Baroque music: a beginner's guide

Generally speaking, the Baroque period is when the orchestra was born, opera kicked off in a big way and the concerto gave soloists the chance to properly show off. From the period's beginnings in the early 1600s to when the Classical period style began to take over in the mid 1700s, the sound of the Baroque period remained distinct - ordered, ornate and increasingly emotive as the period went on.

First of all, a couple little things to get you in the mood...

Isabel Esain plays some thrilling Baroque virtuoso music on the viola da gamba:

The viol (or viola da gamba) first appeared in Spain in the late 15th century. Viol consorts were very popular in England with composers such as Henry Purcell, William Byrd and Tobias Hume. In addition, the viol was used in orchestras and chamber music groups until the 18th century, where it was cultivated among courtly society as a solo instrument. Composers such as Marin Marais, Bach, Telemann, Forqueray, Händel and CAbel wrote lots of virtuoso music for it. This piece is 'La Leclair' by Antoine Forqueray, who was a composer and virtuoso who was said to play like the devil. He dedicated this piece to the famous baroque violinist Jean-Marie Leclair.
This is Marionas by Sapnish Baroque composer Gaspar Sanz (ca.1640 - ca.1710), played by Daniel Zapico & Pablo Zapico.

The Baroque sound

In a practical sense, there are some truly defining characteristics in the Baroque period that mark it out from what came before or after. You can expect to hear a lot of harpsichord, for one, but more generally, the main progression that came as the Renaissance period turned into Baroque is the emergence of more modern harmony.

By harmony, we mean the combination of more than one note at the same time, and baroque composers like Bach, Handel and Vivaldi just made it that bit more accessible. Let's have a little blast of Monteverdi's Vespers to show exactly what kind of harmony suddenly became popular:

Baroque instruments

Though many instrumental developments were made in the baroque period, there's one rather large, keyboard-shaped shadow cast over all of them - by the harpsichord. You'll hear its distinctive plucked sound all over pieces from the period, but here's a great example from J.S. Bach:

Aside from the omnipresent harpsichord, the baroque period also contained several hangovers from the Renaissance period, including recorders, viols, lutes, flutes and a whole range of string instruments that gradually fell out of use.

Baroque pieces

Religious music was a huge part of the Baroque period, but it took composers like Handel and Bach to make them into emotional, human experiences. Huge, towering works in the sacred Baroque canon include Bach's St Matthew Passion and Handel's Messiah. But let's give Handel's Zadok the Priest a go (brace yourself):

There are so many landmark pieces in the Baroque repertoire that it's difficult to pick just one, but if pushed, we'd go for Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. Not only is it a beautiful and evocative piece of music, but it's also a perfect representation of the increasing poetic power Baroque music was aiming for. One of music's true universal pieces, it's as rewarding to complete beginners as it is to seasoned experts. Let the great Nigel Kennedy show you why: