Baroque 101 and Tafelmusik
Baroque is the word we use nowadays to describe music that was composed between about 1600 and 1750. Some of the more famous composers include Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel. Baroque music is the core of Tafelmusik’s repertoire, but we also perform classical and early romantic music (written between about 1750 and 1820).
Literally “table music” from the German, meaning music written for feasts or entertainments, Tafelmusik was the name given to several collections of music published in the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous is a 3-volume collection by Telemann that included orchestral suites, concertos, and chamber music for winds and strings. Tafelmusik founders Kenneth Solway and Susan Graves decided it was an apt for Toronto’s new baroque orchestra in 1979, and over the years we have performed all the music in Telemann’s collection.
Tafelmusik is a chamber-sized orchestra, which means you’ll usually see 15 to 20 musicians on stage, although this number may vary. For baroque orchestral programs, we are directed by one of the players, often the first violinist. For programs with our choir, and for larger classical and romantic programs, we usually work with a conductor. We perform in a style and on instruments that would have been familiar to the composers and original audiences. The orchestra members all play on period instruments: either original instruments or carefully constructed reproductions. The Tafelmusik experience is often described as being more intimate than that with a regular symphony orchestra.
As technologies progressed through the centuries, and performance venues increased in size, musical instruments developed to be more versatile, project more sound, to be able to play a greater number of notes, and to suit musical tastes of the day. Tafelmusik’s musicians aim to understand the qualities and context of an earlier age in the art of music performance, and part of this involves playing original instruments or reproductions—the instruments for which the music was written.
Baroque wind and string instruments have a more flexible, mellow sound, with a wider range of overtones that allows them to blend well. A defining characteristic of a baroque orchestra is the presence of at least one instrument playing chords to energize and fill out the sound: a harpsichord, organ, or lute.
Learn more about these instruments below.
Each season we aim to perform works by a variety of composers who wrote at different times and in different places, and including chamber as well as orchestral music. Several concerts feature the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and an array of vocal soloists, including our annual performances of Handel’s Messiah. Bach, Vivaldi, and Rameau are amongst our favourites, and we love to introduce audiences to composers they may not know. Each year we perform one or two classical programs featuring Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and others, and occasionally reach into the early romantic period (this season with Mendelssohn and Farrenc). Newly commissioned works are sometimes included in our programming too, giving us a diverse and broad programming outlook.
Our home venue is Trinity-St Paul’s Church on Bloor St West in Toronto. This has been the base of Tafelmusik for over 40 years, and Jeanne Lamon Hall was refurbished into a wonderful concert space about a decade ago and dedicated to our former music director. We also perform at other venues around Toronto, including Koerner Hall, Massey Hall, and Meridian Arts Centre. Tafelmusik has performed in over 350 cities in 32 countries, so you may also catch us on tour!
Learn about our upcoming regular season concerts here.
The members of Tafelmusik perform in a style and on instruments that would have been familiar to the composers and original audiences of the music we perform. The goal of “period performance” or “historically informed performance” is not to reproduce performances of the past, but rather to gain as deep an understanding as possible of the music and its origins, and to meld that with our own experiences and personal expression. We try to determine what inspired and informed the composer, the implications of the notation, the instruments for which it was written, where and for whom it was played, and the culture and societies in which the composers and their music lived and breathed. Like our daily practising, it is an exploration that never ends. Below are some of the elements that inform our endeavours.
The score of the music is the direct connection to the composer. For music written before the end of the 19th century, before the age of recording, it is the only source. Making sure that it is as “authentic” a source as possible is vital. When we are lucky, there is an autograph score, meaning a score written out by the composer themself. We see not only what they wrote, but also how they wrote it. One can get a hint of their frame of mind by the haste or care with which the notes are set down, and the character of the pen strokes. One can find clues in scribblings in the margins, or sense their frustration in a page covered with strike-outs and corrections. A particularly intimate example is the title page of Part II of Bach’s autograph score of the St Matthew Passion, on which is a rosy stain from a glass, presumably a glass of wine that fortified him as he sat at his desk.
If an autograph score hasn’t survived, we look to manuscript copies by other musicians, the most common way to share music before the age of photocopiers and scans. Some music was published, especially valuable if the composer was involved in the publication (for example, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which he arranged to have engraved). Published scores have the great advantage of being more legible than many of the manuscripts!
Some of the music we play has been published in new editions, and we are grateful for the expertise of scholars in preparing these publications. Doing the work ourselves, when it’s possible and within our reach, is gratifying and informative, and we create our own editions whenever possible.
Treatises, or method books, are next in line in terms of a direct link to the musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries. Thankfully, numerous musicians took the time to try to describe in words aspects of technique, notation, expression, pedagogy, and practical aspects of performance. We have fulsome treatises from some of the composers whose music we perform (e.g. Couperin, Rameau, Geminiani, Quantz, CPE Bach, etc.), which is akin to having lessons with them as we prepare the music. They answer so many of the questions we have in our minds — and of course leave us a list of questions which remain unanswered, as is true of all good teachers!
The third direct connection to the music we perform is the instrument for which it was written. This is especially true for music of the 17th and 18th centuries, as the composers were performers. Their connection with the instruments was intrinsic and practical. To understand what is implied in the scores and treatises, one necessarily has to understand the instruments they had in their hands and in their ears. Playing on a period instrument unlocks many keys to understanding the composers’ intents.
Many old instruments still exist in museums and in private collections. Some are in original condition and can be studied by historians, restorers, instrument builders, and players. Most of the string players in Tafelmusik own original instruments, carefully restored as needed. The others use fine modern reproductions. Where few original instruments survive in playable condition, as in the case of wind, brass and keyboard instruments, players turn to skilled builders who specialize in making instruments based on historical models.
See below for detailed descriptions of baroque instruments.
When introducing period instruments, one invariably begins the discussion with a comparison of the instrument to its modern counterpart. A discussion of the “baroque voice” has to be approached quite differently, for in this case we are not dealing with two different instruments or even an instrument which has undergone changes in construction. Nonetheless, over the past few decades many singers have explored and even specialized in baroque vocal technique and style. Some of the elements they have adopted, gleaned from treatises and the music itself, include:
- clarity, purity and transparency of sound;
- relaxed tone production;
- vibrato as an expressive device;
- pure, harmonic intonation;
- details of articulation and nuance within phrases.
Baroque music demands a well-controlled, flexible technique, with agile coloratura and supple ornaments. As in all vocal music, the singer must be fully aware of the text, especially when performing recitative, when cantabile singing gives way to a parlando, or speaking, style.
The period from 1600–1750 saw an increase in travel within Europe. For musicians, it was a time of increased awareness of national styles in composition, performance, and instrument building. Style was influenced by tradition, social context and function, and language. Some musicians travelled extensively, incorporating elements of different styles into their own music. Handel, for example, was born in Germany, studied in Italy, and finally made his home in England, and his music is a synthesis of all three styles. Bach, on the other hand, spent his entire life in a small area of northern Germany. He nonetheless undertook careful study of music from other regions and countries and was fully aware of the currents of musical taste throughout Europe. Other musicians were content to devote their careers as composers and performers exclusively to the music of their own time and place, deepening their understanding of their native musical language.
In baroque France the preeminent entertainment was opera, an elaborate spectacle of music, dance, and visual splendour. Jean-Baptiste Lully, director of music at the court of Louis XIV, developed a style of writing for the voice that was ideally suited to the expression of the French language, less virtuosic than Italian opera, but very graceful and expressive. The French orchestra’s primary function was to accompany the dance, and they were renowned for their high standard of rhythmic precision and discipline, described as “lively playing with an extraordinary delicate beauty.”
The French style was also renowned for its abundant use of detailed ornaments to elaborate the melodic line. Detailed charts were published of the signs used to indicate the agréments (ornaments) required to play in a refined manner.
There is a rich solo and chamber repertoire for both voice and instruments. Among the favoured instruments were the viola da gamba, flute, violin, harpsichord, and theorbo. The music is sensuous, written “to tickle the ear and court the fancy.”
Italy was the source of much innovation and inspiration during the baroque. It was the birthplace of opera, as well as the cantata and oratorio. Then, as now in Italy, vocal music was revered. Yet Italy was also the birthplace of the concerto and the sonata, and as the first country to give orchestras in general, and violinists in particular, star status.
The Italian style emphasizes contrast in many respects: contrasts between forte (loud) and piano (soft); between large and small groups of instruments (the concerto grosso); and between slow and fast sections in a given piece.
Overall, the distinctive quality in Italian music is fluidity of line and melody supported by a strong harmonic foundation (Italy was also the birthplace of the basso continuo). The great Italian singers and violinists were renowned for their virtuosity, passion, expressive style, and flair for ornamentation and improvisation.
The importance of sacred music, in both Catholic and Lutheran Germany, provided for the continuation of very old forms, such as the motet, Passion, and Mass, as well as the development of the sacred cantata. The use in the Lutheran church of hymn tunes (chorales) is notable in the works of Bach and his predecessors.
German style is also marked by the synthesis of foreign ideas: Italian virtuosity, melodic expressiveness, and contrast were melded with French dance style to generate a uniquely German body of works.
The organ was the most revered instrument in Germany, and J.S. Bach one of its most renowned players.
England was slow to adopt the new styles and instruments of the baroque. In the early 17th century, the English continued to develop renaissance forms: madrigals, lute songs, instrumental music for consorts of recorders and viols, and fantasias for solo keyboard and lute.
Only after the Restoration in 1666 did English composers embrace the “modern” practices of Italy and France. Charles II sent musicians to Europe to study: they returned with scores for Italian sonatas, and instruments and dances from the French opera orchestra. Henry Purcell was able to introduce aspects of the new European styles in his quintessentially English music. His setting of English texts remains unsurpassed in subtlety and mastery.
By the early 18th century, London was a cosmopolitan city with a lively, rich, and varied musical scene. The popular music was a glorious mix of international styles, and the preeminent composer was the German-born, Italian-trained George Frideric Handel.
Much of the baroque repertoire we play has its roots in Italy, Germany (including present-day Austria), France, and England. We occasionally venture to Iberia, in part because the Italians Domenico Scarlatti and Luigi Boccherini spent much of the working lives there. And we perform music by eastern European composers, but often because the musicians worked in one or more of the “big four”: for example, the Bohemian composer, Jan Dismas Zelenka, worked at the court in Dresden. This centralization of the music is in part historical, but it must be acknowledged that there is more to discover. Some of that discovery is tainted by colonialism: European music was brought to the Americas and elsewhere alongside oppression. Among some of the most enriching experiences Tafelmusik has had in recent years has been sharing the stage with musicians from non-European traditions. While continuing to expand our explorations of the European music that has inspired us, it is vital to keep open minds, open hearts, and open ears to “new” old discoveries.
All baroque wind instruments are characterized by a conical bore (wider at the top than the bottom in the flute and recorder, and the opposite in the oboe and bassoon), and few if any keys (none on the recorder, 1 on the flute, 2 on the oboe, and 5 on the bassoon). This requires the player to use cross, or “forked” fingerings to play certain notes (e.g. sharps and flats), giving those notes a more veiled or less direct sound. Baroque composers often used the different tone qualities of the notes expressively within their compositions.
Baroque composers usually referred to the flute as the “flauto traverso” (transverse flute, so-called as the player held it sideways), as opposed to the “flauto,” which usually meant recorder. To create a sound on the flute, the player shapes their lips to direct the sound across an opening at the head of the instrument. Recorders are sometimes called “whistle flutes,” as a block of wood in the mouthpiece creates a confined channel, directing the air across the opening at the front of the instrument. In short, anyone can immediately produce a sound (pleasant or otherwise!) by blowing into a recorder, but to create a sound on a flute requires some guidance and practice. Some have experienced this when trying to produce a sound by blowing over the top of a beer bottle.
Simple wooden flutes had been used around the globe for several centuries, but the one-keyed baroque flute was developed in France for use in the court orchestra of Louis XIV. It was made of wood or ivory; the modern instrument is most commonly made of silver, resulting in a very different sound.
Like the flute, recorders or recorder-like instruments have been played for centuries. During the renaissance and baroque periods, recorders came in many sizes and were often made in sets called consorts. The solo recorder of choice for baroque composers was the alto or treble size: there was a large repertoire of highly virtuosic music written for this instrument. Like its flute cousin, recorders were fashioned out of wood and ivory by famous families of makers.
Enjoy our Montreal colleagues Arion Baroque Orchestra playing the final movement of Telemann’s Concerto for flute and recorder in E Minor (Claire Guimond, flute / Vincent Lauzer, recorder).
For more information, read Alison Melville’s article on baroque recorders here.
The baroque oboe and bassoon were developed in France for use in the court orchestra of Louis XIV. Their sound is created through a double reed: two pieces of cane tied together that vibrate when air passes through (the same effect as the age-old trick of blowing through two blades of grass held between your thumbs). Both have a larger bore and smaller tone holes than their modern counterparts, requiring a considerably larger, more freely vibrating reed. These features give the instruments more flexibility of articulation as well as a softer, less concentrated sound, making them ideal for blending with the string instruments with which they so often play in baroque orchestras.
Baroque bassoon front
Baroque bassoon detail
Baroque bassoon back
The oboe d’amore is pitched a third lower than the oboe (in A rather than C), and the oboe da caccia is pitched a fifth lower (in F). To create the lower sound, both instruments are longer than the oboe. The oboe d’amore has a distinctive bulb-shaped bell at the end, similar to that of the modern English horn. The oboe da caccia has a distinctive 90-degree degree curve, is covered with leather, and is fitted with a brass bell (hence the name “da caccia,” meaning for the hunt, and referring to the hunting horn). The deep, round sound of the oboe d’amore and mellow, burnished tone of the oboe da caccia particularly inspired J.S. Bach, who wrote extensively for the instruments.
Oboe de caccia
Brass instruments are essentially long, hollow tubes with a gradually increasing diameter, with a bell added at the end to amplify the sound. A mouthpiece is inserted at the small end, and the player purses their lips, places them against the mouthpiece, and blows through with a “buzz” to create a sound. Different notes are produced by varying the speed of the air sent through the lips and the tension in the embouchure. This allows the player to produce only a limited series of notes, and in order to play in different keys on a baroque or “natural” horn or trumpet, they must change the length of the tubing by adding or removing crooks (lengths of tubing) between the mouthpiece and the main body. On modern horns and trumpets, this is accomplished with a system of valves or pistons,
Types of brass instruments have been in use for centuries. The horn has long been associated with the hunt, and the trumpet with the military, and both were eventually “domesticated” and introduced into court and theatre orchestras. Both instruments are capable of great dynamic contrast, ranging from a pure sweet sound to dramatic “brassy” flourishes. Both horns and trumpets are used to great effect in Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.
Timpani were traditionally closely associated with brass instruments because of their history as military and civic drums. Indeed, they were often regarded as bass trumpets, and many 18th-century timpani contained metal funnels in the shape of trumpet bells, fixed with the small end around the air hole at the base of the drum and projecting up into kettle. The timpanist commonly used a wide variety of articulation, often imitating the tonguing techniques of trumpeter.
The timpani used in baroque and classical orchestras were quite small and shallow, usually resting on trestles. Copper was the favoured material for the kettles and the heads were made of calf hide. The sticks were made of wood or ivory and were used with a very clear attack. Modern timpani have foot pedals to facilitate rapid tuning. Baroque timpanists use a small wrench to turn a series of screw lugs around the drumhead to tune their instruments by tightening or loosening the tension on the head.
The basic structure and shape of violin family of string instruments has remained unchanged since the beginning of the 17th century. Among the most prized instruments today, in fact, are instruments built during the baroque era by makers such as Amati and Stradivarius. Most of these instruments have undergone modifications over the centuries, in part to produce a stronger, more penetrating sound suitable for larger halls: the design of the bridge over which the strings are stretched was altered, the bass bar (a reinforcing bar inside the body of the instrument) was enlarged, and the angle of the neck was increased, all leading to more tension on the instrument. The gut strings used on the baroque and classical instruments were eventually replaced with metal strings, or strings wound with metal. Chinrests were added to violins and violas to allow the players to shift easily into higher positions. Cellists traditionally rested the instrument on their calves, but endpins (sticks or rods extending from the bottom of the instrument to the floor) were eventually added.
- Vivaldi Concerto for strings in G Minor, RV 152:
- Bach Concerto for 2 violins: Allegro (Jeanne Lamon, Aisslinn Nosky)
- Vivaldi Concerto for 2 cellos: Allegro (Keiran Campbell, Felix Deak)
Baroque string instruments produce a resonant and sweet tone, less direct but rich in overtones and very flexible. Many instruments built in the 17th and 18th centuries have now been restored to their original condition for use by players of period instruments. Other players choose to play on new reproductions.
The violin is the smallest and therefore highest instrument of the family. It came to prominence as a solo instrument at the beginning of the 17th century, with an extensive and varied repertoire.
The viola is the alto or tenor member of the family, tuned a fifth lower than the viola. It existed in many different sizes in the baroque period, from instruments which were almost as small as a violin, to instruments so large that they would seem almost unplayable to a modern violist. Orchestral music at Louis XIV’s court included three viola parts, called haute-contre, taille, and quinte, played on instruments ranging in size from smallest to largest. By the early 18th century, most orchestral music had only one viola part, though the French continued to favour the rich sound of divided violas in the opera.
The violoncello sounds an octave lower than the viola and is an essential member of the continuo section of the baroque orchestra. It gradually became popular as a solo instrument, both in sonatas and concertos. Among the favourite repertoire of all cellists are the six solo suites by J.S. Bach.
The double bass was introduced to the baroque orchestra to reinforce the bottom line of the musical score. During the baroque era there was no standardization of shape, size, or tuning of these bass string instruments. Terminology was highly variable, but today we often make a distinction between two types: the violone and the double bass (or contrabass).
The violone is the largest member of the viola da gamba family, and like its smaller siblings it has frets and as many as six strings, and a light, clear sound. Used in various tunings, it could be played in the same range as the cello, or an octave lower.
The double bass is the largest member of the violin family, pitched to play an octave lower than the cello and other continuo players, and adding depth and vigour to the orchestra. Although heard in Italy throughout the 17th century, its first use in the Paris opera orchestra, to add drama to a storm scene, caused quite a stir.
Baroque double bass
The viola da gamba (literally the “leg viola,” as it was held between or on the legs, as opposed to the viola da braccio, or “arm viola”), appeared in Europe at the end of the 15th century. In renaissance music it was particularly popular as a consort instrument: ensembles of different-sized viols playing all the parts. By the 18th century, the bass viol or basse de viole became a favoured solo instrument in Germany, England, and especially in France.
The viol is lightly constructed, the belly gently arched and the back flat, sloping at the top to meet the neck. The neck is fretted (like a lute or guitar), and the instrument has six or seven strings. The bow is held in an underhand grip, unlike the usual overhand grip of the violin and cello. The player’s middle finger rests on the hair, so can adjust the pressure while playing. The sound of the instrument is intimate and expressive. The frets and number of strings make it more suited to playing chords (several notes at once) than its violin family cousins, and the solo repertoire often takes advantage of that. These qualities led to a rich and varied solo repertoire, particularly in France. It was also prized as a continuo instrument in chamber ensembles.
As the cello rose to prominence and concert life moved from the court to the public stage, the viola da gamba fell into disuse.
Viol made by Richard Meare in 1680 (Metropolitan Museum)
No string instrument is complete without a bow, and the use of a baroque bow affects the sound of a string instrument almost as much as the instrument itself. Baroque and classical bows varied throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, both nationally and in every decade. The sticks were much lighter and shorter than modern bows. The point of balance was nearer to the frog (the end which the player holds), since the head tapered to a point and was therefore lighter. The result was a distinction between the up and down bow strokes, which helped to express essential stylistic features of the music itself: a subtle hierarchy of stress within the phrase, and a natural articulation that Mozart’s father Leopold called “a small, even if barely audible softness at the beginning of each stroke.”
Violin bows (bottom to top): 1. early baroque bow / 2. late baroque bow / 3. classical bow / 4. modern bow
The principal keyboard instruments of the baroque era, the harpsichord and organ, both enjoyed a vast quantity of solo repertoire, but were also at the core of the continuo section of ensembles both large and small, including in orchestras at court, in the church, and in the theatre.
The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument in which thin metal strings are set into vibration by the plucking action of a small piece of quill, called a plectrum. The plectrum, carved from a primary feather of a large bird (Canada Goose works well!), is fit into a hinged tongue on the end of a “jack,” a small piece of wood roughly the size and shape of a popsicle stick. The jack sits on the end of the key: when the key is depressed the jack is raised and the quill plucks the string. When the key is released, gravity sends the jack back down, and the hinged tongue allows the quill to pass back over the string without re-plucking it. A small square of felt fitted on to the end of the jack stops the vibration of the string.
Harpsichords varied in size and shape from small rectangular or hexagonal instruments with one keyboard, often called “virginals” of “spinets,” to large instruments with two keyboards and 3 or 4 sets of strings, and an overall shape akin to the grand piano. Obvious gradations of loudness and softness are not possible on individual notes of the harpsichord: unlike the piano, it produces the same volume whether the key is pressed lightly or strongly. Contrast can be obtained from one piece to another on large instruments by activating extra sets of strings.
The harpsichord was a mainstay of the baroque orchestra, adding clarity to the bass line and rhythmic energy to the performance. Musically and socially the harpsichord also served the roles later served by piano: a respected solo instrument, it was also the instrument owned by any well-to-do households, and the instrument on which many children received their first musical instruction.
The organ is a keyboard instrument that consists of a series of pipes standing on a wind chest. The wind chest is fitted with valves connected to the keys, such that when the key is pressed the valve is opened and wind passes through the pipe to make a sound. To maintain pitch, a constant wind pressure must be supplied to the chest. In the baroque era, this was accomplished through hand-operated bellows. On church organs the operation of the bellows was often the responsibility of choir boys. Today, baroque organs have been refitted with electric blowers.
The simplest organs have one set of pipes where each pipe corresponds to one key on the keyboard. Most organs have several sets of pipes, known as stops, made in different styles and of different materials to allow the performer to create a variety of tone colours. Large baroque church organs had dozens of stops, several keyboards, and a pedalboard—essentially a keyboard for the feet. In continuo playing, small portable organs are often used, with only a few sets of pipes and no pedalboard. Tafelmusik’s organ has 3 sets of pipes, 2 made of wood, and a higher set of pipes made of metal. Some of the metal pipes are visible along the front of the instrument; the rest are tucked into the case of the organ.
Plucked instruments in the 17th and 18th century came in a wealth of shapes and sizes. They were used extensively in chamber and orchestral settings, playing continuo alongside or in place of the keyboards.
They can be divided into two basic types: the round-backed lute, and the guitar. At the dawn of the baroque era, the smaller renaissance lutes were expanded to add bass strings, allowing the lute to enter the “continuo era.” The theorbo and archlute are large lutes fitted with an extended neck that holds an extra row of long bass strings. These run alongside the fingerboard, and are plucked with the right hand thumb, allowing the player to play bass lines while plucking chords on the strings that lie over the fretted fingerboard. A rich solo repertoire appeared for both the theorbo and archlute. The distinction between the two instruments lies largely in their tuning, and continuo players choose which to use according to historical aptness, and the key, range, and style of the music.
The guitar is long associated with Spain, but a great deal of its evolution took place in Italy. It enjoyed a rise in status when it became a favoured instrument of Louis XIV of France as well as Charles II of England. The instructor of these two monarchs, the Bolognese guitarist Francesco Corbetta, published two volumes of guitar music entitled La Guitarre Royale, one dedicated to each king. In these books, Corbetta brought French dance music to life on the guitar in an astounding way by fusing plucking and strumming techniques together into one mesmerizing texture. The guitar brings great energy to the continuo section in dances and lively movements.
Archlute made by David Tecchler, c.1725 (Metropolitan Museum)
Baroque guitar attributed to Jean-Baptiste Voboam, 1697 (Metropolitan Museum)
Theorbo made by Wendelio Venere, 1606 (Philharmonie de Paris Musée de la Musique)