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:

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:

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:

Led Zeppelin, Immigrant Song:

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:  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:

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: (see embedded link)

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

Ed Sheeran (arr. Giovanni Dettori and Chris Rupp):

Renaissance Music IX: The End of an Era, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), Part I

We now arrive at the singular musical genius of Claudio Monteverdi.  In any list of the most important composers in history, he’s Top 10, easily.  As much as I love Tallis and Allegri, neither is on Monteverdi’s level artistically.  Unlike Bach, who fully embodied his age with such mastery that (at least for me) his death took the entire Baroque Period with him to the grave, Monteverdi’s genius for innovation ended the Renaissance, began the Baroque, while pretty much inventing and perfecting opera along the way.  More to say about him as a Baroque composer later, but for now, a true late Renaissance madrigal to close out that singularly gilded period.  A standard form to be sure, but for Monteverdi a chance to incite a revolution in sound—Monteverdi dabbles in that black art of dissonance to achieve a more dramatic effect to his music, a technique that he would use to great effect in his operas.  Instead of composing solely on closely related chords, Monteverdi experimented with combining chords that had no relationship to one another, adding additional color to his music and which enabled him to express a broader range of emotions. 

Here is the story.  In 1598, a group of composers and performers met in Ferrara in connection with the wedding of Philip III.  Details of what emerged during those concerts was memorialized in the writings of Giovanni Artusi, a noted music theorist.  Monteverdi used this occasion to trot out some of his more inventive compositions, which Artusi described as “harsh and little pleasing to the ear.”  Chief among Artusi’s complaints was Monteverdi’s “open and exposed” use of dissonance, breaking Palestrina’s golden rules of harmony and counterpoint.  The Artusi-Monteverdi debate raged without cessation much of the next decade—Artusi published his anti-modernist treatise on music theory in 1603 and Monteverdi responded in kind.  Best not to debate a genius on his own turf:  Monteverdi’s landmark Fifth Book of Madrigals compiled these innovative compositions and, in the introduction, the composer announced his intention to publish a treatise of his own, one that has come to be known as the Seconda practica, although Monteverdi’s full title was Seconda practica, overo Perfettione della moderna musica.  Translation is probably not needed there.

The first selection, Cruda Amerilli, leads off the Fifth Book.  Monteverdi undoubtedly placed it first, since this madrigal and come in for the harshest criticism from Artusi.  In it, Monteverdi uses dissonances in the opening bars to convey the wounds of love suffered by the protagonists, the shepherdess Amaryllis and the shepherd Mirtillo:

Cruel Amaryllis, who even with your name, to love, alas,
instruct bitterly;
Amaryllis, more pure and beautiful
than the white privet,
but more deaf and more fierce and more fleeting than the deaf asp;
since in speaking I offend you,
I will die in silence.

Claudio Monteverdi, Cruda Amarilli:

The next selection, which closes the Fifth Book, has become the most famous of the lot.  Here, Monteverdi takes harmony to new places, creating dissonances and ambiguity, augmenting the lyrics musically to drive the emotionally points home.  The lyrics and music, in Monteverdi’s skilled hands, are fused to one.  While these brief dissonances fall relatively easily on our 21st century ears, they would have seemed like harsh daggers to the brain in 1605.  This pain, this music, is all too real—we are still singing songs about it today:

O Mirtillo, Mirtillo, my love,
if only you could see
the inner life and feelings of her
whom you call most cruel Amarilli,
I know well that you would feel for her
that same pity which you ask of her.
Oh, our souls are too unhappy in love!
What joy is there, my heart, in being loved?
What joy is there for me in having so dear a lover? Why, cruel Destiny,
do you divide us when Love unites us?
And why do you unite us,
treacherous Love, when Destiny divides us?

Claudio Monteverdi, O Mirtillo, Mirtillo anima mia:

The use of dissonance has become more common over the centuries, but it still can be effectively employed to convey emotional pain.  By 1964, The Beatles, and John Lennon in particular, had reached a tipping point.  The extreme popularity of the Fab Four had completely eroded their privacy, subjecting The Beatles to constant attention—the pressure of fame had become literally physical as photos of the band from that era will attest.  Lennon wrote a song about his emotional pain, which The Beatles would predictably lampoon in a movie by the same name.  But the title and that remarkable opening chord tell a story as old as time.

The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night:  

Monteverdi’s Fifth Book was a landmark in music history—this is where Monteverdi slams the door on the Renaissance for good, in compositions that would influence scores of musicians, from Mozart to Beethoven and right through to The Beatles and beyond.  Bigger things to come next time, as Monteverdi’s genius reaches its full flowering; but for now, a farewell to the Renaissance and, oh, what a way to close out that glorious age.

Renaissance Music VIII: Pop Stars

In the late Renaissance, music began to change in substance, form and function.  The Church, the mighty patron of composers since the beginning of the European musical tradition, was about to take a back seat to secular music, led by a wave of popular songsmiths of the late 16th century.  Chief among these new pop stars was Jacques Arcadelt (1504-1568), who was so famous, no less a celebrity that Caravaggio (the baddest of the bad boy artists of all time—set aside an hour and watch this: memorialized his sheet music in his paintings.  Here is his most famous chanson (the French version of the Italian madrigal):

Jacques Arcadelt, Margot labourez les vignes

Arcadelt may seem a bit old fashioned to our ears today, but take him to the beach, add a backbeat and you’ve got the early Beach Boys:

The Beach Boys: Catch a Wave:

Arcadelt was hardly alone.  The English singer-songwriter John Dowland (1563-1626) created beautiful tunes that seem to exist out of time to my ear.  Are they so very different from what we consider 450 years later to be our pop songs?  Paul Simon? John Lennon?  Here are the origins of their music. Simple melodies about human emotions.  Radical and revolutionary.

John Dowland, Flow My Tears:

John Lennon, Oh My Love:

Some composers are sadly lost to history.  But here is a tune that everyone knows, likely the first on this list to claim that honor.  Several contemporaries claim the honor of its composition, but the actual author is likely unknown.  A perfect expression of Renaissance popular song-craft and still popular to this day:

Anon., Greensleeves

Greensleeves is, I think, the first #1 hit, a simple melody simply told, as the great guitarist Jeff Beck explained by way of an acoustic guitar on his first solo album:

Jeff Beck, Greensleeves (after Anon.):

Renaissance Music II: The Origin of Popular Music

As Simon and Garfunkel and other 20th century pop bands have taken a bow in this blog, a few words about popular music are warranted—popular music would play an increasing role in the development of music, surpassing the importance of what I call “formal music” for much of the 20th century. Finding its origin in Muslim Spain, the singer-songwriter arose in the guise of the traveling troubadour in or around the 13th century. No different from early Bob Dylan, these performers would travel from town to town, tavern to tavern, plying their trade in song and music. Developments in music technology furthered their efforts. While formal music—and by that I mean largely church music—focused on the chorus and the organ, traveling musicians often used a cittern, but were quickly joined the lute, the viol (think something like the cello) and then, most importantly, the violin. Advances were also made in keyboards—virginals ( being the first step that would lead to the modern piano—during the Renaissance.

There has always been a fruitful symbiosis between formal and popular music, each borrowing from the other to find melodies, rhythms, and new technologies.  Examples are hard to come by as modern performances are typically gussied up with a full chorus and extra instruments.  But this one gets the gist right and the influence of contemporary church motets can be clearly discerned in this more popular form of song.

Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Zephiro spira e ‘l bel tempo rimena:

It comes as no surprise that the Scottish magpie Ian Anderson and his merry band of minstrels, Jethro Tull, have looked back in time for inspiration across one of the longest and most varied career in modern popular music. As this brief tune attests, the gulf across the centuries can be bridged by a man, a guitar, and some strings.

Jethro Tull, Wond’ring Aloud: