Musicians of the late Renaissance/early Baroque era (Gerard van Honthorst, The Concert, 1623)

The Baroque Era: How Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo Revolutionized Western Classical Music

A young musician scrambles along a steep, rocky passage towards the daylight. Before him, a world of music and light. Below, unending absence. He has one job. He mustn’t look back. He mustn’t check to see if his wife is following. His recently deceased wife, that is—the same wife who was killed by a snake only a few days earlier and whom he has descended into the afterlife to rescue. The musician is torn by doubt, though, and he turns to look, to check if she is following. In an instant, her image fades and she is snatched back to the shadows. The young man, Orpheus, ascends alone, bereft, to the land of the living where he is raised to the heavens by Apollo, god of music, dance and poetry, truth, the Sun and light.

Alas and farewell, much-loved Renaissance Era. All hail and hearty greetings, shiny, new and exciting Baroque Era.

L’Orfeo by the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi wasn’t quite the first opera. There are one or two slightly earlier contenders for that distinction but it’s certainly the first that is still regularly performed in opera houses around the world today and it’s the first by a major composer in the Western classical music tradition. Look up “Baroque Era” in any music textbook and you will find the conveniently rounded dates of 1600 to 1750 as the start and end points but there’s a jolly sound argument to say that the first performance of L’Orfeo in 1607 at the Ducal Palace of Mantua in Italy was the moment this new period truly landed.

Monteverdi, like Orpheus, was a man who inhabited two worlds but who ultimately chose the one in front of him. He belongs to a select group of visionary composers (like Ludwig van Beethoven and Arnold Schoenberg) who drew one era to its musical zenith and who were both progenitor and midwife of the next.

In L’Orfeo, Monteverdi creates something entirely new. He lays out a blueprint for opera that will set the course of composition for the next three centuries. Here, the music is the servant of the drama and Monterverdi creates a large-scale, tautly controlled structure whose only purpose is to tell a story. He uses a recitative style in which characters sing text in an informal, conversational style. Significant points in the drama are sung separately as formal arias— melodic songs usually focusing on one dramatic or emotional moment. As he tries to cross the River Styx to enter the underworld, Orpheus serenades Charon the boatman with the delicious aria ‘Possente Spirto’. Charon, a spirit of the underworld, has no feelings and so the plea falls on deaf ears. Throughout, the drama is punctuated and facilitated by orchestral interludes. Musical elements from later in the opera recall thematic material heard earlier in the work binding the whole into one cohesive drama. In the orchestra pit, we see a gathering of musicians that is recognisably the precursor of the modern symphony orchestra. In short, nothing like this had been seen or heard before. L’Orfeo fomented a revolution and marked the start of a new way of thinking about and creating music.

Perhaps the most important thing about L’Orfeo, though, is also the most obvious—L’Orfeo is theatre. In the Baroque Era, the role of music was to tell stories, whether in private theatres of the nobility or public opera houses and concert halls or in private homes and even in churches.

Fast forward to 1731 and the first performance of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Wachet Auf—a religious cantata (a vocal work with instrumental accompaniment). Bach penned around 300 of these. Wachet Auf is one of Bach’s finest cantatas, but is typical in many ways too. At one point, Jesus sings a recitative “So come to me, O thou, elected bride” followed by a love duet between Jesus and the Soul: “[Soul] My friend is mine. [Jesus] And I am thine. [Both] Let love bring no division.” This is deeply personal and emotional stuff—a world away from the hands-off formality of the Renaissance church. The unthinkable has happened: religion has become theatre. Gods have become men. There is a direct line of descent from L’Orfeo to Wachet Auf, composed more than a century later.

Opera exploded throughout Europe and with it emerged other new forms. The oratorio (an unstaged concert work for chorus, solo singers and orchestra), with its recitatives, arias, choruses and orchestral interludes is a close relative of opera. The most celebrated example, Messiah (with its famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus), was dashed off in three weeks in 1741 by George Frederic Handel, arguably the greatest of all opera and oratorio composers of the period.

The orchestra too emerged blinking from its underworld, the opera pit, and demanded its own forms. Since the days of L’Orfeo, dances of various hues and flavours had featured prominently in opera and now composers strung together suites of dances (minuets, gigues, sarabandes, allemandes) designed expressly to be performed on the concert platform. These dances were not made for dancing. These were for listening purposes only. Bach’s great Orchestral Suite No. 3 (with its famous ‘Air on a G String’) perhaps represents the high point of the form. The orchestral suite evolved into the Classical four-movement symphony of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and eventually into Mahler’s gargantuan late-19th century masterworks. It is hard to overstate the reach of L’Orfeo and other early Baroque operas.

With orchestras came the invention of the concerto, a work for solo instrument (or instruments) accompanied by an orchestra which gave the most accomplished players the opportunity to showcase their virtuosity and musicality. In the Italian city of Venice, a red-haired priest by the name of Antonio Vivaldi found not only his religious calling but his musical vocation as well. He wrote over 500 concertos including The Four Seasons, a set of four violin concertos which paint a vivid aural portrait of the natural world and which are one of the most popular works in the history of Western classical music.

Italy continued to be the driver of musical innovation throughout the Baroque Era with composers from other European countries absorbing and adapting each new style and technique as they emerged. Henry Purcell in England developed a highly personal flavour of Baroque music in works like his opera Dido and Aeneas, laced with rich dissonances, quirky rhythms and elaborate word painting where the vocal writing closely mirrors the meaning of the words. Jean-Baptiste Lully and François Couperin were among leading voices of the French Baroque and developed a more restrained music imbued with grace and elegance, tailored to the great courts of French royalty.

By the end of the Baroque period, the modern orchestra had evolved into the form we recognise today—a core of string instruments alongside varying numbers of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments as well as a harpsichord, precursor of the modern piano. As Italy was the gravitational centre of the Baroque period, so it comes as no surprise that virtually all of the greatest violin makers (Stradivari, Amati, Guadagnini, Guarneri) whose instruments today command prices in the millions were all active in Italy at the height of the Baroque period.

The French composer Lully is also generally regarded as the first significant orchestral conductor. He kept his orchestras timely by banging a staff on the floor and met his untimely end when he banged it into his foot and contracted gangrene. This gave rise to the invention of the conductor’s baton and for this (as well as for all his compositions, of course) we are grateful.

There is no consensus of opinion about the origin of the term “Baroque”. In broader terms, particularly architectural, it often describes something extravagantly ornate, rich, detailed or busy. A composer friend of mine once referred to Tom Cruise’s flamboyant blockbuster movie Mission: Impossible II as “Baroque” which, from a purely musicological perspective, is not strictly correct but, all the same, I could see her point. The Baroque Era was about theatre, it was about unashamedly harnessing sensory stimulation for artistic expression, it was about using musical and narrative techniques to tell stories and it was about accessing and manipulating human emotion. The great composers of the Baroque period—Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Purcell, Rameau and so many others— excelled at this.

One theory is that the word stems from the term “baroco” used to describe a specific, obscure corner of Aristotelian logic whose actual meaning frankly eludes me. I suppose if you think of Baroque music as something complex and multilayered and impenetrably detailed this could work, but for me, it doesn’t ring true. I prefer to believe it derives from the Portuguese word “barroco” meaning “a pearl of irregular shape”. Baroque music did not aim for perfection. It rarely aimed for the universal or the eternal. It revelled in the dissonances it explored, it rejoiced in the raw dance rhythms it drew upon and it thrived on the vagaries of the human senses it sought to ignite.

It was a gloriously flawed era of music. It was a perfectly imperfect jewel.

By Mikel Toms.