Baroque Opera Development and Cultural Values

1 January 2017

“Derived from the Portuguese barroco, or “oddly shaped pearl,” the term “baroque” has been widely used since the nineteenth century to describe the period in Western European art music from about 1600 to 1750” – http://www. baroque. org. Following the Renaissance, the baroque period was known for its expressivity of boldness, extravagance, overall balance, and use of heavy use of ornamentation. These features can be seen in everything from the clothing styles, to the architecture, and in particular the arts.

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The baroque period is generally divided into 2 timeframes, the early baroque period (1600-1680) and the late baroque period (1680-1750). In terms of music, the early baroque period notes a new interest in the use of monody. Monody is the use of one voice or instrument, typically accompanied by basso continuo. The Renaissance period is known for its use of polyphony. In the late baroque period, concerto grosso became the more popular style written. Concerto grosso shows two groups of instruments or voices in contrast to each other singing or playing lines back and forth, thus introducing the first melody and harmony performances.

The key instrumental form of the late Baroque period was the concerto grosso, which reflected the contrast between two groups of instruments. The two groups either alternated with one another or play together. A majority of the baroque music composed was for the church, royalty, and the social elite. This may have clouded the composer’s true vision for their music, as their works were dictated by the payer’s taste. “The greatest legacy by the late Baroque period was the creation of operas and oratorios, considered greatest and most magnificent is Handel’s Messiah, and J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion” – http://www. usicedmagic. com. An opera is a story that is performed by singing. The plot is expressed by speech-like songs called recitatives and arias which are more indicative of the mood or feeling at that particular moment in the performance. “The first surviving opera was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, based on a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini and performed in Florence in 1598; the earliest opera still performed today is Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). The subjects of the first operas are all taken from Greek myth, reflecting the genre’s close alliances with attempts to recreate the music and drama of ancient cultures, nd were performed solely in aristocratic circles for invited guests” – http://www. baroque. org. In the 1630s the first opera houses were opened in Venice, Italy. The audience dictated what the performers would sing and how it was performed. The crowds typically liked the arias, so that is what was primarily performed during that time. This led to a decline in dances and choruses in Italian opera. By the early 1700s, two styles became prevalent, operas with a serious tone (da capo aria) and operas with a comedic tone (opera buffa). As the baroque period and its operas progressed, the styles became more dramatic.

This led to the changes and popularity of the oratorios and the cantatas. Oratorios began as small religious-based operas and ended up being huge productions mixed with non-religious texts. The cantatas began as very small secular operas performed as duets, trios, and quartets. They were performed by amateurs and professionals. As time went on, they became incorporating orchestral accompaniments and primarily performed by professionals. “Essays in classical oratory by Quintillian and Cicero provided a model for Baroque actors, as did posture and gestures taken from both classical and contemporary paintings and sculpture.

Rhetorical gesture was designed to accompany individual words of text, rather than to display the pervading emotions” – http://www. operaatelier. com. Baroque operas were difficult to perform due to the density of the text to be performed. To effectively convey the emotion to the audience the performers had to vividly perform to evoke emotion from the audience while maintaining the structure of the baroque style. This proves a challenge even for today’s performers. The singing style was heavily ornamented and exaggerated by the use of vibratos, dynamic changes of volume, and many other techniques.

Not only was the introduction of the opera a demarcation of the baroque, but the instrumental solos and orchestral pieces as well. Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel were great composers of instrumental masterpieces. Handle’s music for the royal fireworks is a great example of the baroque style orchestra. The instruments are played with staccato (short “poppy” style with a hint of separation between notes), lots of variation of volume, trills, etc. These all are methods used by the musicians to ornament the song.

There were also layers of different instruments at varying times, and a contraposto style expressed between the different sections of the orchestra. It’s almost as the different sections are talking back and forth to one another. Another great example of a baroque masterpiece is Bach’s Toccata Fugue in D minor. This was written for the pipe organ by Bach, but there is no surviving copy in Bach’s own handwriting. Several masters have rewritten the work and that is how it survives today. The piece begins with a few short notes followed by a single long note.

The sounds are soon followed by the accompaniment of long deep bass tones. Throughout the song there are arguments and accompaniments between the harmony and melody of the deep rumbling bass and the high shrills produced by the pipe organ. At times the song is soft and beautiful, other times the song is strong and loud, displaying aggressive dissonance. This truly is a magnificent piece displaying all of the classic signs of the late baroque evoking emotion from all listeners. The song is still very popular and used in many ads and movies today. As listeners’ tastes grew and changed, so did the style of music.

Audiences began to prefer a new melodic expression of clean musical architecture which is quite different from the heavily ornamented and opulent baroque style. This new preference ushered in the new classical style and the age of Hyden and Mozart. “Although the baroque period ended over 250 years ago, vestiges of the era can be heard everywhere. Some of the most influential and beloved compositions are regularly performed in concert halls, and a wealth of recordings make the baroque available on demand. Many of the musical genres still in use today, like the oratorio, concerto and opera, originated in the period.

Twentieth century composers such as Ralph Vaughn Williams, Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten paid homage to the baroque in their works. Its influence can even be heard outside the realm of art music: the free movement between solo and group in jazz is sometimes compared to baroque music, and snippets of Bach and Vivaldi frequently appear in the solos of heavy metal guitarists. And the spirit of the baroque—an unwavering belief in the power of music to touch people’s lives—changed music history forever” – http://www. baroque. org.

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