The Baroque era in music followed the Renaissance and is considered to have covered the years from approximately 1600 to 1750. It was a time of great change for music and instruments, as new ideas emerged and developed.
The most significant development from Renaissance to Baroque, which had direct influence on what kinds of instruments were used and how they were played, was the use of melody and accompaniment. In the Renaissance, the bass line had usually followed the same musical texture as the upper voices, but in the Baroque era the bass line became much more independent of the melody.
Because of this interest in melody and bass, the consort groups which had been popular in the Renaissance now quickly went out of fashion and were replaced by groups which allowed a dominant solo voice together with accompaniment, such as the trio sonata or concerto grosso. Because instruments were now being asked to do different things, they had to change along with the music, and although we find some instruments from the Renaissance still being used, many developed to suit the changes and new instruments began to appear.
The harpsichord, which we have already met in the Renaissance, came into its own in the Baroque period and is one of the instruments most closely associated with this era in music. The instrument became much bigger and more powerful in the Baroque era and could have two manuals (rows of keys). The way the sound was produced – quills plucking the string from underneath – remained the same and so the instrument was still largely incapable of producing dynamics. No matter how hard the key was pressed, the sound produced as always the same volume. The harpsichord was one of the principal providers of a bass line. In the Baroque era a kind of shorthand for harpsichordists was devised, called figured bass. This consisted of a simple one line bass part written out, with a series of numbers over each note which told the harpsichordist which chord and in which position to play with that note.
Despite the enormous popularity of the harpsichord, instruments such as the clavichord still remained popular, although its soft tone meant it was generally unsuitable for most of the ensemble settings which became popular at this time. It was mostly used as an instrument in private homes, and could still accompany a single voice or soft instruments such as a flute. It was a favourite instrument of Bach and his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel.
With the new emphasis on melody in the Baroque era, the consorts of viols popular in the Renaissance were soon superseded by a new, more soloistic instrument – the violin. The development of the violin family is considered to have begun at the end of the 17th century. Although a baroque violin might look much the same as our modern violins, if you look closely there are many differences. Firstly, the Baroque violin doesn’t have a chin or shoulder rest. The fingerboard is a little shorter on the Baroque violin and is not raised as high as on the modern instrument. The bridge also isn’t as high and there are no fine tuners on the tailpiece. Some of the most famous makers of violins of all time were active in the Baroque era, like the Amati family and Antonio Stradivari. Their instruments are still highly prized today, and can fetch millions of pounds.
Viols were still played during the Baroque period, but the arrangement of a consort, in which a group of differently-sized viols played music together became outdated, and it is only the bass viol, played as a virtuoso solo instrument, that survived. At the end of the 17th century a great deal of music was written for the solo bass viol by French composers and virtuoso players such as Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (c. 1640–1690) and Marin Marais (1656 – 1728). The bass viol was also used a bass accompaniment instrument in mixed ensembles with other instruments such as the violin, flute and oboe. This instrument was made by Kaiser of Düsseldorf, Germany, c. 1700.
Wind instruments also became popular as solo instruments during the Baroque period, as well as finding an important place in the orchestra. One of the most popular of the wind instruments was the flute. In the Baroque era, it became very fashionable for noblemen to learn to the play the flute. In fact, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, became a very proficient performer and composer on the flute. His teacher was Johann Joachim Quantz, who wrote a very important book on how to play the flute, which is still used by players today. The Baroque flute has only one key, and is usually made of ebony or boxwood, with ivory decorations. Unlike the modern flute, the bore of the Baroque flute tapers towards the end.
The recorder continued to be played during the Baroque period, and a number of changes to the construction of the instrument gave the Baroque recorder a sweeter sound, softer sound. Many composers wrote specifically for the recorder, including Scarlatti, Schütz, Telemann Vivaldi, Bach, Handel and Purcell, and the recorder was often used in operatic music of the period.
The oboe was another wind instrument which gained great popularity in the Baroque era. Like the flute, it was also usually made of ebony or boxwood, and also had fewer keys than the modern instrument. Most instruments either had two or three. The instrument in this demonstration has three. You will notice that one is a central key and the two others are on either side of it. These two keys actually play the same note, and have been duplicated so that the player could play with either their left or right hand uppermost, according to his preference. Today, all oboes are played with the leftt hand uppermost. Even though these instruments had fewer keys they could still play all the same notes as the modern instrument, but players had to use more difficult fingerings to produce them so couldn’t play some combinations of notes very quickly.
Music was such an important part of life in the Baroque era that it can be found in all kinds of places. This instrument, the Trompe Dauphine, is a kind of hunting horn and would have been carried on horseback during the hunt and used to play signals to let the rest of the hunt know what was happening. As you can see, it looks very much like a French Horn, but has no valves and the player is holding it quite differently. This kind of horn is very difficult to play because the player controls the pitch using only his lips. On the modern French Horn the player uses valves to help get the right notes, and on the classical hand horn the player used their hand inside the bell, as well as a set of crooks, which are lengths of tubing attached to extend the overall length of the horn, thus lowering its pitch. The player of the hunting horn is only able to select notes from the harmonic series by altering the pressure and tension of his lips.