Baroque Music

I love baroque music, particularly opera, and I wanted to give a brief overview of some of the main aspects of it.

The baroque era lasted from c. 1590 – c. 1725. It brought forth colorful, emotional and dramatic art, including painting, drama, theater and of course music. The word baroque is derived from barroco, the Spanish or Portuguese word for ‘rough or unfinished pearl.’

The extravagant yet subtle and dramatic music of this era was brought forth by genius composers such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Monteverdi. There are several types of baroque music including concerto, sonata, opera and religious. I am going to focus on my favorite, opera.

The idea of opera came from the Ancient Greek tragedies. The first actual baroque opera was Dafne, composed by Jacopo Peri in 1597. However, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is regarded as the first, mostly because it continues to be performed today. The most typical form of baroque opera is opera seria, which literally means ‘serious opera.’

Teatro Argentina -- 1747 Panini
Teatro Argentina — 1747 Panini

An opera seria begins with an instrumental prelude. This is in the form of allegro-adagio-allegro (fast-slow-fast). The opera then continues with a mixture of recitative (recitation) and da capo arias. The last are arias of the form 1-2-1. They have a beginning, a middle (normally of a different tempo), and then a repeat of the beginning phrase(s) again. The last time verse one is repeated the individual performer gives the music extra ornamentation, normally in the form of excessive coloratura.

One especially unique part of baroque opera were the castrati. The castrati were men who could, through the painful and cruel operation called castration, sing in the range of a woman, typically contralto or mezzo-soprano. There were a few, however, that could reach the range of a woman’s soprano. One of these was Farinelli, the epitome of a castrato.

In the modern day, castration having been banned in the late eighteenth century, some men sing using their ‘head’ or falsetto voice. These men are called countertenors and can sing in the same range as the castrati. A key figure in popularizing this was Alfred Deller.

As previously mentioned, there were several composers who brought forth the beautiful baroque music.

Claudio Monteverdi
Claudio Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643) was a key figure because he bridged the musical gap between the Renaissance and the Baroque. He also brought forth the prolific use of basso continuo, or continuous bass. This is where an underlying bass plays while a higher, more melodious voice sings on top. Monteverdi composed several operas. Unfortunately, only four remain. The best of these is L’Orfeo. Two others are L’Arianna and L’incorinazione di Poppea.

The English composer Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) is another famous baroque genius. He incorporated into his own unique style, that of the Italian and French baroque. His most famous opera, and one of the best English ones, is Dido and Aeneas.  

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) is best known for his work the Four Seasons. His light, happy style was an effort to lighten the usually somber style of concertos. Vivaldi also composed several operas, among them Orlando Furioso, Farnace, and La Fida Ninfa. He greatly influenced J.S. Bach.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) is considered the best baroque composer, and one of the top all-time composers. Bach could masterfully play the violin and the organ. He used a variety of styles, which provides entertaining and breathtaking music. He composed mainly religious music. Some of his great works are Brandenburg Concertos, St. Matthew’s Passion, Mass in B Minor, and the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Bach’s contemporary, and my personal favorite composer, was George Frederick Handel (1685 – 1759). Handel greatly developed Italian opera, and also English music as a whole. His Messiah is one of the greatest English works ever. His portfolio of Italian operas seems unending. Giulio Cesare, Agrippina, Rinaldo, Faramondo, and Ariodante are some of his best.

Finally, Nicola Porpora (1686 – 1768). He was the voice teacher of the famous Farinelli and several other celebrated singers. One of his main operas is Polifemo, from which comes the wonderful aria Alto Giove. In all Porpora composed about four dozen operas, leaving behind a record of mastery and beauty.

In my opinion, the baroque composers had a mastery over music itself, therefore giving it a special ‘flavor’ unseen in any other music. I love this music and I hope that you will love it too!

“Music is an outburst of the soul.” ~~Frederick Delius

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