The Baroque

Historical background
Characteristics of musical style

Historical Background

The character of Baroque arts

The term "baroque," which probably derives from a Portuguese word meaning an irregularly shaped pearl, was coined in the 1740s as a derogatory epithet for works that were judged bizarre, unnatural, or extravagant by the standards of mid-eighteenth-century taste. Historians apply the term in a positive sense to the period from ca. 1600 to 1750 because it captures some of the typical qualities of the arts of the time: magnificence, dazzling display, and powerful emotion. These qualities are balanced by principles of rational design, giving rise to works with strong appeal to both the emotions and the intellect.

Institutional support for music

The two types of institutions that supported music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance--churches and courts--continued to be the principal employers of musicians in the Baroque era. Church music flourished especially in the parts of Europe that remained Catholic after the Reformation and in the Lutheran regions of Germany, where Martin Luther's enthusiastic support for music in education and worship remained influential up to two centuries after his death.

A third type of institution joined the churches and courts as a major focus of musical activity in this period: the public opera house. The invention of opera around 1600 is one of the innovations that separates the Baroque from the Renaissance. Initially a private, courtly entertainment, opera became a public, commercial enterprise beginning in 1637 and rapidly developed into the most popular and prestigious genre of the period. Some composers were even able to support themselves exclusively by writing operas, and successful opera singers amassed fortunes. Opera was the only form of music available to a ticket-buying public for most of the Baroque period; public concerts did not become common until the second half of the eighteenth century.

Methods of classifying Baroque music

Baroque writers distinguish among the musical styles appropriate for church, chamber, and theater, recommending the most restrained, conservative style for the church and the most flamboyant, modern style for the theater. In practice, however, there was considerable overlap in the kinds of music, and even specific pieces, used in these different social contexts.

Another approach to classification is to distinguish between vocal and instrumental music, and then among the functions of music within each of those categories. The Baroque is the first period in which instrumental music is of equal importance with vocal music. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is also the first in which many composers were trained as instrumentalists, rather than choirboys. While the words usually dictated the function and performance context of vocal works, instrumental works migrated more freely among church, chamber, and theater.

Vocal music

  1. Church Music

    Masses continued to be needed for liturgical use in the Baroque (and later) periods, but with a few notable exceptions, they were routine, conservative works of little interest beyond their immediate context. The more modern and historically important type of church music (both Catholic and Lutheran) in the seventeenth century was the SACRED CONCERTO, a work with a sacred text scored for a combination of voices and instruments. Catholic sacred concertos were always in Latin; Lutheran ones could be in either Latin or German.

    In Lutheran practice, the sacred concerto was replaced by the CANTATA in the early eighteenth century. Lutheran cantatas differ from sacred concertos in that they consist of several distinct movements, usually connected by passages of recitative. They are nearly always in German.

  2. Chamber music

    The MADRIGAL, which had been the principal type of Italian chamber music in the sixteenth century, continued to be cultivated in the first few decades of the Baroque, but the typical Renaissance scoring for 4-6 unaccompanied voices was replaced by the new Baroque scorings for various numbers of voices with instrumental accompaniment. When the madrigal died out, its function was taken by the secular cantata, a genre not included in this study guide.

  3. Theater music

    The principal genre of theatrical music in the Baroque was OPERA. Operatic styles exercised a strong influence on all genres of Baroque vocal music.

    Opera was forbidden during the penitential season of Lent. At that time, it was often replaced by ORATORIO, a genre of dramatic music with a sacred subject that was performed without staging.

    The opening number of an opera or oratorio is an orchestral piece called an OVERTURE. There were two distinct styles of overture in the Baroque: Italian and French.

Instrumental music

Dancing was a popular form of social entertainment in the Baroque courts. As a result, sets of instrumental dances called SUITES were an important genre of instrumental music. Some suites were meant to accompany actual dancing; others were were intended only for listening and use features of the popular dance types as a source of inspiration for pure instrumental music.

Other instrumental genres are more abstractly conceived, though they often draw upon dance rhythms and forms in some sections. The SONATA, a piece for one or two (occasionally more) solo instruments and accompaniment, and the CONCERTO, a piece for one or more solo instruments and string orchestra, both serve as vehicles for the display of the technical skill and expressive power of solo performers. The PRELUDE AND FUGUE is a keyboard genre that juxtaposes free, imaginative styles with strict counterpoint; skilled performers often improvised in both of these styles.

Characteristics of Musical Style

Vocal and instrumental ensembles

Baroque music is scored for a wide variety of vocal and instrumental groups. Whatever the scoring, works other than those for solo keyboard or lute are always supported by a chordal accompaniment called a basso continuo, which is performed by a chord-playing instrument (such as a harpsichord, organ, or lute) with a melody instrument doubling the bass line. The continuo part is notated as a bass line with figures ("figured bass") specifying the chords; the performer is responsible for determining the details of chord spacings, doublings, and voice leading.

The most important instruments of the Baroque were the members of the violin family: violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. They played not only in chamber ensembles, but also in orchestras with several players on each part. These orchestras, which sometimes included wind instruments along with the core of strings, are the direct ancestors of the modern-day orchestra.

Harmony and tonality

One of the most important developments of the Baroque period was the system of major and minor keys, functional harmony, and modulation that are still the basis of many musical styles today. The system evolved gradually throughout the period and did not include all of its current features until around 1700. The familiarity of major and minor keys to modern listeners makes Baroque music more immediately accessible than earlier music to many people.

The classification of consonance and dissonance estabished during the Renaissance remains in effect for the Baroque, but the treatment of dissonance is less strictly regulated. Sevenths may be treated as chord tones, and therefore require less rigorous preparation than they did in the Renaissance.

The principles of functional harmony and the use of dissonant chords create patterns of tension and resolution that control the dynamic shape of Baroque compositions. The role of the basso continuo reflects the central importance of harmony in the style of the period.


Melodic styles are more varied in the Baroque than in the Renaissance, partly because Baroque melodies were conceived for a variety of instruments, as well as human voices. Styles initially inspired by the capabilities of one instrument were often imitated by other instruments and voices as well.

Baroque melodies often begin with a distinctive motivic idea and then develop it for an extended time in a process of continuous variation called "spinning out." Melodies of this type can be quite ornate, and performers were often expected to decorate them still further with ornaments of their own invention.


Beat and meter are prominent and heavily emphasized in Baroque music. Changes of harmony fall consistently on strong beats, and repeated rhythmic motives emphasize the regularity of the metric structure underlying them. The strong feeling of beat gives the music a physical quality that relates in a general way to the influence of dance on Baroque musical style.


Baroque music uses many types of texture: homophony, imitation, and contrapuntal combinations of contrasting rhythmic and melodic ideas. Even when the texture is imitative, however, there are usually distinct contrasts among voices. In some cases, an independent bass supports two or more melodies in imitation above it. In other cases, all voices participate in imitation, but when a new voice enters with the original subject, the previous one takes up a contrasting idea.

The constant element in all Baroque textures (apart from solo keyboard and lute music) is the basso continuo. Because the continuo supplies the complete harmonies, the composer is free to write any number of melodies above it. Works scored for more than one or two voices or instruments usually use contrasting resources in different sections to create variety of timbre and texture.


The Baroque is the first period in which dynamic contrast is often part of the compositional plan of a piece. Contrasts among different vocal and instrumental groups usually entail contrast of dynamic levels as well. Changes of dynamic level are typically sudden, not gradual. This style of dynamic changes is known as terraced dyamics.


The aesthetic goal of both vocal and instrumental music in the Baroque was to arouse specific emotions, or affects, in the listeners. All elements of music--timbre, key, harmony, melody, rhythm, texture, and dynamics--work together to elicit the distinctive feeling of a piece. The techniques for capturing specific affects in music are derived from Renaissance word painting, but Baroque composers typically extend each affect for an entire piece or movement, rather than emphasizing the small-scale contrasts that interested Renaissance madrigalists. Word painting remains part of the basic vocabulary of Baroque vocal music, but it is subordinate to the larger context in which the words appear.

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