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The Instrumental Music of Baroque: Forms and Evolution Essay


Baroque is a historical designate period and style in art, music and architecture. In music, Baroque period is usually classified in three sub-periods. This paper discusses the history of instrumental music of the Baroque. It also explains the forms and evolution of instrumental music, Mozart’s legacy, and emergence of new concertos in the 18th century.

The early Baroque was a period of experimentation in which harmonic complexity grew a long-side emphasis on contrast. It occurred around 1590 to 1640 periods. This period witnessed the commencement and gradual beginning of the sonata, suite, concerto grosso, toccata, and fugue instrumental music. Outstanding composers of the early Baroque period includes; Giovanni Gabriel, Johann Hermann Schein, Claudio Monteverdi and others (Hinson, 1998)

The middle Baroque consisted the period of consolidation and happened around 1640 to 1690. The evolution of Baroque music during this period resulted to enhanced regularity of form and style, and brought about greater monumental works. In this period, there was strict control of dissonance compared to the early Baroque (Hinson, 1998). The declamatory style (expressive recitation) of earlier years waned in importance, while the lyrical bel canto aria and new regularized forms took on greater expressive weight.

Operative elements such as aria and recitative appeared in other vocal classes: the cantata, built from a simple alternation of aria and recitative, displaced earlier lyrical single voice, and oratorio and church cantata transformed the sacred concerto.

The work of single instruments, that is, solo sonata, and the work of two solo instruments became popular during this period. The outstanding performers of the middle Baroque include; Henry Purcell, Giacomo Carissimi, Johann Jacob Froberger, Jean-Henri d’Anglebert and others (Kirby, 1995).

The late Baroque occurred in the period around 1690 to 1750. In this time, the tonal regularity, achieved gradually through the preceding century, generated large formal patterns, such as; the grand da capo aria and ritornellos form in the concerto.

The old style of polyphonic church music of the renaissance was still used for religious and instrumental music throughout the 17th Century, leading in the frugal style of Bach, Handel and others. The masters of the late Baroque include; Johann Sebastian Bach, George Fredric Handel, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Domenico Scarlatti (Craw, 1964).

Forms and Evolution of Instrumental Music

The period around 1790 and 1830 saw the emergence of the concerto, mainly influenced by fashion and taste. The solo concerto throughout its history has been dependent on and shaped by social and cultural forces than other major instrumental forms. This happened during the period of revolution and war in Europe which saw a gradual collapse of the ancient regime and its system (Wolflin, 1964).

In addition, there was burgeoning influence of the professional and commercial classes, rapid increase in of public concerts, and the rise of instrumental virtuoso to a position of eminence previously reserved almost exclusively for the operatic singer. This period was abounded in brilliant performance, and many of the concerto’s characteristic elements were determined by current fashion and taste, as well as by the structure of concert life (Wolflin, 1964).

The characteristic of display had never been absent from the instrumental concerto, but it now tended to take priority over purely musical considerations than hitherto; that Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was scarcely popular success during its composer’s lifetime may be attributed to its almost complete lack of virtuoso brilliance, at least in its first two movements.

The concerto repertory of this period has largely disappeared from view; from nearly forty years separating the last of the Mozart’s piano concerto’s (1791) and the F minor Concerto of Chopin (1829), for instance, only one concerto for piano, other than those by Beethoven, appears with any frequency in modern concert programmes (Hinson, 1998).

The masters who contributed greatly in the development of piano music include composers such as; Dussek, Clementi, Hummel, Mosheles, Weber, and Beethoven. This period forms a highly important stage in the development of piano music, culminating in the great flowering of romantic piano music in the work of Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Liszt. This is correct may be to a lesser extent of the music of other instruments, the clarinet, for example.

Therefore, although many concertos that were written and performed in the early 19th century have little lasting value in a purely artistic sense, the form was a vital medium for the development of instrumental technique. Consequently, a closer look of this type of music assists not only to place the great concertos of Beethoven in perspective, but also to trace the gradual emergence of the more familiar romantic concerto style from its source in the virtuoso concerto of the early 19th century (Donigton, 1975).

Mozart’s Instrumental Forms and Legacy

Mozart is inevitably taken as a point of departure when any account of the concerto in the age of Beethoven. The concerts in this period should be examined in the light of those by the composer whose achievements in the genre are equal to any other. However, the greater proportion of them adheres to the form and conventions of the classical concerto. The Mozart offers the greatest examples of these instrumental forms. The concerto is unique among all the instrumental forms that succeeded in the 18th century (Stevens, 1971).

This is because the concerto had already established during the Baroque period. It is due to this earlier evolution that the form of classical concerto is different essentially from that of the symphony, solo sonata, and string quartet, all of which apply sonata form in their first movements. In the late 18th century, the principles of sonata form became so pervasive that the concerto could hardly resist absorbing them.

However, this did not happen at the expense of its own peculiar structure which arises from the opposition not of contrasting themes or key centres, but of contrasting sonorities. The ritornellos’ structure of the Baroque by its own nature had proved to be a good vehicle for expressing this essential feature of the concerto idea. Instead of dispensing of with this idea, composers of classical period simply modified the ritornellos pattern by combining with it the main principles of sonata form (Hinson, 1998).

Piano Concerto

More concertos were written for the piano by Mozart than for any other instrument. This is because he was a pianist himself. A great proportion of his concertos for other instruments resulted from commissions or was specifically designed for a particular performer. The invention of the piano as a principle solo instrument is a feature of the concerto in the last two decades of the century. The piano was firmly challenging the supremacy of the violin by 1800 (Kirby, 1995).

Previously, the supremacy of the violin had not been challenged since the rise of the solo concerto nearly a century earlier. The earlier pianos had a relatively weaker tone and this explains why in many keyboard concertos of the late 18th century, the soloist completely dominates the solo sections (Stephens, 1971). The orchestra had to remain in the background; otherwise the soloist would hardly have been heard. These concertos by comparison with those of the Romantic era are still essentially chamber music.

They also consist of strings accompanying the piano and the full orchestral complement applied only in the tutti passages. Gradually, however, Mozart raises both the size and importance of orchestra, and wind instruments have the similar independence and significance that they have in his operas (Kirby, 1995).

Emergence of New Concertos in 18th Century

A new type of the concerto emerged at the end of the 18th century in Certain European Countries. This was in response to changing fashions and attitudes, thus becoming forerunner of virtuosic or early romantic concerto (Stevens, 1971). Both the English and French had social conditions different from those in Austro-German region. In England and France, the old aristocratic order remained until the 19th century despite occasional upheavals of Napoleonic Wars (Wolflin, 1964).

The situation was helped with the rapid growth of a more bourgeois audience in revolutionary France. Democracy in England together with their longer established tradition of public concerts encouraged the independent musician who was no longer in the service of the noble patron but who established his reputation and earned his living from concert performances (Hinson, 1998).

The new generation of virtuosos were mostly pianists who succeeded cities such as London, Paris, and St. Petersburg. The prominence of pianists in London and Paris in particular, at the turn of the century were complemented by a rapid development in piano manufacture and in the growth of a large domestic market for new piano music (Donington, 1975).

Majority of these musicians were expatriates, attracted to Paris in the post Revolutionary period and London by lucrative opportunities for earning fame and money resulting from the prevailing social and economic conditions. The most outstanding and popular of these pianists include; Bohemian Dussek, Joseph Woelfl from Austria, and Prussian Steibelt. Among these pianists, Dussek forms the crucial link between Mozart and the early Romantic piano concerto of Hummel, Field, and Moscheles.

Dussek’s first concertos were published in 1782 (Craw, 1964). During this period, Mozart had not begun his great series of Viennese concertos. The piano was the best instrument for depicting battles at time. However, such works were not confined to piano alone, because the military flavour was actually conveyed by an orchestra. Other solo instruments for military concertos included the Violin Concerto, Violoncello Concerto, and the Harp (Hinson, 1998).


In sum, Baroque is a term used to designate a historical period or style in music, art and architecture. Instrumentation is an important part of baroque keyboard music. Instruments influences not only melody but all other aspects of music. The early period of the Baroque was a period of experimentation in which harmonic complexity grew alongside emphasis on contrast. The search of musical form continued through the music of the Baroque until the classic era until the classical era discovered a solution.

References List

Craw, H. (1964). A Biography and Thematic Catalogue of the Works of J. Dussek (1760-1812). California: University of Southern California.

Donington, H. (1975). A Performer Guide to Baroque Music. New York: Scribner.

Hinson, M. Anthology of Baroque Keyboard Music. New York: Alfred Music Publishing.

Kirby, E. (1995). Music for Piano. New York: Amadern Press.

Stevens, J. (1971). An 18th Century Description of Concerto First Movement Form. Journal of American Musicological Society, xxiv.

Wolflin, H. (1964). Renaissance and Baroque. London: Collins Publishing Press.

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