Stephen Raskauskas examines the term “Baroque” as part of Bachtrack’s Baroque Music Month.

Audiences for Baroque music have grown tremendously in recent decades, and today, enthusiasts can hear a wide range of repertoire performed by countless artists and ensembles dedicated to reviving this music. As we begin Baroque Month here at Bachtrack, it is useful to ask: “What does the term ‘Baroque’ mean exactly?”

The easiest answer to this question is that the “Baroque” is a period from approximately 1600 to 1750, sandwiched between the “Renaissance” and “Classical” periods. Monteverdi and Bach, then, are both lumped within the same period known today as the “Baroque” since their music shares superficial similarities like the use of basso continuo. Neither composer, however, would have described his own music as “Baroque”.

Flemish pendant with a lion, with body made from a baroque pearl
Flemish pendant with a lion, with body made from a baroque pearl
“Baroque” initially described irregularly shaped pearls that were used in jewelry as early as the 16th century. When the term was first used to describe music in the 1730s, it was pejorative. Rousseau and other critics of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie called the opera “baroque” because of its seemingly irregular melodies, disjunctive harmonies, and frequently changing keys and meters. “Baroque” was not used to describe an entire period for another hundred years, and even then it was used first by art historians. In the 20th century, music historians gradually appropriated the term to describe the period 1600–1750. The music was stereotyped as complex and bizarre, or conversely, in the words of Igor Stravinsky, as “beautiful and boring”.

Of course, 1600 and 1750 are arbitrary boundaries, and countless styles developed during those years. This should be no surprise since, even within the span of a few years, musical styles change rapidly and our ears are sensitive enough to notice. After all, most people would be hard pressed to coin a single term to describe all music between 1863 and 2013 – a period that spans from Mussorgsky to Miley Cyrus. The revival of 17th- and 18th-century music in our own time has confirmed that the period was one of exceptional variety.

Our ways of performing Baroque music evolve as artists embrace original instruments and techniques. Though once seen as the domain of academics alone, “historically informed performance” has liberated performers rather than constricting them. Because Baroque scores contain a remarkable amount of flexibility – specific instruments are not always indicated and there is a fair amount of room for improvisation – playing Baroque music “authentically” often requires a good deal of imagination.

Jean-Philippe Rameau © reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Music, London
Jean-Philippe Rameau
© reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Music, London
Despite increasing interest in music of the “Baroque”, much remains to be discovered, particularly since scores of scores languish on library shelves. For instance, Telemann was one the leading composers of the eighteenth century and one of the most prolific of all time, but is still largely overlooked today. In contrast, J.S. Bach, who was practically unknown during his own time, is considered to be one of the towering figures of western music. The two composers were friends and colleagues, though their posthumous reputations could hardly be more different.

Our interest in particular historical figures often says more about our own times than anything else. As a result, our ideas about music of the Baroque are dramatically skewed towards those whom the history books have favored, rather than those who were most influential at the time. Indeed, much of the history of the “Baroque” will surely be rewritten in the years to come as performers continue to explore neglected composers and works.

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