Most experts date the Baroque period in classical music from about 1600 to 1750, putting it between the polyphony of the Renaissance and the era of Classicism (the period after the mid-18th century distinguished by the works of composers such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert).
Compositions from the Baroque period are typically marked by their grandiosity and drama as well as the numerous ways in which composers used the technique of counterpoint to express musical themes and ideas.
Developments in the music of this period parallel those in the other arts—for example, massive and ornate buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Caserta Royal Palace in Rome. Venetian Baroque-era churches, built with two opposing galleries, were ideal for the performances of two ensembles of musicians playing at the same time.
A complex form
The concept of two voices or groupings in contrast with one another is a central idea in Baroque composition. Concertos (known in Italian as concerti grossi) featured a solo instrument or voice playing or singing along with a full orchestra. They were a favorite among Baroque composers.
Baroque music tends to emphasize a bass line set against a melody. A cello, for example, might deliver the bass, while a vocalist sings a melody.
The technique of counterpoint is central to the development and performance of Baroque music.
Simply put, counterpoint is the art of combination. A composer working with counterpoint will juxtapose two or more separate melodic lines in a single composition. In counterpoint, individual melodic lines are known as “parts” or “voices.” Each part or voice has a distinct melody.
The term “counterpoint” is sometimes incorrectly conflated with polyphony. Polyphony refers to the presence of at least two individual melodic lines in a composition. Although counterpoint evolved out of polyphonic music, counterpoint is a much more complicated technique. True counterpoint involves a complex handling of the several melodic lines of a composition to fashion an acoustically and emotionally meaningful and harmonious whole.
The organ and the harpsichord are perhaps the instruments audiences most acquaint with Baroque music. During the Baroque period, these instruments offered two keyboards, allowing the musician to transfer from one to the other to create the rich blending of the contrasting sounds.
A centuries-old technique that continues
Composers of the Classical period were usually steeped in the techniques of Baroque composition from their early years. Some, like Mozart and Beethoven, would go on to employ counterpoint extensively in their own later works, written well into the Classical era.
Counterpoint continues to find favor today among musicians, composers, and even mathematicians, who have devoted much effort to explaining its symmetry and intricacy in terms of numerical relationships.
The supreme artistry of Bach
Numerous critics and teachers have found the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach to represent a pinnacle of the development of the concerto grosso form, and of the Baroque style itself.
Bach created these works over the span of the second decade of the 18th century, one of the happiest periods of his life. The six compositions masterfully weave together the component threads played by a smaller orchestra and by several solo groups.
Music scholars point out that the scale of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 features so many soloists that it is more of a symphony than a concerto, in fact. Bach brought in oboes, horns, a bassoon, and a solo violin. And the third of these concertos features performances from no fewer than three cellos, three violas, and three violins. Unique among these concerti, Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 features not even a single violin; instead, it focuses on lower-voiced string instruments.
Three centuries after their composition, the rich-toned, lilting Brandenburg Concertos remain among the most popular and beloved works in the classical repertoire.
The art of fugue
Bach was a master of the fugue, and many musicologists revere his late work The Art of Fugue as one of his most significant creations.
A fugue is a piece of music—or a part of a larger composition—that offers finely tuned and mathematically pleasing use of a central theme (the "subject") and numerous restatements and reconfigurations of that theme. In a fugue, the subject is taken up by other parts that are successively woven together.
A fugue begins with an exposition, introducing the listener to the central subject. The subject then plays out in different parts, becoming transposed into various keys that serve as “answers” to the essential statement of the subject. A fugue can unfold over as many statements, restatements, and key changes as the composer would like, and can be as short or as long as desired, as well.
Baroque composers worth knowing
Gramophone magazine, one of the world’s premier authorities in classical music criticism, recently put out its 2019 edition of the Top 10 Baroque composers.
Bach heads the list, with the Gramophone team noting that he continues to enjoy a status in music equivalent to that of Shakespeare in literature or da Vinci in the visual arts. The publication particularly recommends Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as a supreme example of his musicianship and of the Baroque style.
Next comes Antonio Vivaldi, whose lavish, ornate compositions echo the culture of his native Venice at the time. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is perhaps the best known of his works today. This lilting, exuberant hymn to the beauty of earth’s changing seasons is known for its exquisite craftsmanship.
George Frideric Handel’s lively, upbeat Baroque compositions are other essentials for anyone becoming familiar with the era. His towering oratorio Messiah remains a not-to-be-missed composition for both music lovers and those devoted to the Christian faith.
The experts at Gramophone additionally nominate English composer Henry Purcell, composer of Dido and Aeneas and other operas, to this select group. Claudio Monteverdi, remembered as a bridge between Renaissance polyphony and the early Baroque style, also made the list, as did Domenico Scarlatti, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Georg Philipp Telemann, Arcangelo Corelli, and Heinrich Schutz.