Baroque Composers: Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Pachelbel & More

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  • 0:00 The Usual Suspects
  • 0:28 The Baroque Period
  • 0:56 Early & Middle Baroque
  • 3:38 Late Baroque
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

The Baroque was an exuberant musical period that lasted from 1600-1750. This lesson will introduce you to some of the Baroque's most famous composers.

The Usual Suspects

Studying Baroque music can be intimidating - after all, there are 150 years and dozens of composers to consider. You might feel like a detective faced with too much evidence. However, much of the Baroque music you'll hear comes from a handful of famous composers, and this lesson will introduce them to you. Think of it as rounding up the usual suspects.

The Baroque Period

The Baroque period (1600-1750) began with the invention of opera in Florence, Italy. By combining music with theater, opera helped unleash the dramatic flair and expressive power that became popular in Baroque music. Historians end the Baroque in 1750, with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. His music is generally considered the pinnacle of Baroque style. During this lesson, we'll meet personalities from the beginning, middle, and end of the Baroque.

Early & Middle Baroque

The Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was one of the hipsters who started writing Baroque opera before it became universally cool. His opera L'Orfeo retells the story of Orpheus and Euridice. It's a dramatic, experimental work that many consider the first great opera. Monteverdi's skill won him the best musical job in Italy: music director at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. In addition to the sacred music he wrote for the grand services at St. Mark's, Monteverdi also wrote at least three operas, plus secular vocal pieces called madrigals.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) was another Italian, but he took a French name after he landed France's most prestigious musical job. Lully was court composer for King Louis XIV, the powerful monarch who built the palace of Versailles and called himself the Sun-King. Lully wrote magnificent operas and ballets for the King's court. He also invented a form called the French Overture, stately march-like music used to mark the King's entrance at a performance. This was a bit like playing 'Hail to the Chief' for the president of the United States. Lully's music was so famous that whenever Baroque composers wanted to evoke regal glory, they imitated Lully's French overtures.

Meanwhile, in England, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was busy becoming one of the top names in English musical history. As a child, he was a choirboy in the Chapel Royal, a prestigious group that was basically King Charles II's personal church choir. As an adult, Purcell became Organist of the Chapel Royal. He also worked as the King's court composer and the organist at Westminster Abbey. Purcell's vocal music is known for rendering the English language into natural, expressive musical rhythms. His most famous work is his tragic, mythical opera Dido and Aeneas.

We'll round out our list of middle Baroque composers with the German organist Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706). These days, Pachelbel is a one-hit wonder, thanks to his famous Canon in D Major. This elegant piece with a repeating bass line has accompanied countless brides down the aisle. Pachelbel was a prolific composer of organ music, who worked as an organist in churches throughout Germany and Austria. Ironically, his famous Canon was originally written not for organ, but for strings!

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