The organ and other keyboard instruments were important catalysts in driving composers to create more complex music in the Baroque era. Learn how the instruments work and why they played such an important role during this time period.
The Organ's Influence on Baroque Music
'Hi! I'm the heart, one of the most important organs you have! Oh, not that type of organ? Well, okay. I'm a little heartbroken, but you know, that's all right, the musical instrument is pretty great too. Not as important as me, but anyway...' Although the organ has ancestry going back all the way to ancient Greece, its heyday was during the Baroque period (ca. 1600-1750).
Its ability to play multiple pitches at once, play at various volumes and create different tones pumped the creative spirit of composers who were looking to write differently than the previous generation. New styles were even created that showcased the organ's power, versatility and ease of playing.
Polyphony and Counterpoint
You might remember that toward the end of the Renaissance period, around 1450-1600, composers were into a style of writing that had many melodies put together at one time. This is called polyphony, and it was common in vocal music. In the late Renaissance and early Baroque period, vocal music was very popular and was often played on instruments in small groups. Keyboard instruments were a perfect alternative as they allowed composers and performers to replicate the polyphony found in vocal works on a single instrument. Similarly, composers used a lot of counterpoint.
Counterpoint is a type of polyphony where the melodies are closely related and interlocked to create a 'weaved' sound between the instruments, like this (please see the video at 01:47 to hear the sound). Can you imagine singing this in a choir? It would take some serious musicianship to sing the notes correctly, whereas on an instrument, the keys could easily be pressed to play it right. For this, the organ was ideal.
The organ's ability to emulate different tones concurrently made it an even more prized asset. The intricacies of each melody were clearly heard when played with the organ's different stops, which change what tone is heard through the pipes. Let's look a bit more into how the organ makes this happen.
The organ actually works similarly to the heart. In the heart, muscles press, valves guide the blood into the ventricle and blood is pushed out through the arteries. In the organ, a key is pressed, air is routed through a box called the wind chest, which guides the air to selected pipes, and the air is pushed out through the pipes. Much like the heart routes blood to different parts of the body through different arteries, the organ can be set to route air through different pipes depending on the tone you want. This is done through a button called a stop.
The stops are almost like a sonic box of crayons, where you can choose the sound color you want by choosing a button. Several of the features on the modern organ were established during the Baroque period. Many of the stops were developed during the Baroque period and gave composers new colors with which to experiment. Lastly, the range of the instrument grew immensely, with more and more pipes being added to produce higher and lower pitches. A special keyboard that is played by the musician's feet was made to accommodate the additional low-pitched pipes. The stops, extended range and foot keyboard are all still used today.
Organ music was written for both sacred and secular purposes, and the organ stayed closely tied to its roots in the Church. It was not musically confined there, though, and many secular types of music were written with the organ in mind. As instrumental music became more prominent, music was written specifically for keyboard instruments. Composers appreciated their versatility in that they could play high and low pitches, melodies and harmonies. Four forms used for the Baroque keyboard instruments were the prelude, the fugue, the toccata and the fantasia.
If you've ever heard the music of Baroque composer J.S. Bach, you've probably heard at least one of these. These forms generally use some counterpoint and allow for some improvisation. Baroque music was about expression, and the improvisatory pieces allowed musicians to play from the heart. The prelude is a short, improvisational piece based on a melodic or rhythmic idea. As its name suggests, it often introduces or precedes other movements in a large work.
The fugue is similar to the prelude in that it is based on a small musical idea, but in a fugue, the focus is the counterpoint. The idea recurs throughout the piece in highly complex permutations heard in all of the musical parts. The toccata required fast fingers and intricate musical detail, which was playable only by a master musician. The music of the fantasia sounded improvisational or free flowing. Sometimes, the fantasia lacked strict form and was more of a framework for improvisation.
Other Keyboard Instruments in the Baroque Period
Aside from the organ, there were two other popular keyboard instruments, called the harpsichord and the clavichord. Where the organ uses air to produce sound, the harpsichord and clavichord use strings to produce sound. The harpsichord's strings are plucked by the tip of a quill. Because of this, it has little variation in volume. The clavichord is smaller, and its strings are struck by a small hammer, so it produced a quieter sound, perfect for home use or practice.
The harpsichord and clavichord were great and all, but musicians wanted more variation in the volume of their instrument. Enter Bartolomeo Cristofori, who, in 1709, created the 'gravicembalo col piano e forte,' better known as the 'pianoforte,' and later, the 'piano.' The pianoforte was special because it used the size of the harpsichord with hammer-struck strings. The hammers allowed the player to vary the volume of the note through the force of their playing; a lighter touch of the key meant a lighter strike of the hammer, producing quieter sound, and a stronger touch meant a stronger strike of the hammer, producing louder sound.
In all, the keyboard instruments of the Baroque period pumped great development through the veins of composition and creation of new instruments. The late-Baroque period is considered the heart of organ music, with many advancements made to the instrument and, consequently, the music written for it.
The organ became bigger, badder and shinier, with added pipes and expanded keyboards, leading to more powerful sound and more virtuosic playing. The counterpoint started in the Renaissance was augmented to more complex music with heartfelt emotions through compositional forms, like the prelude, the fugue, the toccata and the fantasia. Well, I'd better be moving. Keep on pumping!
After viewing this video lesson, you'll be able to:
- Explain why the organ became a popular instrument
- Describe the characteristics of an organ and how it produces sound
- List two other Baroque keyboard instruments
- Summarize the four forms used for the Baroque keyboard instruments
- Identify Bartolomeo Cristofori's contribution to music