The Baroque Era

When you think of the baroque era (c. 1600–1750), several composers come to mind: Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Domenico Scarlatti. However, virtually all music scholars would agree that J.S. Bach stands alone as the most important voice of this era. A prodigious talent, Bach brought depth, nuance, and detail to several musical forms including cantatas, motets, passions and oratorios, toccatas, and fugues. Bach's legacy is immeasurable. Without a doubt, he helped to define our modern sense of harmony and harmonic function.

While polyphony was explored meticulously in the Renaissance, tonal (harmonic) functions didn't fall into place until the baroque era. Tonal functions emphasized cadences. Cadences “magnetize” the music, if you will, so that notes, now understood as chord progressions, become attracted to a tonal center or key. Bach and others commonly used authentic, plagal, and deceptive cadences in their music to highlight the key. (You will learn about cadences in Chapter 6.)

FIGURE 2-1: Baroque ornaments

Music with a tonal function always contains a key. The piece may weave and wind its way through a maze of complex diversions and digressions, but the underlying chords always maintain a connection to one another. Moreover, they ultimately seek to elucidate the key. In nonmusical terms, the key could be called “home base.”

If you listen to baroque music, you may hear melodic lines wandering independently (often in contrary motion). However, every note—except for select ornaments, passing tones, and scalar runs—serves to illuminate the harmonic structure of the piece. If you've never studied eighteenth century music, your ear may not be able to discern between ornaments and chord tones (see Chapter 8). But if you know what to listen for, you will learn to differentiate between the two.

Figure 2-1 shows some typical ornaments found in baroque music. Only the appoggiatura has a harmonic function since it creates a suspension (see Chapter 6). Notice that the appoggiatura contains two notes that sound like successive quarter notes; the acciaccatura sounds more like successive thirty-second notes. Percussionists call this a flam. Note: if you're new to notation, you may want to bone up on “the basics” in Chapter 4 before studying Figure 2-1.

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