Baroque Style Sampler

This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:

  1. Structure: The Perfection of Bach
  2. Style: Baroque Style Sampler
  3. Performance: Heaven’s Gates

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.

Baroque refers, additionally, to a style of art which shares much with its musical counterpart.

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.

  1. Bach Brandenburg Concertos
  2. Corelli’s complete works
  3. Mozart’s works
  4. Very much not-Baroque, aka What happens after Romantic? Debussy’s “Impressionist” piano works

4 comments on “Baroque Style Sampler

  1. Josh says:

    A few more baroque greats:
    George Frideric Handel.

    His music is driving, bright, and above all, extremely uplifting. It might not always be as energetic as Corelli’s, but, like Corelli’s, it often features awesome up-to-the-minute melodies, as well as long-term themes and variations that rival the complexity of those of Bach.

    Handel is most famous for the chorus of his Messiah (Hallelujah!). Another famous piece is Water Music, which features a shining lead trumpet and singing Baroque melodies from the orchestra. My favorite of all Handel’s music is the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. Within measures, the pattern is a relatively simple (yet beautiful) arpeggio. However, across measures, the progression of key and tonality changes establishes an entirely new level of complexity that’s incredibly moving.

    Now, for a contrast to Baroque, though not as great a contrast as Debussy: Felix Mendelssohn.

    Mendelssohn was an early Romantic era composer. His music certainly contains classical influence, and even a tinge of Baroque, but also the soulful musical expression, rebellious of the conventions of classical and Baroque, that we only see in the Romantic era. In Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E. Minor (the most beautiful piece of all time?), listen for the contrast between the booming orchestral segments, embodying the classical era, and the lone, wistful violin, calling for feeling and emotion in an otherwise linear world.

    • Ben says:

      Agreed on all counts. You should, however, reject comments lauding Handel’s “Bach-like-ness” and “Corelli-like-ness” in favor of those defining and espousing a unique “Handel-ness”. In what does Handel’s unique style consist?

      Handel, I argue, manages to powerfully express emotion even from within the mathematical and stylistic constraints of baroque music. The music carries full baroque musical complexity and depth, and fills baroque’s traditional role as “an expression of mathematical beauty”. Handel’s music, however, also expands beyond this role: into “an expression of pure emotion”.

      The two roles, too, perfectly unite in Handel, so that the notes achieving the one cannot be distinguished from those achieving the other. The result is a beautiful unification. I direct the reader to Handel’s Messiah, here in its entirety.

  2. Richard says:

    I feel like if you wanted to properly exemplify the point about “arpeggiated chord progressions”, the second movement of the Sonata no. 1 would have been a better choice. I prefer it to the first movement, at least. Also, I disagree with your description of the later, high classical period as grandiose. The baroque, in my view, seems to be the grandiose period par excellence. Perhaps, what you mean is simply the size and scale of the projects and works? Their larger more extensive orchestrations etc?

    I’m still not used to the American versions of musical terminology. You say ‘quarter’, I say ‘crotchet’, (let’s call the whole thing off!) I’m also a fan of Corelli (!) though I wouldn’t say that Bach is without light and joyfulness. At least not from what I know of his keyboard work. More complex and ‘deep’, perhaps, than Corelli, in general, but no less capable of joy.

    On what you say of Mozart: The comment concerning the comparative facility of his melodies, I have heard before. What I have to say applies mostly to his works for keyboard instruments. I admit that, in comparison to Bach and in terms of complexity, there is more in Bach; the structures go deeper perhaps. I think that Mozart offers simpler structures, but with more pleasing qualities. Obviously he is not minimalist (some say ‘too many notes!’) but I feel that his love of iterated scale-like structures – plus arpeggiated melodies which are usually simpler than Bach’s and which often have repetition of sub-regions of the arpeggio or multiple interwoven arpeggios being simultaneously executed by one hand to build in as many notes as possible – offers a difficulty of execution which is different to that commonly found in Bach. The structure is usually more explicit in Mozart, and sometimes this sacrifice of complexity is not a bad thing in the interests of purer apprehension. As Ben suggests, it definitely allows greater emphasis on the quality of tone. Also, he tends to build in the left hand as more of an accompaniment to the right hand, and less of a performer itself, which is less true of Bach, in general. Here’s a link to some quintessential Mozart, Sonata no. 11 in A Major K331. Try watching from 13:34 onward:

    Another favourite of mine is the Sonata in C Major K330:

    The ‘Alberti Bass’ was a common feature in high classical composition, especially in Mozart. It’s a very elementary construction involving a broken chord which alternates between the lowest, highest and middle notes of the chord in roughly this pattern: lowest, highest, middle, highest and repeat. It creates a simple, flowing bass background for the sparkle of the elaborate melody line. A nice example is in the third movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, Movement 3, Allegro Assai, here we have traditional jauntiness of the high classical being brought in with strings, woodwind and a whole orchestra of delights:

    Also, in my view, with the only possible exception of Giacomo Puccini, Mozart was the finest composer of Operas history has ever known. Maybe even the finest composer for voice, tout court. Just consider the ‘Tutti Contenti’ passage from the fourth act of the marriage of Figaro …ah… all the world should move to such music! Or ‘Der Holle Rache Kocht in Meinem Herzen’.

    Regarding Handel, that man really knew how to write for voice too. Some of his religious music and his cantatas and operas feature works of true beauty. Consider ‘Piangerno La Sorte Mia’ from his opera Gulio Cesare in Egitto, or even his cantata ‘Ode for the Birthday of St. Anne’ also known as ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine’. Outstanding stuff. There are others though, the early Baroque Monteverdi had some excellent vocal compositions too, try his ‘Si Dolce el Tormento’ cantata, with lute accompaniment, it is superb.

    Aside from vocal though, people like Jean Baptiste Lully and Antonio Vivaldi need mention too. Lully in particular is disproportionately underappreciated. Composing for Louis XIV, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Lully’s work carries all of the formal pomp and flourish characteristic of the Baroque. Consider his ‘Idylle sur la Paix, Air Pour Madame La Dauphine’ (a personal favourite) or the overture from the ‘Ballet De La Nuit’ as examples. Romantic era music can be excellent. But mostly I find it too inelegant, too messy … all that rubato, no thanks.

  3. Ben says:

    I’ve recently discovered a little-known baroque great: Tomaso Albinoni, 1671-1751. While perhaps lacking the structural profundity of Bach or the upbeat energy of Corelli, Albinoni assembles notes into cascading sheets of perfect harmony. Put simply: his perfect melodies are unimaginably catchy! Listen:

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