Skip to content

5: Choral History Tour (part 2: Baroque)

  • July 1, 2022July 1, 2022

This is the second installment of a four-part series following some of the highlights of choral music through music history. You can listen to the podcast episode on Spotify, though without a premium subscription you will only hear 30 second previews of each piece. That’s why the transcript with youtube links is available here.

You can find playlists with all the works in this choral series on Spotify and on Youtube. Many of the pieces are excerpts from larger works, so there are also extended Spotify and Youtube playlists with the full works.

Hello and welcome to the show, or welcome back! This is the second part of a 4-episode series on choral music history. I know, I said it was going to be 3, but there’s just too much music I want to include, and I still had to leave out some of my favourites!

Although of course you’re welcome to go back and listen to the last episode, you don’t have to to understand to this one. The idea behind this series is to give you a taste both of choral music and the types of music within that genre, as well as a more general glimpse of the history of classical music. Most of the excerpts I’ve chosen are quite short but are parts of larger works, which you can go listen to if you like what you hear. I’ll include a link to playlists with the full works in the show notes. You’ll also notice that if you’re not a Spotify premium subscriber, you’ll only hear half a minute of each piece. If that annoys you, the full script of this episode along with full-length youtube examples can be found on the show’s website – It’s been a year, folks. But hey, I am back, and the next episode is already under way so the wait won’t be as long for the next episode, I promise. Now, let’s get on with the show!

Last episode we talked about the origins of choral music, and listened to some choral pieces from the medieval and Renaissance eras. Today we’re going to continue on to the baroque era. Actually, we’ll be covering the baroque, classical, and romantic eras today – so basically the time period that contains 90% of what people listen to when they listen to classical music. So let’s jump in and head over to the baroque era.

Here’s the thing about history: people in the baroque era did not know they lived in the baroque era. The different eras that we use for talking about different time periods in classical music weren’t decided until long after they happened. So while it might be easy to think of the medieval era as a separate block from the Renaissance era, which is separate again from the baroque era, in fact they all kind of flowed into each other, with some styles or genres becoming less or more popular until at some point the music scene looked rather different than it had one or two hundred years earlier.

When we look back at history and see these changes happening, we’ll often try to point to one or more people who seemed key to making those changes happen. And while that is what we’re going to do later, it’s important to keep in mind that those composers didn’t just influence the time they lived in, they were also influenced by the changes already happening. It’s kind of a feedback loop where they feed on new ideas, and then new ideas develop because of them, which then gives other people new ideas, and so forth.

And let’s stop for a minute and actually discuss the term ‘baroque’. What does it mean, and what does it stand for? Here’s a fun fact: the French word baroque comes from the Portuguese barroco, which means ‘misshapen pearl. And at first, around the middle of the eighteenth century (which is towards the end of the baroque period as it was flowing into the classical period) it was used by critics who used the term to say that the music was weird, bizarre, exaggerated, and in bad taste. Basically if you lived in the middle of the eighteenth century and you said ‘I really like baroque music’, you might as well say ‘I really like weird exaggerated tasteless music’. The term wasn’t just used for music though – it also applies to art, architecture, even furniture design that was extremely ornate with lots of detailed ornaments where sometimes you can’t tell up from down and you’re not sure where practical use leaves off and decorative ornamentation begins because it all looks a little overwhelming. And we’ll talk about how that all applies to music later.

And to be fair, not everyone in the middle and end of the eighteenth century hated baroque music or even used the term negatively, but the associations with the term ‘baroque’ especially began to change another century or so later, when more people started to look back and really see the beauty in baroque music and art again.

Music history, much like art history, and history in general, is often a story of reaction and overreaction, kind of like a pendulum swinging to extreme opposite sides every century or two, making it hard to be subjective about a thing that we’re too close to in time.

One of the most significant changes from Renaissance to baroque literature, art, and music was how dramatic it was. For classification purposes, the baroque period is often said to have taken place from roughly 1600 to 1750, and a lot of famous playwrights fall somewhere in that time period, from Shakespeare and Ben Johnson in England to Racine and Moliere in France. The epic poem Paradise Lost and the Spanish novel Don Quixote were also written in this time. Artists and sculptors like Bernini often used a much more dramatic style with a lot of movement and emotion. It’s all very theatrical, in a way.

Especially the 17th century saw an explosion of musical invention, from the birth of the opera to new styles of composing and combinations of instruments. I’m not going to get into all the detail here – I’ll gladly do an episode just on the baroque era later if there’s interest – but the first piece we’re going to listen today comes from the first few decades of the 17th century by one of the early baroque’s most important composers: Claudio Monteverdi. Claudio Monteverdi lived from 1567 to 1643 was a bit of an important figure in the transition between the Renaissance and baroque eras ,and is especially famous for his operas, which were a very new genre at the time. But aside from opera, he also wrote a lot of sacred music, as well as madrigals. And one of the new things in music at this point was that instead of the words being there more or less to serve the music, now composers tried to turn it around and make the serve the words as much as possible and in various ways. This new style was referred to as the ‘seconda pratica,’or ‘stile moderno’, which means ‘the second practice’ or ‘the modern style’. This was opposed to the more Renaissance way of doing things which was called the ‘prima pratica’, or ‘stile antico’- the first practice, or the old style.

Monteverdi’s 8th book of madrigals, which he originally called ‘madrigals of war and love’ and which was his last book of madrigals, really displayed this new style and really pushed the boundaries of what a madrigal was. Monteverdi knew that music was changing quickly, and he wanted to show that he was at the forefront of expanding these boundaries.

The song we’re going to listen to today comes from this 8th book of madrigals, and is a bit of a theatrical piece – it was really meant to be performed in a theatrical manner with gestures to reinforce the message of the music.

The song is about, well, the lament of a nymph. But it starts with a male trio setting up the story: before dawn, a nymph comes out, her face pale with grief, her cries heart-rending, stumbling back and forth through the flowers, grieving her lost love.

Then the music changes tone a bit, and a chaconne starts. This means that for the whole song, there’s going to be one repeating bass line, and the nymph’s song is going to be a sort of set of variations above that. And the singer was really supposed to take a lot of freedom above this – Monteverdi did not want it played and sung like a metronome, or like something with a steady drum beat – he really wanted the performer to show the pain of the nymph, and pain isn’t exactly metronomic. And the singer might add ornaments and other vocal effects to basically sound as melodramatic as possible. The three male singers will commentate in the background as the nymph laments.

We’re going to move forward from Monteverdi in the early 17th century to Johann Sebastian Bach in the early 18th century.

Bach lived a rather different life from Monteverdi, though they also have many similarities. Monteverdi was born in Cremona, and worked his whole life in various cities in what is now Italy, spending the last thirty years of his life in Venice. For seven of those years near the end of his life, he stopped composing and became a priest for a while before the opening of the first public opera house in Europe, the opera house of San Cassiano in Venice, coincided with renewed compositional activity from Monteverdi.

Bach was born and lived his whole life in Germany, and wrote in many genres but not opera. In fact he didn’t seem to have a particularly high opinion of opera, but that didn’t stop him from using a lot of the compositional techniques and styles of opera, and in fact using them better than many opera composers ever did.

While Monterverdi was a very innovative composer, Bach was someone who took a lot of the music and ideas that already existed and did them better than the vast majority of his contemporaries. But he wasn’t considered particularly innovative.

Johann Sebastian Bach came from a musical family – his father, brothers, uncles, cousins – basically his whole family were professional musicians and composers. Several of his sons also went on to become successful composers. Some of his sons complained, though, that their father’s style was really rather old-fashioned. It’s not a coincidence that the date that’s often given for the end of the baroque era and the beginning of the classical era, 1750, is the year that JS Bach died.

But while Johan Sebastian was without a doubt a brilliant musician and composer, he was not necessarily the easiest person to get along with.

There’s a story of him insulting a bassoonist behind his back, (the translation of the insult is debated: it could be that Bach called him a goat bassoonist, or it could be prick bassoonist). Either way, the bassoonist was not thrilled, and tried to physically attack JS. There are various romanticized accounts of whether Bach fought back or not, but at any rate he complained to the authorities who were not particularly pleased with the whole affair.

Bach was also very driven, though not necessarily the most respectful of authorities – At age 20, he asked his employer for 4 weeks of leave to see the famous organist and composer Buxtehude, and ended up taking 4 months. Mind you, it’s said that to see Buxtehude he walked 450 km on foot, so walking would have taken up pretty most of his four weeks anyway. At any rate Bach seemed to have estimated his time badly, and his employer was not impressed.

Later he also walked a mere 35 km from Kothen to Halle to visit George Frederick Handel, only to find that Handel had left town. The two composers were born in the same year and only 130 km apart, but they never met. They did both later in life have eye surgery from the same guy, who botched it both times and blinded both of them.

Anyway, Bach worked at different times in his life for rich patrons, and for different churches. And that kind of dictated what he wrote, and the employee for most of his adult life, the St Thomas Church in Leipzig, wanted religious music – Lutheran religious music, to be exact. This meant music that could include both instruments and singers, and German lyrics. One genre that Bach was particularly prolific in was the cantata. The cantata was a genre that evolved over time, but involved at least one voice and instrumental accompaniment. Bach’s cantatas often included a choir and one or more soloists in addition to the orchestra, and were in multiple movements. These movements might include ‘recitatives’, which are sections that are sung in an almost spoken style, not really with a specific recognizable melody. But other movements in many of Bach’s cantatas use melodies from the Lutheran hymnal. He wrote cantatas for many Sunday church services, some of them for specific feast days in the Lutheran calendar, others just for regular Sundays.

The one we’re going to listen to today, bwv 131 (bwv stands for Bach Werke Verzeichnis – the catalogueing system used for his works), uses the hymn ‘Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir’, based on psalm 130, was written in 1707 or 1708 , making it one of his earliest cantatas. Although most of his cantatas were written for the St. Thomas church, this one was commissioned by the Marienkirche in Mulhausen.

Today we’re just going to listen to the first movement of the cantata, which is a chorus, meaning that we’ll have the whole choir singing. We’ll first hear the orchestra with an introduction, and then we’re going to hear the first line, ‘aus der Tiefe’, or, from the deep, repeated several times in different voices, sometimes getting a little fugal with the same figure coming in at different pitches in different lines, but they all join together to finish the sentence: from the deep, o Lord, I cry to you. Bach then continues in that way, treating each line to a bit of an exploration before moving to the next line.

What’s important to remember is that the people back then would have known the hymn this is based on. They would know the words, and be able to understand them because they’re in German and it was written for German people, and they probably all would have heard or sung the hymn that the piece is based on. So to them it wouldn’t be like hearing an entirely new work, you could almost think of it as listening to a remix.

So when we listen to it today as a classical concert piece, we’re really taking it out of its context, and we can’t really imagine how the people who first heard it would have experienced it -they had such a different background with the style of music and the subject material that you can’t really compare it. What’s cool is that despite not having that background, we can still appreciate Bach’s beautiful music today.

A colleague of Bach’s, born in the same year, was Georg Friedrich Handel. He was also born German, but ended up in England. There’s a whole theory that he was actually a spy, but I won’t get into that too much right now. We’ll leave that for a future episode.

Handel started out his career writing a lot of operas. Italian operas. Unfortunately, Italian operas by a German composer didn’t do so well in England, mostly because the majority of people there didn’t understand Italian. So Handel switched from writing mostly secular Italian opera to writing religious English oratorios. It’s interesting that one of the composers who was best at setting the English language to music was actually German, not English.

An oratorio, you might remember if you listened to previous episodes, is a work that uses often a religious theme and musically works kind of like an opera – with orchestra, chorus, soloists, and so forth – but doesn’t have the staging of an opera.

Handel’s most famous oratorio, which you probably know, is ‘The Messiah’, with the famous Hallelujah chorus, but he wrote quite a number of other oratorios as well.

One of the ones I find most interesting is ‘Israel in Egypt’. If we avoid going into the interestingly problematic theological details of that Bible story, I really appreciate what Handel does here musically. Early in the oratorio we get the ten plagues that the Israelites’ God sends to Egypt – and it’s really neat to hear how Handel musically depicts darkness, frogs, gnats, and so forth. I feel like he really had some fun with it. For instance, in the excerpt we’re going to listen to in just a minute, the choir is singing about the flies that god sent to pester the Egyptians. Throughout almost the whole thing you can hear the violins playing all sorts of insanely fast lines, like a big group of flies buzzing around.

I do get a kick out of that.

Next we’re also going to listen to a short chorus. I picked it for two reasons: one, I felt like I couldn’t do a choral history without mentioning Handel and listening to a Handel chorus, but I’m too hipster to go with ‘the Messiah’.

The second reason is that it is a heck of a rousing chorus, in the same vein as the Hallelujah chorus. Just to show that Handel could absolutely do this kind of thing very well.

Ah, classic Handel. That oratorio was written in 1739, which was towards the end of the baroque era, as it was transitioning into the classical era. There is a lot more wonderful baroque choral repertoire by composers such as Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Zelenka, Buxtehude, Purcell, and others. Perhaps we’ll get back to them someday, but for today I had to take just a small sample as a… sort of gateway drug into baroque choral music.

I know I said that this was going to be a three part series on choral music, but I’ve decided to split it into four parts instead, just to keep each episode from getting too long. Don’t worry, I won’t take as long to post the next episode as it took to post this one! So stay tuned for the classical and romantic eras next episode.

If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to head on over to the facebook page at ‘Classical Declassified’ and leave a comment or a message. Thank you to Panos from Greece and Vemund from Norway for your lovely messages and feedback! (Also my apologies if I mispronounced your names.) And Panos, thank you for introducing me to classical music on the banjo! It’s gotten some fun ideas for future episodes percolating in my brain.

Alright everyone, take care and see you next time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *