The Baroque Era: It’s all about the rules

The first musical style of the modern era was Renaissance, and you’ve heard imitations of it if you’ve ever seen a movie set between 1400 and 1600 — lots of lutes, pipes, and very dry-sounding drums, with the melodies usually in a minor key and odd lyrics that don’t really rhyme.

It did represent the beginnings of music moving further away from strictly religious use, although there had certainly been secular music at the time.

I’ll get to it in the section on Modern Classical music, but Carl Orff did write several suites based on 13th Century secular music, and one of the most famous bits of them, O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, gets used over and over in film and TV, often for dramatic effect, but just as often for satire.

While there were a number of Renaissance composers, I’ll be skipping over them and heading to the next musical period, which was Baroque, spanning the years 1600 to 1750. But “baroque,” which comes from a Portuguese word meaning oddly-shaped pearl, also applies to architecture and art.

The common factor to all three, though, is a certain degree of intricacy combined with regularity.

When it came to the music, the regularity was particularly strict, which is one of the reasons that I’m not a huge fan of the style. It can get repetitive and boring fast.

Symphonies did not yet exist, so composers created things like concertos, cantatas (song cycles), and operas and oratorios. But each of these was created from a collection of movements, and each movement followed very specific rules.

The composer would begin by introducing a simple melody. This would repeat twice, the second time leading to a brief transitional melody. Then, it was time for the second melody, or theme, which would be related to but contrast the first.

For example, if a piece is in a particular Major key, then the B theme might be in the relative minor. So, for a piece in G Major, the B theme might be in E minor. It repeats twice and then does its own transition back to the first theme.

Lather, rinse, repeat for both A and B.

Okay, that’s your audience ear-training. Next up: the variations, but, again the rules are strict. This isn’t jazz, so your performers can’t just start riffing. Rather, you can provide one of a few rigid transformations on the original melody.

For example, you can invert it. What this means is that you reverse the direction the notes move, starting from the first one. If you’re writing in G Major and your first measure was originally G-B-D-C-E, which is two steps up, two steps up, one step down, and two steps up, then you just change up to down.

The inverted version would be G-E-C-D-F#. And so on.

You can also reverse the theme, in which case you basically write the notes out in the reverse order. In that variation, the theme above would end with E-C-D-B-G.

You can transpose, which means moving the notes up or down. Moving the notes of a melody up or down a third often works well. In the case of our example, G-B-D-C-E would become either B-D-F#-E-G or E-G-B-A-C.

It’s not just note order, either. You can vary the tempo — for example, make the melody twice as fast or half as fast by altering the value of the notes. You can even do a rondo, which you already know if you’ve ever sung “Row, row, row your boat” with each group of singers beginning after the first refrain is sung.

Introduce variation, repeat, transition, do likewise for the B theme, and then… stack ‘em on top of each other and if you’ve done it right, you should get a very intricate layering that all manages to work together, mainly because it was created from the same two melodies and following a few specific rules.

Finally, bring it back into the station by repeating your original unadorned themes and adding a finale, quite often of the “repeat that riff eight times until it lands” type that has become a trope all its own.

This all works because music is just math, and the formulas for doing Baroque were well thought out. But, again, it makes the music formulaic. In fact, you could create an entire Baroque symphonic movement by computer by just writing the first two melodies and then letting the rules do the rest.

Hell, you could probably even get a computer to write the first two themes as well.

The formulaic nature also must have made it easy to write Baroque music, because the composers of the time were ridiculously prolific.

Georg Frideric Handel wrote a ton of works — nearly 200 compositions in total, and yes, you probably know one of them. That would be his oratorio Messiah, and if you don’t know the whole work, you definitely know the Hallelujah Chorus.

Vivaldi topped Handel with at least 820 catalogued works in his lifetime. He’s best known for his Four Seasons, and if you were to hear a snippet of any one of the four movements right now, you would recognize it instantly.

But J.S. Bach put them all to shame, composing 1,128 pieces in the 65 years of his life — although the actual catalog may go higher than that, with up to 1,175 entries.

So yes, all very prolific, but you have to remember one thing: live music of that era was basically the social media of the day. Other than books and live theatre, there wasn’t much else going on. The composers sponsored by the royalty of the day were the influencers, and they set the tone and style.

So if you think about it, it’s not that weird that Bach or any other composer could write that many things in their lifetime because, a) what else was there to do? And b) how many YouTube, Insta, or TikTok videos does the average influencer post in a typical year?

It adds up. And when you’ve been given musical rules that make it pretty much as easy as making and uploading a video to social media (and you have interns who can follow your instructions and write out those variations and create the written scores), then the job is probably a lot easier than it looks.

There were hundreds of Baroque-era composers, if not thousands. Very few are remembered now. And that’s probably an object lesson for today’s influencers. Many of you exist, few will be long remembered.

As for the rigidity of Baroque music, that lives with us to this day. It’s the secret behind every pop song that’s been on the radio since at least the 1950s. But that’s a tune for another day.

Image source: Johann Sebastian Bach in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, second version of his 1746 canvas. Public domain work.