Baroque Forms – Part 2

For the second part of this exercise, I have chosen five Baroque forms to listen to.

1. Chaconne

Reputedly originating from Latin America, the Chaconne first appeared in Europe in Spain and Italy in the form of a triple metre dance, written as a series of harmony notations for guitar. The performers (both vocalists and instrumentalists) would compose melody variations on top of these harmonies, and eventually the music began to be fully notated. Interestingly when the Chaconne arrived in France, it was slower and more stately; the kind of transformation I have been reading about in the context of modern performance practice. Well known composers who wrote Chaconnes include Monteverdi, Lully, Rameau, Bach, Purcell, Handel and Couperin.

Bach: Partita no. 2 in D minor, movement 5

Written between 1717 and 1720, each movement of this partita for solo violin is a dance form. The last one, the Ciaccona, has since been transcribed for many instruments. It is thought they were likely written for Bach’s patron, the accomplished musician Prince Leopold.

Gidon Kremer | Academy of St Martin in the Fields | Universal Music B.V. 1996

Bach opens the movement with a strong statement of the harmonic progression in D minor, using double stops. The first variation introduces a dotted quaver melody as the middle line. Subsequent variations use different rhythms and convey very different moods, from quite dramatic (extremely virtuosic, fast passages) to gentle. There are also some which use chromatic elements. In the second half Bach transforms the harmonic material by changing to D major, but returns to D minor for the end and closes with a restatement of the opening.

2. Concerto Grosso

The concerto grosso involves a small group of instrumentalists (the concertino) playing against a larger group (the ripieno). This idea of contrast was a key feature of Baroque music. The composer Arcangelo Corelli, born in 1653, was one of the first to write music under this name; Bach and Handel continued the tradition. The form went out of fashion during the Classical period but has been revived in the twentieth century by many composers including Stravinsky, Glass, Bloch and Villa-Lobos.

Handel: Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 5

Handel composed his Twelve Grand Concertos’ in 1739 to be performed during the intervals of his newly composed oratorios. The oratorios marked a significant change in the composer’s style (following a period of physical and mental ill health), and so to help attract audiences he wrote these concertos which were advertised in the local newspapers before each performance.

Academy of Ancient Music | Andrew Manze | harmonia mundi usa 1998

The concertino for these concertos consists of two parts – violin I and violin II, while the ripieno is scored for strings and basso continuo. The opening of no. 5 is very grand with a distinctive repeated run of three demisemiquavers, and trills on the main beats of the bar. Often the concertino and ripieno parts for violin I are actually the same, which I didn’t expect, but Handel also indicates solo lines in places. The second Allegro part is predominantly imitative counterpoint, with an attractive repetition moving down the instruments. The Presto is also imitative, and works like a kind of conversation between the concertino and ripieno. The Largo is a complete contrast – measured and sedate, with long sustained lines (played in this performance with no vibrato, as it would have been in Handel’s time). In the next Allegro, the melody notes mostly move on crotchet beats, but are played as repeated semiquavers which give the piece a lot of energy. The final movement is written for the violins to play in unison – a stately Menuet with simple rhythms and harmonies, which I’m afraid I didn’t find a particularly inspired way to finish the concerto!

3. Canzona

This early Baroque form began life as arrangements of songs, such as French Chansons. By the late 16th century, composers were transforming them into true instrumental works for ensembles or keyboard instruments, and eventually it effectively merged into the sonata. The canzona was characterised by usually simple structures, counterpoint, and the use of sections to convey different moods and emotions.

Frescobaldi: Il Primo Libro delle Canzoni

Girolamo Frescobaldi published this set of canzoni in Rome in 1628, shortly before he moved to Florence to the court of  Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici. The composer was also an accomplished organist and skilled at counterpoint, which is evident in the toccatas and partitas he wrote for the instrument.

Il Primo Libro Delle Canzoni Vol. II | Il Viaggio Musicale | Bongiovanni 2014

There is plenty of imitative counterpoint in this selection of the composer’s canzoni, played by an ensemble of early wind and string instruments, and harpsichord continuo.  Although the performance was probably stylistically accurate, I found the thin sound of the violin quite jarring. Many typical Baroque features are present in the music, including ornamentation and use of the tierce de Picardie. Some sections sound like dances, while other more contemplative sections are rhythmically quite free and improvisatory in nature. Many of the pieces have the dual major/minor feel of the Renaissance – in general I felt that they sound like they belong to this era much more than the Baroque.

4. Oratorio

Oratorios are sacred works intended to be performed in concert, usually involving an orchestra and chorus as well as soloists. They date back to the beginning of the 17th century, with the staging of several sacred operas in Roman Catholic Italy. Sometimes they were sung in Italian (oratorio volgare) and sometimes in Latin. Subsequently oratorios became purely musical / narrative – without any acting. Oratorios spread to Germany in the late 17th century, and Handel wrote his first in 1707.

Handel: Jeptha

I have to come back to Handel for this, as he is so well known for his oratorios. I have chosen to listen to his final one, Jeptha, composed in 1751. This is based on the story of the same name in the Book of Judges, in which Jeptha leads the Israelites into battle and vows that if he is successful he will sacrifice the first person he meets – who turns out to be his daughter. Interestingly the oratorio deviates from the bible story, providing a much happier ending than the bible suggests! Its first performance was at the Royal Opera House in February 1752, and was without any scenery or costumes as the law in Britain at the time prohibited the acting of biblical stories.

English Baroque Soloists | John Eliot Gardiner | 1989 Universal International Music B.V.

This oratorio is in three Acts, and I listened to selected parts of each one. The solo storytelling parts sound very much like the Italian opera style of recitative, with sparse basso continuo (harpsichord) accompaniment. The songs are also operatic in nature, with a strong connection to the words – ‘Twill be a painful separation, Jephta…’ features a solo flute and guitar, summoning up an image of loneliness. The choruses, such as “How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees!” at the end of Act 2, tend to use imitative counterpoint. They gradually build up in intensity in a quite beautiful way, and sound particularly dramatic. I can imagine that when performed live they could be spine tingling.

5. Cantata

Originally meaning a sung piece (as opposed to the instrumental sonata), the first cantatas appeared in the 1620s. Over time they became structured into recitative and aria style sections; some were written with full orchestral accompaniment, and others with just basso continuo. From the twentieth century the term began to have a wide meaning, encompassing many choral works of different styles.

Telemann: “Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus”

Bach & Telemann: Sacred Cantatas | Philippe Jaroussky | Parlophone Records Limited 2016

The accompaniment to the first cantata consists of essentially dry, short chords in the strings and basso continuo, which is surprisingly unusual and effective. I like the way that the organ blends in with the strings, creating a different tone colour, especially when it is contrasted with the strings playing alone. Overall the cantatas have a very pure sound which appeals to me. My previous exposure to Telemann was with some very banal and boring chamber music, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite enjoyed listening to these works, although I am not a particular fan of the countertenor voice.


Understanding Baroque Forms

Here are some notes on definitions of Baroque forms I have found online (mostly using the Oxford Companion to Music):

  1. Suite
    • Instrumental work of several movements, each one usually a type of dance e.g. allemande, courante, minuet, gavotte. Each movement would be in the same key.
  2. Concerto
    • Work for soloist(s) and orchestra. Name derives from word meaning to collaborate (as well as, interestingly, to dispute!)
  3. Concerto grosso
    • Type of concerto for small group of instrumentalists (concertino) and larger orchestra (ripieno)
  4. Partita
    • Originally one of a set of variations
    • By Bach’s time, used to mean a multi-movement work similar to a suite, but with a looser form (not all dance movements)
  5. Sonata
    • Originally an instrumental piece (as opposed to ‘toccata’ for keyboard and ‘cantata’ for song)
    • sonata da chiesa was suitable for performance in a church , and a sonata da camera was usually a dance suite
    • Written for a solo or group of instruments
  6. Canzona
    • Originally arrangements of vocal works (French ‘ chansons’). Over time these became transformed into truly instrumental pieces
  7. Variations
    • Created through multiple modifications of a musical theme, involving e.g. rhythm, harmony, melody or other aspects
  8. Oratorio
    • From Latin word meaning ‘prayer’
    • Sacred work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, often based on a religious story
  9. Passion
    • A musical setting of Christ’s passion according to the four gospels (the final period of Jesus’s life leading to the crucifixion)
  10. Fugue
    • Literally, ‘flight’ or ‘escape’. A form of imitative counterpoint usually involving at least three voices.
    • The principal theme is known as the ‘subject’: this is transposed to the dominant on the second voice.
  11. Mass
    • A musical setting of the Catholic liturgy.
    • The earliest were in plainchant, becoming more polyphonic during the Renaissance
  12. Motet
    • Originally from the Latin term ‘motetus’, applied to the upper parts sung against a slower moving cantus firmus
    • Came to mean a choral setting of sacred works; voice imitation was a key feature
  13. Cantata
    • A sung work, usually with instrumental accompaniment
    • Often based around historical events, with a dramatic character
    • Both secular and sacred versions
  14. Chaconne
    • A form based on continuous variation; originated from a Latin American dance
    • Usually has a ground bass
  15. Passacaglia
    • Very similar to the Chaconne, but doesn’t always have the ostinato bass line

Early Instruments

I have picked some instruments which particularly caught my attention in the recent concert I attended by the Edinburgh Renaissance band to research in more detail.


Its name deriving from the German for ‘bent horn’, this instrument has a characteristic curved shape, though the shape does not affect the sound in any way and was most likely copied from older instruments made from animal horns. It is a reed cap instrument, similar in construction to the chanter of a bagpipe and with a similarly nasal sound. As with other woodwind instruments of the time, the pitch of the sounded note was changed by the use of finger holes along the length of the instrument. The Edinburgh Renaissance Band used it in many of the pieces they performed, including a quartet for SATB crumhorns. They have a very limited range (usually just over an octave) and so differently sized instruments were often used in consort.

It is believed the crumhorn was invented in the 15th century, and they were certainly played in Henry VIII’s court, used for entertainment and on ceremonial occasions. Their use was restricted mainly to royal courts and cathedrals however, and they were most popular in Germany and Italy.



The cornett stood out to me during the concert I went to for its trumpet like sound, although it predates brass instruments by a long time and looks like other woodwind instruments – long, thin, slightly curved and with finger holes for changing the pitch like the crumhorn. The mouthpiece is a cup shape against which the player uses lip vibrations to create the sound – the technique is the same as for playing the trumpet, but the mouthpiece is much smaller. Like the crumhorn it was made in four different sizes to achieve the desired range of pitch. The ‘serpent’ which I also saw played by the Edinburgh Renaissance Band is a descendent of the cornett, and a distant ancestor of the tuba.

Cornetts were often used as part of an instrumental consort to accompany church choirs – Bach and Telemann both used them in this context, and they were thought at the time to be the closest instrument in sound to the human voice. They was most popular between around 1500-1670, and played up until the end of the 18th century. It is apparently a particularly difficult instrument to play; there is a nice demonstration of it on YouTube.


The viola da gamba is a ‘viol for the leg’, played upright between the legs, like the modern cello. This family of stringed instruments was made in at least five different sizes, from treble to bass. As a cellist I found it interesting to watch the bass violist play: the bow is differently shaped to a modern cello bow and is held with an underhand grip, more like the double bass bow hold. The instrument also has frets, which could be moved around the neck. They generally had six strings, tuned in intervals of fourths and a major third, but some later instruments had as many as seven strings.

The viol originated in Spain in the 15th century, and became very popular throughout Europe in court settings as well as with amateurs. The strings were held under a low tension and it made a fairly quiet sound. I found a video on YouTube of the Concordia Viol Consort playing “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” by John Dowland (1563-1626), which I thought was a really beautiful performance. The frets are clearly audible which gives the instruments a slight guitar-like feel.




The Edinburgh Renaissance Band

By a stroke of luck, the Edinburgh Renaissance Band were performing as part of the Fringe Festival in August, so I hopped onto a train and braved the festival crowds for one of their concerts. It was well worth the trip.


The programme had the theme ‘Musical migrants’, and comprised music spanning the 12th – 16th centuries from Scotland, France, Germany and Italy. It was great to see some of the instruments I had read about being performed live, as well as some I had never heard of! I enjoyed the sound of the band playing all together. The instruments played included:

  • Several crumhorns (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) with their characteristic curved end and nasal sound
  • Percussion instruments including a tambourine, drums, and a pair of nakers (small, portable drums that can be attached to the waist)
  • Tuned bells
  • Shaum – large double reed instrument
  • Curtal – precursor to the bassoon
  • Sackbuts (tenor and bass) – similar to the modern trombone
  • Cornetts (one is shown being played in the centre of the photo above) – this sounds similar to a trumpet despite its different shape
  • Harp (also visible in the photo above) – much smaller than modern harps
  • Several string instruments including a fiddle, bass rebec (held between the knees), viol and bass viol
  • Various recorders
  • Portative organ – a small organ with bellows operated by the player’s left arm to supply the air
  • A ‘serpent’. Invented in 1590, it makes a powerful bass sound and looks like this:


The group played some rousing dances involving all the band, as well as some more meditative songs with accompaniment from a selection of the quieter instruments. They were written by varied composers; the list included Henry VIII and several members of the Bassano family who were well known Venetian musicians in the 16th century.

The viols and rebec are much less resonant than modern string instruments. The crumhorns have an unmistakeable nasal sound which I don’t particularly like on their own, but they blend well with the rest of the band. The sackbuts are quite similar to modern trombones, although the bass version looks significantly bigger. The music itself was quite varied – one piece that was particularly memorable was ‘El grillo’ (‘the cricket’) by Josquin des Pres, started by a quartet of SATB crumhorns playing a mostly homophonic texture with some call and answer between the instruments. Other pieces were more polyphonic with the melodic lines weaving around each other, and one involved a canon. The modal nature of the music meant that many of the pieces sounded both major and minor, which is an aspect of Medieval and Renaissance music that I quite like. A commonly used cadence in many of the pieces involved the sequence of tonic – leading tone – tonic.

Baroque Instruments

Albinoni: Oboe Concerto in D minor Op. 9 no 2 (1722)

London Virtuosi | John Georgiadis | Naxos 2016

This is a short concerto for oboe with strings and basso continuo (harpsichord) accompaniment. I found it unexpectedly dry and boring – possibly due to a limited harmonic scope; it seems to move around the circle of fifths an awful lot! The basso continuo accompaniment is also quite predictable and plodding, but I do like the use of different articulations in the solo oboe part and the melodic lines, which I think have a clear sense of direction and effective climaxes.

Tartini: Sonata in G minor (‘Il Trillo Del Diavolo’) (c.1740)

Gordan Nikolitch | Orchestre d’Auvergne | David Oistrakh | 2015 Musical Concepts

I had to double check that this was really played by just one violinist – there are what sounds like some incredibly difficult passages with double stops and simultaneous trilling! The recording I listened to has a piano accompaniment, and the violin is played with lots of vibrato which I think is probably not historically accurate. It creates a passionate and intense sound that reminded me a little of Spanish gypsy music. The second movement has a solo section with an extended dominant section that really builds up the tension. The last movement has a melancholy melody to start with before resuming the devil’s antics! There are some quite fast harmonic progressions in this movement (the chord changing every one or two beats) which adds to the overall feeling of energy.

Vivaldi: Concerto for Two Mandolins (c.1740)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment | unCLASSIFIED 2016

This is an unusual instrument to pick for a concerto – it has a fairly quiet sound so would probably have been performed with a chamber orchestra (the version I listened to had strings and harpsichord accompaniment). I enjoyed the contrasting percussive sound of the mandolins against the strings. The first movement is a fast Allegro, with lots of tonic-dominant-tonic chord progressions. I found the second, slow movement more interesting; this was written for the solo mandolins with just a pizzicato string accompaniment which blends in with the sound. It has a thoughtful mood, and the mandolins play a kind of duet which passes the melody between them like a conversation. There is a brief pause before the final note which seems to be characteristic of this period.