Listen Bach -- Violin Sonata in A Major, BWV 1015 IV. Presto
Aug 27, 2015
Listen Corelli -- Sonata No. 3 in C Major Op. 5 I. Adagio
Aug 27, 2015
Listen Corelli -- Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 5 II. Allegro
Sep 8, 2015
The time between ca. 1600-1750 was a period in European history now known as Baroque. The style of this era could generally be described as ornate and gilded — "fancy," if you like. From architecture in churches and palaces, to the detail on the furniture inside, to the music played to the rich and fashionable in small rooms (which is where the term "chamber music" comes from). Coming out of the Renaissance, it was a good time for artists of all kinds, and by the end of the period it was a good time for thinkers and scientists as well.
Harpsichords were first invented about 1000 years ago, when someone thought to combine an upright harp and an organ. It took them a little while to make the strings on the harpsichord horizontal instead of vertical, but they eventually figured out that gravity is a useful tool. There are two main distinctions between harpsichord and its descendant, the piano. When a harpsichord key is pushed, the corresponding string is plucked by a tiny plectrum rather than hit with a felt-covered hammer (as in a piano). The second difference is that no matter how hard or soft you press a key on the harpsichord, it will not change the dynamics. Harpsichordists employ different techniques to achieve dynamic changes. To get forte the player might choose to roll and arpeggiate big chords, or if the harpsichord is of the double manual style they might couple the two keyboards so that they both play at once. For piano, the player will just put fewer notes in the chord, or just play single notes.
The Baroque violin does not immediately look much different than the modern violin. However, it has quite a different tone and requires rather an adjustment in technique in order to play it. The strings are made from sheep or cow gut instead of metal (steel, aluminium, silver, or gold), and those contribute to that distinct Baroque sound. The Baroque violin is also tuned to a flatter A than the modern violin, so a piece of music written in G major played on a Baroque violin sounds like it is in F-sharp/G-flat major. The Baroque violin also does not have a chin rest or a shoulder rest so the violin must rest on the shoulder of the player and it is up to them to hold it up with their left hand as well as play in tune! I can personally attest as violinist of some years standing that trying to play a Baroque violin is incredibly difficult since you cannot rely on gripping the violin with your chin whilst pressing your fingers down on the fingerboard! The bow is different as well, with more of a convex arc than just a straight line. The earliest bows were shorter than the modern bow, and they are sometimes called "Corelli bows" after early Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli. As time went on the bows got longer, especially for French and German music, until they reached the length that they are today.
In Flying Forms performances, the students heard music from some of the most-well known composers in this 150-year period — Arcangelo Corelli, François Couperin, and J.S. Bach — as well as the lesser known Dario Castello and Jean-Henri D'Anglebert. Italy, France, and Germany were the biggest players in the Baroque music scene. As in jazz music, improvisation — making it up as you go along — within chord structures was a major element of Baroque music. The Italians and French had their own particular styles of improvisation that they implemented. The Italians practiced "melodic improvisation," where the composer would write a simple melody line and it was the soloist's task to fill it in with more notes, rather like an artist coloring in a picture with black outlines. The harpsichord part is called continuo; the composer provides a bass line with numbers for most of the notes to indicate the harmonies and it is the player's job to improvise those harmonies with their right hand. Later in the Baroque period, German composer J.S. Bach wrote obbligato parts for both harpsichord and soloists, meaning that he notated everything that he wanted them to play and there was no improvisation required.
Of course, music was mostly available at this time for the wealthier members of society, in particular the nobility. The most important court in during the Baroque period was that of the "Sun King" Louis XIV of France. All the rest of the royal European courts wanted to mimic the splendor of Louis's palace Versailles with its stunning architecture and art, its parties, and in particular, the dancing.
Louis XIV loved to dance and every year he would come up with new dance steps for the standard court dances. If anyone wanted to come to court to impress him they would have to learn those dances very well in order to try and gain his favor. Much of the music in the Baroque Period was composed for dancing and like the music, the dancing was elegant and ornate. For instance, the Sarabande is in a slow 3/4 time signature, with the emphasis on the second beat of the three. That second beat is "ornamented" in both the music and the dance. For instance, the harpsichord player would play the most ornamented continuo improvisation on the second beat whilst the dancers would do a more complicated step or rise up on their toes for the second beat. This would especially apply to the men for whom it was considered fashionable to have large, strong calves as it was evidence that you were a good dancer.
The Gigue was another popular dance in a faster 6/8 time signature that makes it feel like there are two big beats. Italy, France, and Germany each had their own unique characteristics for the Gigue. The Italian version was fast, simple, but with melodic flourishes within the two big beats. The French version was slower than the Italian, ornamented, and the rhythm within the two big beats was syncopated. The Germans liked what both the Italians and French were doing and so taking the best from both, their Gigues were faster, melodic and complicated. Most Baroque composers wrote dance suites that included the Gigue and the Sarabande, as well as other popular dances like the Allemande, the Courante, and the Minuet; each dance has its own specific rhythmic traits and dance steps.
Even though Baroque music is 400-odd years old, it's definitely still worth getting excited over today, mostly because it's so niche. Switching from a modern violin to a Baroque one or from piano to harpsichord is not something you can just be able to do right away even if you are a really good player. The sound of the music is unique; a Baroque orchestra sounds quite different than a regular symphony orchestra. In fact, Baroque music in terms of structure and improvisatory style is in many ways more closely related to those of jazz rather than classical. That being said, people are generally probably more familiar with Baroque than they might think. Case in point...
One of the most famous composers who is still one of the top three most-well known composers today is J.S. Bach (the other two are Mozart and Beethoven) and his music is all over church services, weddings, and mobile phone ring tones. Most importantly though, the reason that Baroque music has survived and people spend years learning how to play the period instruments is that it is gorgeous and full of rich literature.