Musical Thoughts

The Sublime Baroque


In the history of the world’s music, perhaps no era was as instrumental and sublime as the baroque. If you’re taking at home violin or piano lessons you probably recognize this based on the difficulty of playing baroque music; it’s a kind of holy grail attainable only through years of practice and a full understanding of how your instrument and music work.

What the baroque has wrought

The baroque saw the creation of tonality, the return to a tonic, or stable note, after playing a variety of notes. It was also when opera, cantata and sonata became major art forms. It started in Florence, the center of the Renaissance, in the late 16th century. Under Count Giovanni de Bardi, a group of intellectuals chose to return to Classical forms of music, namely, Ancient Greek, especially in the monody of a singer accompanied by a single melody. This was the beginning of opera. Harmony became important, too, thanks to counterpoint; and dissonance was employed through tritones, a note three tones higher than the key note of that tone.

While Monteverdi, Purcell, and Handel are all regarded as influential and important figures by those who have ever taken a piano lesson, one man above all is especially revered: Johann Sebastian Bach. Not only does the complexity of Bach’s music far surpass his contemporaries’, but the working passion which Bach made use of during his career, the fact that each of his cantatas is a dedication to the glory of god, and also a lamentation for being unable to reach that heavenly realm, well, it is easy to see why his name is so frequently bandied about whenever we talk about piano lessons or classical music of any kind, really.

The legacy of the baroque

Yes, the baroque, that era of history from 1630 to 1750, ending with the death of Bach, was the greatest era of music the world has ever known. My uncle once pointed out that the 1940s through 80s were a similar era, what with the emergence of blues and rock n’ roll and hip-hop, Elvis and the Beatles, Madonna and Michael Jackson, but it will be difficult to know in our lifetimes, because not enough time will have passed for us to put into perspective just how great it was; after all it took another seventy-five years before Bach went from esteemed composer to the greatest of all time, his work was that far ahead of his era, that while he was respected and famous while alive, he was not as renowned as he is today, and part of this is due to just how sublime his music is; in truly great pieces of music, such as the St. Matthew’s Passion, or any of his cantatas, or his Magnificat, it is hard to understand the import of a work until well after that musician is dead, after the public has forgotten about him and everyone alive during the time he was alive is dead too; only then can we listen to a piece of music as Mendelssohn did Bach and understand that here was one of the world’s greatest geniuses ever to live, and that everyone else should understand the joys and longing he has attempted to define.

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