Styles & Forms | Early Baroque | Classical Music

Spanning nearly the entire seventeenth century, the Early Baroque era was a time of great change in music. In the Italian cities that led musical taste at the end of the Renaissance, a flowering of new genres of vocal music accompanied by instruments supplanted the unaccompanied Mass and motet. Among these, the opera and oratorio still exist in modern times.

Monteverdi And Early Opera

The way in which music was composed shifted from the modal melodic method of the previous half-millennium towards the tonal harmonic system that would underpin music of the Classical and Romantic eras. Gradually formalized during the Baroque period, this way of conceiving music placed harmonic organization above other considerations, allowing a greater range of both musical associations and emotions. In terms of the way the music sounded, there was a new emphasis on the bass part, and on the melody in the upper voice, at the expense of the inner parts. This allowed swift modulations (changes of key), and a greater responsiveness to the emotional nuances of a text. The development of the extended genres, and opera in particular, would have been inconceivable without the globally organizing principle of tonality.

The genre of music theatre most typical of Western classical music emerged during the first decade of the seventeenth century, initially as an entertainment for the Florentine aristocracy. It then spread to Mantua, Rome and other Italian cities, before its arrival at the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, the first operatic venue dependent on a fee-paying general public.

Opera was a way of writing an extended dramatic work that embraced both narrative action and lyrical beauty. It was the first time in Western music history that identifiable characters had been portrayed on stage, and a new musical technique, known as ‘recitative’, was devised to make their utterances sound life like. Based on contemporary ideas of how the poems of Ancient Greece were performed, the recitative style preserved the natural speech rhythms of the words and set them melodically over a simple chordal accompaniment, usually played on either harpsichord or organ, and known as the ‘continuo’ part. In the hands of a musician as skilled as Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), an experienced composer of the Late Renaissance madrigal – which showed an increasing tendency towards dramatic declamation – recitative became an expressive vehicle for conveying emotion as well as the semblance of speech.

In L’Orfeo (1607), he employed an orchestra of about 40 instruments, far greater than in other works of the period, which he used in various ensembles in the ritornelli, or refrains, that intersperse the various vocal solos, duets and choruses. Lasting almost two hours in performance, L’Orfeo was the first opera of any significance, and a work that drastically expanded both the scale and dramatic scope of what music could say about the human condition.

Seventeenth-Century Sacred Music

Although the composition of unaccompanied vocal Masses declined almost to nothing, sacred music in various guises continued to interest composers in...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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