How to Listen to Baroque Music

October 25, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in History | 2 Comments
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Not all “classical” music is created equal. I can enjoy just about any orchestral piece written after the mid-19th century, but go back farther than that — to the infancy and childhood of classical music — and I start to get fidgety. Baroque music in particular is difficult for me to enjoy. So when I landed an opportunity to write a classical music column for an upstart magazine, listening to baroque music seemed like the perfect topic, right?

The following article was first published in a magazine in the Boston area back in the early 2000s. It was the the first piece of writing I ever got paid for. Enjoy:


How to Listen to Baroque Music

Music lovers the world over attend millions of orchestra concerts every year to hear their favorite classical music. Or do they?

Classical music has come to mean any type of orchestral or chamber music, from Josquin Desprez’s sixteenth-century motets to Philip Glass’s twenty-first-century minimalism. Classical used in this sense means “traditional” and “established.”

But the specific (capital-C) Classical era in music was actually quite brief. It lasted approximately seventy-five years, from Bach’s death in 1750 to near Beethoven’s death in 1827. Before Classical music came the music of the Baroque era, perhaps the least understood and least appreciated of any Western musical style. Many music lovers find it difficult to interpret Baroque pieces, to understand the deeper meaning behind the music, and to find the joy in music that comes so readily from music of later periods.

If you don’t understand Baroque music, or find that you just don’t like it, you’re not alone. The upscale musical crowd of the Classical era looked down its collective nose at what it considered the old-fashioned, unemotional style of Baroque music. Even the word baroque was originally a pejorative term. Baroque comes from a Portuguese word for an imperfect and not particularly beautiful pearl. The term was picked up by critics of seventeenth-century art and architecture who found the style overly ornamental and decadent. The term eventually found its way into musicological circles, but not until the late eighteenth century, after the Baroque period in music had ended.

To speak of a musical era is not to speak of absolutes, of course. A musical era, such as the Classical or Romantic era, only approximates a certain time period in which a certain style of composition was predominant. And the Baroque era was no different. Musicologists disagree about the exact starting point of the Baroque era of music, but they generally agree that it began sometime in the early seventeenth century.

Before that time, during the Renaissance, music was only an extension of text, and instrumental music was almost exclusively a backdrop for vocalization. But as new musical instruments were developed, as a more universal system of tuning was created, and as the Church lost control of the fashions and sensibilities of the populace, styles changed. Instrumental music became less of a backdrop and found its own place in the musical world. Solo instruments came to the fore, supported by the harmonies of the basso continuo, comprising a harpsichord or organ and a low melodic instrument like the cello. As solo performances became popular, the cream naturally rose to the top: The Baroque era saw the first truly virtuosic musicians.

Unlike in later eras, the creation of music during the Baroque era centered on the performer (although the composer often was the performer), who was called upon to add trills, grace notes, vibrato — all sorts of ornaments that later musicologists, in a composer-centered music world, disdained.

During the Classical period, “old-fashioned” music from just a few decades previous was regarded as cold, unemotional, and overly decorative. And by Classical standards, it was. A principle of Baroque composition was that each piece, or each movement of a piece, should depict only a single emotion. Classical music thrived on juxtaposing opposing emotional tones using simple melodies, a technique taken to extremes during the Romantic era.

Also during the Classical era, music publishing houses began to pop up, which meant that a composer’s music could be played hundreds of miles away. Composers, then, took more control over their music, adding the ornaments that they believed would enhance their pieces. By Classical standards, Baroque music, which left so much in the hands of an improvising performer, was undercomposed. The center of music had shifted from the performers to the composers.

Because of this shift in fashion, the Baroque legacy was nearly lost (inasmuch as a musical style could ever be completely lost). Not until 1829, thirty-eight years after Mozart’s death and well into the Romantic era, did Baroque music make a comeback. In that year, Felix Mendelssohn reorchestrated Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion for the more modern instruments available in his time. The music was such a hit with the musicians that, with each rehearsal, the choir’s numbers grew, eventually expanding to three or four hundred voices. Much to Mendelssohn’s relief, the performance of this piece was so well-received that two more performances were scheduled almost immediately.

Mendelssohn’s success sparked a revival in the works of Bach, leading to a renewed interest in Baroque music as a whole, an interest which has continued to this day.

So the next time you’re faced with a night of music from Bach, Vivaldi, Rameau, or Telemann, instead of trying to decipher the differences between a fugue, a round, and a passacaglia, you may find more enjoyment trying to pick out the Baroque nuances and how they differ from the more common Classical and Romantic pieces that symphony orchestras play. Your program notes may help.

Remember that each Baroque piece, or each movement of a multi-movement piece, is intended to convey a single emotion. What emotion does a particular piece move within you? Also note the instrumentation that is used. With the exception of the violin, every instrument in the orchestra has seen improvements since the Baroque era. Did the musicians tote out “period instruments,” usually identifiable by a noticeably smaller number of keys, or was the piece reorchestrated to make use of more modern instruments’ ranges and tonal colors?

Finally, keep in mind that if the musicians use reproductions of the original written music — which you would expect from some of the top-notch orchestras — then a large amount of improvisation is going on. All those twitters and trills are merely hinted at by the composer, and the bulk of artistic expression rests on the performers themselves, much like jazz music today.

And if you still find your mind drifting away as the piece moves on, well, you always have Mendelssohn to blame.

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2 Comments »

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  1. […] How to listen to Baroque Music […]

  2. Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your content seem to be running off the
    screen in Safari. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you know.
    The design look great though! Hope you get the issue resolved soon.

    Kudos


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