Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Classical Wednesdays III: the Baroque Era

The Baroque era is the first and earliest of the four time periods that we are going to look at. It gets rolling by the middle of the 1600s and lasts until the late 1700s. If that sounds kind of vague, that’s because artistic periods are at best approximations, and there is no single moment that you can meaningfully declare to be the beginning or end of the baroque style. If it sounds like a long, long time ago, that’s because it was a long, long time ago. There was music before the Baroque era, of course, but for the most part we don’t have full notation for it; almost all of the mediaeval music you hear around is actually conjectural reconstruction, a modern idea of what mediaeval music might have sounded like. And the other thing about music before the Baroque is, it’s pretty boring. So this is where we start.

The Baroque Sound

The conventional wisdom about the Baroque style will stress that there is lots of counterpoint, which is when you have two or more melody lines happening at the same time. Also, a Baroque piece tends to maintain the same emotional intensity throughout its duration, instead of alternating between the sad bits, the brisk bits, the triumphal bits, and so on. A lot of Baroque music is kind of upbeat and perky, and so it remains upbeat and perky from the first note to the last.

Beyond that, it’s hard to describe the Baroque style without reference to the Classical Era, which we’re not going to talk about until next week. The Classical Era is going to introduce a lot of standard forms and rules for how music “should” work; since these rules hadn’t been invented yet in the Baroque, there is a somewhat wider range of possibilities.

If you were to interject here that all Baroque music sounds the same to you, however, you wouldn’t be the first to make the complaint. Even a major bigshot like Igor Stravinsky, I think it was, dismissed Vivaldi as having written the same concerto 600 times. Which is, of course, a ridiculous, snobbish, uninformed, and insensitive thing for him to have said. Except that it’s maybe kind of true, too. I encourage you eager students in the front row to check four or five Vivaldi discs from the local library and test Stravinsky’s hypothesis.

The Baroque Orchestra

You don’t see this talked about much, but I think the main reason that Baroque music has a certain sameness of sound is the musical technology of the time. Many of the instruments you see in an orchestra today – particularly upright basses and heavy brass – didn’t exist in a Baroque orchestra, and several instruments existed in smaller, higher-pitched, and less versatile versions of themselves (recorders instead of clarinets, for instance). This makes the sound of baroque pieces considerable thinner than what we’ll find in later eras.

With no basses, the “bottom” of the Baroque sound is very often filled by what you call a basso continuo, which is essentially a harpsichord playing chords. Now, a harpsichord has a sound which is very distinctive, but it is not exactly a kickin’, rock-bottom bass. It’s kind of brittle. Plus, the harpsichord is incapable of dynamics; it can’t play louder or quieter. This is probably why dynamics are not especially important in Baroque music as a whole. Music will get a little louder or a little softer, sure, but it is a fairly minor effect relative to the music of later eras (e.g. “Stairway to Heaven”).

Finally, life was lived on smaller scales before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the modern state, and that goes for orchestras too. No one yet saw a purpose, be it for profit, worship, or self-aggrandizement, of bringing together very large groups of musicians on a standing basis. So, the early orchestra tends to be a heck of a lot smaller than what comes later, and this obviously contributes to a thinner tone. Some people think that Baroque music sounds “tinny,” like classical music on an old transistor radio. You make the call.

Listening List: Conventional Choices

Bach, Brandenburg Concertos #1, 3, & 4: There are six “Brandenburg Concerti.” These are six otherwise unrelated pieces that Bach put together as a kind of portfolio when he was applying for a job in Brandenburg. He didn’t get the job, but when the pieces were eventually rediscovered in the royal archives, they cemented Bach’s reputation as one of the greatest of the early composers.

Looking at B.C.#1, you can see what I mean about the Baroque Orchestra. It is scored for the following: two corni da caccia, three oboes, bassoon, violino piccolo, and two violins, viola, cello, and basso continuo. That is a tiny, tiny little orchestra. Also, what’s a corno da caccia? I dunno. I think it’s a valveless French horn, like you might use to go on a retro fox hunt. A violino piccolo is probably just a little, tiny violin, not the kind of thing you want to be caught playing unless you are very, very confident in your masculinity. Or, perhaps, if you are a woman.

B.C. #1 is the epitome of a Baroque orchestral piece. It’s pretty, ornate, and musically sophisticated. It has some variation of mood among its four movements. If you are looking for big variations of tone, volume, tempo, and emotion, though, you came to the wrong place. B.C. #3 is a jolly, bustling number that gets a lot of mileage out of one simple musical phrase, continuously tweaked and altered and cut and pasted. I loved this one when I was a kid. B.C. #4 is the only one of these three that is an actual “concerto” in the modern sense of featuring a solo instrument; a fairly vigorous violin part (along with two soloist recorders) plays a very prominent role.

Vivaldi, The Four Seasons: Four violin concerti by the most charming of the many Italian baroque composers. This is an attempt at what you call “program music,” where the music is intended to illustrate an idea. Despite that the whole idea of program music is a complete farce – no two people are ever going to come to the same conclusions about what a piece of music is meant to invoke, unless they are tipped off in advance – these specific pieces are winning examples of what the Baroque has to offer. They are cheerful, mildly sophisticated, and completely unchallenging. You won’t be able to keep Spring straight from Winter, but you will probably find them both a highly pleasant listen.

Handel, Water Music. King George I commissioned Handel to write music for a big party held on a flotilla of barges on the Thames. Because it was performed outdoors and had to carry across the water, and because he had a literally kingly budget at his disposal in hiring the musicians, Handel used a large and robust orchestra by Baroque standards. The result is upbeat, full-bodied, and jovial party music, a kind of “Rock and Roll All Night” for 1715. At Castle5000, we sometimes play it when doing tedious home-repair chores; it lifts the spirits.

Listening List: Off the Beaten Path

Locatelli, Concerti Grossi – Light, charming, perky, and impossible to tell apart, Locatelli’s Concerti Grossi are among my favorite Baroque B-List listening. They aren't really concerti -- I warned you, the vocabulary of music is stoopid -- but a kind of proto-symphonic form. In other words, there's no soloist. (for good Locatelli with a soloist, look for L'arte del Violino).

Chanticleer, “The Mexican Baroque” – I generally won’t recommend specific recordings, but the obscure pieces composed by 17th Century Mexican composers Ignacio de Jerúsalem and Manuel de Zumaya are unlikely to be found anywhere else but this album by the vocal ensemble Chanticleer. And, I’m not generally going to recommend choral music, but the small-orchestra-and-chorus pieces on this album are quite lovely and very accessible. Good chillout music.

Sammartini, Symphonies - These are the earliest pieces I have on hand that are actually called "Symphonies." They are -- I begin to run out of words to describe Baroque music --charming, perky, and all the rest.


Nichim said...

The instrumentation of Brandenburg Concerto #1 shows what is awesome about Baroque music: that tiny little orchestra is 1/4 oboes and 1/3 double reeds!

Becky said...

Can't let this one pass me by! Great post. #1: Why can't we all just get along? I am a "Baroque" art historian, yet my timeline starts like 50 years before that of the music people. #2: Amazing addition to your "off the beaten path" list, on the choral side? With nifty Mozart connections? Allegri's "Miserere mei, Deus," ca. 1630s. Just gorgeous.

Michael5000 said...

@becky: Now that's what I'm talking about! A recommendation! I'm on it.

btw, a lot of music people will kick of the Baroque at around 1600. I start it a little later because I find that early stuff still kind of boring, and it's my blog.

Rex Parker said...

Hey, what instrument is playing the "bass" in BC#1. It's not a harpsichord (is it??). I'm listening to Menuhin (Seraphim). I love me some Bach - magical stuff - but so much of BC sounds like PBS intro music to me; hard to shake the stodgy olde englishe feel...

May I recommend my favoritest Bach piece of all: Concerto in D minor for two violins (BWV 1043). I have Manze and Podger (Harmonia Mundi). It's all too beautiful.


Michael5000 said...

@Rex: I'm not sure about B.C.1 in particular, but IIRC the basso continuo was normally scored without specifying the instruments that would play it. Most commonly, you would give it to the harpsichord, or maybe the harpsichord and a couple of cellos. But, you could probably just let the cellos take it. A modern performance that wasn't concerned about period "authenticity" could throw in double basses or, what the hell, the "Jack Daniels" bass of Van Halen's Michael Anthony circa 1982.

And, thanks for Recommendation #2! My self-serving scheme is paying off.

mydogischelsea said...

Here I am on Friday night reading about Baroque music. Sigh. But it just so happens that Baroque is my favorite of the classical music eras. Hey, I think it's your turn on Scrabulous.