Understanding Baroque Forms 2


A cantata (Italian: “singing”) is a piece specifically designed to be sung. It became the principal vocal form outside of the opera in Baroque Italy and eventually engaged most Italian composers.

Eventually coming to mean a vocal piece with an instrumental continuo, the original cantata from the early seventeenth century was a published collection of arias (solo pieces in ABA (ternary) form), in the form of strophic variations (choral style in which the music is repeated for each successive stanza, possibly with minor variations).

In the Italian style (such as those produced by Alessandro Scarlatti or Handel) a cantata would consist of two or three arias each preceded by a recitative (a form of declamatory speech-like singing serving as dialogue or narrative as a means of advancing the plot or story).

In this cantata by Handel, “Cantata La Lucrezia” (The Lucretia Cantata) we can clearly hear the Italian recitative/aria/recitative form as we hear the story of the rape of Lucretia Tarquinius Collatinus, her hatred of her aggressor (Tarquinus) and her consequent suicide, via a libretto based on a text by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili.

Handel composed the piece sometime between 1706 and 1707 while travelling around the musical centres of Italy (Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice) and popular myth would have us believe that he chose this subject as he was engaged in an affair with the opera prima donna Lucrezia d’André.

Click here to hear the reference performance.

Concerto Grosso

In the concerto grosso we find an antiphonal arrangement for two groups of musicians, generally a smaller string section playing in alternation, contrast and combination with a larger group (OCDM), playing on the sonority between many instruments and only one or just a few. The works are constructed in several movements and as such are placed as an early form of overture or suite.

Although not the first to compose in such a style, the first major and widely appreciated contributor to the form was Arcangelo Corelli (17/02/1653 – 8/01/1713) whose twelve concerti grossi (published after his death in 1713) became influential for a number of composers soon after, including Antonio Vivaldi.

The piece referred to below, Corelli’s Concerto grosso op. 6, nº 8 (Christmas Concerto), shows many of the techniques typified by the concerto grosso (it also shows us where Pachelbel and Vivaldi might have got some of their ideas from).

Intended as a concerto da chiesa it is presented in six movements (each relatively short) with the whole concerto running to about fourteen minutes. It contains one of the best known and beautiful pastorals of the genre in the final movement.

Click here to hear the reference performance.


The fugue (from the Italian “fuga” meaning “flight” or “chase”) is a contrapuntal form that came to prominence and fruition in the Baroque era due to the output of a number of notable composers but most conspicuously in that of the master of the model, J. S. Bach.

Taking its lead from the Renaissance canon, the deceptively simple formula is that one should take an initial musical theme or idea, the Subject,  and introduce it imitatively as the piece progresses in complementary keys and in varying complimentary mannerisms by successive individual instruments, groups of instruments, or voices (voices in this context meaning either literal vocal or instrumental sections or the tonal variation produced by the combination of these sections).

A fugal movement is frequently presented either as part of a larger body of work (notably in the Classical and Romantic periods) or as a piece in its own right.

The classic form of a fugue takes place in three prominent sections:

  • The Exposition
  • The Development
  • The Recapitulation

In the Exposition, the primary ideas are presented and laid out for initial consideration by the listener. The theme or themes become apparent, allowing the audience to recognise when they are being developed during the next section. The first voice will display the theme and upon completion, the theme will be taken up by a second voice in what is known as the Answer while the first voice continues with a second subject, the Countersubject, containing a new format of rhythm and shape, still in the tonic. Upon completion of the initial theme by the second voice, a third voice will take over the subject, the second will take the countersubject and so it continues. Between these expositions we might hear shorter diversions to the overall structure called Episodes which may or may not use ideas expressed in the subject or countersubject.  When all voices have expressed the theme(s) the exposition is recognised as being complete.

During the second section, the Development, the initial statement of the subject (or subjects) are explored by the composer, being restated in different variations and with different combinations of instruments or voices to produce complex and seductive aural effects through the vertical combination of tones provided by the complimentary horizontal melodies. It’s important to note that in restating the subject, a voice will never return to a previously used note as the tonic for that phrase.

The final section of a standard fugue would be presented as a Recapitulation, a review of the content presented in the exposition and development, frequently abiding by the conventions of tonality  by returning to the tonic key. Although this recapitulation might be a simple restatement, it is occasionally used to allow the composer a second development opportunity before bringing the piece to a decisive close.

The well-tempered clavier was written by Bach as both a practical keyboard study and as a demonstration of a new system of tuning keyboard instruments of which he was a pioneer. Our modern method of tuning, equal temperament, was not in widespread use in the Baroque period, musicians opting for the more accurate but not transpositionally friendly “Just Intonation” or “True Tuning” based on the intervals of the pure fifth and the pure third, really only useful for major triads built on C, F and G. In the sixteenth century things were slightly improved by the introduction of “Mean Tone”, allowing for greater polyphonic expansion but still only for keys with one or two sharps or flats. By the time Bach (Senior) and his contemporaries were breaking new musical ground, expanding and modulating to remote keys, mean tone was no longer useful and development was required.

This new system, Equal Temperament (which we still use today) divides the octave into twelve equal semitones, the result of which is that each interval (except the octave) is slightly out of tune, but the discrepancy is so slight (as it’s distributed evenly throughout the octave) that it’s almost imperceptible to all but the most accurate ear. The benefit of being able to play in any key at any position is a price worth paying for any perceived detriment in tonal accuracy.

With the Well Tempered Clavier Bach presented two sets of keyboard pieces in each of the twelve major and tonic minor keys giving us a full set of what he called “Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues” (commonly called “The Forty Eight”), proving that the new system of equal temperament was up to the task of providing polyphonic composition in any key.

Click here to hear the Fugue from No. 9 in E from book Two. (BWV 878)


The Roman Catholic church has always has a strong presence in the world of music and the arts, often being a powerful benefactor and contributor to the livelihoods of prominent musicians and artists from Léonin of Notre Dame in the twelfth century  to Ian Callanan in the twenty first. Of all of the liturgical music produced or commissioned by the Catholic body, by far the most important and noteworthy since the fifteenth century are the renditions of the Mass, the ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper, and the Motet.

The Mass is a standardised and structured choral composition (either sung a capella (lit. “in the manner of the chapel”)) or accompanied by any number or group of instruments from a single musician through to a full orchestra) which is laid out in five movements to match the five invariable (non-changeable) sections of the Catholic Eucharist.

The five movements are:

  • Kyrie (Lord have mercy)
  • Gloria (“Gloria in excelsis deo”) Glory be to God on high)
  • Credo (I believe)
  • Sanctus (Holy)
  • Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)

From its development from plainchant (Gregorian chant) in the early seventh century after the reign of Pope Gregory, through the use of the Cantus Firmus (fixed song) technique in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Mass became more central, more ornate and, eventually, so overblown (as in the case of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) that it was occasionally no longer viable to be performed in a liturgical setting.

A daunting, and technically taxing piece, Beethoven’s Mass in D major (Op. 123) “Missa Solemnis” is considered by many to be one of the composer’s greatest achievements. It was composed to honour Beethoven’s frequent patron and close friend, Rudolph, the Archduke of Austria on the occasion of his investiture as archbishop of Olomouc in the Czech Republic although the composer spent so long refining and reworking that it wasn’t presented to the recipient until the third anniversary of his installation.

Productions of the work were infrequent during Beethoven’s lifetime due to both the logistical and financial constraints of retaining such an extensive orchestra and choir, and the sheer difficulty of performing the piece with a satisfactory precision, Beethoven apparently having little sympathy for those that had to vocalise his monumental concepts. The Musical Times journal of July 1882 stated that “The work is impossible. No human lungs can endure the strain imposed by it.”

Click here to hear the Credo from Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”.


With regard to liturgical musical composition, the Motet is the equal of the Mass in importance. Stemming from the thirteenth century, words (“Mots” in French, hence Motet) were added to music which was previously sung without text. During the Baroque period there were two distinct types of motet, the petit (little) and the grand (large). The grand motet (also known as the “Motet pour deux choeurs”, “Motet for two choirs”) was an imposing offering, often including massed choirs with an accompaniment that might be relatively simple, or as large as a full orchestra.

Taking over from the twelfth century French form “Conductus” (sacred or secular Latin song), the motet was exclusively sacred throughout the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, being based on pre-existing music and text to which extra melodies and related vocal parts, often in different languages, were added in counterpoint. For example, the Cantus Firmus (fixed song) of a Latin liturgical plainchant might be retained by the tenor voice while a secular French poem set to a new melody could be performed alongside, interweaving with the first.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (28/11/1632 – 22/03/1687) was an Italian born composer who took French nationality in 1661. Entering the service of Louis XIV of France in 1653 initially composing music for the court ballets, Lully soon rose through the ranks to eventually hold the position of Music Master to the Royal Family.

This motet, “Plaude Laetare Gallia” was composed in Versailles and first performed in 1668 to celebrate the baptism of Louis’ son, the Grand Dauphin Louis. The libretto was by Pierre Perrin (1620 – 24/04/1675) and contains three parts, all in Latin:

  • Symphonie
  • O Jesu vita precantium
  • Vivat regnet princeps fidelis

Click here to hear Plaude Laetare Gallia.


Of all the dates in the Christian calendar, Easter, signifying the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most poignant and by far the most important. Recounting the story of what is now known as “Holy week” we are told of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), Good Friday (The crucifixion) and Easter Sunday (The resurrection).

The story of Holy Week is known as “The Passion of Christ”.

Musical compositions depicting the Passion have been a part of the celebrations since the Medieval period, possibly as far back as the fourth century. Originally very basic, a priest would recite the story of the passion in Latin, taking the story from one of the gospels, with the voice of Christ delivered in plainsong. By the twelfth century the parts of the recitation had been developed and split into three parts with a tenor voice taking the part of narrator, a bass taking Christ and an alto as the crowd.

Development continued and by the fifteenth century musically complex and ornamental deliveries of the passion were common and, in response to the changes provided by the Reformation of the Catholic Church, the text of the Passion was translated into German under the direction of the Lutheran clergy.

In the seventeenth century, we saw the development of the “Passion Oratorio” and the beginning of a departure from strict liturgical text with the introduction of metrical paraphrase to recount the story.

J. S. Bach wrote a number of settings of the Passion from the viewpoint of all four of the gospels but his St. Matthew’s Passion is considered to be not only a highlight of the work of the composer but a highlight in the history of liturgical music.

Scored for double chorus, soloists, double orchestra and two organs, the work is outstanding in its ambitious and awe-inspiring in its grandeur. First performed in 1727, the text is taken from Matthew, chapters 26 and 27, and narrated by a tenor in recitative, backed by the whole chorus. A full performance takes around three hours and although Bach Senior never wrote any opera, we can clearly hear the influence of the genre in this most dramatic of liturgical creations.

Click here to hear an excellent recording of a complete performance.