This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:
Baroque music established the early beginnings of classical music in the “modern” sense. Baroque style features mathematically regular rhythms, colorful flourishing melodies, and perfect adherence to the tonalities, shifts, and resolutions of music theory. What is the canonical Baroque style? It might be characterized as music that’s “purely mathematical”. Baroque lacks the grandiose, massive orchestras and dynamical subtleties of the subsequent Classical era (think Mozart); both eras, featuring wide-bodied sound and rhythmic regularity, lack the rhythmic expressiveness and the sliding, artful violin solos typical of the still-later Romantic era.
Each baroque composer, too, introduces unique flavors and elements into his music. I attempt to describe the unique styles of various top baroque composers.
Bach: The Wise King on the Old Throne (1)
Bach’s music is the wisest, deepest, and most mathematically perfect of all. His music, canonically baroque, introduces a central “tonal” key and a basic theme, and develops dynamic, cascading, rolling arpeggios around this key and theme. These arpeggiated chord progressions drift through profound subtleties, bringing musical flavor and intrigue, they climb full-circle through the range of tones and emotions, and finally, and in time, they resolve to the canonical tonal key and resume the theme.
The theme is usually expressible through a single voice (usually a violin, though all parts play and experiment with it), and features a mathematically pleasing sequence of notes and rhythms. This theme, along with the piece’s tonal structure, will usually serve as a “backbone” throughout the work.
The broader theme and its accompanying chord progressions too undergo progressions and variations. The theme usually builds in complexity as the piece moves forward. Also, often, the theme undergoes “development”: either a shift into a minor or a different key, or a more subtle exploration through non-standard key manipulations. These manipulations twist the theme into new flavors and refinements, often bringing tension, difficulty, or other emotions.
Bach’s music, like most baroque music, composes rhythmic time using perfect powers of two. Measures, the basic unit of musical time, are assembled to form larger musical complexities in powers of two: a single phrase might use one measure, a larger developmental phase might span four, and an entire section of the piece might cross 16. At each power-of-two “size scale”, in fact, a unique level of musical significance is represented; this significance, too, remains consistent across time and instance. Rhythmic complexities, moreover, divide the measure into powers of two. “Half notes”, “quarter notes”, “eighth notes”, and so on (arbitrarily far) form the basic building blocks of “intra-measure” rhythm. Bach’s music uses these in perfect geometric subdivision: eights, sixteenths, and subdivided combinations of the above are beautifully overlaid in perfect intricacy.
The first movement of Bach’s “Violin sonata no. 1 in G minor” (1A) will serve as an interesting example. The measure itself is very, very slow. This measure, however, is subdivided into thirty-seconds, sixty-fourths, and even 128ths. The result is an ingeniously intricate rhythm. The chords, moreover, coalesce around a perfect G minor.
Corelli: The Young, Energetic Upstart (2)
Corelli introduces a fast, energetic, and lively baroque music, gripping for its beautiful sharp articulation and its bouncing, geometric rhythms. Corelli’s music contains less deep, consistent meaning than that of Bach; it opts instead for an up-to-the-minute, ever-changing stream of melody, which relates notes more to their immediate neighbors than to any sort of larger theme. His music, more than that of any other Baroque artist, might perk the listener’s ear for its bright, bountiful energy.
Corelli’s rhythms invoke a narrower range of the spectrum of subdivision. Rhythms often feature long consistent stretches of quarters, say, or sixteenths, using melodic variation alone for musical expression and recasting the rhythm as a device of percussive, marching energy.
See (2A) for a sampling of Corelli’s bright music (skip to playlist Video 1 at 5:25, Video 2 at 0:13, or Video 3 at 2:33). Corelli offers, in contrast to the deep meaningful complexity of Bach, a light, joyful style of Baroque which highlights the perfect, enveloping musical geometry of the moment.
(Bonus) Mozart: The Prodigious, Eccentric Genius (3)
Mozart was not a baroque, but a classical composer, working about a hundred years after Bach and Corelli. I include him both as a unique, great composer and as a foil to the baroque era. Mozart’s music (like that of the classical era as a whole) shifts away from the canonically Baroque emphasis on mathematical and music-theoretical depth, and towards a capitalization upon the dynamism of the violin as a physical instrument. Mozart’s music, through the vehicle of bouncing, light, and fairly simple melodies, rigorously explores the three-dimensional terrain of the violin’s sound.
Mozart’s music includes every bowstroke imaginable: ranging from light, off-the-string strokes, to skipping, bouncing chains, to long, flowing draws. Volume too changes rapidly and with profound effect, transitioning from light and aloof to dark and heavy. Mozart’s music, I might note (from personal experience) is extremely challenging to a player accustomed to baroque: the diversity in dynamics and in fingering, in addition to the usual musical challenges, demands an incredible ability to multitask.
At the end of the day, words alone can never fill the vast, intricate body of a musical style. Listening alone will suffice, and I urge the readers to listen to each of these composers with an eye to their musical styles.
- Bach Brandenburg Concertos
- Corelli’s complete works
- Mozart’s works
- Very much not-Baroque, aka What happens after Romantic? Debussy’s “Impressionist” piano works