A Deeper Glance at Music Appreciation: Baroque

Yo-Yo Ma
I was reintroduced to baroque style music during my freshman year of college in music history class. In this class, the professor took us on a journey from Gregorian Chants to Rock. He lectured about how music in the past was used for religious expression and how it became secular. We learned about the different styles of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then finally the Baroque era.

The professor started his lesson on Baroque with Bach’s Little "Fugue in G minor". I was immediately drawn to the rich sound of the organ, the complex melody lines, and the robust bass line. The many melody lines were busy—the tones dissonant, yet harmonic. All of the lines seemed to be independent of the others, but still needed each other to exist. It was then that Bach’s most popular fugue became one of my favorites from the era.

The term Baroque is derived from the Portuguese barroco, meaning irregular pearl, and is used to describe Western European music, arts, and architecture from 1600 to 1750. Baroque is a style that came from the Renaissance but predates the Classical era. It is different from other classical music because it is heavily ornamented with trills, turns, and complex notation which nineteenth century critics declared to be exaggerated, distracting, and unnecessary. Although Baroque had a gaudy reputation at the time, this era gave birth to beautiful forms of music such as the opera, concerto, sonata, and cantata.

There are significant characteristics which make Baroque music unique. Contrast between various instrumental dynamics, minor and major keys, different forms such as binary and fugue, and continuous themes throughout a piece are all essential ingredients in the drama that is Baroque.

Bach Orchestral Masterpieces
One popular musical form in this period is the fugue. Bach was the fugue master, sometimes creating them on the spot. Fugues use a technique called counterpoint where multiple melody lines can be followed independently but also form harmonic structures when played together. In a fugue, a melody line is used continuously throughout the piece, which is also called the subject. Although the subject is used repeatedly, it is echoed in different pitch ranges such as soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. When the subject moves through different pitch ranges, the composer also changes the key. This movement is called the answer. Composers will use this technique to add variety and set up harmonic relationships between the subject and answer.

Here is an audio and visual presentation of Bach’s Little "Fugue in G minor". The different colors represent the four different melodic lines where the subject is present.

The subject first appears in the soprano voice which is represented by the green bars. The subject is then presented in the alto voice (orange bars) in a different key which is the answer. By the time the tenor voice enters with the subject, the three melodies can still be followed independently, but the harmony that is created is more apparent (pink bars). Once the bass line is playing the subject, the composer has four melodic lines to utilize (purple bars).

If you enjoy Baroque music as much as I do, or are interested in learning more, here are a few books that may be helpful!
Four books on Classical Music

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Classical Music but Were Too Afraid to Ask by Darren Henley

Stephen Fry's Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music by Stephen Fry

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music by Anna R. Beer

Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie
—Alexa-Rae from Hightstown Library


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