The Baroque Era
The years between 1600 and 1750 were good times for the European nobility. The Renaissance had delivered them into great prosperity, and what better way to celebrate that than with colossal displays of affluence? This was a time of silly clothes and florid interiors. Killjoys called it barroco, referring to a Portuguese word meaning “misshapen pearl.” Like many derogatory terms, it caught on, and the era eventually came to be known as the Baroque.
The nobles’ lavish dinner parties in their lavish halls needed appropriately lavish music. The music of the Renaissance, which was still largely steeped in folksong and Medieval traditions, wasn’t going to cut it. Composers began to build a new style, one which closely resembled the aesthetic of the times.
Baroque music, like Baroque architecture, is complicated and busy. It has little use for silence, preferring to keep every member of an ensemble playing more or less nonstop from beginning to end. Naturally, to make this sound good was a bit of a challenge, and as a result many composers tended to fall back on a handful of different formulas that usually worked. The unfortunate side effect of this is that most Baroque music tends to take on a sort of tedious sameness after a while. Every composition may be unique, but they tend to look pretty similar to each other.
That said, a lot of important ground was broken in the Baroque period, most importantly the development of counterpoint. As mentioned in the previous chapter, counterpoint is the art of writing music in overlapping parts which fit together and complement each other. The most familiar example of counterpoint is probably the round, the musical form much-beloved of elementary school teachers everywhere. In a round, different groups of musicians perform the same tune (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” perhaps), each starting at a different cue, so that multiple moments can be heard at once. Counterpoint was the most essential component of Baroque music, and a good composer was one who had mastered it.
Of course, the Church was also a prominent entity at this time, and it also was on board with Baroque fashions. Music wasn’t just for exalting the glory of rich nobles; it was also for exalting the glory of God. Or at the very least it could make your institution cool and trendy. Most composers of this era wrote extensively for the Church. The most prestigious of these compositions are “Passion cantatas,” lengthy choral arrangements of Jesus’s life story, performed during important liturgical seasons. The Church’s appetite for music was insatiable, and a prominent composer of church music was expected to produce copious amounts of original vocal and instrumental music each week. While this was a grueling and largely thankless job at the time, it has certainly left us with a lot of good stuff to listen to.