Early Baroque

    Opera was developed as a continuously sung musical drama by a musical and literary community (the "Camerata") at Florence during the 1590s. The intention of the Camerata was to recreate the power of Classical Greek drama to move the emotions, using music to heighten the communicative powers of the human voice. The earliest surviving complete opera, Euridice (1600) by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, combined elevated declamation by soloists with pastoral dances for nymphs and shepherds, thus merging the perceived power of tragic drama with contemporary ideals of the idyllic pastoral convention. In order to provide the musical means for a powerful and flexible solo vocal style, new forms and techniques had to be developed, in particular the creation of an elevated style of accompanied song, or monody. This in turn required the development of suitably flexible means for accompanying the soloists, and it is in this area that the basso continuo initially developed great importance. "Figured bass" accompaniment, involving the improvised realization of a given chordal structure, became not only a utilitarian performing practice but a procedure that moulded attitudes to musical composition during the next century and a half, encouraging a "tune-and-bass" approach to composition and the generation of melodies on the basis of primarily harmonic structures. This influence, combined with the desire to enhance the expressive power of the solo voice, led the emphasis away from musical forms based on counterpoint and imitation, although forms based on these features survived and flourished in other contexts, in particular liturgical church music and keyboard music.

   Opera might have remained an isolated experiment: it was created in the context of expensive and occasional court entertainments and involved elaborate staging, including the provision of extensive perspective sets and labour-intensive scenic effects, as well as the employment of many musicians. However, a critical factor for the development of the genre was the establishment in Venice of permanent opera theatres, under the patronage of Venice's richer families but accessible to a wider public, in the 1630s. Important also was the creative contribution of Claudio Monteverdi, who developed opera into an artistically coherent genre, first in Mantua in Orfeo (1607) and Arianna (1608, music mainly lost), and then especially in his later Venetian operas Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland, 1640) and L'Incoronazzione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642). Forceful dramatic declamation backed up by striking orchestral effects, a combination which promoted the expression of what Monteverdi called his "agitated" style (stile concitato), are also found in his extended dramatic scene Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (The Combat of Tancred and Clorinda, 1624) which was published in a collection of Monteverdi's "Madrigals": however, the early Baroque style rather eschewed the imitative textures and anecdotal word-painting of the Renaissance madrigal style, concentrating instead on using music in a broader way to enhance the "passion" or affekt being expressed by the singer.

   While the ground for opera was being laid in the 1590s, another important event of the decade was the publication of the instrumental Sacrae Symphoniae by Giovanni Gabrieli at Venice in 1597, which laid out large ensembles in groups that could be variously contrasted and combined. This principle of scoring, following a choral model known as cori spezzati, was a direct consequence of the opportunities provided by the separate galleries in St Mark's Cathedral, Venice, but the application of the idea to instrumental scoring became an influential one when Baroque composers had large forces at their disposal. One item from Gabrieli's collection, the Sonata Pian' e Forte, marked the entry of formalized dynamic directions into European music, and the establishment of "terraced" dynamic contrasts as one resource available to the composer.

Baroque Music, Donald Burrows, M. A., Ph. D., Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000