By 1600, the Renaissance had morphed into a new, adventurous frontier both in the arts and in sociopolitical life. The church’s artistic monopoly had been relaxing throughout the Renaissance, and in the now-named “Baroque” period the royal courts began taking the creative lead in earnest. The royal courts were also more socioeconomically powerful than the church for the first time. Europe was getting wealthier and greedier; explorers had already infiltrated the entire Western hemisphere and established the roots of a global economy. Europe’s first middle class emerged, wanting access to the goods and knowledge being traded, and the stratifications of class became clearer than ever before. The middle class wanted music too, and not just in the church or from minstrels on the street. Because of this demand for concert music—music to be observed live, for its own sake, in a secular setting, by this new middle class—we have the Baroque period to thank for the single biggest diversification of musical formats in any period of music.
Wealthy courts all over Europe employed composers, large ensembles (the first orchestras in the west), and conductors to keep them all together in the increasingly complex compositions written for them. The opera, concerto, sonata, cantata, oratorio, and suite are just some of the musical mediums that evolved in these courts. An impressive number of Europe’s most well-loved composers were employed by a Baroque court or church: Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Rameau, Lully, Pachelbel, Corelli, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, to name just a few.
So there’s a lot to talk about. We’ll spend several entries in the Baroque period. For now, to sort out all the terms, here are some categories and definitions. I promise there won’t be a quiz at the end, but best not proceed further until we sort all these words out.
- Concerto Grosso
The vocal definitions are along religious/secular lines. An opera combines vocal and instrumental sounds to tell a secular story. It usually is performed with costumes and some sort of set. An oratorio is also a combination of vocal and instrumental music, but tells a biblical or sacred story, and does not usually use costumes or a set to avoid unnecessary frivolity. Cantata is a general term for any non-operatic works for vocalist(s) and accompaniment, usually short movements in a set.
The instrumental definitions are less clear and tend to be used differently by different composers. In general the concerto is, literally, a “conversation” between a soloist, or group of soloists, and a larger accompanying ensemble. For example, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is a concerto with solo violin, a heavily featured solo cello and harpsichord, called the continuo section, and larger ensemble. Concerto grosso implies that the solo is not just one person but a group of soloists, so some may consider the Four Seasons a concerto grosso instead of just a concerto.
Sonata and suite tend to be used interchangeably in the Baroque period and both generally refer to works for a small number of instrumentalists, consisting of a prelude and a succession of dance-inspired movements. Baroque sonatas, suites, and concerti generally feature a continuo section of the ensemble, regardless of the other instrumentation. Continuo is almost always a harpsichord at least, and sometimes has a cello (gamba) as well since its purpose is to provide block harmony and baseline.
Now that that’s over, let’s look at some early Baroque music!
Early Baroque: Monteverdi and the Opera
Monteverdi’s lifetime spanned half of the 16th and half of the 17th centuries, so he was a key transitional figure between the Renaissance and the Baroque. He is most associated with refining the opera as a musical genre. Monteverdi had already established himself as a master of madrigal writing before he delved into full-length stories set to music, and having the financial security of his court position allowed him to put all of his energy into the creative talent he was being paid for. So, as the madrigals became woven together by narrative topic, Monteverdi introduced Europe to its first operas. Sadly much of his output is lost, but his surviving works works are long-lived favorites and highly influential. L’Orfeo, Europe’s first opera, is still widely performed today.
L’Orfeo: possente spirito
All operas have a plot line they follow, and Monteverdi set a still-strong precedent of giving operatic music one of two roles: getting through plot material, or pausing to feature a singer’s virtuosity. When an opera pauses the plot’s motion for the singer to feature their virtuosity, essentially a stand-alone song within an opera, this music is called an aria.
Possente spirto e formidabil nume (“Mighty spirit and formidable god”) is an aria from L’Orfeo. The overarching plot of L’Orfeo is the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus must travel to hell to retrieve Eurydice after her untimely death. This aria takes place as Orpheus approaches the entrance to hell and begs Hades to grant him entry.
The first thing you’ll notice about this is the ornamentation, or how the singer decorates pitches with other sounds. Modern operatic singing is known for its heavy use of vibrato, a technique to make a pitch louder and more resonant by employing closely neighboring frequencies. This singer uses vibrato as well, but he also uses other period-appropriate embellishments, such as articulated vibrato on a single pitch, intentional lack of vibrato altogether, articulated ascending and descending scales, and exaggerated vocalizing, such as rolled “r” sounds. This is meant to illustrate his emotional state, that he is begging, doing whatever he can, to impress and convince Hades to let him rescue his love.
This aria demonstrates some of the key characteristics of what would become mature “Baroque” style music. It’s undeniably in a key, not a church mode, and that key pitch is made constantly clear in the continuo. It features a very long, decorated melodic line, and at any given time this line is either the main feature, or not happening at all. The singer and orchestra are juxtaposed; when he sings, the continuo plays unobtrusive chordal accompaniment, and when he doesn’t, the rest of the ensemble comes in with a more active response. This texture difference between singing versus not singing is consistent.
It’s important to note as well the virtuosity and grand scale of the accompanying ensemble. There are cadenzas on the trumpet (which is also featured in the overture), violin, and lute. The continuo is enormous: two harpsichords, double harp, 2 theorbos (lutes), two pipe organs, three gambas and a reed organ. Many of these instruments aren’t used now, but have modern sibling instruments that are, so the sound of the ensemble is particularly unique but also almost-familiar to our ears.
I hope you enjoy this very different sound than you might associate with opera. Opera has come a long way, but this is how it started, and I think it’s equally compelling to use embellishments like these as it is to sing with a modern style. If you enjoy this aria, do check out the rest of the opera, and his other two surviving operas. I especially recommend “The Coronation of Poppea,” which has some of the most strikingly beautiful arias and daring use of dissonance that Europe would have ever seen before.