Decorative and Ornate Music of the Baroque Era

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  • 2:41 Absolute Music
  • 3:13 Tonal Music
  • 4:44 Basso Continuo
  • 6:18 Embellishment & Ornamentation
  • 7:38 Dynamics & Rhythm
  • 9:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

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.

Absolute Music

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.

Tonal Harmony

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.

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