Music of the Italian Baroque

The power of poetry inspires a musical revolution: from the opera stage to the music rooms of the aristocracy, composers from Monteverdi to Vivaldi find new ways to bring emotion alive in music.


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When?

In 1607, Claudio Monteverdi’s first opera L’Orfeo was premiered at the Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy. It was received “to great satisfaction of all who heard it”, and is the earliest opera still being performed in the 21st century. Meanwhile:

  • In Paris, King Henry IV opens the Pont Neuf (‘New Bridge’) — the oldest bridge still standing over the Seine
  • Riots spread across the English Midlands as thousands of peasants protest against the loss of common land to private enclosures.
  • The kingdom of Spain, having mismanaged the vast quantities of silver and gold obtained from its mines in Mexico and Peru, is bankrupted for the fourth time in 50 years.
  • 104 Englishmen establish a settlement at what will become Jamestown, Virginia; despite famine and drought which will see more than three quarters of the settlers dead within a few months, the colony manages to survive, and becomes the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.

Fast Facts

  • The Baroque era in music began in Italy around 1600 and lasted till about 1750. Before it came the Renaissance period, during which the concept of music had expanded from a single line of melody (the Gregorian plainchant of the Medieval age) to multiples lines which could be sung or played simultaneously, and fit together smoothly to make a harmonious whole. But in 1602 an Italian composer called Giulio Caccini published a collection of songs called ‘Le nuove musichi’ (New Compositions) which took a very different approach: instead of many equal voices, there would be one solo singer, with an instrumental accompaniment. The emphasis would now be on the words, on getting the emotions of the text across through the music. From this new ‘voice + accompaniment’ texture came a new musical genre, opera. One of the first examples of opera was L’Orfeo, by Claudio Monteverdi, in 1607.
  • The new style brought with it an exhilarating sense of freedom, as the vocal line was no longer required to blend in, but rather was expected to stand out. As this aesthetic moved across into instrumental music, it produced another new musical genre: the concerto. There were two types of these which flourished during the Baroque era. The first of these, championed especially by Arcangelo Corelli, was the concerto grosso (‘large concerto’), which featured a small group of soloists — two violins and a cello, for example — as a contrast in texture with the full orchestra.
  • The other kind of concerto was the solo concerto, which gave the limelight to just one instrument (most commonly a violin, but there are concertos for all manner of soloist — the oboe concertos by Alessandro Marcello and Tomaso Albinoni are especially beautiful). One of the most important composers in the early development of the solo concerto was Antonio Vivaldi, who wrote more than 500 of them, for a wide range of solo instruments — mostly to be played by the highly talented girls at the Venetian orphanage where he was the director of music. As the Baroque era moved towards the Classical in the mid-18th century, it was the solo concerto, with its opportunities for virtuoso display and for song-like eloquence, which took over from the concerto grosso as the favoured form.
  • The word ‘Baroque’ wasn’t used until towards the end of the Baroque period, and at first it was intended as an insult! It comes from the Portuguese word barroco, which meant a misshapen pearl, and it was initially used to criticise this ‘modern’ music for its shameless use of new and strange effects in order to express moods and emotions.