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We just learned how to add detail and decoration to Baroque music through ornamentation – now we are going to learn how the forms of Baroque music provide symmetry and balance, just like we saw in Baroque architecture.

We will also learn about some of the major musical forms that developed during the Baroque era:

  • Dance Form
  • Sonata
  • Suite
  • Fugue
  • Concerto Grosso

Dance Form

Regardless of the dance type (e.g., menuet, sarabande, gavotte), Baroque dance music follows a three part form – ABA.

  • A – This section is the introduction of the first main part of the dance. It has two subsections, each of which are repeated.
  • B – This section is a contrasting section, often in a key that is different from but related to that of the A section. For example, if the A section is in C Major, the B section might be in a minor, the relative minor to C Major. This section also has two subsections, each of which are repeated.
  • A – This section is a repeat of the first section of the dance. The only difference is that the two subsections are not repeated this time.

There are several things about dance form that provide symmetry and balance:

  • Dance form starts and ends with the same section (the A section). This is like being able to put a mirror in the middle of a Baroque building and see the original building.
  • Each section of dance form (A and B) has two subsections.
  • The subsections are generally the same length, which means that sections A and B are also the same length.

Note that in dance form each subsection is performed at least twice, some of them three times, due to repeats. This provides tremendous opportunity for the performer to add different ornamentations each time a subsection is played!

Dance Form was often used as one or more movements of the Sonata and Concerto Grosso. All movements of the Suite were Dance Form.

Sonata

During the Baroque Era, the term Sonata simply indicated a fully instrumental piece of music (as opposed to a choral work). The Trio Sonata became a well used form using two solo instruments plus a continuo (often cello) and keyboard. The Trio Sonata evolved into two types of sonatas – the Sonata da Camera and Sonata da Chiesa.

The Sonata da Camera is a chamber piece for two or more instrumentalists and a keyboard instrument. This multi-movement work was often made of dances and eventually evolved into the Suite.

The Sonata da Chiesa is a piece of instrumental music composed for use in a church. This work was often more serious in nature than the Sonata da Camera and evolved into the Sonata Form that we will study in the Classical Era. The Sonata da Chiesa has four movements that follow the tempo pattern of Slow – Fast – Slow – Fast.

The grace, elegance, lightness, and rhythmic clarity of Baroque dance music manages to find its way into movements of Baroque sonatas. Sometimes these movements are titled by a dance name, such as minuet; other times they are titled by a tempo (such as allegro), but are in reality a dance form.

The final movement of Bach’s Flute Sonata in C Major is a Menuet, clearly a dance form by the name, Menuet. However, the Allegro movement of Handel’s Flute Sonata in a minor is actually a Bouree due to its cut time feel, consistent pick up note and dance form of two different repeated sections. This is a dance form, even though the name of the movement is a tempo marking rather than the dance type. When studying Baroque sonatas, it is always a good question to ask whether the movement you are playing is a dance.

Suite

A Baroque Suite is simply a collection of Baroque dances performed as a multi-movement piece of music. The dance types that form the core of the Suite are the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. Other dances are added to the Suite as desired.

Since each dance form has a different meter, rhythm and tempo, the key signature is the glue that ties a Suite together – all dances in a Suite use the same key signature.

Dance Suites were used in the Baroque courts to create a collection of dances that would be used on a specific occasion – a feast, a ball or otherwise entertaining guests.

Some well known Baroque Suites are listed below:

Fugue

The Fugue is a complex composition style where multiple melodies are played together under specific rules and constructs. Fugal writing is a form of counterpoint, where multiple melodic lines line up harmonically when played together. When an entire piece is composed using the fugue writing style, we call that piece a Fugue.

A fugue uses a subject, which is the melodic idea that all voices will imitate at some point. Some fugues have a countersubject, which is a secondary melody that appears repeatedly during the fugue.

The subject is introduced by a single voice and played by all voices during the first section of the piece, called the exposition. The development section occurs after the exposition – this section is free-form in which the composer creatively uses ideas from the subject to create unique musical content. The subject is re-introduced in its original key after the development in the final section of a Fugue, which may be followed by a coda ending.

Video: Introduction to Fugues

Musical Offering – A Fugue by J.S. Bach

One of the most famous fugues written by Bach was inspired by flutist Frederick the Great. It comes with quite a story!

Bach met Frederick the Great at Potsdam in 1747, when ideas about Baroque music practice were morphing into rococo, or galant, style and starting what would eventually become the Classical Era. The complexities of the fugue were falling out of fashion in favor of music that was simpler and more easily understood.

Bach was well known for his fugue improvisation skills, and Frederick the Great was prepared to challenge them. The king proposed that Bach improvise a 3 part fugue on a theme given to him by the king. Composing a fugue on a given theme is made easier or more difficult based on the characteristics of the theme, and the king chose a theme full of challenges! The theme had a lot of chromatic movement and was not very symmetric.

Despite being set up for failure, Bach improvised a 3-part fugue upon hearing the theme and later composed a 6-part fugue on the same theme. This 6-part fugue is known as Musical Offering as it was offered by Bach to Frederick the Great.

The following video has English subtitles, but it gives a good interpretation of the tension that would have been in the room and the challenge that was made by Frederick the Great to improvise on this difficult theme.

Video: Frederick the Great meets Bach

Concerto Grosso

The Concerto Grosso is an instrumental work in which a larger group (the ripieno or concerto grosso) alternates with a smaller group (the concertino). The concertino group was often the same instruments that were used in the Baroque Trio Sonata (two violins and continuo), but could be any smaller group of instruments. Some of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are Concerto Grosso works featuring a unique set of instruments for the concertino (e.g., Brandenburg 2 features trumpet, recorder, oboe, violin).

Vivaldi composed 450 concertos, many of which were concerto grosso form. He innovated a new style with a set of three movements, fast-slow-fast, which evolved into the Classical concerto.

Vivaldi – Special Music School High School ensemble performing Concerto Grosso in d minor

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto 2 performed on period instruments at “Spiegelsaal” Castle Cöthen. Bach worked for Prince Leopold at Cöthen from 1717 – 1723.

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