Emergence of Baroque Music

A new musical style called Baroque, which induces strong moods or affections in its listeners, emerged at the end of the Renaissance period. Expressive solo lines began to dominate over group polyphony singing. The start of the Baroque era also saw a concern with contrasting timbres (sound colors) and an increase in dissonant tones. The new musical characteristics were meant to enhance a composition’s affect.

Summary of Event

Humanist philosophy of the Renaissance helped create rationalism, a way of thinking that was fast emerging in the early seventeenth century. Reason began to supersede Church authority and the authority of antiquity and other classical sources. Philosophers abandoned presuppositions and relied on empirical knowledge and logic. As intellectuals proposed new explanations about the world, musicians proposed a language that would meet the ideals of a new expressiveness. [kw]Emergence of Baroque Music (c. 1601)
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[kw]Baroque Music, Emergence of (c. 1601)
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Baroque style;music

“Baroque” is a term that describes the art, architecture, dance, literature, and music in the era from 1600 to 1750. The term was derogatory, originally used by observers of the later eighteenth century, who found the art and music of the seventeenth century to be gaudy, extreme, and excessive. Baroque artists and musicians did indeed turn to exaggeration, ornamentation, and contrast, but they did so to increase emotional expression in their work. Their contributions were not fully acknowledged until the twentieth century, when a newfound appreciation for seventeenth century music emerged and “baroque” was no longer a derogatory word in Western culture.

In the seventeenth century, moods were known as “affections,” and the theory about affections was tied to the ancient Greek doctrine of “ethos.” Affections were not like emotions, which fluctuate, but were considered fixed for a period of time. There were six core affections: love, hate, joy, sorrow, wonder, and desire (and their combinations). In the 1570’, a group of intellectuals and musicians in Florence, Italy, who were known as the camerata Bardi, discussed Italian art and philosophy and the artistic practices of the ancients. Camerata members examined how it would be possible to apply the artistic processes of antiquity to contemporary culture. Consequently, they were concerned with how music could clearly interpret or represent the affections.

Italian theorist and composer Vincenzo Galilei Galilei, Vincenzo (c. 1520-1591), father of scientist Galileo, was a leading figure in the camerata. Galilei wanted to revive the ancient Greek ideal of music and poetry. He had learned from his correspondence with a Roman scholar, Girolamo Mei Mei, Girolamo (1519-1594), that ancient music was not polyphonic like that of the Renaissance, but instead focused on one line of sound. Galilei had reservations about Renaissance polyphony, especially in regard to the affections. Much Renaissance music called for several singers, performing together, but each had independent melodies and even different words. He felt that this old “counterpoint” technique, that is, point against point, or musical line against musical line, created confusion in regard to the affections. Thus, he embraced the concept of the “lone melody” to convey text. He proposed that the new music of his time should consist of a single vocal line with accompaniment on the lute or keyboard instrument. The camerata agreed, and asserted that such a new musical idiom would be clearer and could vividly and vigorously express moods or affections. The new musical style was called “monody”: a solo song with an accompaniment featuring chords.

The composer most responsible for putting the ideas of Galilei and the camerata into practice was Italian composer and singer Giulio Caccini, Caccini, Giulio father of composer and singer Francesca Caccini Caccini, Francesca (1587-1641). In 1602, Giulio Caccini published a collection of monodic songs called Le nuove musiche
Nuove musiche, Le (Caccini) (the new music), in which he sought to “move the affect of the soul.” An important aspect of these new songs is their accompaniment. In the book, Caccini explains the new notation that he uses for the keyboard part (or, possibly, the lute part). Only the bass line is written, but with numbers above, indicating additional notes that are to be filled in or flushed out. This shorthand notation and the resulting practice of “improvising” chords is known as basso continuo. Basso continuo, with a melody above it, results in monody. Basso continuo pervades the entire Baroque period to the extent that some modern scholars have referred to the Baroque era as the basso continuo era.

The early seventeenth century also saw the development of the new sound ideal known as the concertato style, that is, a style with contrasting timbres (sound color). This concept developed in Venice in the late sixteenth century at St. Mark’s Basilica. The church had several galleries in which separate choirs were placed, who would sing at turn or, for climactic moments, sing simultaneously, thus producing a “surround sound” or stereophonic effect. During the Baroque period, the physical space was not necessary for the voices and instruments to be mingled yet still play independent parts. So, for example, one passage of a piece might feature string instruments, another a group of voices, and another a soloist. The concertato style was to make the music more expressive, invoking or reflecting the affections. Later in the seventeenth century, a type of instrumental work would emerge called the concerto, and it exploited the contrast between instruments and their sound colors. Some of the most famous Baroque concertos are the Brandenburg concertos Brandenburg concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750).

Seventeenth century music showed more expressiveness also through the increased use of dissonance. In the Renaissance, music was viewed horizontally, as independent lines were heard simultaneously (counterpoint). However, since monody was introduced in the early Baroque period, music became viewed in a vertical fashion, and the melody and accompanying chords had to suit one another. Dissonance, created by a note that does not fit within a chord, sounds harsh and clashing. Placed with the right word, it can be quite expressive.

Monody, concertato style, and dissonance were employed in the expressive art form of opera Opera, Italy , which was invented at the turn of the seventeenth century. The camerata had determined that Greek drama was sung throughout, and they felt that opera would work well to serve their new ideal of dramatic expression. Jacopo Peri, Peri, Jacopo an Italian composer, singer, and instrumentalist who likely participated in the camerata, composed the music for Dafne (pr. 1597, partial pb. 1600), considered by historians to be the first opera. However, Dafne does not survive intact. Euridice
Euridice (Peri) (pr. 1600, pb. 1601), also by Peri but with added music by Caccini, is the earliest surviving complete opera. It was considered quite innovative, containing a wide range of expressive techniques, including a mix of choral writing with passages for soloists (concertato style), simple rhyme schemes contrasting with freer rhymes, and lengthy recitative (a new invention of speech-song) that carried longer text. Because of its unique character, Euridice saw many performances.

The first masterpiece of opera, a pivotal work in music history, is Claudio Monteverdi’s Monteverdi, Claudio
La favola d’Orfeo
Favola d’Orfeo, La (Monteverdi) (pr. 1607, libretto pb. 1607, score pb. 1609, 1615). Monteverdi, who was the greatest composer of his time, debuted the opera in Mantua. It is replete with musical-dramatic insights, contains lavish orchestration for more than three dozen instruments, and includes closed musical forms like arias and dance songs, instrumental interludes, large choruses, and five-part harmonies.

It should be mentioned that although monody had taken hold in the early seventeenth century, Renaissance counterpoint was not abandoned, and composers frequently continued to write unaccompanied vocal music. Counterpoint was refashioned, however. The lines of musical sound as heard in Renaissance polyphony now had to fit the pattern of the chords that were either actually performed on a keyboard or were implied. This resulted in a new type of counterpoint, one that was harmonically driven, and it led eventually to the perfect balance for which Bach is so frequently lauded. His compositions achieve the most difficult task of being both horizontally rich (contrapuntal) and vertically strong (harmonic).


Many significant changes took place during the early Baroque era, some that would develop throughout the period and later. Monody was an innovation with far-reaching consequences. Its prevalence caused a shift from a frequently polyphonic approach to one that was harmonic. This perspective, and the complementary character, or melodies, with harmonies, remains popular still in the West. Keyboard and lute performers became adroit improvisers within a fixed system. Monody compelled composers of the Baroque era to rethink their approach to polyphonic counterpoint and view the composition as a whole in connection with a harmonic scheme. The perfect balance between harmony and polyphony would be manifest later through the genius of Bach.

Opera proved to be an ideal outlet for dramatic and poetic expression through several epochs. Recitative (speech-song) has been employed in operas since opera’s inception. The concertato principle contributed to the significant genres of concerto grosso in the later Baroque and solo concerto in the Classical era.

Further Reading

  • Arnold, Denis, et al. The New Grove Italian Baroque Masters. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. The definitive dictionary of Western music. Includes writings on Claudio Monteverdi, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Francesco Cavalli, Arcangelo Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi.
  • Blume, Friedrich. Renaissance and Baroque Music: A Comprehensive Survey. Translated by M. D. Herter Norton. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. Includes a well-known encyclopedia essay on Baroque music by Blume, a noted musicologist, and places music in a cultural context. Includes discussion of national musical traits.
  • Grout, Donald Jay. A History of Western Music. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. A standard college and music conservatory textbook on music history. Contains three chapters on Baroque music and comes with a recording.
  • Palisca, Claude V. Baroque Music. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. A comprehensive text, good for some specific discussions and reviewing some pieces.
  • Schulenberg, David. Music of the Baroque. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A review of Baroque music with examples, and a discussion of instruments and important forms and genres. Includes some information on women composers.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Francesca Caccini; Arcangelo Corelli; Girolamo Frescobaldi; Jean-Baptiste Lully; Marie de Médicis; Cosimo II de’ Medici; Claudio Monteverdi; Henry Purcell; Heinrich Schütz; Barbara Strozzi. Music;Baroque
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