This is an informal post detailing a themed playlist of 10 Baroque pieces that I recommend for someone unfamiliar with Baroque music. There’s nothing particularly educated about my choices; it’s just a personal selection of things I love, although I have tried to diversity it a little. I hope you’ll find something you like.
What people refer to as “classical music” is very broad. Anyhow, Baroque music is a style of classical music composed from 1600 to 1750. It’s one of my favorite genres, although it might be considered an acquired taste because it doesn’t just “make sense” to the “classically untrained”, unlike music from the Classical period (1750-1820).
You may have heard of Baroque style architecture; gold-plated everything, very ostentatious, the more ornaments and fancy decorations the better, even (especially) in churches. Baroque music is very stylistically distinct and has a lot of roles. Despite these rules, it’s usually very playful and dance-like in nature *because* of these rules. Great Baroque compositions are all about conforming to the rules and expectations yet knowing when to stylishly break the rules.
Ornamentation in the musical sense is also a prominent feature of Baroque music and overall there are some similarities between Baroque and Jazz.
1. “Ev’ry valley” from Messiah (Handel)
Handel’s Messiah is one of the most famous Baroque works. A concert performance of Messiah typically lasts two or so hours, but even then many pieces have to be left out because of the sheer number of pieces composed in this work. Here’s one of my favorite performances of one of the pieces. I like this one because the performer nails all those other components, not just sounding good: facial expression, conveying a message, dynamics, etc. Truly exceptional.
2. “Air on the G String” (Bach) – Bobby McFerrin
A very recognizable piece by Bach and one of my favorites, performed a bit differently by Bobby McFerrin, who is very unique and innovative. (Bach is the most famous Baroque composer. Heck, the end of the Baroque period is considered around 1750, which is the year he died. Coincidence?)
3. “Deconstructing Johann” (King’s Singers)
A quirky jazzy a capella (unaccompanied) medley performed by the King’s Singers. The King’s Singers are a very famous British vocal group.
4. Orchestra Suite No. 3 Gavotte (Bach) – Jacques Loussier Trio
I loved this concert (24 Hour Swinging Bach – Bach’s 250th anniversary concert in Leipzig) to pieces, so this is the third performance already in this list from it. I had a CD of this concert, but I’d pay anything to be at such an event these days! Who said classical music can’t be groovy?
5. Improvisation on Bach (Bobby McFerrin)
Bobby McFerrin is completely unique for several reasons; his impossible vocal agility, wide range, beat-boxing-like ability, unique improvisations, and even the ability to produce two notes at the same time!
6. “Rejoice in the Lord alway” (Purcell)
A very playful piece.
7. “As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending” (Thomas Weelkes)
Some other noticeable aspects of Baroque music. Tension is a very important aspect; great Baroque music just seems to keep flowing and keep you expecting/wanting what’s coming. Choral pieces often have a formal structure much like an essay that is discussing a topic, with introduction, conclusion, and paragraphs arguing for and against each main point. Counterpoint, i.e., multiple parts playing the same theme (or singing the same text) but starting one after the other is another common feature. Themes often recur. In fact, some pieces are based entirely on the “subject” established in the first eight bars of music.
Here’s a Madrigal, early Baroque, that demonstrates the layering effect throughout the piece.
8. Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 (Bach)
A real badass piece. The tension is maintained masterfully in this composition. Read the other Music Spotlight to learn more about the harpsichord and this piece.
9. “Agnus Dei” from Mass in B minor (Bach)
This is sung by Andreas Scholl, a famous German countertenor. A countertenor is a male who sings in the vocal range of female voice types. Don’t ask me how the physiology works; normal singing pedagogy is controversial and conflicting enough as it stands.