Baroque Listening Project - The Beginning and an Update

This is a continuation of my Baroque music listening project.

A Short Introduction to the Baroque Period

The Baroque period in Western Classical Music lasted roughly between 1600 - 1750. I use the "Western" prefix to distinguish from other classical music traditions. 

A musical era cannot be strictly defined as having begin and ended in specific years. The years 1600 and 1750 are set as the boundaries of this period by music historians for ease of study. If we have to look for notable events in these years - the first modern opera as we understand it today was written around 1597, and 1750 marked the death of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Baroque period saw the rise of opera and other forms like the oratorio, cantata, solo and trio sonatas, the prelude and the fugue.

During the Baroque period words took precedence over the structure of the music as opposed to the preceding Rennaisance period where it was the opposite. The "Doctrine of Affections" is a defining characteristic of Baroque music. Affections mean emotions here. This refers to the practice of expressing a single emotion in a Baroque composition which does not change throughout the piece.  - contrast that with the later Classical or the Romantic periods. 

The Baroque era saw the birth and rise of opera. It was born out of a desire to return to the  ideals of Greek drama. The word "opera" literally translates to "work". It was originally referred to as "opera drammatica in musica" - a dramatic work set to music.

A structured, formal arrangement of the music is another quality of Baroque music. Another is the basso continuo. A bass instrument plays the bass line (the lowest) and melodic instruments play the melody (the highest), with other instruments (e.g. keyboard) filling in the rest. The major-minor tonal system in music was also established during this period. Counterpoint - the interplay of two or more melodies in a single composition - is also used in many Baroque compositions although it originated earlier.

During the Baroque, vocal dominated music to started to give way to an arena where instrumental music played a much bigger role. Previously, vocal music dominated due to the greater profusion of sacred music. The church was the primary patron of composers. However, during the Baroque period, nobility and royalty became patrons of musicians thus supporting more and more secular music. This led to fewer restrictions on themes and a greater scope for experimentation.
Around 1600 the violin began to play a greater role in musical compositions along with the viola and the cello. The Baroque orchestra grew in size and number of sections.


From Giovanni Gabrielli to Giacomo Carissimi

Back to my listening list

There are mostly Italian composers in the list in this period of the Baroque era - roughly the first 3 quarters of the 17th century. This reflects the fact that the Italian style was the most prominent throughout Europe then. The influence of Italy was not limited to just style but also the origin of major forms like opera, sonata, concerto and oratorio.

Gabrielli's canzone and sonatas for brass and winds can be soothing, melancholic or frolicking at times. He was one of the pioneers of the ensemble canzone. Canzone translates to "song" in Italian, and it was an instrumental genre of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Monterverdi straddled the Rennaisance and Baroque periods and is widely known for his madrigals and operas, and was a towering composer of the early Baroque period. A "madrigal" is a type of vocal music. Monteverdi's Book 4 and Book 8 (from the list) are madrigal compositions, and his Book 8 has more dramatic, choral and orchestral music. I also discovered his opera"L’incoroniazone di Poppea" - or The Coronation of Poppea. I did not sit through the entire opera but watched excerpts, and in the process discovered Pur ti miro - a beautiful aria sung as a duet. A good version is here, and Joshua Bell has a violin rendition.

Heinrich Sch├╝tz was German in this predominantly Italian list - and his works comprise of mostly sacred music.

The only female composer in this sub-period is Francesca Caccini - an Italian composer and singer. This composer was missing in both Swafford's book and the NPR book. I included her based on other lists.

In summary, it was not possible for me to appreciate and understand every single work here - but in the process I discovered some wonderful compositions. I suspect that as I move forward into the middle and later Baroque the music will start to sound more "familiar", as it developed in complexity in form, themes and the number of instruments.

Photo from


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