Let’s go way back in time to, oh, six months ago.
09-16-2022: That’s when I said here that rock is an umbrella term for genres like rock & roll, heavy metal, grunge, and more. And that R&B is an umbrella term for soul, rap, and disco, etc.
Today, we’ll talk about another umbrella term.
When we say “classical music,” we generally mean anything played by an orchestra or an ensemble made of orchestral instruments.
There’s more to it than that, of course.
There are six clear periods and/or genres that fall under the classical umbrella. One of them is called “Classical,” just to make things more confusing.
Any music written between 400 and 1400 AD is considered Medieval, but let’s be clear: This doesn’t include the folk music of the time.
Wandering minstrels singing the news from far and away were a boon to societies during these thousand years, and ordinary folks made up their own songs as well.
These are genres of their own, passed down through oral tradition.
I haven’t researched it, but one has to wonder if these touring musicians partied like 1970s rock stars, and if there were groupies in each town.
But I digress.
Medieval music under the classical umbrella doesn’t include folk music, only “serious” music. What makes it serious? It was written down. Eventually, anyway, starting around the year 1000 CE, as I wrote about last week.
More importantly, serious music was for a different audience.
Folk music was by and for, um, folks.
You know, regular people. Serious music was by and for the church and the aristocracy. It was bought and paid for by the rich.
While we think there’s a huge financial discrepancy between today’s rich and everyone else (and to be fair, there is), that discrepancy pales in comparison to the gap between the rich and everyone else of, say, six hundred years ago. I’m sure all of Rupert Murdoch’s houses are nice, but they’re nothing like The Palace Of Versailles.
The unfathomable wealth of the ruling class meant they could afford nice things.
Including composers and musicians.
A king could call in his composer, or more likely have a secretary talk to the composer, and say something like, “Hey, Henri baby, the Duke of Ferrara will be here next month.”
“How about you whip up a 40 minute ditty for my full orchestra? Something, you know, impressive.”
Rich people like impressing other rich people with how rich they are.
Things changed over time. For the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, music was mostly sponsored by the church. It was religious music for religious people. Later, in the Classical and Romantic periods, it gradually changed to funding by the ruling class, and then to foundations and other organizations supported by rich people. That’s still pretty much how things operate in classical music today, though many composers have found more reliable income in film scoring.
So let’s zoom in on the Baroque period, which was from roughly 1600 to 1750.
Baroque is distinguished from other classical genres by several characteristics.
It’s not all about that bass, but a continuous bass line is a big part of baroque.
Known as basso continuo, it’s a constantly moving bass part. Basso continuo is not much different theoretically from the walking bass lines found in jazz and the blues, and it’s often a melody of its own.
This idea of having multiple melodies going on at the same time is a defining feature of Baroque. Known as contrapuntal or counterpoint, it’s when each voice of a composition has its own melody that could stand separately as a solo piece, but when played simultaneously with the other melodies, creates new harmonies and chords as the piece progresses.
Sometimes in music, there’s one main melody and the other parts play supporting roles. This is known as homophony.
You’re familiar with it from pop music where there’s a main vocal melody (and maybe a guitar solo or something) and everything else works as a foundation.
Baroque often uses polyphony, which is two or more melodies going on at the same time with each having equal importance. A piece written for a quartet of instruments might have four melodies, or a single melody played at different times.
You know “Row Row Row Your Boat” as a children’s song. And if you went to a summer camp as a kid you probably sang it as a round. One group would start it off, then a second group would sing exactly the same thing but starting later. A third group would start even later, yet somehow the three parts sound good together. This is polyphony at its simplest.
Polyphony makes baroque denser- a little more difficult to understand because you have to pay attention to all the parts. It takes some brain power to get the composer’s intention. Baroque is not background music. It’s an intellectual exercise for both the composer and the listener.
In addition to multiple simultaneous melodies, Baroque usually uses ornaments. These are ways of making notes fancy, such as a trill. A trill is done by playing two notes a half step apart, like C and C#, rapidly. Sometimes, depending on the composer’s instructions, it’s done once, sometimes it’s done as many times as you can fit it.
A more obvious thing that makes Baroque distinct is the instruments.
There were no synthesizers or electric guitars in the 17th Century, so they’re not used, but the piano hadn’t been invented yet either. So a lot of Baroque music was written for the harpsichord.
The major difference between a harpsichord and a piano is how the strings are vibrated.
In both cases hitting a key on the keyboard sets a particular string inside the instrument vibrating.
With the harpsichord, the string is plucked. With a piano, the string is hit by a small, felt covered hammer.
This gives the harpsichord a sharp, piercing sound and the piano a warm pure tone. Also, there’s no way to control the harpsichord’s volume. The string is either plucked or it’s not. On a piano, each note’s volume is controlled by how hard you hit the keys. (The piano’s full name is either pianoforte, which is Italian for soft-loud, or fortepiano, meaning loud-soft.)
So, necessarily, there’s no dynamics in harpsichord music. While other instruments of the time, like the oboe, recorder, and strings, could be played at varied volumes, it just wasn’t considered very important.
Speaking of the various instruments of the time, Baroque also brought in something called idiomatic writing. Composers started writing different parts for different instruments, keeping in mind each instrument’s sonic qualities. In prior centuries, the various instruments played the same part and used the same sheet music, if any. Baroque composers wrote different music for each instrument.
But perhaps the biggest change that the Baroque brought in terms of music theory is the switch from modality to tonality.
This isn’t the place to go deep into theory but modality was based on modes, which are still used today in jazz and other advanced genres. Modes are scales with the half steps in different places, giving each mode its own melodic and emotional characteristics.
Tonality, on the other hand, is built on a hierarchy of notes, with the tonic being the most important. In the key of C major, for example, the tonic C is the center of the piece. It’s “home” and will likely be the last note played, giving us a sense of release after the tension of all the other notes (some being more tense than others).
The switch to tonality mirrors the changes in the sciences. Rationality, making sense of the chaos of the other notes of the scale, is the ultimate goal.
And the ornaments and other flourishes of the melodies are similar to the ornate architecture and art of the time.
The last part of the Baroque period saw the rise of Rococo, a particularly fancy decorative style.
It’s helpful to remember when the Baroque period happened. It was the Age Of Enlightenment, where reason became more valued than superstition. Therefore, human brain power was celebrated, and not just in philosophy and the sciences. The arts were a symbol of all that man could achieve, so Baroque music had to show just how smart we are. It’s complex and deep, and requires intense thinking to compose, and almost as much thinking to comprehend.
The big names of the Baroque period that we still know today include George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi.
But by far the biggest rockstar, the Beatles of the Baroque, was Johann Sebastian Bach.
He came from a family of musicians and he raised a family of musicians. He was a relentless composer of intricate counterpoint fugues and concertos, and was one of the most renowned organists in history.
Remember what I said about idiomatic writing, where each instrument gets its own part? In Bach’s contrapuntal organ pieces, each hand, and sometimes each finger, got its own part. And he played the bass lines with his feet at the same time.
Such was his genius that he could improvise fugues.
A fugue is a piece of music that uses the same theme (that is, a repeating short melody) in multiple contrapuntal parts.
For a normal human being, these could be carefully thought out and written and revised.
Bach could do it on the fly. He is everything you need to know about Baroque music, though don’t let that stop you from searching out the others.
And we should note that Georg Philipp Telemann was born before Bach and Handel, and died after both of them, and he wrote more pieces than both of them combined. He was also more famous than either at the time. Bach, however, is now regarded as the main man of Baroque.
What I haven’t mentioned is the growth of opera during the Baroque period. That will have to wait for another day, but probably not soon.
Next week’s topic will be nothing at all like the Baroque period, and only lasted a few years.
Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist
Mystery Sonatas (Rosary Sonatas), n. 1
Heinrich Ignaz Biber
Rondeau from Abdelazer Z570
Aria Quarta – Hexachordum Apollinis
Fugue in G minor BWV 578
Johann Sebastian Bach
Concerto in D Major Op. 6 No. 4
Gloria in D Minor RV 589
George Frideric Handel
Oboe Concerto Op. 9 no. 2 in D minor
Ouverture in D Major, TWV 55:D18
Georg Philipp Telemann
Sonata in D minor, K. 1
Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts, 1er Concert
Jean Philippe Rameau
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