10 of the best Baroque composers

25 August 2022, 14:37

Baroque composers
Baroque composers. Picture: Public domain

By Rosie Pentreath

From Bach to Vivaldi, we’re got the rundown on which Baroque composers you should listen to. Right now.

It was in the Baroque era – roughly 1600-1750 – that the notion of the orchestra really came into its own, and composers started to layer instruments up in complex polyphony – different musical parts – and harmony.

Opera also kicked off in a big way, with those by Handel and Purcell remaining among the most often-performed still today.

Writing for instruments a little different from today’s, including string instruments with gut strings, the soft viol de gamba, and strummed, guitar-like lutes and theorbos, here are some of the greatest Baroque composers that ever lived.

Read more: This is the amazing story of Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi

  1. Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751)

    Albinoni, a contemporary of fellow Italian Baroque composer, Vivaldi (see below), was famous in his own day for opera.

    But that may surprise you as today he is beloved for instrumental works, including his Adagio in G minor and his Oboe Concerto, both of which appeared in the Classic FM Hall of Fame this year (No. 117 and No. 222 respectively).

    Fun fact – even though Albinoni is famous for the Adagio, we’re not actually 100 percent confident he even wrote it, or at least was the one who finished the piece. An Italian professor found a scrap of manuscript in a German library around two hundred years after Albinoni died, the story goes, and went on to rebuild the whole piece around those few lines.

    Tomaso Albinoni - Adagio (best live version)

  2. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

    Ah Bach. Beautiful Bach.

    Baroque music – and all music, as far as we’re concerned – can start and end with Bach if forced to pick one composer.

    It’s difficult to think of a contemporaneous instrument Bach didn’t write for. And his output was as awe-inspiring as his sublime music – from sacred settings of passion stories, cantatas, chorales and arias, to instrumental sonatas and concertos, virtuosic keyboard collections and canons as complex as any we’ve seen.

    The genius German composer and organ improvisor extraordinaire has truly earned his enduring place in the musical canon. And if you want to hear even more Bach brilliance? Explore more music by the wider Bach family, from JC to CPE.

    Read more: Nina Simone plays a stunning Bach-style fugue in the middle of one of her classic songs

    Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude

  3. Francesca Caccini (1587-1640)

    Early Italian Baroque composer Francesca Caccini was the daughter of Renaissance master, Giulio Caccini.

    The singer, lutenist, poet and teacher, was one of the most influential women composers in Europe in her day. And her opera La liberazione di Ruggiero has gone down in herstory as the first ever written by a woman.

    Chi desia, Francesca Caccini (1587–c1641)

  4. George Frederic Handel (1685-1759)

    German and English Baroque heavyweight Handel is famous for his operas, oratorios, anthems and organ concertos.

    His music for all occasions, such as the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from the Messiah oratorio (Christmas) and Music for the Royal Fireworks (Guy Fawkes Night) still make for popular musical markers in our calendar years.

    And Handel’s coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest, was the piece our ancestors chose as the very first played on Classic FM all those years ago in 1992 – suitable pageantry indeed!

    Read more: We can’t stop watching this utterly ridiculous Handel’s Messiah disaster

    Händel - ”Zadok the Priest” Coronation Anthem for George II HWV 258

  5. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

    Monteverdi was the grandfather of Baroque opera – meaning opera as a whole, pretty much – as far as many musically-minded people are concerned.

    His birth date puts him right at the crossroads of the late Renaissance period, and early Baroque revolutions. His tragic opera, L’Orfeo, changed the music world for good and cemented the operatic form, as well as the telling of a powerful story that would be revisited by composers for centuries – including fellow Baroque masters Schütz and Telemann (see below), Gluck during the Classical era, and Offenbach in the Romantic era.

    Orfeo - Monteverdi

  6. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)

    Italian composer Pergolesi had a tragically short life, even by 18th century standards.

    As well as being a famous Baroque comic opera composer, Pergolesi wrote an eye-wateringly beautiful Stabat Mater setting, a sacred piece commissioned for an annual Good Friday service in honour of the Virgin Mary.

    Pergolesi - Stabat Mater (complete/full) - Nathalie Stutzmann

  7. Henry Purcell (1659–1695)

    English composer and keyboard virtuoso Purcell also excelled in the operatic genre, his crowning achievement being Dido and Aeneas, which includes the heart-rending aria, ‘Dido’s Lament’.

    Purcell was organist at Westminster Abbey, and also served as organist of the Chapel Royal. He composed for the royal family and was royal instrument keeper as well as being a court composer in his lifetime.

    Read more: Cellist performs heartrending version of Dido’s Lament in memory of George Floyd

    I Can't Breathe- Cellist Performs Dido's Lament for Black Lives Matter Protest

  8. Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)

    Barbara Strozzi was born in Venice and was the illegitimate daughter of the renowned poet Giulio Strozzi.

    Her father encouraged her talents, sending her to study composition with Francesco Cavalli and setting up opportunities for her work to be showcased.

    Most of her music is written for accompanied female voice, and she makes this list for the fact that she published numerous volumes of her own music and actually had more music contemporaneously in print than any other Baroque composer in her lifetime.

    On top of that, she was a capable lute player and a fine singer.

    Lagrime Mie - Barbara Strozzi

  9. Georg Phillip Telemann (1681-1767)

    German Baroque composer Georg Phillip Telemann scores points for sheer proliferation, having written over 3,000 works.

    His music combines German, French, Italian and Polish musical styles in numerous genres, including operas, orchestral suites, oratorios and other sacred works.

    Apparently his family didn’t approve of his musical career choice, and Telemann was a largely self-taught instrumentalist and composer, but his talent persisted and he had an incredibly successful career.

    G.Ph. Telemann: Concerto for Traverso and Recorder in E minor, TWV 52:e1 - Bremer Barockorchester

  10. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

    Vivaldi wrote some of the most enduringly popular music of the Baroque era, if not the whole of classical music.

    His Four Seasons – the four concertos for violin and orchestra written to depict the turning seasons of the year – sound as fresh and delightfully surprising as they were when they were first written. And his sacred works, including his Stabat Mater and Nisi Dominus, are also at the pinnacle of their genre.

    The composer was dubbed ‘The Red Priest’ and his religious calling meant he didn’t marry or officially have romantic relationships – although it is believed that half-sisters Anna and Paolina Giro were both girlfriends of Vivaldi’s.

    Read more: Vivaldi’s ‘infuriating’ Four Seasons dropped as hold music by Government hotline

    'Summer' from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons – on Bandura and Button accordion