Through embellished melodies and newly established ideas of harmonic theory, the music of the Baroque era brought a new sense of musical expression. In this lesson, learn how composers of the era achieved affective music through new influence and a new style of writing.
The Doctrine of Affections
The saying goes, 'If it isn't 'Baroque', don't fix it'. But what is Baroque style, and how do you know if you're hearing it? The style of the Baroque era can be summed up in a quote from the Baroque era composer, Claudio Monteverdi: 'The end of all good music is to affect the soul.' Through embellished melodies and newly established ideas of harmonic theory, the music of the Baroque era brought new sense of musical expression not heard before. The new freedom of expression meant that composers could bring great emotion to their music, and they did so through ornate and complex compositions and performances.
During the Baroque era, many scientific and philosophical changes were happening. While Isaac Newton theorized the laws of gravity and John Locke was busy convincing others that empirical evidence was important, the fine arts world was shifting its philosophy of art's purpose. A theory called the doctrine of affections was created. The doctrine's principal idea was that the primary purpose of the arts was to awaken the feelings of the soul. The response to this idea brought highly decorative art, architecture, and music that was practically overflowing with emotion, to a point that some would consider gaudy. Bernini's sculpture 'Ecstasy of St. Teresa' and this painting of the highly decorated Royal Theater in Turin by Olivero show the level of detail one would expect to see in Baroque arts. It probably also helped that the Church was no longer the main patron of the arts, especially music, and therefore could no longer dictate everything. Royal courts were growing richer and more powerful, and they could afford to pay composers for their work. This gave the composers the freedom to experiment without being penniless. The courts didn't mind, either. Really, they just wanted some party music, so it all worked out. In response, new secular forms were made that specifically addressed the affects.
Composers were finally able to express emotions through their music. However, the affects were not necessarily for expressing the composer's own emotions. Instead, they tended to focus on more general emotions, like joy, sorrow, love, hate, wonder, and desire. Surprisingly, the evocation of emotion in music was very calculated and planned. For example, only one emotion was to be evoked per movement or short piece.
Along with the doctrine of affections was the idea of absolute music. Absolute music meant making music for music's sake, not relying on words or passages to determine the rhythms and pitches used. But without words, there wasn't anything specific driving these new emotions, so composers had to be creative in the way they portrayed the emotions. They did this with special treatment of harmony, melody, dynamics, and rhythm.
Prior to the Baroque era, melodies and harmonies were based on 'modes', which were different types of scales. You may remember that a scale is a set of notes. You can think of it like a family's house. Today, some sound familiar to us, while others sound foreign or weird. The Baroque era composers did away with many of the modes popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, favoring a different harmonic basis in the major and minor tonalities. Music today is still usually based on one of these tonalities, thanks largely to the Baroque era. So, why choose just the major and minor tonalities? First off, they are generally pleasant. A few of the older modes have some nasty note combinations when chords are made, and it just made sense to not use them. Also, the major and minor tonalities offered clear expression of the affections, while allowing for embellishments to decorate the melodies without clashing with the harmonies.
The use of major and minor chords helped structure the music. Without the help of words, the structure of music was shifted. Instead of thinking of each part linearly, like a melody, a more vertical approach was taken, focusing on the chords made by combined melodies. The basis of the harmony was built on a Basso Continuo. The basso continuo was made up of a bass line and harmony. It acted like a chordal foundation, providing support for the melody and helping the music move along. The bass part was played by a bass instrument, like the bassoon, the cello, or the viola da gamba, while the harmonic chords were usually played by a harpsichord or organ. The keyboard player was not given traditional notation. Instead, they improvised the chords using a system called figured bass. Figured bass is a system of numbers that is included with the bass line and implies certain chords. Basically, the composer asks for certain pitches, but the performer gets to arrange them to his or her liking. The basso continuo and figured bass were used more in Baroque music than in any other musical period. They were both heard frequently in the contrapuntal music that was popular at the time. After the Baroque period, the basso continuo fell out of favor.
Melodic Embellishment and Ornamentation
Above the basso continuo, composers wrote long, sequential melodies that were often based on a small musical idea. The melodies would spiral out into new and unique iterations, often with greater distance between pitches and unexpected pitches to reflect the emotion they attempted to portray. Even more important was the use of ornamentation. Like the ornaments on a Christmas tree, they add expression and character to what would otherwise just be an ordinary thing. The additional small notes embellished the melodies and gave a bit of creative freedom to the performer, who used the ornaments to add their signature to the music. Performers often had elaborate improvisation using ornaments and even improvised their own melodies to further decorate the music. As musicians became more and more virtuosic, composers began to write for specific instruments. This led to more idiomatic writing, where the composer could write difficult, highly technical passages to show off the player's skills and the unique features of the instrument. Although ornaments are just small notes that enhance and add character to the regular melodic line, they were significant enough to be a key feature of the Baroque period.
In addition to the flowing, ornamented melodies, composers made greater use of dynamics. You may recall that dynamics is the volume and intensity with which a section of music is played. Although dynamics had just barely been developed, it was a no-brainer in terms of writing and playing emotionally charged music.
Manipulating rhythm was another way that composers emotionally decorated the music. Composers used driving rhythms and dramatic pauses to intensify the music. Take, for example, this famous excerpt from Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue in d minor'. Listen for the quick ornament at the beginning and the dramatic pause before the second phrase enters. Rather than sticking with the carefully even rhythms of the Renaissance style, the modern Baroque style employed freely changing rhythms. This also added to the emotion by making passages feel faster or slower, even if the speed of the music was unchanged. Ornaments figured into rhythmic expression and contributed rapid movement into what would otherwise be a plain note.
In all, the Baroque era's excessively decorated melodies, rhythms, and, well, pretty much everything else made for incredibly complex yet expressive music. Composers used ornate harmony, melody, dynamics, and rhythm to drive the emotional aspects of their compositions. The use of modes fell out of favor, and composers used the major and minor scales to express emotions and build harmonic structure in a basso continuo. Rather than the plain music written in previous eras, music was decorated with embellished notes and emotional context. No longer answering solely to the Church, composers subscribed to the doctrine of affections and wrote absolute music, meaning they wrote music full of emotion and did it just because they wanted to. It was music for music's sake, decorated in full emotional regalia.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to discuss how the Baroque era of music influenced composers to write and create complex expressive music.