Styles & Forms | Late Baroque | Classical Music

The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were infused with a spirit of scientific and philosophical enquiry. In 1722’s Traité de l’harmonie (‘Treatise on Harmony’), Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–64), who dominated French opera in the 1730s – Castor et Pollux (1737) – set out the rules of the tonal method that composers had long been developing in practice.

At the same time, the tuning system known as equal temperament, still in use today, enabled diverse instruments with previously different tuning systems to be harmoniously united in large ensembles.

The Late Baroque Concerto

During the later seventeenth century, instrumental music had emerged as a medium in its own right. The increasing vogue for public recitals and orchestral concerts was the result of a number of factors, such as the rise in amateur music-making and a new middle-class appetite for courtly dancing. With the rise in status of the violin and the technical improvements in this and other instrumental families, came genres associated with specific solo instruments or ensembles: for the organ, the toccata and fugue and the chorale prelude; for the harpsichord or clavichord, the suite and the sonata; for the chamber ensemble of two violins and continuo, the trio sonata; for the orchestra of strings, continuo and occasional other instruments, the orchestral concerto, concerto grosso and solo concerto.

The composer most readily associated with the development of instrumental music at the turn of the eighteenth century is the Roman Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713). An accomplished violinist, with works such as the 12 Concerti Grossi, Opus 6, first published in 1714, Corelli raised the violin family to the prominent position it occupies today.

The concerto grosso pits a small, or concertino, group of solo instruments – in this case, two violins and a violoncello – against a larger string group. A typical Corelli concerto comprises five or six short movements, with tempi alternating between fast and slow. Their customary contrapuntal texture, frequent instances of weak-to-strong-beat dissonance (known as suspensions), repeated use of harmonic sequences and clear tonal structures lend these pieces an elegance and poise that was widely admired in the early eighteenth century.

Of the next generation, two-thirds of the concertos of Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) are for solo instruments, with a string orchestra that sometimes included wind instruments or horns. Vivaldi brought a new rhetoric to orchestral music. Works such as Le Quattro Stagioni (‘The Four Seasons’), from his set of 12 Concerti, Opus 8 (1725), which were as popular in the composer’s lifetime as they are now, depend less on intricate counterpoint than on a compelling sense of the abstract drama of music, realized in stark contrasts of mood and orchestral texture. They were highly influential in the development of the solo concerto of the Classical period.

Handel’s Vocal Music

In the early eighteenth century, England saw a great flourishing of musical activity – especially in London, where the music-loving public developed an appetite for Italian opera. During the...

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


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