Why You Must Listen to LATE Baroque Music

Late Baroque and the End of an Era

This is part three in my series discussing some of the more interesting parts of classical music throughout history. As I stated in my first article, there is plenty of mediocre and painfully boring classical music, but at the same time there is so much amazing quality stuff that it seems a pity to dismiss the genre as a whole. I left off last time in the late 1600s. Now I’m going to move to some heavy hitters from the late Baroque era.

More terminology:

  • Program music:  Music that was composed to convey a story or external meaning, rather than just sounding “good.”
  • Virtuoso: An artist who is incredibly skilled to the point that even the most challenging music comes off as sounding easy and natural.
  • Stradivarius: An ancient family of string instrument makers who began making violins in the 1600s that are still used to this day. In general, an original Strad is worth millions of dollars.
  • Concerto (plural, concerti): A composition for a solo instrument that has a full orchestral accompaniment.  Most often there are multiple parts, or movements, in a single concerto.
  • Music theory: The way that music is constructed and the rules that most composers follow even to this day to create music that sounds decent as opposed to just random noise.

Stradi-who-vius?

Antonio Vivaldi

Vivaldi was an Italian composer who was born in 1678 and died in 1741. He lived and worked primarily in Venice and was an incredibly skilled violinist. VIvaldi is best known for writing The Four Seasons, which you will recognize if you have been to a wedding or watched a car commercial in the past 200 years. Normally I prefer to steer away from the classical pieces that everyone knows and have been butchered by countless ad agencies, 80s bands, and muzak companies, but I have to admit I actually really like The Four Seasons.

These guys were apparently ALL the rage in the 1700s.

In The Four Seasons, Vivaldi created four individual concerti, each of which depicts a different season. Through music, he re-creates birds chirping in spring, the icy cold of winter, and dogs barking in summer. Here is a little bit from the “Autumn” concerto. It is meant to recreate music of a hunt and the calls of the trumpets (even though this is orchestrated for string instruments). This video is a little silly in the presentation department, but the setting is appropriate: St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

If you have never listened to The Four Seasons from start to finish, you’ll find it’s a pretty rewarding experience.The whole video is available in case you want to kill about 45 minutes:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAW1irZaabM&amp

Anyway, Vivaldi’s stuff is generally pretty good. He wrote lots of concerti for instruments like the violin, and he even wrote a pretty sweet double cello concerto (that is, there are 2 cello soloists). In a similar style is the composer Arcangelo Corelli, another Italian who wrote lots of virtuosic music.

And now for my final Baroque bigwig:

Johann Sebastian Bach (lived 1685 through 1750 in Germany)

Bach is probably one of my desert island composers. To understand his greatness, however, you need to understand a little bit about music theory. Western music is based on what is called a “tertian system,” which is a fancy way of saying that it is based on the interval of thirds. Intervals are the distance between two notes. What does this mean? Take the basic musical scale–Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do–and assign each syllable a number 1 through 8. Now if you go from Do to Re,you go from 1 to 2 and therefore have an interval of a “second.”  If you go from Do to Mi (numbers 1 to 3), you have an interval of a third. If you play these intervals at the same time, you have chords, so a “third” chord is simply playing Do and Mi at the same time. To make a long story short, most of Western music as we know it is built around the assumption that the “third” is the most pleasing interval to the ear.

This assumption is actually based in physics. When the human ear hears a pitch, there are sympathetic frequencies that the brain fills in above that pitch. When you play a single note, or “foundation,” the human brain automatically fills in an interval an eighth above that, followed by a fifth, then a fourth,  then a third, and smaller and smaller. When you condense these pitches, you end up having a chord that is stacked in thirds, which is why these sound so correct in our ears.

Composers through most of the Baroque era generally followed strict sets of rules about what sounds good and what is acceptable. Some of it was even built around silly superstitions like avoiding the interval of the augmented fourth (which breaks down to 6 half steps, and we all know that 6 is the devil’s number!). However, despite having a fairly rigid set of rules, Bach not only flourished in these traditions but wrote music that was still incredibly moving. I might be biased because Bach wrote the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, which are a huge staple of any cellist’s repertoire.  However, just ask any musician, no matter the instrument, what is in their top 10 lists of favorite pieces and I would guess a majority would list those cello suites. They are so popular that other instruments like to steal them and try playing them themselves.

I’m sorry, tuba players, but Bach just doesn’t sound right on your bulky and awkward instrument.

Here is one of my favorite cellists crushing out the Prelude to the 6th Suite. The last 2 suites were originally written for a cello that had a fifth string on it, but modern cellists simply just travel farther down the fingerboard to play those high notes. This is actually incredibly tricky music, but you all probably don’t care about that stuff, so just enjoy the pretty music!

Bach wrote all sorts of great stuff, from concertos and pieces for orchestra to other solo works for violin, piano, and a variety of other instruments. He also was famous for writing numerous hymns and choral works that are still sung in churches across the globe. The guy literally wrote thousands of compositions, and while you’re not going to be whistling every piece in the shower, a surprising amount of it is very good.

Here are some other “must listen” works by Bach:

Here’s the famous Itzhak Perlman playing the powerful Chaconne from Partita 2 in D minor:

Here’s Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, Air and Gavotte. Stick around for the Gavotte near the end because there are hilarious old timey trumpets in the video!

Bach was so influential that when he died in 1750, an entire era of music ended with him. In the next article, I will delve into what came next,  the “Classical era.” This era was dominated by three main composers: Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. You will also learn why the phrases “Mostly Mozart” and “Mozart for Babies” make me want to punch people.

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