Learning to Listen to Baroque Music

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
September 23, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Baroque era spans roughly 150 years, from 1600 to 1750. The year 1750 is important because that's the year Johann Sebastian Bach died.

During that time in the history of music, there was one instrument that served as bedrock for the majority of all music, and it was this instrument:

The harpsichord. Sure, composers used harpsichords after the Baroque era, but that happens rarely enough that you can usually assume that if you're hearing one, you're hearing Baroque music.

I think harpsichord gets a bad rap — it's kind of noisy, and maybe a little harsh, but me — I love it, and I prefer to hear keyboard music from this era played on harpsichord rather than on piano.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of the harpsichord in the Baroque era. It popped up virtually everywhere, and it even limited how composers wrote music for larger orchestras.

The harpsichord almost always bounces along underneath Baroque music — let's see if you can pick it out in this next piece by the most famous of all Baroque composers — Johann Sebastian Bach.

Listen for the harpsichord. It's all over Baroque music. That's due in part to this thing called 'basso continuo.' Basso continuo consists of a couple different elements: one must be an instrument that can play more than one note at a time (almost always a harpsichord), and the other element is some type of instrument that plays a bit low, like a cello or a bassoon.

That combination of instruments, the keyboard and the low instrument, is called 'basso continuo' and it provides the harmonic structure to a piece. Kind of like a foundation of a house.

See if you can hear the harpsichord humming away underneath in this next piece by Antonio Vivaldi.

Could you hear the harpsichord underneath? The harpsichord is participating in what's called "Basso continuo", providing the harmonic structure, or foundation, for the piece.

Since the harpsichord is almost always part of basso continuo, both sounds are a dead giveaway that the music you're hearing came from the Baroque era — sometime between 1600 and 1750.

We're going to hear this piece again, because it highlights another limitation of the harpsichord, and illustrates how that limitation prevented composers from doing certain things.

One thing about the harpsichord: there's no volume control. If you bang the keys harder, the sound won't get any louder; if you gently touch the keys, the sound won't get any softer. The sound you get out of a harpsichord is as loud or as soft as it will ever get.

As a result, composers had to be mindful of how loud and soft the orchestra played. To avoid covering up the sound of the harpsichord, composers often used fewer musicians when they wanted a softer sound. You rarely hear ensembles getting gradually louder or softer in the Baroque era, because the harpsichord can't do that.

In the Baroque era, we have what are called "terraced" dynamics. Composers wrote their music so that the number of players controlled how loud or soft the music was, depending on how many people were playing at any given time. So again, subtle gradations in the loudness came after the Baroque era. The Baroque was the age for terraced dynamics.

Another big clue is a technique called "sequencing".

A sequence is a short phrase that's repeated in the same voice but either higher or lower.

It makes a bit more sense to hear it, and Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi LOVED this technique — you hear it all over his music. We'll listen to Vivaldi in just a minute, but let's check out one of the most famous sequences in all of music, from the carol "Angels We Have Heard on High" — the "Gloria" part is a sequence. The sequencing begins at 0:27.

Here's an example from a concerto for strings written by Vivaldi. The piece starts with an ascending scale, then he repeats it again twice — more accurately, he sequences that first idea.

Sequencing was such an important tool for composers in the Baroque era. George Frederic Handel uses it a lot in Messiah, starting at 0:35.

There are a lot of sequences in this next example from Johann Sebastian Bach, and it's just one voice so it might be easier to hear how often it happens. This is the Presto final movement from his Violin Sonata No. 1. Hilary Hahn's performance begins at 2:54.

There are some words and terms that are pretty specific to the Baroque era, like "concerto grosso".

The first word in the term — concerto — implies that a soloist will play with an orchestra. Like a violin concerto, or a flute concerto, or a piano concerto, or a trumpet concerto, etc. That means one single instrument will be soloing with an orchestra.

When we add the word 'grosso,' it means there will be more than one soloist, with an orchestra. Usually groups of soloists.

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are all concerto grossos, or if we're to be grammatically correct, we'd call them concerti grossi.

Here's an example of a concerto grosso in which one violin and two recorders are the soloists:

That's the first movement of Bach's 4th Brandenburg Concerto, it's considered a 'concerto grosso,' which means there is a group of soloists playing with an orchestra. In that piece, the soloists were one violinist and two recorder players.

This next concerto grosso is by Archangelo Corelli — he wrote several of them and is considered the master of this type of music. In this concerto grosso, the soloists are a string trio — two violins and a cellist.

One of the easiest ways to hear the soloists is to wait for the texture to change from full orchestra to a smaller group of players.

When we're talking about those two groups (the orchestra and the soloists), they have names. We call the orchestra the 'ripieno,' and the soloists are called the 'concertino.'

You can hear them go back and forth in this piece, the second concerto grosso by Arcangelo Corelli.

That's an example of a 'concerto grosso' — a type of music popular and ubiquitous in the Baroque era.

Another feature common to the Baroque era is called 'ornamentation'. It was a way to decorate the music, and it was often improvised by the players. Things like trills and mordants, most of which sound like little flutters.

Listen for the fluttering in this next piece by Jean Philippe Rameau:

Here's one more example of how highly ornamented the music was, and we'll listen to an example of a harpsichord piece on piano for this next one:

Other big differences in the Baroque era include the use of period instruments. Vocal technique was a lot different too.

On next week's Learning to Listen, you'll get more practice hearing Baroque music as we hear samples of each of the six Brandenburg Concertos to find out why they are such special pieces of music.

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