Origins and Elements of the Baroque Style

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Origins and Elements of the Baroque Style

Dating the Baroque.

In music, the period of the Baroque has long been dated between 1600 and 1750, chronological boundaries that are arbitrary, but nevertheless useful in conceiving of the changes that occurred in Western music in the early-modern world. At the beginning of this period, new models of composition began to appear in Italy that were informed by the experiments of composers like Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), and Giulio Caccini (1555–1618) as well as by the discoveries of Renaissance humanists concerning the drama and music of the ancient world. These innovations produced new harmonic structures, compositional techniques, and genres like opera. While music informed by earlier Renaissance models persisted throughout Europe, the innovations of the early Baroque also spread outward from Italy. As these new styles were studied and accepted elsewhere in Europe, the new Baroque styles of composition and performance mixed with native traditions, producing regional variations that were very different from Italian models. Thus two characteristics are at once notable when considering the history of music during the Baroque. First, Europe's musical languages became increasingly differentiated along national and regional lines during the Baroque years. Second, the music that was consumed by aristocratic and urban elites was transformed by the development of new musical genres, new instruments, and new performance practices. It was during these years that many new musical forms appeared, forms that European composers have continued to rely upon until the present. In vocal music, the rise of opera was also accompanied by the appearance of the oratorio and the cantata. Developments in instrumental music were no less innovative. New musical genres like the sonata, the suite, and the concerto have their origins in the Baroque, as do instruments like the oboe, the violin, and the transverse flute. During these years many of the customs of modern performance developed as well. At the beginning of the period, much of music was still firmly under the control and patronage of the church and the aristocracy. Religious music remained vital throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as did aristocratic patronage for musical composition and performance. At the same time the rise of opera houses in the early Baroque and the emergence of the subscription concert at the very end of the period provided new venues for performance, venues in which Europe's growing class of bourgeoisie were able to indulge their tastes for music. Domestic performances by amateurs were important throughout the era, and traditions of amateur musicianship became even more important over time.

The Renaissance and the Revival of Ancient Music.

Many of the Baroque period's features emerged as a result of a climate of experimentation that can be traced to Italy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This new climate of innovation owed a great deal to the intellectual life of the later Renaissance and to its steadily intensifying search to understand Antiquity. During the years after 1550 musical theorists and historians working in several Italian cities had become increasingly fascinated with examining ancient writings on music in order to revive some of its performance practices. From the texts of ancient authors like Plato and Quintilian, Renaissance intellectuals understood the high regard in which the ancients held music. The art was credited with possessing the power to transform the soul and to shape the human emotions, and many legends contained in ancient texts granted music an enormous ability to perform feats of transformation on the human personality. An oft-quoted legend, for instance, credited one of Alexander the Great's important victories to the effects of a stirring tune played right before battle. As they reflected on the music of their own age, many later Renaissance thinkers judged their own art wanting since they found it had little power to shape the emotions in the ways in which the ancient art had done. The efforts that soon developed to recreate ancient music, though, were always piecemeal and incomplete, since no actual compositions had survived from Greece or Rome. While Renaissance artists were able to examine the many artifacts that survived from the ancient world, no such reliable body of evidence survived as a guide for composers interested in recreating ancient music. Knowledge of the tuning systems, instruments, and ancient musical modes was similarly fragmentary. Thus as they tried to recreate ancient sounds, most composers of the time were forced to adapt the incomplete knowledge that they had of antique music to forms that already existed in their own day. In this way the expanding, but nevertheless imperfect knowledge that intellectuals possessed of the ancient art shaped the performance practices and compositional styles of the later Renaissance and early Baroque. It was in Florence, a city in which a number of musicians and men of letters studied ancient Greek musical treatises, where the attempt to understand the role music had played in ancient drama developed most decisively. There a picture began to emerge in the later sixteenth century of a musical tradition that was very different from that of the sixteenth-century world.

Florence and Early Opera.

The development of opera best demonstrates the transition between Renaissance and Baroque music. The Florentines who studied musical drama in Antiquity became interested in creating their own dramas in ways that recalled, without attempting directly to copy, the features they had come to admire in ancient Greek drama. Key figures in this group were the Florentine aristocrats Count Giovanni de Bardi (1534–1612) and Jacopo Corsi (1561–1602), both humanist-trained intellectuals who were close to the court of the Medici Grand Dukes, Florence's ruling family. Bardi patronized a number of musicians, and his house was often filled with scholars. Later the cultivated circle Bardi helped to create at Florence was to become known as the Camerata, although at the time in which its discussions occurred the group was an informal one that deliberated upon a broad range of issues, including music, drama, literature, and even astrology, a popular fascination of Renaissance intellectuals. During the 1570s the discussion of the Bardi group were enriched through Vincenzo Galilei's correspondence with Girolamo Mei (1519–1594), then Italy's greatest authority on ancient Greek music. From this correspondence, Florence's intellectuals derived much of their theories about ancient music and the ways in which it had been used in Greek drama. The conclusions that they drew from this scholarship helped to inform, not just the practices of the early opera, but Baroque music generally. Florence's theorists argued that the lines of ancient drama had been sung and not simply spoken, and that the choruses of these works had included dance or stylized movements that accompanied the sung lines. In addition, they realized that unlike the polyphonic music that was so popular in their own day, ancient Greek music had been monodic—that is, Greek music had used only a single melodic line. Thus the Florentines introduced a new style of singing that they called stile recitativo or "recitative style." In this style, the singer sang a line made up of standard musical pitches, but in a very simple melodic line intended to imitate the inflections and rhythms of speech. A bass line and a few simple chords accompanied the singer.

Experiments in Early Opera.

Following several small-scale attempts to perfect the new art of recitative as a vehicle for setting poetry to music, Jacopo Corsi commissioned an entire drama in the style, Dafne, which was performed in Corsi's palace in 1598. Corsi, a generation younger than Bardi, had recently risen to a position of prominence in Florence's musical world, and as one of the city's most important patrons, he desired to use his position, not just to discuss musical theory, but also to put into practice some of the insights gained from recent scholarship on ancient Greek drama and music. He was himself a composer, but his influence proved to be most lasting through the patronage he gave to other musicians and composers as well as his efforts to encourage Florence's Medici dukes to support the development of a new kind of musical drama. Among those he supported were Jacopo Peri (1561–1633) and Giulio Caccini (1551–1618). Peri was a singer and composer who wrote the music for Dafne in 1598, the work that has long been called the "first opera." Caccini, on the other hand, was also a composer who helped to spread knowledge throughout Italy of the basso continuo style of accompaniment through his popular collections of printed songs. Through Corsi's encouragement several other sung dramas were also staged in Florence in the years immediately preceding 1600, some in his own house, but most in the Medici family residence, the Pitti Palace. Many of these first efforts in the developing genre of opera took their story lines from ancient dramas, myths, and historical events. The story of Orpheus, whose singing was said to charm wild animals and his efforts to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the underworld, was one popular subject. Chief among these path-breaking treatments of the myth was Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo in 1607, which was first performed in Mantua, and is often revived today. The theme of Orpheus fit with one of the chief aims of musical theorists and composers of the time: their efforts to revive ancient music's power to speak to and influence the emotions, a key aim that was also to be shared by many Baroque composers. These early operatic experiments were, by and large, paid for by Italy's nobles and performed before their courts. The Medici court in Florence proved to be among the most avid supporters of the new art, but aristocratic households at Mantua and Rome were also important centers of early opera production. In this early period of opera's development the art form was largely an expensive entertainment mounted in these courtly households to impress guests. Elaborate sets, lavish costumes, special effects, and a generally high level of theatricality and spectacle soon became hallmarks of the early operatic productions.

Monteverdi and the "Second Practice."

Even as opera was continuing to develop as a new musical genre in the years around 1600, new compositional techniques were transforming vocal music and its relationship to the text. Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) was chief among the figures that contributed to this new climate of innovation. Monteverdi was one of the greatest musicians of the late Renaissance in Italy, but he also made important contributions to the new Baroque style. As a consequence, it has long proved difficult to classify this visionary artist. Whether he is best considered as a composer of the late Renaissance or of the early Baroque continues to be debated today, although it is clear that Monteverdi made major contributions to the music of both periods. Monteverdi and those who championed his new compositional techniques wanted to focus the listener's attention clearly on the singer's words and the feelings they expressed. To do this, they simplified the style of composition, and helped to codify the new techniques that were developing at the time. They minimized counterpoint and wrote instead a single musical line for the singer, along with a bass line and enough notes in between to accompany the voice but not compete with it. Often they wrote out only the bass or lowest part of this accompaniment, and simply indicated with numbers the harmonies above that line for the accompanists to add as they saw fit; they began to call this practice "figured bass." Since this bass line also ran continuously throughout the piece, it was also described by many as "basso continuo," or "thorough bass." In order to express emotion, these composers were willing to let their works move through harmonies usually considered jarring, if that seemed to them to help express the line of text they were setting to music. In an early publication of a book of madrigals in 1605, Monteverdi referred to this style of composing as a new practice, or a "second practice." Two years later, his brother and fellow musician Giulio Cesare Monteverdi (1573–1630), explained in print that in this new practice, the text is mistress of the harmony. Other composers soon followed suit, continuing to develop this new practice. The new style then spread gradually across Europe. Other regions strove to hire Italian musicians, and Italian styles, composers, and performers dominated Europe in the Baroque era that followed. It is the birth of the new or "second practice," that is seen as the starting point of the Baroque era.


introduction: The violinist Marco Scacchi was born in Viterbo around 1600, and by 1621, had been appointed as a musician in the court at Warsaw. Today, he is best known for his defense of new music, which he published as A Brief Discourse on New Music (1649). In it, he compares the explorations made by the new musicians to those of Christopher Columbus's exploration of the New World. While remembered today largely for his role in this controversy, Scacchi was a remarkably original musical theorist as well.

Let them say, pray, if Columbus had not sought with his intellect to pass the Pillars of Hercules through navigation, would he have discovered a New World? And yet, it is known to all, that when he put forward his sublime thought with demonstrative reasons he was thought mad, and all this arose because those to whom he reported his undertaking did not yet have the capacity for that which he was demonstrating, and yet in the present century the human race owes him so great a debt as a New World is worth. So now I say of the modern music, that if someone had proposed to our predecessors how one can operate the art of music in a manner different from that which they taught us, they would have deemed him a man of little knowledge. But this cannot be denied in the present age, for the hearing judges it as that from which music has received, and daily receives, greater perfection. Wherefore I say that just as Columbus made apparent in his field that which the first inventors of navigation were not able to investigate, so our modern music makes heard today that which our first masters did not hear, and still less was it granted them to investigate that which modern musicians have discovered to express the oration. …

The old music consists of one practice only, and almost one same style of using the consonances and dissonances. But the modern consists of two practices and three styles, that is, the style of the church, of the chamber and of the theatre. Of the practices, the first is Ut Harmonia sit Domina orationis ['that the harmony is the mistress of the oration'], and the second, ut Oratio sit Domina harmoniae ['that the oration is the mistress of the harmony' …]. And each of these three styles contains within itself very great variations, novelties and inventions of not ordinary consideration. And it must be noted that the moderns understand this new music—in terms of style and of using the consonances and dissonances differently from the first practice—to be that which turns on the perfection of the melodia [the combination of oration, harmony and rhythm], and for this reason it is called second practice, different from the first, prompted by these words of Plato: Nonne est Musica, quae circa perfectionern melodiae versatur? [Gorgias 449D … 'Is it not music which turns on the perfection of the melodia ?']. Wherefore modern compositions are defended to the satisfaction of the reason and of the sense: to the satisfaction of the reason because it relies on the consonances and dissonances [as defined by] mathematics, and on the command of the oration, principle mistress of the art, considered in the perfection of the melodia, as Plato teaches us in the [f. 12v] third book of the Republic [39D] and therefore is called second practice; and to the satisfaction of the sense, because of the mixture of oration commanding rhythm and harmony subservient to it.

source: Marco Scacchi, "Breve discorso sopra la musica moderna," in Polemics on the 'Musica Moderna.' Trans. Tim Carter (1649; reprint, Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 1993): 37, 59–60.

The "First Practice" Survives.

While music written in the "second practice" gained in popularity throughout the seventeenth century, older Renaissance styles of composing also continued to exist side-by-side with the new methods. This older style, or the "first practice" that was continuous with Renaissance musical practice, was contrapuntal, with a number of distinct lines or voices sounding together at the same time. It continued to look back to the great composers of the middle sixteenth century for inspiration, especially to the writings of the Roman composer Pierluigi Palestrina (1525/6–1594) because of his skill at making these independent voices blend well together. Throughout the Baroque era composers continued to write complex works of counterpoint, works that require and reward careful listening. Thus this "first practice" needs to be understood as a central part of Baroque music. Perhaps the most noted advocate of this older style of composition was Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), who wrote many works of counterpoint toward the end of the Baroque era. Counterpoint was an essential musical language to many composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it even outlived the Baroque. The tradition of the "first practice" survived even into the nineteenth century when figures like Ludwig van Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn studied techniques of counterpoint and used them in their composing. The "first practice" was so fundamental to the music of the Baroque era that musical theorists of the later Baroque eventually abandoned the distinction that had once seemed essential between music composed in the "first" or "second" practices. Instead they classified compositions according to the setting and environment in which the music was to be performed. Hence, music was sorted into categories such as church music, chamber music, and theater music.

Harmonies Major and Minor.

Whether written in the new style or the old, the first practice or the second, music in the Baroque era came more and more to use major and minor keys, rather than the system of modes used in earlier music. A key uses an eight-note scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do). "Do" is the "home" note; the fourth and fifth steps (fa and sol) also help give shape to the piece. Harmonies are built using triads, or chords of three notes, made up of notes that are a fifth and a third above the foundation notes. Major scales differ from minor ones especially by the pitch used for "mi." This system of scales and triads is still in use today, so Baroque music sounds more familiar to modern listeners than does the music of earlier times. Music written in modes, by contrast, may seem foreign to modern ears. The ways that instruments were tuned, especially keyboard instruments, also helped to determine which keys sound best. A number of tuning systems came to be used throughout Europe during the Baroque period. Some favored the use of a few keys, such as G and C; music played in those keys would sound better in tune than if it were played with our modern tuning systems, but music in other keys would sound worse. One of these tuning systems was called "well tempering," which allowed a keyboard to play in a wide range of keys. Johann Sebastian Bach, who was very interested in the construction and tuning of keyboard instruments of all types, wrote a set of pieces, called The Well-Tempered Clavier. The work included pieces in all 24 keys used in composition and thus brilliantly showed off the advantages of the new tuning system.

Implications of These Changes.

By the mid-seventeenth century the innovations of Italian composers like Monteverdi had begun to forge a distinctive Baroque sound characterized by the basso continuo, monody (music consisting of a single melodic line), and the use of harmonic keys. These innovations had developed, in large part, as a result of the late Renaissance's fascination with ancient drama and the attempt to recover the emotional power that scholars, composers, and musicians felt reposed in ancient music. At the same time the contrapuntal techniques of the Renaissance continued to survive throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and were to inform much composition in the Baroque. The persistence of both styles proved to be one of the enduring characteristics of music throughout the period.


Howard Mayer Brown, "Opera, Origins," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Eds. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. (London: Macmillan, 2001).

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).

see also Dance: Social Dance in the Baroque ; Visual Arts: The Renaissance Legacy ; Visual Arts: Elements of the Baroque Style