Chapter 13

Chapter 13: Baroque Music in the Early Eighteenth Century

Composer Biographies

Antonio Vivaldi

Born: March 4, 1678, Venice, Italy

Died: July 28, 1741, Vienna, Austria

Italian composer of instrumental music and opera. He was important in the development of the concerto.

Visitors to Venice in the early eighteenth century often made a point of attending one of the regular concerts given by the orchestra of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà. Here they would hear a group of girls and young women (orphans supported by the institution) playing with "all the gracefulness and precision imaginable." The concerts would spotlight various members of the orchestra (sometimes highlighting unusual combinations of instruments) and the music would often be by the leading composer of the city, Antonio Vivaldi.

Vivaldi began serving the Ospedale in 1703, soon after being ordained a priest, and he held various positions there almost all his life. An important part of his duties was to supply concertos for the orchestra; over the course of his career, he composed over five hundred concertos, both for solo instruments (principally violin) and for combinations of instruments. Although Vivaldi wrote a great deal of music in other genres, including more than fifty operas, it is his concertos that have granted him a lasting place in musical history.

The concertos that Vivaldi wrote helped define the genre in the Baroque and into the Classic era. These normally comprised three movements (fast, slow, fast); the fast movement regularly employed a ritornello form. In this form, an orchestral melody alternates with freer sections that feature a soloist or soloists. The repetition of the ritornello provides a point of reference for the listener, allowing the soloist to stand out. It also allows the composer a greater degree of freedom in how the soloist's material is treated.

Vivaldi's concertos also stand out for the degree of inventiveness that he brought to them. While challenging the player, they also engage the listener. One of his most famous groups of concertos, The Four Seasons, demonstrates this well and shows the more dramatic and colorful potential of the genre. Each concerto represents a different season, and the music represents in sound a picture created by an accompanying poem. Vivaldi uses his ingenuity to take the mundane sounds of daily life (the barking of a dog, the buzzing of flies), along with more dramatic sounds (a violent spring storm), and portray them in purely musical language that stands on its own merit. These early examples of program music well deserve their place in the popular canon of classical music.


  • Orchestral Music, including over 239 violin concertos (Le quattro stagioni, The Four Seasons, Op. 8, Nos. 1–4, c. 1725), other solo concertos (bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, recorder); double concertos; ensemble concertos; and sinfonias
  • Chamber music, including sonatas for violin, cello, and flute and trio sonatas
  • Sacred vocal music, including oratorios (Juditha triumphans, 1716), mass movements (Gloria), Magnificat, psalms, hymns, and motets
  • Secular vocal music, including solo cantatas and operas

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Musical Examples

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  • A General Biography
    A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes portraits, a brief bibliography, and a brief overview of The Four Seasons with audio clips.
  • Works and Recordings
    A short biography with a list of selected recordings from ClassicalNet.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany

Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

"Whereas the Honorable and Most Wise Council of this Town of Leipzig have engaged me as Cantor of the St. Thomas School . . . I shall set the boys a shining example . . . serve the school industriously . . . bring the music in both the principal churches of this town into good estate . . . faithfully instruct the boys not only in vocal but also in instrumental music . . . arrange the music so that it shall not last too long, and shall . . . not make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion . . . treat the boys in a friendly manner and with caution, but, in case they do not wish to obey, chastise them with moderation or report them to the proper place."

German composer and organist. Culminating figure of the German Baroque.

When we say that a composer such as Johann Sebastian Bach was a genius, what are we really saying? It is easy to call someone a genius, but far more difficult to explain what that means. The word itself tends to intimidate us, and we often feel that it is impossible to find the human side of genius. So we simply call someone a genius and are done with it.

In the case of Bach, however, his genius was a combination of a number of simpler qualities, all of which point to his human side. First, Bach was a craftsman. He lived in an age in which the composer created works according to the demands of his employer. For Bach, this meant that his various positions demanded different kinds of music. As court organist in Weimar, he produced his most important organ works, and, as a composer for the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, he created music that his patron desired: ensemble music (including the famous Brandenburg Concertos, written for another royal patron, the Margrave of Brandenburg). But his most important and long-term position was as cantor of St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig. Not surprisingly, it is in this period that he wrote the bulk of his great church music. Because of the demands of his various employers, Bach was able to create works in a wide variety of genres, providing an unusual breadth of expression.

Second, Bach was a student and an emulator. The composer constantly surrounded himself with the music of his contemporaries, and his study of these pieces (often involving rearranging pieces for different combinations of instruments) provided him an insight into a wide variety of national and personal styles. Throughout his life, he integrated these ideas into his own unique style.

Third, Bach was a deeply religious man. His personal Bible was filled with annotations, and this depth of feeling finds its way into his sacred music, which often strikes the listener as an intensely personal statement of faith.

Fourth, Bach had a passion for completeness. Many of his works seem to be exercises in exploring every conceivable possibility. His two collections of preludes and fugues, the Well-Tempered Clavier, are an example of this passion. In them, Bach explores every possible major and minor key. But it is in his final works that this encyclopedic quality stands out. His Musical Offering is a tour de force of variations and contrapuntal inventions on a theme suggested to him by Frederick the Great. His Mass in B Minor is not a liturgical work, but a summation of his sacred style; much of the mass is reworked from earlier pieces. And his Art of Fugue (unfinished at his death) is a compendium of contrapuntal techniques unequaled before or since.

None of these qualities, by itself, explains Bach's genius. In some aspects, he has no equal, and in all aspects, his music is unique. Taken together, however, they constitute the human elements of his genius. They help us to understand why and how Bach created what he did, and perhaps that is as close as we can come to understanding his genius.


  • Sacred vocal works, including over 200 church cantatas, 7 motets, Magnificat (1723), St. John Passion (1724), St. Matthew Passion (1727), Christmas Oratorio (1734), and Mass in B Minor (1749)
  • Secular vocal works, including over 20 cantatas
  • Orchestral music, including 4 orchestral suites; 6 Brandenburg Concertos; concertos for 1 and 2 violins and for 1, 2, 3, and 4 harpsichords
  • Chamber music, including 6 sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, 6 sonatas for violin and harpsichord, 6 suites for cello, A Musical Offering (1747), flute sonatas, and viola da gamba sonatas
  • Keyboard music, including 2 volumes of Das wohltemperirte Clavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier, 1722, 1742), 6 English Suites (c. 1722), 6 French Suites (c. 1722), Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (c. 1720), Italian Concerto (1735), Goldberg Variations (1741–1742), and Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue, c. 1745–1750), suites, fugues, capriccios, concertos, inventions, and sinfonias
  • Organ music, including over 150 chorale preludes, toccatas, fantasias, preludes, fugues, and passacaglias

Musical Examples

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  • A General Biography
    A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes discussions of works and portraits.
  • The Bach Family
    J.S. Bach was part of an incredible musical family that stretched from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. This site traces his family tree. It is part of Timothy Smith's Bach site at Northern Arizona University.
  • The J. S. Bach Homepage
    A great place to go for further exploration of Bach's life and works. Contains a biographical section that includes a tourist guide to the cities where Bach lived over the course of his life, an extensive index of Bach's works (cross-indexed by title, BWV number, key, year of composition, category, and instrument), and a list of recommended recordings (also cross-indexed).
  • Want Even More? Try Bach Central Station
    Links to over 300 different Bach sites ranging from detailed analyses of Bach's music to arrangements for electric guitar. Also includes links to other classical sites.

George Frideric Handel

Born: February 23, 1685, Halle, Germany

Died: April 14, 1759, London, England

English composer, German by birth. Composed in all genres, but primarily remembered for his operas and oratorios.

George Frideric Handel began his life in Germany, the son of a barber-surgeon who wanted him to study law. He died an English citizen, the most renowned musical figure of his day and a national treasure. The career that led him there was, in almost every way, in complete contrast to that of his contemporary and fellow countryman, Johann Sebastian Bach (born less then a month after him). While Bach composed for the church and for his patrons, Handel composed for the general public. While Bach was primarily of man of God, Handel was a man of the world. And while Bach was a man who never left his native country, Handel was a world traveler.

Handel showed great musical talent at an early age, and his father allowed him to study with a local organist and composer. At age seventeen, the young Handel went to Hamburg, where he played violin in the opera orchestra. He was soon composing in the Italian style that he heard and played, and his first opera, Almira, was a rousing success. The next three years were spent in Italy, where his operas were extremely popular and where he continued to perfect his operatic style. He returned to Germany in 1710 to take the post of music director for the elector of Hanover, but almost immediately was invited to England to produce his opera Rinaldo. His return to Hanover was short-lived. In 1712, he again asked leave to go to England. His request was granted, but Handel never returned. In an interesting irony, the royal patron he left behind followed him to London in 1714 as the successor to the English throne, where he reigned as George I, the first of the Hanoverian kings. It was for his former employer that Handel wrote his Water Music .

In England, Handel continued to write operas in the serious Italian style, but his position as the leading operatic composer in England was soon challenged, first by the advent of a rival opera company (the Opera of the Nobility) and then by the development of a new and lighter style of ballad opera. This latter style was begun by John Gay with The Beggar's Opera of 1728. As the popularity of Italian opera faded, Handel turned to another popular genre, the oratorio. Over the course of the next twenty years, he created a series of works that became some of the most popular in all of the Western tradition. Most famous among these was his telling of the life of Jesus, his Messiah (1742), and the "Hallelujah Chorus" from this work is arguably the most immediately recognizable piece of Western classical music.

Handel's output as a composer declined in his later years, but he continued to conduct and perform (he was a brilliant organist). Indeed, it was at the end of a performance of Messiah that he collapsed, dying three days later.


  • Operas (over 40), including Almira (1705), Rinaldo (1711), Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1724), and Orlando (1733)
  • Oratorios, including Esther (1718), Alexander's Feast (1736), Israel in Egypt (1739), Messiah (1742), Sampson (1743), Belshazzar (1745), Judas Maccabaeus (1747), Solomon (1749), and Jephta (1752)
  • Other sacred vocal music, including Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (c. 1713) , Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (1739), Utrecht Te Deum (1713), anthems, and Latin church music
  • Secular vocal music, including solo and duo cantatas and arias
  • Orchestral music, including Water Music (1717); Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749); and concertos for oboe, organ, and horn
  • Chamber music, including solo and trio sonatas
  • Keyboard music, including harpsichord suites, fugues, preludes, airs, and dances.

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Musical Examples

Click on the songs to listen:

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  • A General Biography
    A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes a small portrait gallery, a bibliography, a detailed list of works, and an outline and text for Messiah (with audio clips).
  • A Basic Recording Library
    A listing of recommended recordings of the basic Handel repertoire from ClassicalNet.
  • Handel's House in London
    Handel lived in the same house from 1723 until his death (interestingly, two centuries later, in 1969, Jimi Hendrix lived in the house next door for a short period of time). The house is now a museum.
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