The Cathy List 7: Thinking Baroque

Posted by on Jan 22, 2016 in Uncategorized | No Comments

1600-1750: The Baroque era comprises 150 years of astonishing revolution in the world of music, with the birth of so many important forms (opera, sonata, concerto etc.), a whole new menagerie of exotic instruments and flamboyant music-making.

Italy was the tinderbox for the early part of this revolution.  The first track is by the Italian master, Monteverdi, and you have to imagine it performed in the echoes of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.  The choir holds a simple chord and everything else dances around it, like rays around a rising sun. It’s all about ornamentation.


If you look at the sculpture by Bernini pictured here, you’ll see an emotion captured in a moment.  One ‘affect’ being examined in sumptuous detail.  And that’s what Baroque composers often set out to do, explore one emotional state in each piece or song.  Handel explores grief here in an aria from his opera, Rinaldo (track 2).

Henry Purcell lived a tragically short life and froze to death just outside his front door.  His music is often filled with daring harmony.  The anthem ‘Hear my prayer’ gives voice to a soul crying for God.

Baroque composers loved to test out what the newly evolved instruments could really do.  The violin was taking exciting new shape, and Westhoff, a violin virtuoso himself, shows what you can do with fast string-crossing (‘bariolage’).

Vivaldi was also very drawn to the violin and his Four Seasons shows how he delighted in experimentation.  ‘Winter’ starts with icy shivers played close to the bridge for a glacial sound.

Bach mastered every form in the Baroque, although stayed away from theatre and opera (unlike Handel).  This movement from his set of Brandenburg concertos is propelled in perpetual motion (a very Baroque preoccupation) as the strings imitate each other in rapid succession.  It skips along in three beats to a bar, busy and irrepressibly cheerful.