo performance and for accompanying singers. It was favored in part because its sound was not unlike that of the lute, which in both the Renaissance and early Baroque periods was the most common domestic instrument in use throughout Europe. Like the lute, many keys could be struck on the harpsichord simultaneously to play chords, and for this reason the instrument played a key role in many of the orchestras and ensembles of the Baroque era. The harpsichord, like the organ, provided a ready source of continuous accompaniment to other instruments. It was also widely used in the theaters of the time as the instrument favored to accompany operatic recitatives. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, its limited dynamic range—that is, its inability to play loud and soft—meant that it was to become increasingly replaced by the fortepiano once such dynamic range became a prominent feature of composition and performance. A relative newcomer among the keyboard instruments of Europe, the fortepiano was invented in the early years of the eighteenth century. Rather than its strings being plucked, they were struck by hammers, and a player was thus able to produce great dynamic contrasts. It was for this reason that that instrument was originally known as the clavicembalo col piano e forte, or a "loud and soft harpsichord." Few Baroque-era composers explicitly stipulated the pianoforte's use in their compositions, since its popularity did not gain ground until the second half of the eighteenth century.

String Instruments.

The violin, along with its related stringed instruments played with bows, rose to great prominence during the Baroque era, in part because its sound has so much in common with the human voice, and composers of the era valued vocal singing highly. Some composers became especially well known as composers for the violin and other stringed instruments, such as Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741). The violin had begun to appear in Europe in the fifteenth century, about the same time as the family of instruments known as viols had developed. Violins were distinguished from viols by the fact that they were held at the chin, while the viols were usually held in the lap or between the legs. While both viols and violins persisted throughout the Baroque period, members of the viol family like the viola da gamba were generally unable to compete with violins in dynamic range, and by the mid-eighteenth century they had begun to fade in popularity. Today the violin family consists of the violin, the slightly larger and lower-pitched viola, the cello, and the double bass. While these instruments are related to those of the Baroque period, violins differed regionally in Europe during the era, and there was considerable change and development over time in construction techniques throughout the period. Most pieces written for string ensembles concentrated on lines written for the violin and the viola. The undeniable rise in the violin's popularity in the seventeenth century can be seen in the appearance of a number of centers of violin production throughout Europe. By the early seventeenth century the Italian towns of Cremona and Brescia were already famous for their violins, and Cremona was eventually to produce the two makers, Antonio Stradivarius (c. 1644–1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri (1698–1744), by which quality standards have been judged in modern times. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, many other makers and regions were known for the quality of their violins. The instruments of Jacob Stainer (1617–1683), a producer from the Tyrol in Austria, were widely admired throughout Europe, as were those produced at Mirecourt and Paris in France. Regional variations in musical composition and practices tended more and more to produce differences in the style of violin playing throughout Europe. By the end of the seventeenth century, for example, there was a recognizable "French style" of violin playing that was characterized by greater control over bowing and precision in rhythm and the use of ornamentations, a style that derived from the use of the violin in France to accompany operas and ballets and in the playing of the French overtures. By contrast, the Italian style of composition for the violin concentrated on showing off a player's virtuosity through brilliant passages of ornaments, runs, and trills.


Wind instruments had a variety of uses. Some, like horns and trumpets, were often used outdoors for fanfares, processions, hunting, and military occasions. They were more often used in groups, and seldom served as solo instruments. On the other hand, some woodwinds became so popular that instrument makers helped adapt and change them in order to make them better solo instruments, though woodwinds continued to serve in ensemble performances as well. By the later seventeenth century, the flute and the oboe had begun to compete with the violin as solo instruments that could be as expressive as a singer. During the Baroque period flutes were produced in two different varieties: the recorder and the transverse flute. Recorders are played by blowing air through a hole in their end, while the transverse flute is held sideways. Until about 1740, composers wrote music for both instruments, although after this date the transverse flute came to be favored almost everywhere. Instrument makers worked to extend their range of pitch, similar to the changes in the era's keyboard instruments; they also sought to improve the quality of sound throughout that range, so that the new baroque flutes and oboes could play two octaves and more. The king of Prussia, Frederick II (the Great; r. 1740–1786) was known for his excellent skills in playing the flute. In 1740, Frederick invited the noted flautist and composer Johann Joachim Quantz to Prussia to serve as his court composer. Quantz supplied a generous out-pouring of compositions making use of the transverse flute, Frederick's own instrument. He was also a noted flute maker, and he produced a number of flutes for the king and for use in the royal household. A number of other eighteenth-century composers wrote works for solo flute or oboe, such as sonatas, much as they wrote for the violin, among them Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (who worked for Frederick the Great for a number of years) and Georg Philipp Telemann. As the concerto form developed in the later Baroque and classical eras, the flute and the oboe moved into solo roles here as well, to be joined at the end of the century by the newest wood-wind, the clarinet. The clarinet has a similar pitch range to the flute and oboe, but both its particular sound and its great dynamic range made it appealing to composers in the later eighteenth century, and it soon became a standard musical instrument both for ensembles and for solo performance.


Gerald Abraham, ed., Concert Music (1630–1750) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Philip Bate, The Oboe: an Outline of Its History, Development and Construction (London: E. Benn, 1975).

David D. Boyden, ed., Violin Family (London: Macmillan, 1989).

Rachel Brown, The Early Flute: a Practical Guide (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music. 6th ed. (New York; London: W. W. Norton, 1996).

Bruce Haynes, The Eloquent Oboe: a History of the Hautboy, 1640–1760 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Claude V. Palisca, Baroque Music. 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991).