Author: Nicole Restle
ca. 5 minutes

Golden fence, a statue and columns
Palace Versailles

Golden, ornate and pompous is how most of us imagine the Baroque era, suggested particularly by the lavishly decorated churches and castles from that period. The Baroque era, which lasted from 1600 to 1750/60, was culturally innovative and productive – but there are other, very different aspects to it, too. To celebrate our Baroque Weekend from 23 to 25 February 2024, we present here a number of facts about the Baroque and its music.

“L’état, c’est moi”

This quote is often attributed to the French King Louis XIV. Today, we know that Louis never used these exact words, but they show how Baroque rulers saw themselves. They stood unchallenged at the head of the state, answerable only to God. This absolutist claim justified the princes’ ostentatious representation: they built pompous castles, celebrated lavish festivities and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle. Their patronage of painting, literature and music was part of this, resulting in an enormous boost for the arts. The leading political powers were the Habsburg imperial court in Vienna and the French royal house.

Lust for life and fear of death

The splendour of the rulers, who financed their extravagance with high taxes, was contrasted by the poverty of many of their subjects: hunger, hardship, looting and disease were part of everyday life. The Thirty Years’ War devastated entire regions and decimated the population: “vanitas mundi”, the transience of everything earthly, was experienced by people almost daily. The awareness of how quickly life can come to an end fuelled a tremendous desire to live. The slogan “carpe diem”, seize the day, shaped people’s approach to life. This attitude is also reflected in the art of the time.

Bumrolls, justacorps and wigs

During the Baroque period, people wore ostentatious outfits: ladies laced their upper bodies into bodices made of whalebone, which slimmed the waist and showed off their décolleté to best advantage. To emphasise the hips, they used hip pads – so-called "bumrolls” – or hoop skirts. For men, the justacorps, a kind of knee-length coat, became the principal outer garment. Both sexes had their garments made of costly lace, silk, brocade and velvet. Wigs were indispensable; they concealed hair loss and the bad smells of unwashed hair. At that time, people rarely washed their hair with water, but used powder and make-up for a well-groomed appearance. Body odours were masked with perfume.

Church and nobility

In praise of God and the princes – this is what music was primarily used for. Music was employed to accompany the increased need for representation of the noble rulers and the ecclesiastical institutions. Consequently, the church and the aristocracy were the most important driving forces behind musical life. For his son’s wedding celebrations, for example, the Elector of Saxony Augustus the Strong – so it is reported – raised four million thalers, which were used to finance masquerades, parades and hunts, as well as several musical performances. Magnificent performances were held in churches, too, whether Catholic or Protestant. The multi-choir concerts in St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice served as a model, and sacred music of the 17th and 18th centuries developed from them.

In the new Italian style...

From a musical point of view, the Baroque was an exciting time, with the establishment of a completely new understanding of music. Composers who wanted to sell their works advertised that they were written in the “Italian” style. This was because Italy set the tone at that time – at least musically speaking. At the beginning of the 17th century, new musical genres came into fashion there: the trio sonata, the concerto and opera. The unified choral sound of the Renaissance gave way to the concert-like alternation of solo voices. The experimental laboratories for this were the northern Italian courts, most notably Mantua and Florence, as well as the Republic of Venice. From Italy, the new forms conquered the whole of Europe.

Conceived from the bass

In music, the Baroque is also known as the “age of the figured bass” because the bass forms the foundation of the composition. The progression of the bass voice sets the harmony, above which the upper voices are free to develop their playing with virtuosity and brilliance. Fast runs, coloratura and sophisticated ornamentation show how well a soloist or singer is master of his or her craft. To make the bass sound really substantial, it is usually played by a group of instruments. Typical instruments of the so-called “basso continuo” group are the organ, harpsichord, lute, theorbo, viola da gamba, cello and bassoon.

“I weep for my fate…” – professing profound emotions

In George Frideric Handel’s opera Giulio Caesare, Queen Cleopatra sings “Piangerò la sorte mia...” (I weep for my fate), a lament that is one of the best-known Baroque arias today. The music of the Baroque discovered emotion as a creative goal; the aim was to musically express the most wide-ranging human emotions – joy, love, anger, hatred, grief, contentment – and in so doing, to touch the hearts of their listeners.

Liebesfuss, pochette and clavecin brisé

Hand in hand with this went numerous inventions in instrument making. Creative craftsmen sought to improve and refine the sound of the instruments. Italian violin makers such as Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri built violins with an inimitable tone. Not quite as sonorous, but immensely practical, was the small pochette, or pocket violin, which allowed dance teachers to play a melody and demonstrate the dance steps at the same time. The medieval shawm evolved into today’s oboe, whose nasal, overtone-rich timbre enjoyed great popularity. The oboe d’amore, with its so-called “Liebesfuss”, a pear-shaped bell, sounds somewhat darker and warmer. The Prussian King Frederick the Great owned a clavecin brisé, a folding, transportable harpsichord that was made in France.

Castrati, the pop stars of the Baroque

As women were forbidden to sing in church, the high voices were sung by boys and castrati. At times, it was also considered unseemly for women to perform on stage, which led to the rise of the castrati – in both male and female roles. The powerful and at the same time angelic voices of the castrati thrilled the music world and they were acclaimed like pop stars. 

The singing of the castrato Gasparo Pacchierotti apparently even moved the orchestra musicians so much that they could not continue playing. To achieve stardom, boys were castrated before their voices broke, a procedure that was painful and not without risk. The most famous castrato of the time was Farinelli, who – according to a contemporary account – surpassed all other singers with his messa di voce, the rising and falling of notes, and his breathing technique, thanks to which he could sustain notes for a very long time.