'Hippolyte et Aricie', Rameau's opera presented In Toulouse, France On March 05, 2009-© AKSARAN / Contributeur
'Hippolyte et Aricie', Rameau's opera presented In Toulouse, France On March 05, 2009-© AKSARAN / Contributeur

10 (little) things you (might) not know about baroque music

Brought up to date by great performers and passionate musicologists, the baroque period is often reduced to pompousness and opulence in the collective fantasy. Here are ten little things you probably didn’t know about the artistic emulation that lasted for more of a century.

The period known as “Baroque” is full of contradictions. We keep of it on one hand the overflowing of ornaments, luxury, tawdry patterns and irregularities (that’s why that style is sometimes designated with the Portuguese word barroco). On the other hand is the strictness showed by a few German masters. Moreover, the adjective “baroque” has been mainly used since 1950 in order to define a period, as the artistic expression was pluralist in Europe between 1600 and 1750.

The first partition was published in Venice in 1501

2012 Santa Maria Della Salute Celebrations © Barbara Zanon / Contributeur
2012 Santa Maria Della Salute Celebrations © Barbara Zanon / Contributeur

An invention of great value sees the day at the beginning of the 16th century: the music printing. The City of the Doges will keep for a long time the leadership in the matter. The first printed partition is thus released in 1501 from Ottaviano Petrucci’s press. Like for literary texts, they used mobile letters so the engraving would be more satisfying visually. 

The notion of copyright didn’t exist

Except for the royal privileges, anyone can print anything at any time and take a benefice out of it. It is also allowed that everyone can arrange or copy a partition in all impunity. For example Handel widely took for himself pieces of Stradella, Muffat or Keiser without necessarily meaning any harm. 

Sleeping your way up, an old story…

During the baroque period, the musical teaching norm remains in the traditional relation between a master and their student, following the corporatist organisation given by the Middle Ages – like in the German guilds where one would start by being an apprentice, then a companion and finally a master. But there was a speedier way to climb up the ladder at the time: marrying a master’s daughter gave a quicker access to a master position and a possible right to become the successor of the stepfather in question. That was the case for Buxtehude who married his predecessor’s daughter Tunder.

Conservatoires didn’t exist yet but some public music schools had been opened in Italy since the 16th century

Those schools took in orphans or abandoned children (Ospedale). The most gifted children would learn music and gave performances of great quality. In Venice in the 17th century the establishment for girls Ospedale della Pietà bragged about having Antonio Vivaldi as the violin teacher and master of choirs and concerts.

No, it was not Monteverdi who wrote the first opera 

Celebration for wedding of Henry IV of France © De Agostini Picture Library / Contributeur
Celebration for wedding of Henry IV of France © De Agostini Picture Library / Contributeur

The first opera was Euridice by Peri and was given to celebrate the wedding of Marie de’ Medici and Henry IV of France in October 1600. Monteverdi was among the guests. Only seven years later, would he present L’Orfeo. It is nevertheless considered as the first opera in the strict definition of the term. 

To face the growing success of the violin to the detriment of the viola, a great defamation campaign was lead.

We learnt in 1743 in the Dictionnaire de Trévoux that the “violin is also a word to insult or express disdain and means stupid, impertinent” like “those fiddlers that go from village to village to play the violin and increase the drunkards’ joy”. That is why the word “violin” can also means “prison” as the fiddlers would often end their night “au violon”.

Voltaire loathed the pianoforte

 Forte piano maker Rod Regier works in his Freeport workshop with Kris Carr © Portland Press Herald / Contributeur
Forte piano maker Rod Regier works in his Freeport workshop with Kris Carr © Portland Press Herald / Contributeur

He said in 1774 that the pianoforte was “an instrument for coppersmiths compared to the harpsichord” (letter to Madame du Deffand, 8th of December 1774). If you please!

The oboe saw the day at the beginning of Louis XIV of France’s reign

The instruments changed following the new baroque style and tried to adapt to its aesthetics imperatives. That’s why, when Lully was in search for new sonorities, he realised he hadn’t an instrument with a reed solid enough to accompany the violins. Recorders sure brought an interesting contrast but their sounding power was too weak. 

The Hotteterre and Philidor families were therefore missioned to rethink the reed and allowed the new instrument to spread all over Europe. It is thus with Lully that the oboe began its brilliant career.

The baroque period became the fertile ground for the “drinking tunes”

In 1619, Bacilly published a collection of “songs to dance and drink to”. Following that example, many composers in the second half of the century would publish drinking tunes, especially since the audience was reliable in that society yearning for entertainment. Rameau for example published in 1719 Avec du vin, endormons-nous (“let’s fall asleep with wine”) 

The rise of the descriptive music

Making us smile today, some composers tried to write in a creative momentum pieces that could not be more descriptive. Marin Marais was one of them and in his Le Tableau de l’Opération de la Taille (“scene of the waist surgery”) he tried to reconstitute the “extraction of a stone from the bladder”!

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