We Can Walk And Chew Gum at the Same Time:
The Twin Revolutions of the Baroque era
1650 to 1750 CE
The Renaissance, as a musical period, lasted about two centuries. That’s enough time for the art to be perfected and for people to wonder what else they can do with their time. Palestrina’s music was arguably the most perfect realization of the aesthetic ideals of the West up to that point. But as a choir director I know put it with a chuckle, “It was almost too perfect because he wrote a lot of music that all sounds the same.” Nobody really wanted to get rid of the old Renaissance style as such. After all, it sounded great and everyone knew by now you could get people to perform music in that style. After two centuries you could say people simply wanted something different. Not something new exactly, just something different. That’s what prompted people to experiment with new ways of organizing sound.
In the past music had been modal. This meant you had priorities about what notes went where but not in the usual major and minor key system we’re used to. You had four common modes: dorian, lydian, mixolydian and phrygian. For those of you familiar with keyboards, modes can be considered transpositions of the major scale—of course that’s not what they really are but in this case it’s useful to fudge details for the sake of illustration. Take the scale of C major, for instance. In modes you still play eight notes to get the complete scale and you still play only white keys but you don’t start from C anymore. For dorian you start from D, for lydian you start from F, from mixolydian you start from G, and for phrygian you start from E. Those are the modes and those modes can be played with those intervals from anywhere on any instrument.
If you want modern songs that show you what these modes sound like now the songs are: “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles for the dorian mode (“Hidden Place” by Bjork (Vespertine) is another good example); “Possibly Maybe” by Bjork in the lydian mode; and for the mixolydian mode “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles (the two Beatles songs are off Revolver). Unfortunately there aren’t many good phrygian examples I can think of off the top of my head. But if you’ve heard Thomas Tallis or Ockeghem you know that the modes as we think of them now and how they were used in the Renaissance were different. The modes were considered strictly melodic. Harmony was simply a convergent property of everyone getting their tunes to fit together. Modes weren’t exploited for mood and color alone, for harmonic ambiance, until later. Before musical modes got this complete make-over from melodic to harmonic patterns (two centuries later than the Baroque era) two significant changes, that we take for granted, had to occur.
The first was the introduction of the aeolian and ionian modes. This sounds arcane but in modern lingo it simply means major and natural minor scales. Precisely why these were introduced I’m not completely sure but the general rule is someone thought they sounded good. My guess is someone was playing around with the keyboards available as the Renaissance played out and made a happy discovery; perhaps someone figured out that the harmonies favored in the Renaissance style had prevailing patterns that suggested the major scale. In any event it’s important to remember that these were modes and not keys in the modern sense. Harmony was still a convergent property of two or more independent yet interdependent melodic lines. Resolutions that don’t sound final to us sounded final to the ears of Renaissance listeners. We’ve become accustomed to the major and minor system. Yet even though they weren’t treated as the keys we now know them to be they set the stage for it, particularly what became the major mode.
Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do would soon be possible and eventually it would show up in The Sound of Music.
Now the reason introducing the major scale was important was that it was fixed. The seven notes of the major scale had to be there for there to be a major scale. This meant that the scale governed harmony as much as melody. Harmony was more a friendly by-product rather than a goal in modal music but now it would become a science unto itself. But now harmony couldn’t simply be a happy afterthought. Things would no longer turn out just right or interesting using the old patterns for regulating individual melodic lines in relationship to each other. Harmony became central, so central that by the time Bach wrote the first prelude of the first book of his Correctly Tempered Keyboard you could make a piece of music that worked on the basis of harmony alone, a cascade of rippling chords.
Let me return to the mass transit metaphor I used for Renaissance music. The Renaissance represented a world in which harmony came about because you had hundreds of cars driving on the freeway in the same direction. This was because nobody wanted to crash into each other. The Baroque era introduced the world of light rail and subways. You were getting the same number of people moving but they were all on trains and all their movements were up and down the train. People crashing into each other inside a train was still an issue so rules were developed on how people had to behave riding on the train. One person can move a long way as long as no one else is moving. Lots of people can move at once so long as the movement isn’t big or disorderly.
So the old rules of what the voice could and couldn’t do still applied but they were changed by the relatively fixed nature of the new keys. As composers and performers grappled with this system they developed guidelines for what collections of notes worked best in what combinations. This now has the unceremonious term “functional harmony”. In other words, “functional harmony” is the stuff that worked in this new style. That’s how the 1, 4 and 5 of tonal music came about. After a lot of work people figured out that in a fixed scale certain chord changes were more satisfying than others. These chord changes were also easier to sing. Of course nobody forgot about melody during this time, either. But this new functional harmony alone was not what redefined Western music.
The other major change was the introduction of meter, or the time signature. In Renaissance music you didn’t have time signatures. If you ever get a chance to look at Gregorian chant and original copies of Renaissance part books you see that the notes were written without time signatures or measures, things most reading musicians take for granted these days. There was no such thing as 4/4 or 3/4 back then, just a long procession of notes and spaces on the music paper. Music was still organized around pulse but this is too complex a subject to talk about here. The Baroque era introduced the innovation of common time and meter. Now everything could be explained in terms of three or four beats at a time.
The advent of meter and functional harmony had the following significance. If your music was organized by a fixed number of beats then you could start thinking about the strong and weak beats of the meter in recurring patterns. You could start thinking in terms of these recurring rhythmic units. The relatively static nature of the major/minor system meant that melodic leaps that were forbidden in Renaissance music became permissible in the emerging Baroque style. Why? Because with functional harmony came a fixed set of chords set within a key. You could make descending melodic leaps that weren’t possible before because this time around you knew where you would land. There were at most a few options. In the older style there was almost no telling where you could land in relationship to anyone else’s parts and that made intonation and singing harder to manage.
With the advent of organizing music into beats came a more liberal treatment of discordant tones. If you settled on a discord on the strong beat of a measure in 4/4, for instance, you’d be okay as long as you eventually resolved the discord. The rhythm of the music, being predictable, could carry you along. And, if you chose, you could upset the rhythm. These things had always been done but in the new system there was room for new experiments. The apparent simplification of the musical language made room for the same level of complexity.
Why did this matter? Because instrumental music, particularly dance music, began to flourish in the Baroque period. The end of the Renaissance brought with it a good number of methods for tuning and tempering instruments and more affordable means of producing them. You could finally get a keyboard to play in tune and stay in tune and play a tolerable number of notes that all sounded good together (transpositions of modes if you will, or keys, usually just four to eight of 24 possible major and minor keys until about J. S. Bach’s time). The upshot of this was a revolution in instrumental music. Music could now be played in almost any key and the complexity of the old Renaissance style could be welded into the newer style.
The best example of where this was done in a musical work called the fugue. The fugue was a descendant of the singing-together pieces from the Renaissance. Now the principles of vocal writing were applied to works for the keyboard. Someone would start with a melody and someone else would come in with a new melody after the first person started singing something else and it would go down the line for up to five or six different parts. As the Baroque era developed composers started adapting this principle to keyboard music.
How this could work in an actual fugue for keyboard worked something like this: your left hand would start playing a melody and your right hand would play the same melody at a different pitch when your left hand was done playing the tune. Meanwhile your left hand would play something new underneath the melody the right hand was now playing. By the time the right hand was done playing the melody your left hand would play the original melody again and some other new material while your right hand played the new material your left hand had already played. If this sounds it hard there’s a reason. Depending on how complicated the melody was you could add five voices to the texture or as few as two. The best example of this new way of writing music is found in J. S. Bach’s second fugue from the first book of The Well Tempered Clavier. Not only is this an example of how the old rules of the Renaissance were retained but how they were changed by the introduction of meter and key. In this fugue we even have a great example of how all of this was incorporated into the dance rhythms and forms that defined the Baroque period.
There were two styles available now, simply called “old” and “new”, the modal and tonal systems. And a lot of people hated the new style with its major and minor keys. They called it “baroque”. Read “ugly”. The era of Monteverdi, Schutz, Buxtehude, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, Purcell, and Handel was known as the “ugly” era. Compared to the old style people felt this “new” style was too ornate, too crude, and far too ugly. Keys that were considered completely off limits in the old style, keys that were almost impossible to have correctly tuned and tempered, were starting to get used specifically for their “demonic” or discordant character. This had been done in earlier periods but not in this new style and not so systematically. What’s more the new style was more liberal in handling dissonance. In fact the new major and minor scales were so liberal in comparison to the old style they permitted almost completely chromatic music. A piano piece could have a long succession of half steps before going anywhere else. A great example of this is the f minor fugue from the first book of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (probably better translated the Correctly Tempered Keyboard).
In this respect a composer like Bach was as radical in his era as Schoenberg in the 20th century, breaking open a world of harmonic possibilities. The new style Bach and other Baroque composers developed became the style from which all subsequent Western music descended and by which all subsequent Western music may be judged. Many people don’t know, though, that this “new” style had as its foundation the “old”. Yet the rules for writing for voice didn’t change and even with the advent of fully functioning orchestras instrumental parts were still written interchangeably with vocal parts in the new style just as in the old. And most of these composers knew how to compose in the old style, too. That could be a lesson for musicians today. You don’t have to play only rock, jazz, or classical. The Baroque masters could pull off writing in two styles and it was, as the colloquial saying has it, walking and chewing gum at the same time. If there’s any reason a modern musician should admire Baroque composers this should be one of them. The Baroque era reached a level of complexity and directness that can only be equaled. The next musical revolution lay in further simplifying the Western musical language.
A short list of Baroque composers and significant works
Without a doubt the most important and best known composers of the Baroque era are George Frederick Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach (there’s fifteen generations of them so the full name is necessary so you don’t confuse him with Johann Christoph Bach). Both composers were immensely prolific and wrote music for every conceivable ensemble available to them.
Below are a smattering of works by the two composers to check out. Baroque composers are still so popular there won’t be much trouble finding a decent recording.
By J. S. Bach:
St. Matthew Passion.
Bach’s most profound work, a setting of Matthew’s account of the death and burial of Jesus with profuse interpolations of other texts. There’s an excellent recording by Helmuth Rilling on the Haensler label. Rilling is a well-established Bach specialist and plays the music with more attention to the dance qualities of the period. Herbert van Karajan’s recording isn’t terrible but he takes most of the movements too slowly and makes the Passion more ponderous than even the Passion needs to be.
The Well Tempered Clavier
This pedagogical, two-volume work has unalterably changed the shape of keyboard music in the West. Many of these pieces are so famous you’ll recognize them even if you don’t think you’ve heard them before, particularly many fugues from the first book. There are so many recordings of this work that it will be easy to find a copy to listen to at any library.
Cantatas (virtually any of them).
Bach wrote a vast array of secular and sacred cantatas and you could literally pick one at random and get a great example of the unaccompanied choral style of the Baroque period.
By G. F. Handel:
I’m not as familiar with Handel. I know of The Messiah and his Concerto Grossi. I can’t think of as many works to recommend since I haven’t listened to as much of his work but I know he wrote quite a few oratorios in addition to The Messiah. He was held in very low repute among the Puritans for writing theater music (the theater has long considered a hotbed for homosexuality and all around decadent living). It is now believed that Handel had bipolar disorder.
The Baroque period had several other important composers. By and large it was good to be Lutheran in this period! The Bach family alone has assured a huge body of Lutheran music. Here’s just a few of the other composers you should consider checking out.
Most people are likely to have heard parts of The Four Seasons and it’s his most popular work. If you haven’t heard Vivaldi The Four Seasons is a good place to start. Recordings should be easy to get ahold of. He’s not as titanic a composer as Bach or Handel but he’s still worth checking out. Be warned, a lot of his works tend to sound the same. Many have joked his favorite composing method today would be running his work through a copy machine! That’s not quite fair but it’s not completely inaccurate either! Vivaldi was despised by many composers in his day for being a self-plagiarist. Nevertheless, self-plagiarists have their moments and Rod Stewart could only hope to copy himself as effectively.
Schutz was known as “the musical preacher”. His theological acumen was as great as his musical skill. He and Bach were the two composers who arguably had the best balance of comprehensive musical and theological training. Schutz is possibly the only composer of any period to have set the entirety of Psalm 119 to music! Schutz was the most important of the early or “low” Baroque composers. “Low” in this case simply refers to the simplicity of his music compared to the “high” Baroque composers (Bach and Handel) who came later. The pieces to check out would be his Christmas oratorio and what’s often known as his German requiem (not to be confused with anything by Brahms).
Hans Leo Hassler
If you’ve ever sung “O Sacred Head” then you sang this man’s song. Hassler composed a lot of sacred choral music, most of it good even when it’s been sung and played to death (particularly the motet “Verbum Caro Factum Est”).
The Baroque period gave rise to a couple of good composers in England but Purcell is the greatest. After the Baroque era English music was pretty lame until the end of the 19th century (not counting the Wesleys, who somehow managed to make some memorable music). Purcell wrote a lot but the signature piece he’s come to be known for is the English language opera Dido and Aeneus. It wasn’t until Benjamin Britten worked in opera 200 years later that English serious opera had anything of note.
Buxtehude was an important north German predecessor of Bach. It was Buxtehude’s keyboard music, particularly his fugues, that laid much of the foundation that Bach would build on.
It was Telemann and not Bach who was the most sought after musician of his day. Very little of his music has survived for us to study now but this has more to do with the carpet bombing of Germany during the Second World War than any artistic shortcoming on Telemann’s part.
If there was a “first” Baroque composer Monteverdi would be the one. Compared to most of the subsequent Baroque composers I just don’t find him that interesting but he, more than the others, represents the transitional time of the “low” Baroque when the two styles were on a pretty equal footing.