Monday, March 2, 2015

What is Baroque?

Last March we spent the month counting down to Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday on March 21. After thinking about what to write this month, I thought, “why not focus on Bach again?” There’s always more to talk about when it comes to this infamous composer. Before we dive into different topics connected to Bach however, I wanted to talk briefly about the time period during which he lived and worked.

Have you heard the term “Baroque”? This word is a French term that comes from the Portuguese barroco and means a misshapen pearl or something abnormal, or exaggerated. It originally referred to ornate architecture but was later used by 18th-century critics when discussing the musical time period lasting from 1600–1750. While critics of the late 18th century may have looked down on such a style as they looked to new and simple forms, the 19th century favored the ornate and looked positively upon the Baroque era. Did you know that some scholars say that the Baroque period ended when Bach died (1750)? That illustrates the impact he had in music history.

With the Baroque period came a rebellion from the Renaissance era in the prior century. Renaissance music often used what we call polyphony (music that contains multiple independent voices) while Baroque composers tended to compose a melody line and a bass accompaniment, leaving it up to the performers to fill in the harmonies. Many performers would add ornamented notes, sticking with the standard style of the time. You may compare this performance practice to modern-day jazz in which musicians will improvise or take up a solo based on a given harmony. 

Baroque music often contained forward motion and contrasts, whether it be between loud and soft dynamics, fast or slow tempos, or between a soloist and ensemble in performance. These characteristics also map themselves onto visual art of the time. Early art often portrayed people or objects in still life. Baroque, on the other hand, often showed motion (like the music!) Art also exhibited contrasts such as light verses dark in coloring. A great example of Baroque art is on display in Cincinnati’s very own Taft Museum of Art: Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man Rising from His Chair.

Courtesy of

Notice the contrasts between light and dark. Also note that the man is rising from his chair. Rembrandt shows motion in his painting.

If you would like to hear me chat with Sunday Baroque host Suzanne Bona on the topic of “Baroque,” you can listen to our discussion on 91.7 WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition from January 23, 2015.