Baroque Instrumental Music: Trio Sonata and Concerto Grosso

All of the Listening Club entries so far have focused on vocal music, and there’s a reason: music that has words is usually more accessible to the untrained ear. Word painting is a powerful technique that anyone can appreciate if made aware of it. With no words to paint, instrumental music is easy to listen to passively but difficult to make sense of on a more attentive level. It requires at least some music theory knowledge, and nobody looks forward to a music theory course when they’d just like to be entertained.

But, instrumental music is worth the work. Just as we get more out of vocal music with some contextual knowledge, the difference between passive and active listening to instrumental music is even greater.

So, bear with us. We encourage you to have some of today’s listening suggestions playing already while we get some essential theory out of the way.

Theory Crash Course Part 1: Keys, Rhythm, Counterpoint

In general, from this point forward in Western history, music will appear as being in a diatonic key, e.g. C Major or d minor. In writing, Major keys are capitalized and minor keys aren’t. Being in the key of C means that this piece of music will use the notes comprising the C Major scale— coincidentally these are the white keys on a piano. To get any other major key besides C, notes have to be altered to make the do-re-mi pattern work out correctly. This is what the piano’s black notes are for.

The human ear associates Major keys with happiness, celebration or toe-tapping on a dance floor, and minor keys with sadness, introspection and sometimes even anger, although in the Baroque period the minor keys were used for dancing too.

Our trio sonata for today is a good example of that. It’s in the key of g minor but has several moments that invite the listener to dance. There will be several changes in mood throughout the piece which we separate into “movements.” In the Baroque trio sonata this means different dance-inspired sections, some fast and some slow. They will almost always alternate within a larger work; today’s trio sonata has a slow-fast-slow-fast format.

In Two or In Three?

While the tempo (speed) can vary, rhythm in general tends to fall into one of two categories: either two beats to the bar or three. Within the general pulse of a piece of music, the brain will break what it hears into the smallest denominators—it’s no coincidence that the smallest prime numbers are 2 and 3. This concept can be difficult to describe, but the way you move to what you hear can give you a clue as to whether you’re listening in two or three. Imagine a dance in which you could waltz, either slowly or quickly, versus a dance where you’d probably move left and right equally. This general feeling of “in two” or “in three” is the biggest takeaway from today by far; while it’s a hallmark of the Baroque period, it continues to shape the western sense of rhythm throughout history going forward, even today.

Counterpoint

A general but critically important term. Simply put, more than one voice at a time is counterpoint. Even in the Middle Ages, people had harmonies they did not like, such as the tritone, which was associated with the devil. Therefore, composers had to be careful when writing for more than one voice to ensure that a tritone never accidentally occurred between the voices. Counterpoint became increasingly complex (lots of voices at once) in the Renaissance and reached a high point with J.S. Bach in the late Baroque period. Here are some of the ways counterpoint looks and sounds:

  • Imitative: One voice copies the previous voice.
  • Parallel: Both voices move in the same direction and the same number of pitches, so they always stay the same distance apart.
  • Contrary motion: Voices move in opposite directions.
  • Oblique motion: One voice stays on the same pitch while another moves up or down.

See how many of these types of counterpoint you can hear in the music we have for today, and in all music you hear from this point forward. You could easily go back to the Renaissance and earlier to apply these concepts too.

Corelli: Trio Sonata in g minor, op.1

Archangelo Corelli is best known for developing the trio sonata and the concerto grosso, two instrumental formats that would influence Vivaldi, Bach and many other great composers who came after him. Corelli was in direct competition with George Frederick Handel, as they were both highly respected court composers who were welcomed in the highest levels of aristocracy, and both served some of the same patrons.

Today’s main listening example is Corelli’s Trio Sonata no. 10 in g minor, from his collection of 12 Trio Sonatas. It is a great example of a typical trio sonata format, and has some unique points of interest as well. Its four movements are simply named by the tempo marking at the beginning of each of them. The “trio” consists of two violins and a gamba, or cello, and there is also a continuo of organ and theorbo (lute).

Here’s some analysis to keep in mind, movement by movement. First is the Grave (slow) processional in two, full of suspensions to add to the mournful tone. The continuo section generally just provides chords and baseline, but occasionally we hear the theorbo add passing tones and embellishments to the baseline, as continuo performers were given considerable freedom to add their own decoration to the notes on the page. The next section is marked Allegro and has a unique two-part format. The same music is presented in each of our essential rhythmic categories, first in two, then in three. See if you can feel the slight difference in how move or tap along with the music. An Adagio (slow) section follows, again with many suspensions. You will hear the bass move, or “walk” into several keys before the home key (g minor) is reached. The final Allegro section is a fast dance in three; flourishes of scales up and down are separated by contrasting pillars of chords.

This sonata has many classic Baroque giveaways, described more below. See how many you can hear. It’s important to mention these because they won’t go away; many of these techniques continued shaping Western music well after the Baroque era was over.

  • Sequence: the same pattern played several times over, but ascending or descending in pitch. This differs from imitation in that it happens in one voice only, but imitation can sometimes be in a sequence if the conversation between voices follows a repeated, ascending pattern.
  • Imitative counterpoint: Running rampant in this and most other Baroque compositions, imitative counterpoint will be most noticeable in fast dance movements.
  • Suspension: The harmony changes, but one voice stays in the previous harmony a moment longer to build tension. We already saw this in the Renaissance.
  • Walking bass: The voices seem to switch roles in that the upper voices hold a series of chords, probably with suspensions, while the bass voice is comparatively more active. Commonly occurs in slow movements.

If you enjoyed Corelli’s trio sonata, you’re ready to listen to the other 11 in this collection, which will have much in common with this one. You can also listen to his concerti grossi, which apply many of these rules but use a group of soloists against an accompanying orchestra (and always a continuo section too). Handel is also well-known as a master of the concerto grosso. Here are some suggestions:

Corelli: Christmas Concerto
Handel: Concerto Grossi, op. 6 (12 of them, all in one mega video!)

You’ll hear lots of counterpoint between solo voices amongst themselves, and also between soloists and accompaniment, so two separate levels of interaction between voices. Listening to instrumental Baroque music and making sense of it is a great exercise for anyone, especially someone new to art music. Baroque trio sonatas and concerto grossi are some of the most timelessly popular genres for the general listener; St. Martin in the Fields hosts a performance of this genre nearly every other night and the hall is full and enthusiastic every time. If you can stay actively involved for the duration of Baroque instrumental work, you’ll be aptly prepared to make sense of music from eras both before and afterward.

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