Classical Music: Why You Must Listen to Baroque Music

What the hell is Baroque Music?

This is the second part of my most likely futile efforts to convince all of you philistines to listen to more classical music. 

Early Baroque and the birth of opera

Baroque is a term used by historians to describe, if somewhat negatively, the heavily ornamented music of the period from roughly 1600 to 1750.  The best way to describe what I am talking about is to think of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Now think of the “Star-Spangled Banner” as sung by the late Whitney Houston.  The liberties that Whitney took by adding notes, extending  phrases, and essentially showing off her singing chops can be described as “ornamentation.”  Musicians have been doing this since apparently the 1600s.

Anyway, the Baroque era began around 1600 after a bunch of artists got together in Italy and decided they wanted to change the current trends in art.  This group was called the Florentine Camerata and resulted, among other things, with a guy named Jacopo Peri setting a Greek tragedy to a fairly simple harmonic accompaniment that was considered the precursor to opera.

Terminology

  • Continuo:  The less-interesting stuff below a sung melody or solo instrument part.  Usually played by a harpsichord with other bass instruments.
  • Period instruments:  Instruments that are more accurate representations of instruments used in the time period when the piece was written.  For instance, the modern violin looks and sounds quite different than the violins used back in the 1700s.
  • Aria:  A song from an opera that features a solo singer along with orchestral accompaniment.
  • Setting:  a term used by the pretentious music lover to refer to a poem or story set to music.
  • Castrati:  boys with their junk cut off in order to maintain the ability sing in a really high pitch when they grow up.

Today’s first musical selection is one that I am absolutely obsessed with.  This is the opening to the Italian composer Monteverdi’s famous opera “L’Orfeo” as performed on period instruments.  The music itself is incredibly lively, the people performing actually look like they are straight out of the 1600s, and the dramatic entrance of the conductor is totally badass.  I could wake up to this song every day if my wife would allow it.

The aria that follows the intro also has that eerily beautiful quality that is reminiscent of some of the Renaissance era music that I mentioned in the first article in this series.  I am not a huge opera buff by any means, but something about this opera in particular captures my attention.  It is almost like looking through a portal to the 17th century, and it allows you to completely escape the modern world for the time being.

Another great Baroque opera composer is the English composer Henry Purcell.  His setting of Dido and Aeneas, specifically the aria “When I am laid in earth,” is sure to put even the most chipper of individuals in a sad and suicidal state.  Highly recommended!

What about that Handel guy, you say?  The one who wrote the “Hallelujah Chorus” that everyone belts out around Christmas time? Yeah, I hate that guy. He wrote long-ass music that bores even a music lover like myself to tears.

That’s about as far as my Baroque opera knowledge goes. In my next article I will go into more of the instrumental stuff from the Baroque era. In the meantime, check out this sweet track from another version of Orpheus and Eurydice by Gluck. [I used the English version of the title. If you want to use the title on the YouTube video, it’s Orfeo ed Euridice.]

Coming up: more killer hits from dead guys who lived 300 years ago, including Vivaldi and Bach.  Also, I make a plea to all future brides to take two seconds and think of a different song to come down the aisle to instead of that lame-ass Pachelbel’s Canon.

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