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  • Class 3: Baroque Period (1600-1750), Opera and Concerto Grosso

    Technical developments

    The Baroque period begins with the invention of opera in Florence around 1600. At this time, we see a

    few technical developments that make Baroque music much different from that of the Renaissance.

    • Somehow, composers gravitated to the major-minor system.

    • Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) made waves with new dissonances in his books of madrigals.

    This was defended by calling it a "seconda pratica," a new practice. The dissonances (things that

    we would call appogiaturas and the like) were justified by claims that they served the emotion of

    the text.

    • Figured Bass notation was invented, and the harpsichord and bass instruments (collectively called

    the basso continuo) became the center of most music.

    • While Renaissance music was mostly concerned with combinations of voices (either in

    polyphony or homophony), opera and other Baroque genres often feature a single part which

    handles all the melody. Thus, we have a new technical term for this texture - monody


    We'll look at a silly movie about Farinelli, a famous castrato. These were men who were surgically

    altered before puberty, so that they would retain the high range of a boy soprano (but develop the power

    and musical skills of an adult.) Many of the Baroque operas featured castratos in the heroic roles, and

    thus today they need to be performed by a countertenor (a man singing falsetto) or a soprano.

    The movie shows a few aspects of Baroque opera:

    • The general atmosphere of the opera house and the interest in spectacular special effects.

    • The reliance on virtuoso arias for individual singers. Indeed, as drama, the operas are very

    boring - they are really just a long recital of solo arias.

    We'll see Farinelli perform a bit of the opera Idaspe composed by his brother Riccardo Broschi, and then

    we'll hear some arias from Handel's Rinaldo.

    (For me: this is Track 6 and Track 21.)

    The Concerto Grosso

    When we hear the word "concerto" we think of a special event in which a famous soloist walks out in

    front of an orchestra and performs a spectacular part, with the backing of the orchestra. Perhaps you

    might think of it as a specialized form of the symphony. However, the concerto was the first form of

    orchestral music - the symphony does not appear until the Classical era.

  • The name comes from the Latin term concertare (to contend), and the basic idea is a kind of opposition of

    instruments against each other. (Even Monteverdi called some of his late madrigals "concertos.")

    Our book and CD feature Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in G, Op. 4 No. 12, which is great. However, we are

    going to listen to Vivaldi's "greatest hit", the "Spring" portion of The Four Seasons. The Four Seasons is

    a group of four concertos which were published in his Op. 8.

    What's special about this particular set is that Vivaldi intended each one to represent a season, and went

    so far as to plan them out to match poetry that evokes specific things (like birds singing, a snoozing

    shepherd, etc.)

    So, as we follow this piece, we'll not only hear the typical alternation of the ritornello (the main thematic

    material in the full orchestra) with soloists, but we'll also hear specific attempts to evoke these images.

    Here's a listening guide from another book, Joseph Machlis's The Enjoyment of Music.


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