Baroque Music IV: Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Henry Purcell is the first in a distressingly lengthy list of composers whose lives were cut short in their primes.  Purcell, arguably the greatest English composer of all-time, was dead by the age of 36, leaving behind a wealth of wonderful compositions.  Like Mozart, he died shortly after completing his great funeral mass (Purcell’s was for Queen Mary).  He’s buried in Westminster Abbey under the epitaph: “Here lies Henry Purcell Esquire, who left life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded.” 

Purcell, like his contemporaries, was obsessed about the relationship between chords.  So this is as good as any place to talk about developments in the sport of composers—harmonic progression.  Baroque composers developed the idea of relationship among chords and Purcell was a genius at overlaying melodies over a bed of repeating chords.  Sound familiar?  This is the basis for 95% of rock music.  And it began here, with Purcell.  Just listen to the same repeating series of chords in this brief hymn.

Henry Purcell, An Evening Hymnhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qjc0qug-1NQ

Purcell’s harmonics would inspire composers across the centuries, finding a particular root with English popular composers in the 20th century. Pete Townsend was particularly inspired by Purcell, who he cited on many occasions as a primary source for his own songs. Purcell’s influence is I think clearest here, which is, perhaps not surprisingly, a personal favorite within The Who’s massive catalogue:

The Who, I Can See for Miles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0iqg2UanEc

Corelli and The Birth of the Orchestra

Corelli’s Opus 6 concerti grossi are his most significant achievement.  Although he did not invent the concerto grosso form, Corelli certainly popularized it, paving the way for Vivaldi (The Four Seasons) and Bach (Brandenburg Concertos), two of the high points of Baroque music and among the best-known examples of the concerto grosso form.  The Opus 6 concerti grossi are exemplars of the mid-Baroque Period.  In Corelli’s hands, these concerti grossi, built around two contrastingly sized groups of instruments, are nothing less than proto-symphonies. Corelli scored his compositions for what we now recognize as a string orchestra, which supported a small group of soloists—Corelli was partial to a trio of two violins and a cello, but this group was not a fixed constant.

Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert recorded what is, in my view, the definitive version of the Opus 6 Concerti Grossi.  This recording is in regular rotation in my home.  One high point of note, the sixth movement of the first concerto grosso, which can be accessed in the links in the YouTube description, taking you to the 7:59 mark.

Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6, No. 1, VI. Allegro:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjVZQdb_MRs&list=RDxjVZQdb_MRs&start_radio=1&t=0

Corelli’s influence on the composers who followed him was immense. For example, J.S. Bach studied Corelli’s scores in detail, transcribing several of them.  Here is a Bach organ fugue (BWV 579), which is based on the second movement of Corelli’s Op. 3, No. 4—this required no great research, as Bach cited directly to Corelli in the title (which, sadly, isn’t always the case—yes, Led Zeppelin, I’m looking at you). 

First, here’s the original Corelli theme.  Skip to 2:30 in this:

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonate da Chiesa a Tre, II. Vivace: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHoqEH7so9s.   

Now, Bach’s recomposition as a fugue.  This link has a good video, as well as some more background on the relationship between the two pieces:

J.S. Bach, Organ Fugue in B Minor (on a theme by Corelli): https://www.bachvereniging.nl/en/bwv/bwv-579/

Corelli’s innovations would reach perfection in the compositions of Vivaldi, Handel and Bach, paving the way for what we recognize as the core canon of classical music. Next time you visit the Pantheon in Rome, join the legions of violinists who have paid their respects to one of the most important figures in music history.

Corelli and The Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths is one of the great Conversations in music history, endlessly copied and cited by composers over the centuries.  As one musicologist observed:

Corelli’s harmonies were the most appreciated quality appreciated by his contemporaries and posterity alike. On the one hand, it is the clarity and regularity of progression, the musical escalator known as the “circle of fifths,” in which a segment of melody is repeated in keys either five notes higher or four notes lower than the original statement (called a “sequence”). On the other hand, it is the audacious harmonic surprises of the sustained slow movements that conveyed the melancholy of what Hawkins calls “pathetic.” The passing excursions from major to minor and back raised and lowered the spirits of the listeners with suspensions (sustained notes which at first create harmonic instability–dissonance– against changes of harmony) that release the momentary tension they create by resolving, much to the relief of the listener.” 

Bruce Lamott

Here is Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, in which the Circle of Fifths can be easily discerned. Just listen for that progression of chords, each one based on part of the last.

Arcangelo Corelli, Christmas Concerto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFQ2oTYp5Z8

The Circle of Fifths has been used by many composers over the years.  Billy Roberts wrote a classic song that starts with a C Major chord, followed by G Major, etc., until it comes to rest on an E Major chord, before repeating the cycle.  You probably haven’t heard his version.  But you have heard Jimi Hendrix’s.  The first GSOD tune to be repeated here:

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hey Joe: https://www.veojam.com/watch/1529157984

You can hear it intuitively—the Circle of Fifths is so damn satisfying to hear.  But here is a video that distills it for you:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLMuhajFk7A.  Other songs to use the Circle of Fifths include are such diverse offerings as “I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor), “You Never Give Me Your Money” (The Beatles), “Wild World” (Cat Stevens), and “Moon River” (Henri Mancini).  Gershwin wrote one that went around the circle backwards, but that’s getting ahead of myself.  That’s a tune for another day.

Baroque Music III: Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)

History remembers Arcangelo Corelli as the first virtuoso of the violin, a 17th century Paganini: “I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away so much whilst he was playing on the violin as the famous Arcangelo Corelli, whose eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire; his countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in an agony, and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he doth not look like the same man.”  His prodigious skills notwithstanding, strong evidence suggests that Corelli refused to compose for—or even play—the full range of the violin.  That would have to wait for another virtuoso, Antonio Vivaldi.

Corelli was insanely popular in his lifetime, appearing before the crowned heads of Europe in courts stretching from Rome to Sweden.  On some of his tours, he was joined by a young George Frideric Handel and his influence on the young composer was profound.  But Corelli’s greatest impact, in my view, was the product of his own compositions.  Corelli is credited today with developing modern violin technique and, perhaps due to his love of the instrument, is responsible for moving the concept of a large-scale orchestral body forward through the invention of the concerto grosso

Corelli was not a prolific composer.  What remains of his output are a handful of sonatas, trios, and concerti grossi.  All are important in the development of music.  His “La Folia” Variations for violin set the standard for virtuosity at the time, developing one of the more famous basso ostinato lines in history (http://www.folias.nl/html1.html).  Unquestionably, he had composed it for himself.  In looking for a recording, I thought I might present a contrast between technique and taste.  First up, Nathan Milstein—one of the midcentury giants of the violin, a Top 10 on any serious violinist’s list.  I was fortunate to see him a few times at the end of his career—he was the last of the great Russian giants of the age and it was a real privilege to hear him play.  His technique was unrivaled, perhaps in the history of the violin, but I can’t say I love his interpretation here, which is far too Romantic for my taste.  The second selection is from Andrew Manze, a contemporary early music specialist.  I heard him live in London and left midway—unlistenable, to quote the Professor.  All style without any regard for intonation or other things that really should be table stakes.  But on recording?  He’s brilliant, no more so here (I couldn’t find Follia alone, so use the links in the YouTube description to skip to roughly the 1hr, 59min. mark).  Who gets your vote, Milstein or Manze?

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Milstein): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZ8fnYN4IjA

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Manze): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5ce15s4NYc

Or, for that matter, how about Emilie Autumn? A brilliant contemporary artist, Autumn’s work has been described as everything from “Fairy Pop” to “Fantasy Rock” and “Victoriandustrial”, incorporating elements of classical music, cabaret, electronica, and glam rock into her music. Classically trained on violin, studying for a time at Indiana University (home to our Progressive Conscience), she released a version of La Folia a few years ago, demonstrating the enduring influence of Corelli’s music.

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Autumn): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXcZP5jpOMs

Corelli died a very wealthy man and was buried in the Pantheon at Rome, a fitting resting place for music’s first iconic superstar.  His fame among violinists is undying—it is common for serious students to trace their “lineage” back through their teachers to the great masters of old.  Many still trace their roots, from student to teacher, all the way back to Corelli.  For violinists, he is Genesis.

More Lully: A Brief Coda

Jean-Baptiste Lully composed one of the most performed songs in history.  Nearly everyone in the world has heard it.

The duties of a court composer were, shall we say, varied—particularly when dealing with that most mercurial of monarchs, Louis XIV.  In 1686, the Sun King developed a perianal abscess.  Court physicians attempted to treat the King’s posterior with a series of bizarre procedures, including the use of a red-hot iron.  These efforts predictably failed and, omitting some details, the King developed an anal fistula. Surgeons were called in and the procedure was a success; however, the dance-mad King would not be performing anytime soon. Seeking to improve his patron’s mood, Lully composed a short song to celebrate the King’s recovery from what can only be described as “anal surgery pre-anesthesia”.  Regardless of his modest intentions, the song proved to be a hit with successive French courts.

Decades later, George I’s court composer, George Frideric Handel visited Versailles in 1714 and heard the song, which he quickly jotted down and translated into English.  Handel brought the short score back to England, where it has remained ever since.  I promise you: you will never hear this song—an ode to a French King’s rear end—the same way again:

George Frideric Handel, (aft. Lully), God Save the Queen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0n-GkG_hQo

Incidentally, Handel picked the wrong Lully tune.  He should have picked Lully’s grand motet celebrating the reign of Louis XIV: Jean-Baptiste Lully, Plaude laetare Gallia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb9ZsGssvcA

Baroque Music II: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

Enter the French. With the English School well-established since Dunstable and the German School developing in the wake of Martin Luther, the French School began to reassert its influence in the 17th and 18th centuries. First up, Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer to the Sun King, Louis XIV. Born to humble origins, Lully would climb to the very heights of French society, only to see his music eclipsed, permanently, shortly after his death. This operatic narrative is fitting for the man who (along with Moliere) invented French opera. French opera is distinguished from its Italian and German counterparts by the prominence of dance. Thanks to Lully, French opera would typically include a ballet scene for more than 200 years (now often cut to appease the attention span of modern audiences and to save on labor costs). This is not surprising: Louis XIV’s passion in life was the ballet, which he often performed in (likely as a sun god, I’m sure). There is always a strong hint of the dance in Lully’s music–whether that was to please his patron or the reason why he proved such a success at court, we will never know. For me, Lully’s music is inseparable from the persona of Louis XIV: This is where Baroque ornamentalism first took flight.

Lully was a violinist (one of the first composers to have the violin as his primary instrument) and his music highlights the violin, prefiguring its dominant role in the years to come. The violin had been invented some 130 years previously in or around 1520, but was originally conceived of as a low peasant instrument. Italian craftsmen in Northern Italy began transforming the violin into its modern form in or around 1555, when Lorenzo di Medici ordered one from Andrea Amati of Cremona. For such a commission, Amati made the shape of the violin more elegant, with significant work going into the scroll work on the end. Medici was very pleased with the instrument (which has not survived to the present, apparently), something he undoubtedly wrote to his daughter Catherine, who by then regent of France.

By any measure, Catherine de Medici was an extraordinary woman and if anyone can recommend a good biography of her, please do.  Not only did she more or less rule France successfully during the first major schism between Catholics and Protestants, Catherine invented or popularized a range of things that remain popular today, from high heeled shoes to ice cream and ballet.  She is also responsible for popularizing the violin in France, ordering a staggering 38 or so from Amati, a good number of which survive today.  Under Catherine’s instructions, ballets were performed to what can only be described as a proto-violin section of a modern orchestra.  Incidentally, a certain Antonio Stradivari worked for Amati’s grandson Nicolo as an apprentice.  Along with one of Amati’s other apprentices, Andrea Guarneri (his grandson Giuseppe “del Gesu” is the famous one), the three Cremonese created the modern violin.  They have remained the gold standard for stringed instruments to this day.

Lully followed in Catherine’s footsteps. He arranged for similar groupings of other stringed instruments (viol de gamba and other more modern instruments such as the cello). As these instruments were added in sections, the modern orchestra was born (the selection below from Le bourgeois gentilhomme brings this point home). Incidentally, the Overture also gets its start here, with French ballet and opera. Symphonie was the Italian for this prefatory instrumental piece. Originally a minute or two long, this is where the grand symphonies of the classical and romantic period began to evolve. Lully gave the symphony life, but it would be left to others to take up the baton and drive instrumental music to new heights.

For me, Lully’s music is where beat begins to assert itself as a primary driver of the musical line. Always conscious of his employer’s love of dance, Lully made sure that the royal foot would be able to tap, if not dance, along to his tunes. Here are a few brief examples:

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Atys, Overturehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLsFCIU5xw4

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Marche pour la Ceremonie Turque: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsF0dM0FvuY

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Psyche, Chantons Les Plaisirs Charmants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCS-9PXQbt4

Recording note: You may have notice that last of these selections come from Les Arts Florissant’s album “Les Divertissements de Versailles”. I discovered the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully through Les Arts Florissant—William Christie more or less single handedly brough Lully back to prominence over the last 30 years, which is one of the reasons he’s in the French Legion of Honor. In this album, Christie reimagines a Baroque pastiche—rather than present a single opera or ballet, a pastiche presents a “greatest hits” performance. Sometimes, a pastiche was used to create a soundtrack for pleasure garden parties; often, a pastiche would be used to create a new narrative work altogether, complete with new lyrics set to familiar tunes. While the idea of a greatest hits concert seems obvious to modern sensibilities, at the time the concept was revolutionary. The Met Opera created a pastiche of their own, The Enchanted Island, some years back. It is as good a greatest hits of the Baroque soundtrack as one could hope for. https://www.metopera.org/discover/video/?videoName=the-enchanted-island-2011-12-season-new-production&videoId=792232300001

Late Monteverdi

In opera singers express their emotions directly to each other and indirectly to the audience—the fusing of drama between singer and audience is what powers opera to this day. And this is where it began, in earnest, with Monteverdi’s late opera Poppea, which was premiered to a paying audience in a public theatre. No more churches. No more ducal palaces. No more myths. A real story about real people with real problems expressing real emotions to the public at large. And yes, that fiddling emperor Nero is one of the first male superstar roles in opera history. This duet between Poppea and Nero closes the opera—no need to show what happens next, as everyone in the audience would have known the bloody story (Nero murders Poppea and their son and commits suicide, bringing an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty). Instead of that melodramatic ending (something that opera would come to specialize in during the 19th century), what we are left with is a moment so stunning, so modern, it is hard to believe that before Poppea nothing, and I mean nothing, sounded like this. This love song—I gaze upon you, I possess you—seems to affirm their wanton greed and ambition, a morality play turned on its head. Monteverdi’s none too subtle political message—Rome is once again in the hands of a Nero, threatening Venetian liberties–would not have been lost on his audience. The Professor claims to hate opera. I dare him to hate this.

Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di PoppeaPur ti miro, Pur ti godo“: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_isL0E-4TsQ

A few words about this recording as well.  At the end, you will glimpse William Christie in the pit, conducting and playing one of two harpsichords (yes, Gert, I have not forgotten—lots of harpsichords to come!).  His Les Arts Florissant is quite simply the best and most important early music group ever.  I see them every chance I get—more than a dozen concerts and operas and counting.  A native of Buffalo, New York, Christie is the best in the business.  We’ll see a lot more of them later—they are to the Baroque what the Tallis Scholars are to the Renaissance.  Soprano Danielle De Niese, who plays Poppea here, is also an American and an early music specialist.  I’m a fan and will say she’s never sounded better than here, under Christie’s baton.  De Niese has a remarkable singing partner in the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.  In Monteverdi’s age, Nero would have been sung by a castrato—male sopranos who were castrated as boys to preserve their voice.  They were the superstars of the old operatic role and, obvious cruelness aside, I will note that they were left “fully functional” and in some cases quite famously so.  Following the demise of the practice of castrating boys for our entertainment, castrato roles eventually went to women, mostly mezzo-sopranos.  In recent years, countertenors have started to claim back these historically male roles.  A countertenor sings only in his head voice—falsetto—which gives his tone an ethereal quality.  While many countertenors of old had weak voices, the modern countertenor can hold his own with a female soprano, as this selection attests.

More Monteverdi: A Prayer on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, without end.

It is a wonderfully cool morning in NYC. Perhaps that’s what triggered it in my mind — it was that nearly imperceptible hint of fall that did the trick. 9/11. It had been the same 20 years ago: 9/11/01 was just a peach of a day until IT happened.

I had gotten to the office early that day for a conference call on one of those digital music joint ventures the record companies were always trying to get off the ground in the pre-iTunes world. The call started at 8:30am Eastern. I saw the towers fall from my office window. My wife had been there just two days prior. The walk home up Lexington Avenue seemed to take an eternity. The last time I had been in a crowd like that had been in Paris the year before. The French had just won Euro 2000; the mood had been quite different then. Here and there I caught bits of conversation, but mostly things were unnaturally quiet. No cars. No buses. Just people walking. You could sense the fear, the anger, the grief. I heard a couple of guys talking about going “Jew hunting” that night. Didn’t happen, but I still remember that. Mostly, I felt numb. A half eaten donut would lay on my desk for a week.

I bought a ton of pasta and bottled water that night. We ate mostly in silence and left town two days later when the bridges opened. In many ways, I never looked back. We moved to London that November and wouldn’t return for three years. London was different. Its scars were older and had been accepted by the time we got there. It was a happy place. We finally threw out the rest of the pasta when we returned in 2005.

I was in Scotland on 9/11/02.  We were staying at a small farmhouse outside of Oban.  We spent the day on the Isle of Kerrera, where sheep outnumber men by at least 3,000:1.  It couldn’t be more different than where I had been the prior year.  Nothing had changed here in centuries.  It was as it ever was.  The fateful hour had passed unnoticed.  I had begun to heal.  That night, we had dinner at the inn. We ate the BBQ chicken without thinking, reliving the day’s adventures; it wasn’t until we had the chocolate cake for dessert that I realized that the innkeepers had made an all-American dinner for us. And then, in an instant, I realized why.  That meant the world to me; it still does.

Twenty years on, that feeling of good will has been lost, squandered by the hubris of successive Administrations that have unethically preyed on the fears of the American people, driving us apart from each other, and us from the world at large. We have become the sheep, jumping at every little last provocation, repeatedly failing to embrace compassion and forgiveness because the lure of hatred is the easier path. Twenty years on, the memory of 9/11 still haunts this city. But the great tragedy of 9/11 is not the gaping hole that it left for the better part of a generation in downtown NY or even the lives that were lost that day. The greater tragedy by far is its legacy. It is a legacy that transformed our nation from a beacon of liberty and justice to an international pariah. Twenty years on, NYC has recovered. It is our nation that has been fatally wounded.

Sacred music can lift the spirits and inspire humanity to goodness, even if you do not have faith in its message. The message of music is universal, allowing those of us who are gripped in the vise of a historic pandemic in the 21st century to be soothed by music written half a millennia ago. Today, I think we need some of that.

Freed of the strictures of Renaissance music, Orfeo is where the full flower of Monteverdi genius began to take hold. Leaving his position at the Court of Mantua for the greener pastures of Venice, Monteverdi entered a city that would be described as “opera mad” only a few decades later. Libertine Venice, soon to be home to half a dozen opera houses, was surely ready to embrace Monteverdi’s revolution in full. And that’s because Monteverdi’s music, matching the ambitions of new employers, was simply bigger and louder (not to mention better) than anyone else’s: At a time when everyone maxed out at 7, Monteverdi went to 11. Gone were the subtle polyphonic harmonies that had been carefully developed in the Renaissance. Hello, over-the-top Baroque. For a taste of just what exactly that Baroque aesthetic looks like, gaze upon the splendor of the Church of the Gesu in Rome: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/9d/56/be/9d56be355ffd709324a8032a733ee300.jpg.

Commonly referred to as the Vespers of 1610, I can’t think of a better way to introduce the glorious sound of the Baroque in its fullest. If there is such a thing as music that heals, this is unquestionably it.

Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJIwFO9A1f8

Recording note: John Eliot Gardner is one of the towering geniuses of interpreting Baroque through early Romantic Period music. If you are ever in doubt as to which recording to get, get his: Monteverdi through Berlioz. Although the Vespers were composed during his time in Mantua, some have speculated, given their unusual length and complexity (which made them unusable for standard liturgy services), that Monteverdi submitted the score as an informal application to the Basilica of San Marco. Regardless of whether that legend is true, Monteverdi was in fact hired and this recording was made live in the very space in which Monteverdi’s new music was first heard. This performance was captured on a 2-disc set that has been among my Desert Island Discs for as long as I can remember.

Baroque Music I: Claudio Monteverdi, Part II, The Birth of Opera

The genius who birthed the Baroque was, as previewed last time, the great Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi.  Its birthplace was Florence, and the medium was opera.  Opera was midwifed in the Florentine Camerata, that group artists, philosophers, musicians, poets, and intellectuals at the end of the Renaissance who debated and studied the arts.  I previously mentioned the centuries of lost music—nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the dramas of the ancient Greeks, whose famous “choruses” were, in fact, sung with musical accompaniment.  The score, unlike the script, was not preserved in history, but as with sculpture, Renaissance scholars and artists sought to return to classical forms—here, the melding of drama and song. 

These late Renaissance composers rejected polyphony and instrumental music, and instead embraced more ancient devices such as monody (solo singing with bare accompaniment).  In that, they embraced Luther’s lyrical innovations.  These “experiments” led directly to Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), which was premiered at the Pitti Palace in Florence, which is generally credited as the first opera for which we have an extant score (Peri’s earlier Dafne has been lost to history).  It isn’t a very good opera and is only performed today for academic reasons.  Some historians suspect that Monteverdi attended a performance of Euridice during the wedding celebrations for Henry IV of France who was marrying into the powerful Medici family (some guys have all the luck—marrying a Medici and hearing the first opera all in one go).  More on that particular Medici queen a bit later on. 

Monteverdi’s patron attended this first operatic performance; whether he brought along his court composer remains a mystery.  What is clear, though, is that the Duke of Matua loved Euridice (heck, some people like Cats too) and, upon his return to Mantua, instructed Monteverdi to compose an opera.  Monteverdi’s version of the same Greek myth, Orfeo (1607), is a staggering work of true genius and remains in regular performance to this day (a 400-year run—beat that Andrew Lloyd Weber!).  Everything about Orfeo was revolutionary—from the combination and number of instruments he used to his decision to tell a narrative story through singers expressing themselves directly to the audience.  As Howard Goodall puts it:  “It was loud. It was long. And it was modern.”  Finally, Monteverdi’s shift from Renaissance polyphony to the emerging basso continuo technique in Orfeo is, for me, where the Baroque begins if you really insist on a definitive starting point.  I’m sure I’m wrong about that, btw (see my Disclaimers in About this Blog).  You can use the links in the YouTube description to jump to Act IV, which is as good an example of early Baroque composition as you are likely to find.  Note the single voice above the accompaniment, as well as the occasional jarring dissonances.

Claudio Monteverdi, L’Orfeo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYUGVnfwDcE

Back in the Baroque: An Introduction and Preview

The Baroque period covers roughly 150 years of music history, divided into the early (1605 to 1630), middle (1630 to 1680), and late (1680 to 1750) periods.  Just a quick detour into music theory.  Baroque music introduces the figured bass (also known as the thorough bass), as composers began what was to become an obsession with harmonic progressions that continue to this day and across all genres of music.  The figured bass part was played by one or more instruments (often a harpsichord, possibly joined by a cello or viola da gamba), collectively referred to as the basso continuo.  Here is a much more detailed explanation:  http://openmusictheory.com/thoroughbassFigures.html.

The figured bass also gave rise to the practice of basso ostinato or ground bass, essentially a repeating pattern in the bass line.  For example, listen to the first eight notes of the following—one of the most famous examples of ground bass in music history:

Johann Pachelbel, Canon in D: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvNQLJ1_HQ0

Pachelbel creates the harmony from the ground up; hence, ground bass. This is no longer the fixed drone of Renaissance polyphony—harmony, beginning in the Baroque, is free to journey away from the home tonic chord, led by the bass line.  Chords, rather than individual notes, could provide a sense of emotional closure—something noted by Monteverdi in his seconda practica.  No longer just a piercing high C (think back to Allegri’s Miserere and its high notes), this is more the emotive satisfaction of riff based on power chords.    The notable effect of this new method of composition was to confine melody in a single voice (as opposed to multiple voices in polyphony), supported by accompaniment, i.e., monody, paving the way for opera, concertos, and more popular musical forms.  These basso continuo parts, and the concept of the basso ostinato, links Western music across the centuries, beginning in or around 1600 to the present, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Count Basie to some of the best-known rock tunes.

The Beatles, Day Tripper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IbPn5j2YKk

Led Zeppelin, Immigrant Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8OtzJtp-EM

Baroque composers were now free to explore the relationships between the multiple melodic lines and the figured bass line, a compositional technique called “counterpoint”—literally point on point—which would come to dominate the Baroque Era.  Here is a short video that provides an excellent introduction to contrapuntal technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4O6lc_ym12U.  Although counterpoint was present prior to the seconda practica, Monteverdi’s embrace of dissonance led subsequent composers to explore a greater range of tone color in their music.  Harmonies therefore became more complex as composers both identified the natural affinity between chords, as well as how multiple tones could combine into new chords. 

The culmination of these explorations in counterpoint manifested in the fugue form.  Technically, a fugue is a “contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.”  I think it is easiest to understand as the same basic melodic line (the subject) repeated at different times and at different pitches and meters, like Row, Row, Row Your Boat (in its most simplistic form).  It opens with a short main melody (ending with “stream”), which is then repeated successively in each ensuing voice.  When each voice has entered, the exposition is complete.  Most fugues will then move on to more complex “development”, exploring different keys where material previously heard is transformed and transfigured, before returning to the home key for the recapitulation.  Some fugues have a coda at the end.

Fugues are magical things.  All you need is a simple tune to start and, frankly, it doesn’t need to be anything great.  So, let’s pick a recent example from the top of the pop charts:

Ed Sheeran, Shape of You: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGwWNGJdvx8

Not exactly great music.  But give the tune over to a talented composer, unleash the contrapuntal power of the fugue and—BOOM:

Ed Sheeran (arr. Giovanni Dettori), Shape of You: https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/ed-sheeran-fugue/ (see embedded link)

And if you want to hear a shorter vocal-only version:

Ed Sheeran (arr. Giovanni Dettori and Chris Rupp): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZfHRZOFUGM