Styles & Forms | Early Baroque | Classical

Perhaps the most important developments in music around the year 1600 were the emergence of the basso continuo and the fashion for virtuosity.

The presence of an independent bass line moved composition away from the flowing polyphony of the Renaissance, in which all voices played an equal role in the texture, leaving the upper voices free to indulge in expressive and impressive displays. It also helped to sustain larger-scale structures and provide continuity between contrasting sections.

Whereas before music had two functions and styles – church and chamber – now a third was added: theatre. The boundaries between different functions and styles became less rigid so that, for example, dramatic elements (recitative and aria) began to appear in sacred genres and dance elements were incorporated into serious instrumental works, such as the suite and sonata. These changes gave rise to some of the most important musical forms: solo songs (monody), opera, oratorio, cantata, sonata and concerto.

The Development of Opera

The wealth and stability of Florence under the rule of the Medici Grand Dukes created the perfect environment for the development of opera at the end of the sixteenth century. Among the city’s various formal and informal academies and salons was the Florentine Camerata, a group of friends who met at the house of the nobleman and composer Giovanni de’ Bardi in the 1570s and 1580s to discuss subjects such as the power of ancient classical music and how it could be recreated to reform and ‘purify’ modern music. (Bardi disapproved strongly of singers who ruined madrigals by adding badly improvised ornamentation merely in order to show off their voices.) Among the members of Bardi’s Camerata were Vincenzo Galilei (c. 1520–91) and Caccini, the most important singer at the Florentine court.

Another court singer, Peri, was a member of a similar (though less academic) group which met at Corsi’s home during the 1590s. Caccini and Peri, who were involved with many of the intermedi staged at the Florentine court, enjoyed a healthy rivalry in trying to develop a new style of singing in which, unlike much music of the time, clarity of the words was paramount.


England had a long tradition of staged allegorical plays and pageants that involved music and dancing but, unlike Italy and France, it had nothing that could be described as opera. What it did have in the seventeenth century was the masque, a lavish form of court entertainment which included speech, songs, choruses, instrumental music and dances. Visual impact – spectacular scenery, costumes, stage machinery and gesture – was very important, and in many Stuart masques these elements were designed by the famous architect Inigo Jones. The first masque for which a complete score survives is Cupid and Death (1659), with music by Locke and Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625).

Musical Drama

The first English musical drama to be sung throughout was William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes (1656). The music, now lost, was by Henry Lawes and others. Davenant...

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