lute player by Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi
20-09-2021

Musical forms of the Baroque period

The forms and styles of baroque music

In the Baroque period between 1600-1700, various musical forms and genres were born and developed: for instrumental music, the concerto grosso, the solo concert, the suite and the sonata, and for vocal music, the madrigal, the opera, the cantata and the oratorio.

The madrigal

Already born during the Renaissance, the madrigal was involved in the process of transition between Renaissance and Baroque, suffering the loss of its profoundly polyphonic aspect (in three or four voices) to integrate a concertante style to monody plus basso continuo. The intention was to privilege the needs of the Baroque period and thus move the affections of the listeners. Thus, profoundly changing its nature, the madrigal disappeared completely in the second half of the 17th century.

One of the greatest composers of madrigals was undoubtedly Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), who published nine books of madrigals (from 1587 to 1651, the latter published posthumously).

Book IX of Madrigal by Claudio Monteverdi

The Opera

During the Baroque era, the Italian opera became popular, particularly in Rome and Venice: a theatrical performance that is not only acted but also sung with orchestral accompaniment (down from the pit or 'golfo mistico') and a narration specially composed by the librettist. The opera is also divided into different musical moments depending on the narrative function. For example, the recitative - initially with a dry and then orchestral accompaniment - serves to carry the action forward, while the aria is the moment when the narrative stops and the character expresses his or her feelings.

The first opera performed was Jacopo Peri's Euridice, to a text by Ottavio Rinuccini, on 6 October 1600 in Florence, to solemnly celebrate the marriage of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV of France.
Despite the success of this new theatrical genre, in the Florentine territory there was no opportunity to perform works other than the well-established recited comedy. In fact, a new opera would have to wait for the performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (on a libretto by Alessandro Striggio, i.e. the text intended to be sung and distributed to listeners) on 24 February 1607, the last Saturday of carnival, at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua for a very small audience.

Even before the middle of the seventeenth century, opera made a great leap from the closed context of the courts to the real impresariale opera. The fulcrum of this transformation was the city of Venice, which, in spite of the severe economic crisis and in particular that of the publishing industry, maintained a rather lively cultural life. In fact, in 1637, the operatic Benedetto Ferrari and the librettist Francesco Manelli rented the Teatro San Cassiano to perform their opera Andromeda, for which they sold the tickets, thus recovering the costs of renting and staging.
From that moment on, the opera, no longer bound by the will of the prince of the court and his publicity frenzy, became a true commercial enterprise led by the impresario (i.e. the person who took care of the large initial investment) and open to all those who could afford to buy tickets.

baroque opera

The oratorio

The oratorio was born in the sacred place of the same name (used for praying) at the beginning of the 17th century in Rome. In this environment, thanks to the priest Filippo Neri, music played a fundamental role and the first protagonist was the lauda. Laudes were the first sacred songs in the vernacular, characterised mainly by a strophic form, some in the form of a dialogue, and by a homorhythmic rhythm.

Subsequently, the context of the oratory changed, being populated by leading figures of the Christian church.
As a result, the laity, participants for the songs, stopped attending and let the music be managed and practised by professionals who raised both the difficulty and the quality.
Initially, the madrigal was adopted, but around the 1930s and 1940s the strong stylistic trend also affected this musical genre. Thus the oratorio adopted the concertante style, monody with basso continuo and the desire to move the affections.
Given the presence of numerous important users of the oratorio, Roman composers could not help but compose oratorios, drawing, however, from the new beloved genre: opera.

The main composers of this genre were Alessandro Stradella (1644-1682), Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), Giacomo Carissimi (1605-164) and Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) during his stay in Rome.

The cantata

The cantata was the musical genre that not only replaced the madrigal but, due to its considerable quantity, became the most popular of the time. Initially, the term "cantata" was used to indicate any composition, of any length, for one or two voices ("duetto da camera") with accompaniment. From the second half of the century, when the text (usually on amorous topics) began to take on more importance, the cantata became a miniature surrogate for opera.

The concerto grosso and solo

Between the 17th and 18th century, the concerto grosso, together with the sonata (see below), dominated Italian instrumental production. The origin of this musical genre has its roots in the already well-known oratorio discussed above. In fact, archival sources testify that, already by 1670, the instrumental ensemble of the oratorio in music had been enlarged and was therefore no longer limited to basso continuo or a three-part sonata.
Moreover, the scores of some of Alessandro Stradella's oratorios show us his new custom of dividing the musicians into two groups called "concertino" or soli and "concerto grosso" or ripieno. The former is the group of soloists usually consisting of two violins and a basso continuo, while the ripieno is a larger group consisting of the strings (violin I, violin II, viola, cello and double bass) and the basso continuo which can be performed by various instruments such as harpsichord, organ, harp, archlute, theorbo.

A peculiarity of this form is that each musical part could be doubled, therefore, the composition of the so-called ripieno could be more or less large, all depending on the economic availability of the patron and therefore the calibre of the event. In addition to Stradella, Corelli was an important composer of concerto grossi, and wrote twelve of them: the first eight "church" and the remaining four "chamber" concertos.

At a certain point, with the practice of the concerto grosso, the solo role of the concertino was accentuated until numerous compositions for solo instrument and the so-called ripieno were born. In this new form, the soloist shows all his virtuoso skills, just as singers do in an opera aria. In contrast to the grosso, the solo concerto is divided into three movements: Allegro, Adagio and Allegro (or similar).
Finally, the explosion of the solo concerto repertoire can be attributed to Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Caravaggio 'The Lute player

The sonata: trio, church and chamber

In contrast to the cantata (see below), the sonata was born during the Baroque period. At first, the sonata ensemble had a fairly large number of players, but from the first decades of the 17th century, the ensemble was reduced to the more common three-part sonata: two monodic instruments and a basso continuo. Another type of Baroque sonata is the sonata for two, or a soloist for a monodic instrument, most frequently a violin, and a basso continuo.

A further distinction is applied to the Baroque sonata, in fact, in addition to the number of instruments, it is also classified according to its purpose: chamber or church, the latter for example having the task of making liturgical ceremonies more solemn.
The church sonata gradually consolidated its structure of four movements, alternating slow and fast movements.

In the meantime, intended for the entertainment of aristocratic circles, the chamber sonata also had the task of making the nobles of the court dance by alternating slow and fast dances. This gave rise to the custom of collecting the dances in a single key in the suite (see below). Besides the concerto grosso, Arcangelo Corelli(1653-1713) is also a reference for the sonata repertoire.

However, towards the 18th century, the two types of sonata merged as one took on the characteristics of the other.

The suite

From the French "succession"" the term suite indicates a collection of dances in the same key, composed to be played in sequence. The necessary movements that make up a suite are: allemande, corrente, sarabande and jig, in front of these there is often a prelude that serves as an introduction as in the English suites of Bach or those for cello etc. .... However, the suite can be enriched by additional dances such as passacaglia, ciaccona, gavotta, bourrée, loure, siciliana, one or two minuets and the double which is just the double of a dance, this time more varied and flowery.

By Roberta Gennuso
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