Styles & Forms | Late Baroque | Classical

In the late Baroque era music both consolidated earlier developments and looked forward to the new styles of the classical era. The output of the two greatest composers of the time, J. S. Bach and Handel, reflects the general trends in music.

The main forms – notably the sonata, concerto and opera – became longer and more complex, placing increasing emphasis on technical virtuosity. Traditional, strict compositional techniques such as fugue were combined with new styles such as expressive, aria-like melodies with a subordinate accompaniment. The desire to express shifting emotions in music was a primary force, not just in text-inspired vocal pieces but in instrumental works too.

Towards the mid-eighteenth century, the old distinctions between church, chamber and theatre styles began to break down. Thus operatic recitatives and arias are found in sacred cantatas, and chamber suites and sonatas include dance movements. National styles also became more fluid – the works of J. S. Bach and Handel show the influence of German, Italian, English and French music. Finally, while domestic music-making continued to flourish, public concerts were increasingly common, with audiences paying to hear their favourite performers.

Concerto grosso

The concerto grosso is a work in which music for the orchestra (concerto grosso means ‘large ensemble’; it is also called the ripieno, ‘rest’, or tutti, ‘all’) alternates with sections for the concertino (‘small ensemble’, or soli, ‘soloists’). The form reached maturity in the late Baroque era in the works of Vivaldi and J. S. Bach. Vivaldi’s concertos, notably those in his first published collection, L’estro armonico, were popular and influential in Italy and elsewhere. The well-known concerto grosso for two violins from this set (op. 3 no. 8, in A minor) is typical of his creative and innovative style. It is in three movements, the outer two fast, bold and energetic, the middle one slow, stately and lyrical. In the first movement, the opening statement by the full ensemble is made up of not one theme but several. These themes return separately and in various combinations throughout the movement, punctuating the soloists’ more virtuoso passages and even being taken up by the soloists. J. S. Bach was greatly influenced by Vivaldi’s concerti grossi (he transcribed six from op. 3). His development of Vivaldi’s model into much more complex, dense and virtuoso works is summed up in the three concerti grossi (nos. 2, 4 and 5) in his famous ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos, each for a different combination of instruments. A similar variety of styles is found in Handel’s op. 6.

Solo Concerto

Following the development of the solo concerto by Giuseppe Torelli (1658–1709), Vivaldi and J. S. Bach contributed works to the genre that are still in the standard repertory today. Vivaldi is believed to have written about 350 solo concertos, many for violin, but some for instruments such as the flute, oboe and even mandolin. Their structure is broadly similar to that of his...

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