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Celebrating Liturgica Music

Baroque Sacred Music

The Baroque Era extending roughly from 1600 to 1750 refers to the styles used in music, visual arts and literature. The designation "Baroque" is perhaps from a Portuguese word referring to a string of irregularly shaped pearls, appropriate since all the arts of this period display an exuberant ornamental character. The profound political and social changes that succeeded the Renaissance Era led to the creation of quite different styles in the arts, particularly in music.

While the center of musical composition during the Renaissance was decidedly for the Church, in the Baroque Era composers provided music for royal and ducal courts, and even civic functions in increasing amounts rivaling ecclesiastical composition. The modern idea of music performed in concert for a paying audience also originated in the Baroque period, but this was a very late development.

The musical texture of Baroque compositions was a logical outgrowth of the earlier Renaissance polyphonic style, but with significant changes evident from the very beginning of the period. While Renaissance polyphonic texture consists of several equal voices sharing a very similar movement, in Baroque polyphony the various voices take on specific functions and display different characteristics. The top voice in the texture stands apart as the primary melody, often with florid ornamentation. The lowest voice in contrast moves somewhat more simply, generally in contrary motion to the top melodic voice. The middle voices between the melody and bass move even more simply and function merely to fill out the harmonic structure.

This change in polyphonic texture reflected the different ways Renaissance and Baroque composers heard and understood the vertical sonorities or harmony. Renaissance harmony was really a byproduct of the complex voice leading rules developed by the Roman school of composers, while the Baroque composers attended to the progressions of chords formed by the voices over the bass line. This new perspective led to the idea of functional harmony comprising a primary element in subsequent western music, even including modern popular tunes. As a result, dissonant harmonies were treated differently in contrast to the Renaissance era where they were carefully prepared and resolved according to contrapuntal rules. In the Baroque era dissonance was often used as a harmonic color to express emotions and amplify the meaning of a sung text.

This use of dissonance illustrates another shift in artistic expression. Renaissance music exhibits a serene, almost detached emotional effect, while Baroque composers tried to express an entire palette of emotions. Melody, harmony and even instrumentation were used to convey the emotional or "affectional" content of the text.

During the Renaissance instruments were used to double or sometimes replace sung melodic lines even though composers made no specification for this. Some Renaissance pieces are clearly instrumental, but might have been performed by a consort of string or wind instruments, or even a single keyboard instrument at the discretion of the performer. In contrast, Baroque composers often specified exactly which instruments were to be used in a composition and began writing in styles idiomatic to particular instruments.

The new Baroque style of composition was often used in forms inherited from the Renaissance, for instance the Mass and Motet, such as the large choral works of Giovanni Gabrieli and Orazio Benevoli. The famous setting of the Vespers service by Claudio Monteverdi uses all the early baroque compositional techniques and includes styles borrowed from the theater.

Perhaps the best example of this transition from Renaissance to Baroque is the life and work of Gregorio Allegri, who was born in 1582 and was trained as a choir singer and composer right at the end of the Renaissance period, but his published works appeared in the Baroque period, from 1618 to his death in 1652. He composed liturgical and secular, choral and instrumental music, including masses and motets as well as sinfonia and compositions for stringed instruments. Most of his published music was of the Baroque concertato style, while his liturgical work for the Sistine Chapel is descended from the Palestrina style of Renaissance liturgical composition. Certainly his most well known and celebrated composition is the "Miserere", written for two choirs, one of five and the other of four voices. One of the choirs sings a simple version of the original Miserere chant, the other choir, spatially separated, sings an ornamented "commentary" on the other choir. The "Miserere" was actually written during the Baroque period, but is representative of the Roman School of composers in the Renaissance period who were stylistically conservative.

The secular opera also developed during this period and its recitative and aria forms can be found in church compositions. Operatic arias, recitatives and choruses were used in a new compositional form, the Cantata used in Lutheran worship. The famous Bach cantatas show a masterful use of all these forms. The Oratorio, a large musical form using sacred texts but not used liturgically, also makes use of these theatrical styles. HŠndel's "Messiah" is perhaps the best example. The Lutheran congregation song known as the "Choral" was the basis of many baroque compositions, sometimes set for choir, soloist, or the purely instrumental organ chorals and partitas.

The traditional Gregorian chants were still sung alongside pieces composed in the new Baroque style in Catholic churches. Gregorian melodies are occasionally evident in Chorals and in the Psalmody of Lutheran worship. An interesting form of Baroque organ composition arose where the organ played as a replacement for the second choir in antiphnonal chants. Notable examples of this are the two great organ Masses of Franois Couperin and the Magnificat Fugues of Johann Pachelbel.


Joseph Metzinger

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