An Italian term that means “for or of the chapel.” When used in the baroque period it referred to music written “in church style,” usually quite serious and contrapuntal (see Counterpoint). By the end of the 18th century it came to denote music for voices without instrumental accompaniment, whether sacred or secular, and the term is still used in this way today in both classical and popular music.
Some of the terms used by composers to give a sense of the speed (tempo) and character of the music, all derived from everyday Italian words. Adagio (at ease) and Largo indicate a slow tempo; Andante (from andare—to go) somewhat more moving, often thought of as a walking pace; Allegro (meaning cheerful) is a fast tempo; Vivace is spirited or lively; Presto is very fast.
Derived from the Portuguese “barroco,” meaning a pearl of irregular shape. In the 18th century it was used to describe art or music of a bizarre, irregular, and extravagant nature. Only in the 20th century was it adopted to describe the historical period in music from approximately 1600–1750.
A dance movement in duple time that is described as quick, light, happy, and carefree.
For example, Handel Bourrées from Agrippina
Refers to a compositional technique in which two or more people sing or play the same music but start at different times. In extreme examples, the canon lasts for the entire piece. A famous example is Pachelbel’s Canon, in which three violinists play exactly the same music from beginning to end, but with a staggered start. If they all began together, you’d have a single melody played by all three in unison. Composers sometimes turned the canons into a sort of puzzle, with one part sung or played upside down (inverted), backwards (retrograde), or at a different pitch.
From the Italian “cantare” (to sing)—a work for one or more voices with instrumental accompaniment, with a secular or sacred text.
A piece in triple time written over a repeating bass line, some quite lively, and some quite rich and expansive.
Lully Chaconne from Phaëton
A Lutheran hymn. Chorale tunes are often woven into German works for choir or organ.
From the Italian “concertare” (to get together, agree), this was originally a general term for music written for an ensemble of instrumentalists and/or singers. In the late baroque era, it usually referred to a work for one or more solo instruments and orchestra.
Vivaldi Bassoon Concerto in D Minor: Allegro (Dominic Teresi)
Literally means “big concerto.” Refers to an orchestral work in which a small group of instrumentalists (called the “concertino” or “small concerto”) plays in dialogue with the full orchestra (called the “ripieno,” the Italian word for stuffing or filling).
Handel Concerto grosso op. 6 no. 1: Allegro
Refers not to a specific instrument, but rather to a role played by one or more musicians—specifically the role of playing the bass line in baroque music. The continuo part can be played by a cellist, gambist, bassoonist, double bassist, harpsichordist, organist, lutenist, guitarist, or harpist, or any combination of these. The keyboard and plucked instrument players fill out the harmony by adding chords over the bass line, in much the same way a guitarist plays chords in folk or pop music. The chords are indicated by a system of numbers and symbols called “figured bass.” The presence of the continuo in chamber, orchestral, and choral music is a defining feature of baroque music—its use quickly faded in the classical era that followed.
Classical music written in several parts has two fundamental aspects: harmony and counterpoint. They can be conceived as vertical (harmony) and horizontal (counterpoint). Harmony offers the basic pillars of sound: chords, for example, with several notes played simultaneously. Counterpoint involves two or more independent musical lines: they interact with each other, even creating harmony, but their real purpose is to maintain individual melodic lines. Sometimes the counterpoint is imitative, as in the canon or fugue. Sometimes it’s quite free. The composer’s challenge is to write counterpoint in which the separate voices maintain their individuality, but work well together. The listener’s challenge is to try to hear the independent parts while still hearing the whole piece—akin to appreciating both the trees and the forest. Bach was the ultimate master of counterpoint.
A form in which the composer explores one or more themes in counterpoint (see Counterpoint), following certain rules.
The spontaneous creation of music as it is being performed. Improvisation was expected of all musicians in the baroque: from creating preludes to set the key and mood for a solo piece, to decorating melodies with often quite lavish ornamentation. Keyboard players improvised the chords when playing continuo, and were trained to improvise fugues (both Bach and Mozart were famous for their ability to do this). It is one of the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of performing music of the 17th and 18th centuries.
A very common movement in dance suites, and also appears in sonatas and concertos. It’s in duple time, and perhaps because it was so common, is described variously as “gracious” or “joyful,” and as fast or slow.
Bach Gavottes from Orchestral Suite no. 3
A lively dance movement, often at or near the end of a suite, often quite athletic.
Listed together with a note name to describe the “key” of the piece: Sonata in D Minor means that the home key is D. Major and minor are often contrasting in character: in its simplest characterization, major is for happy pieces, and minor for sad, but there are endless variations. Whether a piece is in major of minor is dictated by the third note of the scale, the “mi” of “do-re-mi.” The familiar nursery tune Frère Jacques starts with “do-re-mi” in major. Gustav Mahler famously uses the tune of Frère Jacques in his First Symphony (1888), but changes it to minor, with the “mi” a half-step lower.
Sung masses have been heard in Catholic churches for centuries. Most baroque mass settings, sung in Latin, divide the text into separate movements, set as solo arias, duets and choruses.
The term used for a sacred work with a Latin text, for solo voice(s) or choir, with or without instruments.
One of the most popular of baroque dances, common not only in suites but also in concertos, symphonies, etc. The writer Quantz says that it is to be played “nimbly … in such a fashion that it almost carries or lifts the dancer up.” It moves in groups of three (triple time), so has a bit of a lilt. It is the precursor of the waltz.
Handel Menuet from Alcina
A staged story set to music, baroque opera combines drama, dance, and music in a grand spectacle. Opera had its origins around 1600 in Italy, and quickly became one of the most popular forms of music throughout Europe, both at courts and in public theatres.
Basically an opera without action, scenery, or costumes. Oratorio was developed to replace opera during Lent, when the theatres were closed but audiences were still hungry for entertainment. In keeping with the Lenten season, the oratorio texts are often drawn from biblical stories, especially those of the Old Testament.
Notes added to the music for the purpose of elaboration or decoration. They can add grace or energy, depending on their character. Composers indicate some ornaments with signs in the score. Additional ornaments are added at the discretion of the performer.
From the French “ouverture,” meaning opening. An introductory instrumental piece at the beginning of an opera, oratorio, or orchestral suite. A grand opening is followed by an energetic section with a lively dialogue between the instruments.
Handel Overture from Music for the Royal Fireworks
Similar to the chaconne, it is a movement in triple time written over a repeating bass line. It is usually slower than a Chaconne, and often in a minor key. French operas usually ended with an extended Chaconne or Passacaille, often with singers and chorus joining the dancers on stage.
A quick minuet, often playful in character.
Handel Passepied from Il Pastor Fido
The story of Christ’s death as told by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This was often set to music for performance during Holy Week. Bach’s Passions are the most well-known examples.
Instrumental music that attempts to express specific non-musical images. This can be a simple imitation of a sound, or musical representations of events, pictures, or ideas. The most famous baroque example is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which includes imitations of birdsong, storms, insects, barking dogs, teeth chattering in the cold, etc.
The building blocks of cantatas, operas, and oratorios. The narrative of the story is generally told in the recitatives: the singer delivers the text in speech rhythms over a very simple bass line—often just short notes to keep the singer on pitch and offer emphasis. An aria follows, in which the singer uses their art to express the emotion aroused by the narrative, be it love, jealousy, etc. Occasionally the composer adds other instruments to the recitative in a hybrid form called accompagnato.
One of the dances common to the baroque suite. It is often the most expressive movement of the suite, contemplative and tender. The English writer James Talbot, writing c.1690, described the sarabande as “a soft, passionate movement, always set in a slow triple.”
Handel Sarabande from Water Music
From the Italian “sonare” (to sound, or to play an instrument), the instrumental cousin of cantata, from “cantare” (to sing). Sonata was the title given to instrumental pieces for a soloist or a small group of players. Early sonatas often had contrasting sections, and by the 18th century most sonatas were divided into three or four movements of contrasting tempos.
A generic term that was first used to describe an instrumental movement, often in an opera. By the last half of the 18th century it became the principal orchestral form. The opening movement of a symphony is generally the longest and most worked out. It’s usually followed by an expressive slow movement, then a lighter dance (often a Minuet), and a final lively movement. Joseph Haydn wrote no fewer than 104 symphonies, though Mozart’s 41 and Beethoven’s mere 9 are more familiar today. Tafelmusik has recorded 21 of Haydn’s symphonies, only 2 of Mozart’s, and all 9 of Beethoven’s.
Refers to a piece of chamber music scored for two instruments and continuo. “Trio” refers to the number of lines of music in the score, rather than the number of players, since the number of people playing the continuo line can vary. A common continuo scoring for late baroque sonatas is cello and harpsichord. In such cases the “trio” sonata is played by four musicians, in essence a quartet, but as the cellist and harpsichord are playing the same part, the trio designation remains.
A series of movements inspired by the dance. Originally extracted from operas and including a sequence of movements that would be been danced in the theatre, they came to be composed independently of the stage and the dance, for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, or orchestras. Orchestral suites usually begin with a grand overture, often of considerable length. More intimate solo suites often open with an Allemande, a rather slow piece which the 18th-century writer Mattheson describes as “delighting in order and calm.” Orchestral suites often include “character pieces”: movements other than dances with titles that suggest a certain character or evoke an image or story. Tafelmusik’s recording of Telemann Suites includes one which depicts the ups and downs of trading on the stock market (La Bourse), another depicting the adventures of Don Quixote, and a third depicting life on the Alster River in Hamburg, replete with frogs, crows, and swans.