Baroque Keyboard Music

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Baroque Keyboard Music

A Music For Professionals.

For much of the Baroque period keyboard instruments like the organ and harpsichord were the preserve of professional musicians. Organs and harpsichords were expensive instruments that were not readily available to many amateurs. The organ was, by and large, an instrument used in churches, while the harpsichord, although sometimes present in the homes of wealthy merchants and city dwellers, figured most prominently in the musical establishments of Europe's courts. Most often, professional keyboard players served as church organists, although some were also employed at court as harpsichordists. In these roles professional keyboard players were expected to accompany singers, other instruments, small ensembles and orchestras, as well as choirs and congregations. These tasks required the keyboard player to be able to improvise chords and basso continuo accompaniment and to be able to provide improvised interludes and preludes during the services of the church. Training on the keyboard thus stressed thorough knowledge of the basso continuo, improvisational techniques, and counterpoint. Printed music for the keyboard was extremely expensive in the Baroque era, more expensive than other kinds of published music since the multiple lines of keyboard music had to be printed by relying on an expensive engraving technique. As a result, most keyboard players kept a personal library of handwritten musical manuscripts that they added to throughout their lives. Many of these pieces they had composed themselves as exercises in improvisational and contrapuntal techniques. Although the keyboard music, particularly the organ music, of the Baroque today ranks as one of the period's most readily recognizable sounds, solo music written for the harpsichord or the organ was rarely performed during the period in public. The thousands of toccatas, fugues, preludes, and inventions that survive were more an intellectual kind of music intended to train organists and harpsichordists in the skills that were necessary for them in their professional capacities.

Italian Keyboard Traditions and the Art of the Fugue.

During the early seventeenth century several forms of keyboard music appeared in Italy that influenced the compositions of later Baroque composers for these instruments. Chief among those who concentrated on writing for the keyboard was Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643), who served as organist at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome after 1600. Frescobaldi was to have almost as great an impact on writing for the organ and other keyboard instruments in the later Baroque period as Claudio Monteverdi did on the era's vocal music. Like Monteverdi, though, Frescobaldi's compositions remained an amalgam of older Renaissance styles with those of the developing Baroque. He wrote many works for keyboard soloists that were intended to sound like improvisations and which also included stylistic elements of late-Renaissance polyphony. These include fantasias, toccatas, and variations, or, as Frescobaldi termed them, "partitas." All three of these forms had precedents in earlier Renaissance music, although Frescobaldi's genius opened up new horizons in their use. The word "toccata" comes from the Italian for "touch," and works of this sort had developed in the sixteenth century to display a performer's virtuosity on the lute or at the keyboard. It became common, in part through Frescobaldi's published works for the organ, to pair these free, seemingly improvised pieces with a contrasting one in which the counterpoint was carefully worked out following strict rules. Frescobaldi used many terms to describe these contrapuntal movements, although in English they have come to be known as "fugues," since the great German composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach, used that term to describe them. Thus in many later Baroque organ works we find a number of two-part works with names like "prelude and fugue," or "passacaglia and fugue." A fugue was a polyphonic work written in counterpoint that followed very strict rules. It had a set number of voices (often two, three, or four) and was based on a piece of melody called a theme. One voice began by playing through the theme; then, one by one, the new voices entered by stating the same theme while the others continued in counterpoint. Composers played with the theme in fugues by speeding it up, slowing it down, turning it upside down or backwards, putting it in one voice or another, and fitting the other voices with care, until the voices all come together in the conclusion. Listening to a fugue, like writing one, is something of a game and a challenge. Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of organ music in the Western tradition, excelled in their production, and he wrote fugues to be played on the organ and the harpsichord. Later in life, he also composed his instructional book, The Art of the Fugue, which developed the arts of counterpoint and polyphony to a very high level of intellectualism. In that work Bach explored the tonal possibilities the fugue form had to offer, including forms that had two and three themes and counter-fugues in which the themes gradually diminished and disappeared.


introduction: The development of many new instruments in the eighteenth century resulted in an increasing number of texts that treated proper performance techniques as well as the limitations and benefits that these new technologies opened up. C. P. E. Bach, the most illustrious of Johann Sebastian's sons, provided this treatment of the limitations and advantages of the keyboard instruments of his own time.

Keyboard instruments have many merits, but are beset by just as many difficulties. Were it necessary, their excellence would be easy to prove, for in them are combined all the individual features of many other instruments. Full harmony, which requires three, four, or more other instruments, can be expressed by the keyboard alone. And there are many similar advantages. At the same time, who is not aware of the many demands that are made upon it; how it is considered insufficient for the keyboardist merely to discharge the normal task of every executant, namely, to play in accordance with the rules of good performance compositions written for his instrument? How, beyond this, he must be able to improvise fantasias in all styles, to work out extemporaneously any requested setting after the strictest rules of harmony and melody; how he must be at home in all keys and transpose instantly and faultlessly; and play everything at sight whether designed for his instrument or not; how he must have at his command a comprehensive knowledge of thorough bass which he must play with discrimination, often departing from the notation, sometimes in many voices, again in few, strictly as well as in the galant manner, from both excessive and insufficient symbols, or unfigured and incorrectly figured basses; how he must often extract this thorough bass from large scores with unfigured or even pausing basses (when other voices serve as harmonic fundament) and with it reinforce the ensemble; and who knows how many other things? All this must be done competently, often on an unfamiliar instrument which has not been tested to determine whether it is good or bad, whether it is playable or not, in which latter case extenuation is but rarely granted. On the contrary, it can be expected that, normally, improvisations will be solicited without anyone's being concerned whether the performer is in the proper mood, and if he is not, without any effort being made to create or maintain the proper disposition by providing a good instrument.

Notwithstanding these demands, the keyboard has always found its admirers, as well it might. Its difficulties are not enough to discourage the study of an instrument whose superior charms are ample compensation for attendant time and trouble. Moreover, not all amateurs feel obliged to fulfill all of the requirements. They satisfy as many of them as they care to or as their innate talents permit.

source: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. Trans. William J. Mitchell (New York: W. W. Norton, 1949): 27–29.

French Keyboard Music.

In France, the tradition of organ building was well developed by the later seventeenth century, and inspired a distinctive school of organ composition in which compositions for the instrument were often inserted into the celebration of the mass. In contrast to the organs of Italy that featured a clear and smooth sound, French organs were generally larger and outfitted with a wide variety of pipes, many of which imitated the distinctive possibilities and colors of the woodwinds. As a result, French composers for the organ like Nicholas Lebègue (1631–1702) and Nicolas de Grigny (1672–1703) made use of these rich possibilities in the music they composed for the mass. A far larger repertory of French harpsichord music survives, however, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Much of this music was based upon the dances that were used in French courtly society and the theater, and by the early eighteenth century, the popularity of this kind of music had produced a distinctively French form, the dance suite, a set of dances that was played on the harpsichord in a specific order. In the years that followed, France produced two composers of genius in the field of harpsichord music: François Couperin (1668–1733) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764). Today Couperin is sometimes compared to the great nineteenth-century composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin. The comparison is meant to draw attention to the ways in which both figures understood their instrument and its possibilities. Although Couperin wrote both for the organ and the harpsichord, his pieces for the latter instrument show a distinctive mastery of the harpsichord's special tonal possibilities. Many of the pieces that he wrote for the instrument are short dances, their rhythms and melodies reminiscent of the gigues, courantes, and sarabandes that were played in French ballrooms at the time. Despite their small scale and relatively short duration, the composer still manages to endow these pieces with an appealing complexity that draws the listeners' ears to their constantly changing subtle melodies, rhythmic schemes, and rich harmonies. Jean-Philippe Rameau, a musical theorist, became a successful composer of operas and ballets in his middle age, but also wrote music for the harpsichord throughout his life. Like Couperin, he made use of the organizational scheme of the dance suite, but his works were characterized by greater virtuosity. He drew inspiration from the brilliant passagework that was popular in the Italian music of the time. Rapid scales, arpeggios, and leaps characterize the most adventurous of Rameau's works for the harpsichord, devices that might have shocked the more restrained Couperin. He was credited with introducing a technique for rapid hand-crossing at the keyboard, a technique that since then has become known as "Rameau hand-crossing." While many of his pieces are extremely difficult and filled with brilliantly complex passages, Rameau was no less careful than Couperin to notate precisely all the embellishments that players of his pieces should make. Thus as most French composers of the time, neither musician left to chance or the musicians' taste their piece's ornamentation. This tendency of French music stood in marked contrast to the Italian music of the period, in which singers and players were both given considerable freedom to improvise and ornament their musical performances as they saw fit.

Theme and Variation.

A final musical form, theme and variation, played an important role in the keyboard music of the Baroque period. The theme itself consisted of a melody and accompanying bass line; sometimes the melody was that of a well-known song. The work began with a single rendition of the theme and was then followed by any number of sections that altered it, sometimes ingenuously "hiding" the melody in the bass or another voice so that a listener was forced to "hunt" for it. Each section consisted of a repetition or statement of the theme, but with modifications that kept the theme's basic structure while showing off the skills and talents of both composer and performer. While variations on themes had played an important role in demonstrating musical virtuosity since the sixteenth century, eighteenth-century composers in particular reveled in the form. Of the innumerable examples of this genre that were produced at the time, one of the most famous is Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg Variations," which the composer published in 1741 after visiting with his former student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, court harpsichordist at Dresden. Like many of his compositions, Bach's "Goldberg Variations" are conceived of as a massive intellectual project and are arranged according to several different organizational schemes. By contrast, the harpsichord theme and variations of George Frideric Handel, written when the composer was young, display a considerably more playful side. Theme and variation, a form that could alternately be serious or mischievous, survived long after Bach's time. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Franz Josef Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were just a few of the many composers of the classical era that continued to write variations in the later eighteenth century.


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

David Schulenberg, Music of the Baroque (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

K. Marie Stolba, The Development of Western Music: A History (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1998).