The term baroque comes from the Portuguese word barroco — pearls with irregular shape that were popular in the jewelry of the seventeenth century. Originally baroque was used as a negative description of the art and music of that era. Now however, it is a general heading for the art, architecture, and music of the years spanning from roughly 1600 through 1750.
The baroque era saw many changes in the culture of Western Europe, the first of which was a desire to create massive and monumental works of art. This characteristic can be seen in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the sculpture of Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), and in the architectural structures at St. Peter’s in Rome and the Palace of Versailles in France. In music there was an emphasis on large performing groups like orchestras and choruses.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, baroque artists paid extreme attention to detail. The walls of baroque palaces and churches were covered with ornamental woodwork and paintings. Musicians wrote melodies that consisted of more rapid notes than ever before in Western music. Notes that were held for a long duration were almost always embellished with quick little ornaments.
Strong, driving rhythms characterize the music of the baroque era. Composers wrote rapid, repeating rhythmic figures that have been described as motor rhythms. This trait inspired people in the 1970s and 1980s to fuse baroque music with disco, creating albums like Hooked on Baroque and Hooked on Bach.
The baroque period also saw heightened expression of emotions in music. This intensity of feelings can be heard in opera — a genre that was developed in Italy around 1600. Opera fused music and drama together and was often based on themes from Greek mythology. Like movies in the twentieth century, opera was hugely popular with the public who eagerly awaited every new production. Also, just as the twentieth century has its movie stars, early opera had its “star” performers.
While opera became increasingly popular in the baroque era, so did pure instrumental music. Two major instrumental genres were developed — the sonata and the concerto. Both of these types of pieces consisted of separate sections called movements. The sonata is a form of chamber music — music that was performed in a small space for a small audience. Composers wrote two types of sonatas. The solo sonata was written for keyboard alone or for a melodic instrument like the violin or flute along with an accompanying keyboard. The trio sonata was written for two melodic instruments with accompaniment. Much of the popularity of the sonata in the baroque era was due to the success of Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713).
Two kinds of concertos were performed in the baroque era — the solo concerto and concerto grosso. The solo concerto featured an individual performer who was given the opportunity to demonstrate his technical proficiency on his instrument. Composers created a feeling of competition by having the soloist alternate sections with the full orchestra. A good soloist always won. The concerto grosso featured a small number of soloists who were pitted against the rest of the orchestra. The greatest composer of the concerto grosso was Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).
A common element in all early baroque music was the basso continuo. The basso continuo consisted of at least two instruments that provided the harmony and a bass line for the solo instrument or singer. All baroque composers used this type of accompaniment. By 1700 though, melody with basso continuo accompaniment was not the only standard in European music as composers developed a newfound interest in counterpoint. Literally meaning, “point against point,” counterpoint featured independent melodies being played or sung at the same time. The master of baroque counterpoint was Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who brought baroque music to new levels of greatness and whose death marks the end of the baroque era.