Baroque Keyboard Music: Basics of the Style
Today I wanted to do a video on Baroque keyboard music, because it’s very distinct and far-removed from modern styles of playing piano, and students often find it the most difficult style because it’s so foreign.
For reference, a couple pieces we’ve done in Baroque keyboard style are:
Minuetto by James Hook
Bourree #11 from the Notebook for Wolfgang
So let’s talk about Baroque keyboard music, the style and how to interpret it, because there’s more where that came from!
The Baroque Era
To be clear, the Baroque era was between 1600-1750. A couple famous Baroque composers include Bach, Handel and Scarlatti.
Baroque music and improvisation
A prevalent thought about Baroque music is that it sounds old, ornate, difficult, etc. However, instead of being strict like we tend to think, Baroque keyboard music actually had a strong element of improvisation.
Keyboard players often used music called “figured bass”, where the bass line is notated along with what is essentially a chord symbol from 300 years ago, and would then improvise the accompaniment.
To compare it to modern times, that would be like being given notes to play in your left hand – simple held notes, and chord symbols on top to improvise the rhythm of in the right hand. It took – and takes – a lot of skill to do this, because you need to know an immense variety of chords at the drop of a hat.
Another thing that is challenging, but fascinating, about Baroque music is its use of counterpoint. Counterpoint, in simplest terms, is basically just two completely different parts in the right hand and left hand.
In modern music, the left hand tends to “follow” the right hand by playing chords or some similar accompaniment to a right hand melody.
In Baroque music, the left hand notes were often completely independent of the right hand notes, both going off on their own solo adventures and creating a sense of harmony that way.
Baroque keyboard music and dances
Before the Baroque era, instrumental music was often a matter of function. Mainly you’d use it to dance to – it wasn’t particularly showy or virtuosic. In the Baroque era, instrumental music – including keyboard music – started coming into its own and began being performed without any attachment to dance. And because people weren’t always dancing to this instrumental music, it got more and more elaborate and virtuosic.
Often in Baroque keyboard music, a piece will have the title of a dance, like “allemande”, or “courante” or “minuet”. That’s because solo instrumental music grew out of these dances, and those forms were very popular in the day.
Composing on a harpsichord
To wrap up our discussion on Baroque keyboard music, I wanted to talk briefly about the keyboards themselves. Pianofortes, the early version of pianos as we know them, didn’t even come into popularity until the late 1700s, in the Classical era of music. So Baroque keyboard music was usually composed on either an organ, a harpsichord, or a clavichord.
When a person composes music, one tends to bend the ideas around the instrument they’re using. For example, a song idea you have would translate very differently if you chose to express it on guitar instead of piano. The same is true of Baroque composers who wrote on harpsichords, a very different beast from our modern piano.
The harpsichord sound is much more abrasive than the smooth mellowness of a modern piano. That’s why you won’t find subtle, dreamy or overly emotional music written on the keyboard in the Baroque era – the instrument wasn’t capable of such nuance. Instead, it was much better suited to a detached touch and big contrasts in sound.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through the basics and style of Baroque keyboard music – be sure to check out the video for examples of the concepts we talked about today.
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