High Baroque

   While the violin had come to supersede the viol as the principal treble string instrument during Purcell's lifetime, the lower string parts were probably still being taken by instruments of the viol family: it took some time for the fully "modern" string orchestra, including cellos and double basses, to reach Britain. However, Continental wars drove some of Europe's finest instrumentalists to Britain during the first decade of the 18th century, and their presence was one of the factors that enabled the creation of an up-to-date full orchestra to accompany the Italian opera company that was gradually established in London during that decade. By then, Italian music had taken further steps towards yet broader and grander styles, in both operatic and instrumental music. In the hands of Alessandro Scarlatti and Giovanni Bononcini, Italian opera had developed an expressive expansiveness that matched the virtuosity of a new generation of brilliant singer-actors: the 18th century was to be enlivened by stars among the castrati such as Nicolini, Senesino, and Farinelli, but they had equally talented counterparts among the leading ladies—except in Rome where, in times when opera was allowed at all, papal disapproval of women taking the stage resulted in a situation where female roles were played by men. In the 18th century also the Italian opera seria type of libretto was brought to a new level of intellectual and poetic quality by Pietro Metastasio, working in Italy and at the Imperial Court in Vienna. Although particular styles were to some extent cultivated in different operatic centres, the highly professional composers and soloists of Italian opera moved around Europe.

   In instrumental music, the reputation of the Rome-based Arcangelo Corelli as a violinist, orchestral leader, and composer quickly spread throughout Europe during the last two decades of the 17th century. His concerti grossi were famous by reputation long before their publication as the composer's op. 6 the year after his death in 1713: they quickly became classic works, the climax of a mellifluous style in string music. However, in their multi-movement structures and elegant harmonic style they were in some ways old-fashioned: an alternative taste in the 18th century preferred the livelier three-movement concertos of the younger Antonio Vivaldi, the unconventional red-headed priest and violin virtuoso, whose musical career encompassed the composition of a considerable number of operas as well as church music and concertos. Nevertheless, Corelli's sonatas and concertos marked an important historical point in the development of musical style, with their cadence-directed harmony and "circle of fifth" progressions. In them, the dominance of major and minor keys (the harmonic system known as tonality) had decisively replaced the variety of modes, and the modal harmonic systems, that had been characteristic of Renaissance music. At the same time, late Baroque composers retained older modal practices for occasional use, as part of a repertory of compositional effects for use in contrast to the prevailing major/minor harmonic system.

   The High Baroque also saw substantial achievements in keyboard music. A French tradition of elegant and highly decorated harpsichord music found its culmination in the works of François Couperin, whose first book of Ordres (Suites) was published in 1713. Couperin's suites, as published, were multi-movement works, mixing in "character" pieces with dance genres: German and English composers producing French-style suites more often worked around a framework of four dance types—allemande, sarabande, courante, and gigue (derived from the jig). Harpsichord-making flourished during the Baroque period, with high-quality instruments of different types being produced by Flemish/Dutch, German, French, and Italian makers. The pianoforte was almost an accidental creation from one of the leading Italian keyboard-instrument manufacturers in the 1680s, but it did not come into its own until a century later: the harpsichord and organ were the principal keyboard instruments of the period, though the clavichord was also taken seriously as both a chamber instrument and a practice instrument, especially in Germany. In the hands of such builders as Schnitger and "Father" Smith in northern Europe, and Silbermann in Saxony, the organ reached a peak of development in the Middle and High Baroque periods: the different tonal tastes represented by these, and by the contemporary French organ-makers, is reflected in the organ music of composers such as Dietrich Buxtehude, William Croft, Johann Pachelbel, and Louis Marchand. The single-movement binary form "sonata" for harpsichord was developed into a substantial keyboard genre by Domenico Scarlatti, the son of Alessandro, whose mature years were spent in the service of the Spanish court.

   Our perception of the High Baroque is, however, dominated by two other composers who were born in 1685, the same year as Domenico Scarlatti—Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. Both achieved contemporary fame as keyboard players, but their significance for us is broader. Between them, they contributed to virtually every significant musical genre of the period and their music sums up the stylistic trends of the later Baroque, in each case worked into an individual synthesis by their own career patterns and creative personalities. In one aspect, each represents a different type of typical Baroque musical practitioner: Bach, the German Kapellmeister working for the court or city, and Handel the theatre-based composer. Professionally speaking, they represented excellent stock: perhaps there has been no other time in which the major figures were backed up by such a range of other talented, technically competent, and innovative composers as the Baroque period. In his church cantatas and passion music Bach fused the Italianate vocal style with a serious, "German" approach, and his keyboard suites show a similarly effective marriage with the French style. While working clearly within the continuo basso tradition, Bach's fascination with the intellectual and emotional possibilities of fugue and imitation introduced an extra dimension to the music of the late Baroque period.

   Handel's principal original musical orientation was towards Italian opera: it was this genre that took him from his native Germany first to Italy and then to London. After a substantial career with Italian operas in London, in which he produced the most striking works of the late Baroque genre, he turned to develop a new genre of English oratorio for theatrical performance in London. To some extent this development was forced upon him by changes in musical taste in London, but it gave him the opportunity to combine his strengths as an aria-writer with a forceful style of chorus-writing that had previously been seen in his church music. As composers in the "constructive" sense, Bach and Handel stand supreme in the High Baroque. Handel, and to a lesser extent Bach also, developed substantial movement structures on the basis of thematic material which involved a certain amount of borrowing of musical ideas, from themselves and other composers. Bach died in 1750 and Handel's creative career effectively ended with the onset of blindness after the completion of his oratorio Jeptha in 1751. In Handel's latest music, hints can be found of the new melodic and harmonic styles that were to come to fruition in the subsequent "Classical" period.

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