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Music in The Baroque Era (c. 1600-1750) – Music GCSE

A Portrait of George Frideric Handel

The Baroque period in history witnessed a new exploration of ideas and innovations in the arts, literature and philosophy. Italy was at the hub of new culture and led the way when it came to exploring new ideas and fashions. The word ‘baroque’ comes from the Portuguese for ‘pearl’ and was used in reference to the ornate architecture and elaborate gilded paintings, frescoes and designs that covered the interior walls and ceilings of German and Italian churches of the period. One particular aspect of this style that made its way into the music was the emphasis on an ornamented or ‘decorative’ melody line.

The most well-known composers of the Baroque period were Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), Henry Purcell (c. 1659-95) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Features of the Baroque Style of Music
It is important to familiarise yourself with the some of the basic ‘hallmarks’ or features of music composed during the Baroque period. Some general features and developments include:

  • The use of ornamented melodic parts.
  • The establishment of the major/minor key system, replacing the old system of modes.
  • The use of the diatonic chords of I, IV, V, II and VI.
  • ‘Basso continuo’ (literally continuous base). The adoption of the ever constant keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ) playing a chordal support with the bass line usually played by the cello.
  • Different musical textures, such as monophonic, homophonic and polyphonic.
  • The use of the Baroque orchestra, based on the newly invented members of the string family with the harpsichord supplying the harmonies. Trumpets, horns and timpani drums were used. However, the use of woodwind instruments at this time was not standard and varied from piece to piece.
  • The prevalence of ‘one affection’ or mood.
  • The contrasting of dynamics on two levels – loud and soft (called terrassed dynamics).
What is an Oratorio?
An oratorio is a musical work based on words and stories from the bible. 
This form developed at roughly the same time as opera. It took its name from St Philip Neri’s oratory or ‘hall of prayer’ situated in Rome, where the first oratorios forms such as the recitative, aria and chorus and acted out with scenery and in full costume dress. The key difference between the opera and oratorio was that the oratorio used only texts for the story taken from the bible. By the time of Handel however, the ‘acting element to the oratorio had ceased.

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