The Baroque Orchestra: Instruments, Structure & Forms

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  • 0:35 The Baroque Orchestra
  • 1:00 Baroque Music
  • 3:12 Orchestras and Composers
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In the history of Western music, the Baroque orchestra holds a very important position. In this lesson, explore the formation and structure of the Baroque orchestra, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Baroque Orchestra

Hey, what's wrong with this orchestra? Somebody told me that it's broken. Yeah, they said it was a broke orchestra. So what's wrong with it? Oh, not broke? Baroque! That makes more sense.

The Baroque period was an era in western history that lasted from roughly 1600-1750. This period was characterized by powerful monarchs, elaborate and intricate art, massive, grandiose architecture and, of course, a musical style to match. And one of the greatest innovations of the Baroque era was the orchestra, a large instrumental ensemble.

Although musical groups were common throughout Western history, the Baroque orchestra standardized instrumental music in new ways, ways that define Western music to this day. That's a long-lasting legacy, but hey, if it ain't Baroque, don't fix it!

Baroque Music

Before we really get into the orchestra, let's talk a bit about Baroque music. Before this era, music was rarely played by large groups. It was much more along the lines of medieval minstrels and that sort of thing. Composers would write melodies, and those melodies could really be picked up by any instrument.

Then, in the early 1600s, the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi said forget this, I know exactly what I want my music to sound like and wrote a score for specific instruments. The flutes played this piece, the cornets played this piece, the percussion played this piece. Thus, the idea of the modern orchestra was born, in which each member of an ensemble has a specific part of the music to play.

Baroque music, like everything else Baroque, was much more elaborate and intricate than anything that came before. Rather than all instruments playing variations of the melody, the main musical theme, composers experimented more with harmonies, complementary notes and rhythms that support the melody. So, you'd have one set of instruments play the melody, and the others playing harmonies. This made for a much more intricate and ornate type of music.

Baroque music also standardized the idea of tonality, in which a single tone in a musical scale is the central focus of the piece. All other notes are written based on their relation to that central tone. Tonality gives Baroque music a consistent structure and form and defined Western music for centuries.

We can thank French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau for really setting this up. His 1722 Treatise on Harmony was one of the most important works of Baroque musical theory, which standardized tonality through mathematical formulas and the relationships between harmonies. This sounds complex, but really it was these ideas that gave Western music the sounds that we think of as classical music.

Orchestras and Composers

So Baroque orchestras played Baroque music, but what did the orchestras look like? The modern orchestra is very standardized in terms of size and instruments, but the Baroque orchestra was still nailing these things down. After all, the orchestra was a pretty new phenomenon. Some were as large as 150 instrumentalists; some were only about 20. This wasn't really standardized until later.

However, what instruments were used was a bit more common. Generally, the Baroque orchestra had five sections of instruments: woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and harpsichord. The strings or harpsichord almost always carried the melody, with brass and woodwinds providing the harmonies. The percussion section was pretty small at this time, and often only included a timpani drum.

But, do you notice anything missing? How about a conductor? Baroque orchestras generally did not have a conductor. Instead, the first violinist or the harpsichordist would often keep time and indicate when the orchestra should start or stop playing. Actually, this person was commonly the composer of the music as well.

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