The Baroque Era

The Baroque era in music was (roughly) between the years 1600 to 1750.

Some of the most famous composers of this era are: J.S. Bach, Henry Purcell and G. F. Handel. Women composers were rare during this time, but some known examples are Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini.

Typical ensemble instruments in use at this time were the harpsichord, violin family, viol family, flute, recorder, oboe, bassoon, trumpet and horn (brass instrument were scored without a key signature). Most ensemble music was performed with an improvised accompaniment on an instrument such as the harpsichord. The chords and bass line of the music were provided in a “continuo” part with figured bass. Orchestras tended to be small, and were often made up of any assorted instruments that were available.

In the Baroque era, each instrument/voice was often weighted equally, with separate independent melodies woven together intricately to make a harmonious sound. This is called counterpoint. We can say the music has a “contrapuntal texture” or is “polyphonic”.

In Baroque music, modulation was usually only to closely related keys, the relative major or minor, the dominant, or occasionally the subdominant. Tuning systems had not been fully developed, so most ensembles were written in keys with few sharps or flats to allow players to play in tune together. However, the newly discovered “equal temperament” tuning system was used for keyboards, which allowed for compositions in any key. J.S. Bach famously exploited this in two books named “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (meaning the well-tuned keyboard), which feature pieces in all twelve possible major/minor keys.

Baroque music does not contain performance directions, as most of these had not yet been standardised. There will normally be tempo markings, and often a number of ornaments (e.g. trills and turns).

The following piece is by Bach (written for “clavier”, which is a general word for “keyboard instrument”- usually either the harpsichord or clavichord). This type of composition is called a “fugue”.

Bach - Baroque style

Although it’s a composition for just one instrument, Bach uses the contrapuntal style by writing separate strands of music which are interwoven.

The melody begins at A in the right hand. At B, the left hand plays a similar tune, but a fifth lower. At C, a third part is added, playing the same notes as in A, but an octave lower. At this point, the right hand has to play the upper two parts, and the left hand begins the third part.

Not all Baroque music was contrapuntal in texture, but if you do see music written like this it is reasonably likely that it will have been written by a Baroque composer.

Baroque music was usually written in keys with few sharps/flats in the key signature, particularly ensemble music which was kept to the “easy” keys for tuning reasons. Modulations are only to closely related keys (relative key, dominant and subdominant), and the chords used are diatonic only (not chromatic), plus the diminished 7th chord.

Music written for harpsichord or with a bass continuo (figured bass) will normally belong to the Baroque era. The harpsichord was the most popular keyboard instrument at this time, and the piano had not yet been invented.

Baroque music is often written in a perpetual motion style, without clear cut phrases. Much of it is contrapuntal/polyphonic, with two or more independent tunes and is often repetitive rhythmically. Although contrapuntal music does still exist later on as well, in the Baroque era it was at its peak popularity.

Forms popular during this era include the Dance Suite (with movements labelled as “Minuet”, Sarabande”, “Courante”, “Gigue”, etc.), the Toccata, The Prelude & Fugue, the Oratorio, the Sonata, the Trio Sonata, the Concerto Grosso (an early type of symphony) and Opera.