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The Baroque Period
The sixteenth century Reformation, which began as a simple
theological debate in Germany, had worldwide consequences both
socially and politically. Many kings and princes saw it as an
opportunity to gain independence from the Holy Roman Empire,
and the resulting weakening of the Church’s political influence
greatly increased the power of European monarchies and
aristocrats. By the seventeenth century, the desire of these elites to
outdo one another in pomp and circumstance at their royal courts
was reflected in the deeply ornamented architecture of the time,
and no less in the musical trends of what is called the Baroque
The trends of Baroque music began in Italy with the invention of
opera, where a theatrical production is set entirely to music,
pioneered by composers like Claudio Monteverdi. To tell the
story, operas had three main types of music: recitative, where
ordinary dialogue was sung instead of spoken; aria, where a single
character would expound upon his or her thoughts in a more elaborate, structured musical form; and chorus, where a large
group of actors would all sing together. This same structure was sometimes used with religious texts, in which case it is called
an oratorio; probably the most famous of these is “The Messiah” by the German/English composer George Frederick
Handel. Using instruments solely to back up a singer led to harmony being considered in a new way called homophony,
where the melody is clearly distinct from the accompaniment (unlike polyphony, where every part is a melody on its own.)
Improvements in the construction of instruments and
aristocrats’ demands for constant music gave rise to the sonata,
in which a solo instrument performs with keyboard
accompaniment, and the concerto, in which a solo instrument
performs with orchestral accompaniment. Italian composer
Antonio Vivaldi wrote many of these to highlight the skills of
virtuoso soloists.
Johann Sebastian Bach is generally considered the greatest
composer of the Baroque Period, which ended with his death in
1750. His musical output was massive and included every type
of genre. He is particularly well known for his chorales
(religious choral works), his concertos, and his organ fugues
(complex polyphonic compositions based around a single
The Baroque Period at a Glance
New Genres
New Techniques
Homophony, where a melody
is played over a clear
accompaniment part.
New Media
The orchestra begins to take
shape in this time. More modern
wind instruments (like the horn,
oboe, bassoon, and flute) begin to
appear. The harpsichord was very
popular and the organ became
prominent in church music.
Claudio Monteverdi,
Antonio Vivaldi,
George Frederick
Handel, Johann
Sebastian Bach
Important Terms
Opera – a theatrical production set to music; consists of recitative (sung dialogue), aria (a more elaborate musical exposition of a
single character’s thoughts), and chorus (where everyone sings together)
Oratorio – like an opera, but with a religious text
Sonata – a piece of music for a solo instrument with keyboard accompaniment
Concerto – like a sonata, but with an orchestra in accompaniment instead of (or along with) keyboard
Chorale – a religious choral work (sometimes called a hymn)
Fugue – a polyphonic work based around alterations of a single theme