Baroque music: a brief tour of the extravagant last period of early music

Robert Tournières, Concert, France, 1690s, showing a baroque cello, virginals, singer, violin, and French baroque lute.
Robert Tournières, Concert, France, 1690s, showing a baroque cello, virginal, singer, violin, and French baroque lute.

The baroque period was a time of ornate decoration, extravagance and the rise of ever larger ensembles, giving rise to opera and the early orchestra. Dance music was as popular as ever, with the renaissance galliard giving way to the baroque sarabande, chaconne, and bourée. Dancing was briefly in trouble, banned by the Puritans, during which John Playford started a remarkable series of English dance instruction books which outlived Puritan censoriousness. Singing styles among the cultural elite were florid and declamatory, while broadside ballads for the masses continued to be sung and sold in the streets and at public hangings. And, in private, John Playford and his companions met to sing about farting.

Baroque is the final period of early music (medieval, renaissance, baroque) and this is the last of 3 articles charting them. This article includes 15 illustrative videos for the music of Robert Johnson, John Blow, Tobias Hume, Thomas Arne, John Playford, Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Johann Sebastian Bach (click green links).

When and what was the baroque period?

The baroque period followed the renaissance, which followed the middle ages. Like the rise of the renaissance, the baroque signals a dissemination of new ideas, styles and ways of thinking which spread across Europe and, consequently, we can’t give a very precise date for its beginning and end, but 1600 to 1750 is given as a general rule of thumb.

As with the middle ages, it was given its name by people of a later time. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that ‘baroque’, meaning either ‘bizarre’, ‘exuberant’ or ‘misshapen pearl’, was used to describe European culture in the 150 years from 1600. It’s not a very precise term and covers a wide range of styles, but they do have one thing in common in architecture, clothing and music: ornate decoration and extravagance.

Two examples illustrate this. For decoration, French baroque lute music deliberately tried to hide the tune by spreading the notes of a chord, playing them separately instead of together, and by adding in lots of ornamentation. This became more important than the tune itself, on the basis that this would make the music sublime and move the listener in a mysterious, spiritual way. And extravagance? Opera! Styles and tastes were certainly changing.

Examples of instrument evolution

The lute was now being played ‘thumb outside’ instead of ‘thumb inside’, giving a sharper, more trebly sound, perhaps to sound more like the virginals and harpsichord. Keyboards were increasing popular as solo instruments, as was the lyra viol (the solo/duet viola da gamba), which were overtaking the lute in popularity, which slowly evolved into the French and German baroque lutes (for more, see The lute: a thumbnail history).

The 4 course renaissance guitar evolved into the larger 5 course baroque guitar, the impetus for gaining a unique voice of its own, involving rhythmic strumming and peel of bells effects (for more, see The guitar: a brief history).

Both the violin and cello were creations of the renaissance which became more popular and important during the baroque period. The fretted viola da gamba (viol) family, often played in consort, was rivalled and eventually supplanted by the louder unfretted violin family as premier bowed instruments, with the bass viol also giving way over an extended time to the unfretted violoncello, or cello for short.

Detail from Jan Miense Molenaer, Family Making Music, Netherlands, 1630s, showing a harpsichord (far left), cittern, violin, 10 course lute, singer, and baroque cello.
Detail from Jan Miense Molenaer, Family Making Music, Netherlands, 1630s, showing a virginal (far left), cittern, violin, 10 course lute, singer, and baroque cello.

Ensembles

Ensembles were getting bigger, louder and bolder, from the generally six person renaissance mixed consort of lute, cittern, bass viol, bandora, viol or violin, and recorder or flute; to more ad hoc ensembles playing basso continuo (see below), growing in size to the beginnings of a recognisable orchestra, involving families of strings (violins, violas, cellos, double basses), woodwind (recorders or wooden flutes, oboes, bassoon), brass (natural trumpets or/and horns), percussion (timpani) and basso continuo section.

Singing

17th century broadside ballad, to be sung and sold at a hanging, telling the condemned man’s story and giving his imaginary final words: Arthur Chambers's sorrowful farewell to the VVorld. With his last advice to HALL the chimney-sweeper, who impeach'd him, after his Condemnation, in Newgate. To the Tune of, Johnson’s Farewel.
17th century broadside ballad, to be sung and sold at a hanging, telling the condemned man’s story and giving his imaginary final words: Arthur Chambers’s sorrowful farewell to the VVorld. With his last advice to HALL the chimney-sweeper, who impeach’d him, after his Condemnation, in Newgate. To the Tune of, Johnson’s Farewel.

Singing styles among the cultural elite were changing, too. Among the well-off in the baroque period, the printed late renaissance song books of John Dowland, Thomas Campion, etc. were falling out of fashion to make way for the more florid and declamatory vocal writing of, for example, Robert Johnson, John Blow, Tobias Hume and Thomas Arne.

For the person in the street – literally in the street – popular singing came from the same source as before: the broadside ballads sold in the renaissance 16th century reached their peak of popularity in the baroque 17th century. The ballad is a form of song that tells a story, often very long with many verses; and a broadside or broadsheet was the sheet of paper it was printed on. The broadsheet would have the song words, a woodcut depicting a scene (not always connected with the ballad), and the instruction, “To the tune of” printed after the title. Customers would either know the tune already, or learn it from the ballad-mongers, who would sing their wares in the street, sometimes making use of public occasions such as hangings to sing the ballad of the condemned’s ‘final words from the gallows’ which, in reality, clearly hadn’t yet been uttered.

Social dance

The social dances of the renaissance – pavan, galliard, etc. – were now out of fashion and public dance in general was in trouble. In 1644, Puritan Acts of Parliament banned Christmas and May Day celebrations, and they also banned all public, mixed-sex dancing.

So when John Playford (1623–1686/7) published his first edition of The English Dancing Master in 1651, he did so at a time when the dances it contained could not be performed publicly. King Charles I had been executed and the Rump Parliament ruled the nation. The title of his publication was a deliberate nose-thumbing to the Puritans, based on a book called The French Dancing Master as, in the baroque period, the French style was a la mode for the fashionable, and in France people could still dance publicly to their heart’s content. It is as if, in his title, Playford was addressing the Puritans: ‘You tell us we can’t dance? You just watch us. We’ll do what the French do.’

An edition of The Dancing Master from 1728, its last year of publication, no longer bearing the name of its originator, John Playford (1623–1686/7), who published the first edition in 1651.
An edition of The Dancing Master from 1728, its last year of publication, no longer bearing the name of its originator, John Playford (1623–1686/7), who published the first edition in 1651.

The first edition of The English Dancing Master quickly sold out, so Playford published a second edition with nine additional dances the next year. From the second edition, the word English was dropped from the title, thereafter just called The Dancing Master. This trend of multiple editions continued for three volumes until the last print in 1728, 75 years after the first, making his series of dance manuals a highly significant cultural phenomenon. Not only did The Dancing Master outlive the Rump Parliament and the rule of the Puritans, being published well past the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it also outlived him and even his son, Henry, who continued the work until near his own death, with the work then continued by John Young from 1706.

The Dancing Master included the melody line to all the tunes and instructions for the dancing master to call. One of the most striking things about this series of books is that so many of its tunes had been popular since the renaissance: great tunes which had stood the test of time, many of which remain popular to this day among lovers of traditional music. Of the additional tunes, which increased with each printing, they were a mixture of the melodies of new songs in the theatre and the latest popular broadside ballad tunes.

Composition and composers

Styles of music composition in the renaissance often revolved around dance forms. This was also the case for baroque composers, but often the dances were different. Some remained, such as the almain and coranto; some fell out of use, such as the galliard; and in came the sarabande, gigue and chaconne of Spanish origin, and the gavotte, minuet and bourée of French origin.

Renaissance music consisted largely of stand-alone pieces. While it’s true that some renaissance publications grouped dance pieces into suites, this was an unusual exception. Baroque suites or sonatas (different in meaning from the later classical sonata) became de rigueur, as we see, for example, in the pieces for solo instruments by Johann Sebastian Bach and the baroque lute sonatas of Sylvius Leopold Weiss. The baroque period also saw the rise of the concerto, a piece for a soloist or group of soloists, backed by an orchestra, usually in three movements.

Claudio Monteverdi painted by Bernardo Strozzi, c.  1630.
Claudio Monteverdi painted by Bernardo Strozzi, c.  1630.

A quick tour of a three select composers from three nations in chronological order will give a flavour of other developments between 1600 and 1750.

In Italy, Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi (1567–1643) developed basso continuo, a new way of writing for ensembles. Instead of having all parts fully written out, this involves the continuo instrumentalists semi-improvising their bass and chordal parts based on a guide or sketch given by the composer called a figured bass, within which musicians are expected to make their own creative judgements. This means one or more instrument must be able to play chords, such as an organ, harpsichord, lute, theorbo, guitar, regal (small portable organ), or harp; plus an unspecified number of instruments in the bass register, such as a cello, bass viol, or bassoon (a new baroque instrument).

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687) was born in Italy but lived in France and disavowed all Italian influence in his music. Nevertheless, he continued the use of Monteverdi’s basso continuo, now a typical feature of baroque ensemble playing and, being a dancer himself, his greatest musical successes were in dance forms, such as the chaconne, sarabande, passacaglia (all Spanish), gavotte, rigaudon, bourrée and minuet (French). In the 1660s, Lully collaborated with the playwright, Molière (his stage name, real name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) and created a new musical-theatrical form, the comédie-ballet, combining comedy, ballet, incidental music and copious theatrical special effects. He also developed a French style of opera with playwright Philippe Quinault, who was his librettist (libretto being the text of an opera, comprising the lyrics and any spoken dialogue). It was because of just such lavish developments that late 19th and early 20th century musicologists named the period ‘baroque’.

A portrait of musicians and artists by François Puget, 1688. The two key seated figures may well be the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault.
A portrait of musicians and artists by François Puget, 1688. The two key seated figures may well be the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault.

It could be argued that the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) distils in one person all that is best of the baroque period. He adapted forms of music from Italy and France; used counterpoint, rhythm, harmony and musical motifs in extraordinarily developed ways; composed solo works for organ, clavier (harpsichord or clavichord), lute, violin, cello, and flute; pieces for organ and basso continuo; cantatas, motets, liturgical works, passions and oratorios, chorales, songs and arias for voices; chamber music; and orchestral concertos and suites. That such a huge output and such consistent inventiveness and quality was achieved is astonishing. The foundation for his own personal genius had been laid by the innovations of the baroque movement, which ended in the very year of his death, giving way to the classical period.

Catch clubs

Not all baroque composition was so serious and high-minded. When, in 1649, the Puritans were dominating English politics and religion, John Playford (publisher of The Dancing Master) set up a catch club, one of many in English cities. A catch is a musical term meaning a round or a canon where everyone sings the same line but starts at different times. They were sung in each others’ houses, with an admission price, so they could raise funds for musicians put out of work by the Puritans.

Vermeer
Jan Vermeer, Mistress and maid, painted 1666-1667.

The catch clubs were male only and involved drinking, a recurring theme of the lyrics. The clubs gave rise to another of John Playford’s publications, Catch that catch can, or, A choice collection of catches, rounds & canons for 3 or 4 voyces collected & published by John Hilton, printed for John Benson and John Playford in 1652. It was republished with large additions by John Playford in 1658, then again in 1667 under the title, The Musical Companion. Diarist Samuel Pepys made several references to John Playford, often visiting his shop. It must have been the 1667 edition of the book he bought on Monday 15 April 1667, from his “new bookseller’s, and there bought … Playford’s new Catch-book, that hath a great many new fooleries in it.”

Today catches have the reputation of being risqué or downright filthy, and it’s true that later in the century there were some particularly vulgar offerings by, for example, Henry Purcell (1659–1695). Most were not of this nature and their current reputation reflects only what people now choose to pick out and sing. Hilton and Playford’s Catch that catch can, for example, includes no such material, but it does include a wonderfully inventive use by composer William Ellis for a natural bodily function. (You can hear the song performed by clicking here.)

MY Lady and her Mayd upon a merry pin,
they made a match at farting, who should the wager win.
Jone lights three Candles then and sets them bolt upright,
with the first fart she blew them out, with the next she gave them light.
In comes my Lady then with all her might and maine,
and blew them out, and in, and out, and in, and out againe.

2 thoughts on “Baroque music: a brief tour of the extravagant last period of early music

  • 13th August 2015 at 12:45 pm
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    This post is a good start for those new to baroque music. Well done.

    Reply
  • 9th October 2015 at 10:37 am
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    Thank you for a very interesting blog.

    Reply

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