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The Baroque Period

The word Baroque has at various times meant bizarre, flamboyant, and elaborately ornamented.


Such a style was very well suited to the wishes of the aristocracy. The aristocracy was extremely rich and powerful during the 17th and 18th Century. Kings and Princes proclaimed their greatness by means of splendid palaces and magnificent court entertainments like balls, banquet, ballets, operas and plays.

The Baroque period could be divided into 3 phases: early (1600-1640), middle (1640-1680) and late (1680-1750).

Characteristics of Baroque Music



-       A baroque piece usually expresses one basic mood. Example, if the piece begins happily, it will remain happy throughout. Emotional states like joy, anger, grief and agitation were represented and these were called affections. Hence one mood is maintained before it changes to another.  


-      In order to maintain the unity of mood, continuity of rhythm is important. Hence rhythmic patterns heard at the beginning of the piece are repeated throughout it. This continuity of rhythm provides a perpetual drive and energy, which is rarely interrupted. 


-      An opening melody will be heard again and again in the course of the piece. Even if the melody is presented in a different form, the character tends to remain constant. This sense of continued motion is the result of a melodic sequence, that is successive repetition of a musical idea at a higher or lower pitch. A baroque melody is elaborate and ornamental, which makes it difficult to sing or remember.  


-      A continuity of rhythm and melody is also the continuity of dynamics. Dynamics of loud and soft tends to stay fairly constant. When the dynamics do shift, the shift is sudden, from one level to another. The alternation between loud and soft is called terraced dynamics. Gradual changes of dynamics from crescendo and decrescendo are not prominent features of baroque music. The main keyboard instruments of the baroque periods were the organ, clavichord and harpsichord.


-      Is predominantly polyphonic in texture. 2 or 3 melodic lines compete for the listener’s attention.  

Chords and Basso Continuo

-      Chords were increasingly important during the baroque period. The emphasis of chords and the bass part resulted in an accompaniment called the basso continuo. With the left hand, the organist or harpsichordist plays the bass part, which is also performed by the cellist or bassoonist. With the right hand, the keyboard player improvises chords following the indications of numbers above the bass part. This bass part with numbers is called a figured bass

Information on Listening Example


The Well-Tempered Clavier (German: Das WohltemperierteKlavier), BMV 846-893, is a collection of solo keyboard music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach first gave the title to a book of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys, dated 1722 and ca. 1740. Each of the two parts consists of 24 prelude and fugues, one set in each of the 12 major and minor keys.

Part I is more unified in style and purpose than Part II, which includes compositions from many different periods of Bach’s life.


What is a Prelude?

A prelude is a short piece of music and can be usually thought of as a preface. It may have been a stand-alone piece or serve as an introduction to another work. Stylistically the prelude is improvisatory in nature. However, during the Baroque period, it was used as an introduction to succeeding movements, which were usually more complex and much longer.

Preludewas also used in the Romantic period, but it was usually a stand-alone composition.


What is a Fugue?

A Fugue is a polyphonic composition based on one main theme, called a subject. Many different melodic lines called voices, imitate the subject throughout the fugue.

The Texture of the fugue usually includes three, four or five voices. Thought the subject remains fairly constant throughout, it takes on new meanings when shifted to different keys or combined with different melodic and rhythmic ideas.

The subject is almost always presented in a single unaccompanied voice. By highlighting the subject, the composer tells us what to remember and listen for. In listening to a fugue, try to follow the subject through the different levels of texture. After its first presentation, the subject is imitated in turn by all the remaining voices.


Brief Bio of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)


  • Bach was born in a small town of Eisenach, Germany 
  • German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist and violinist 
  • Composed in all forms of music except opera 
  • Bach was the fifth generation of the Bach family to be active musicians. From the middle of 1500s, the Bach family tree is filled with violinists, church organists, fiddlers, composers and court musicians 

 The Anna Magdalena Notebook

Bach gave his wife a special book, which we now call theAnna Magdalena Notebook. Anna Magdalena used it to collect favorite easy pieces for her and her children to play.

For a long time, it was thought that Bach composed all the pieces in the Notebook, but we now know that some of the pieces were taken from other composers and compiled into the Notebook.

Bach and his children added their selections to the book and now contain the music that the family enjoyed. Copies of the notebook are still available in music stores around the world.

The Anna Magdalena Notebook was not the first collection of music that Bach put together for his family. He composed music to use in teaching his son the rudiments of composition and gathered it into what is now known as theWilhelm Friedemann Notebook. The book contains theTwo-Part andThree-Part Inventions, keyboard pieces that are still used today to train more advanced students.

Important Pieces To Remember:

Organ: The Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and over 150 choral preludes

Keyboard Dance Suites: The French Suites, The English Suites and the Partitas

Chamber Music: The Brandenburg Concertos, Violin Concertos, Flute Sonatas, Violin Sonatas and Partitas, Cello Suites and Keyboard Concertos

Oratorios and Passions: The Easter Oratorio, The Christmas Oratorio, St. John Passion, St. Matthew Passion

Other Music: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I and II, The Art of the Fugue, The Goldberg Variations

Cataloguing Bach’s Music


Composers did not begin to catalogue their music until around the 19th Century. Bach’s music is not identified by opus numbers, which are often seen attached to works of later composers.


It was not until 1950, around 200 years after Bach’s death, that a comprehensive catalogue of his works was published. The abbreviated title for this catalogue is the Bach Werke-Verzeichnis (Index to Bach’s Work) or BWV for short.


All of Bach’s works are listed with a BWV number. When the music is published, the titles usually include this number. For example:

Prelude No. 1 in C Major, BWV 846


Bach and his reaction to the Piano 

Bach composed his keyboard music mainly on the Harpsichord, Clavichord and the Organ. The piano was a relatively new keyboard instrument during Bach’s time and he was never really drawn to it.

Bach tried out one of Silbermann’s (German Organ builder) early model of the pianoforte, but he commented that it had a heavy touch and weakness in the higher register. Hence, Bach was never keen on writing music for the piano.

Some Interesting Facts




Minuet in G Major (BMV 114)


Why is this called a Minuet?

What are the characteristic style of a Minuet?

Compare these 2 recordings of J. S Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847 from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I. The first is a recording on Harpsichord and the second is a recording of the same prelude and fugue on piano.

Which recording do you prefer? Why? Listen to the Fugue section at the timings indicated. Can you hear the voicing of the Fugue? How many times do you hear the subject being repeated? Read the section on Fugue before you listen to the recordings.

JS Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847 from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, Anthony Newman on Harpsichord. Fugue section at 1:49

(Harpsichord) 1:49

Piano 1:35



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