In music history, the fifteen-decade long Baroque (from the early 1600s to the mid-eighteenth century) was perhaps the first period when professional music started to enjoy great popularity.
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Professionalism was seen, inter alia, in such aspects as writing according to certain genre standards of form and melody, as well as developing a virtuosic performance technique on various instruments. On the one hand, composers experimented with combinations of instruments and timbres, opposing and merging them: that was how the genre of concerto appeared.
On the other hand, the connection of music with real life was not lost, and whole series of dance-like pieces appeared crystallizing into the genre of suite. Among the most prominent composers of the age were the German Johann Sebastian Bach and his Italian colleague Antonio Vivaldi. Two of their works, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (1721) and The Four Seasons (1723) are in the focus of the present report on baroque music.
Initially, the originators of the instrumental concerto were Italians: their natural bright character favoured the development of this playful genre that involved the key idea of competition between the soloists and the accompanying orchestra.
From Italy the genre of instrumental concerto travelled onwards to the rest of Europe where it “became one of the defining forms of Baroque music attracting composers and audiences of all nationalities” (Buelow 524). The genius of Bach could not overlook the curious genre since the latter concealed vast opportunities for composer’s self-expression.
Bach experimented with concertos and his tests of the genre resulted in a series of six Brandenburg Concertos. Among them, researchers single out the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto for its untypical instrumental cast: written for violin, flute, harpsichord, and strings, “it is only when it is played on the correct instruments, and with a single instrument to each part, that its intimate, undemonstrative textures make their effect” (Boyd 91).
And indeed, it appears that the intricate dialogues between the individual instruments would only be lost in the massive sound should the concert be played by a bigger cast. The solo instruments — the violin, flute, and harpsichord — as if play hide-and-seek with the accompanying strings, now stepping forward in obviously solo fragments, now merging with the other instruments in a melodic development.
Among the most prominent solo fragments of the concert are the virtuosic harpsichord cadenza of the first movement, and the whole second movement where the accompanying strings are silent, letting the three soloists develop a lyrical conversation. After the reserved intimacy of the second movement that in its motion reminds of a solemn procession, the final bursts out in a graceful three-beat dance that involves both the soloists and the accompanying strings.
As it has been mentioned, the originators of the instrumental concerto genre were Italians, and in this sphere Antonio Vivaldi has no match. Among his works, an extreme popularity was and is enjoyed by his violin concertos The Four Seasons. Vivaldi employs the tactics of the so-called program music that is aimed at portrayal of certain events which are announced in the title or the literary commentary to the music (Booth 79).
For the four violin concertos, Vivaldi chose a theme connected with the natural cycle of the seasons and reflected in poetic sonnets supposedly written by the composer himself (Booth 79). In addition to the title and the poems that clarify the contents of music, Vivaldi also left detailed prescriptions in the musical text that instruct the performers of the necessary sound effect: for example, in Spring he ascribes the role of “the sleeping goatherd” to the solo violin and of the “barking dog” to the second violin (Booth 79).
Each dedicated to a certain time of year, the four concertos consist of three movements in a traditional tempo scheme fast-slow-fast. By means of musical representation, Vivaldi reflects the soft murmuring of the spring waters and the cheerful singing of birds in the opening movement of Spring by writing a violin part full of light staccatos, repetitions, and trills.
The last movement of the season is a folk festival that proceeds in a swirling three-beat movement of Italian folk dance, tarantella. Summer is all concentrated around the central image of thunderstorm, which is predicted in two first movements by sudden tutti strikes and passages that imitate the peals of far-away thunder.
Streams of rainstorm that breaks through in the final movement are rendered through endless descending passages and gammas against a sharp harmonic background. Autumn reminds of Spring in its initial scene of another folk festival: but this time the old thematic material is re-tinted into minor keys, as if nature has withered and is not as fresh and luxuriant as at the start of the year.
After the festival follows a period of rest, interrupted by fragments of the festive songs, and the final movement illustrates a scene of hunt with blaring sounds reminding of the hunters’ horns.
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The chills of Winter enter with the howling passages of the violin and the trembling repetitions or the orchestra. This cold unfriendly picture gives place to a scene of homely coziness inside a house — the warmth of the hearth is rendered through a calm, placid melody of the violin. But winter reminds about itself in the final movement, with return of rhythmic repetitions in the orchestra.
Booth, John. Vivaldi. Townbridge, Wiltshire: Redwood Books Ltd, 1989. Print.
Boyd, Malcolm. Bach, the Brandenburg Concertos. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.
Buelow, George J. A History of Baroque Music. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004. Print.