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Here’s why listening to more Baroque music can be wonderful and beneficial

| Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Gabriel Zarazua | The Observer

I believe all lovers of music, whenever they make the time for it, are open to experimenting with new genres and appreciating various styles of music (perhaps humanity’s most magical invention). Therefore, I will argue that you, as a dutiful fan of music, should dive into the marvelous world of the “baroque” next. At least, you should try. I am fairly certain it will be a worthy pursuit.

The term “baroque” comes from the Portuguese word “barroco,” meaning “oddly shaped pearl.” The Baroque period in Western music lasted roughly 150 years, from 1600 to 1750. Some of the more distinct and unique elements of Baroque style as opposed to other eras of music are its gracefulness, the matter of interpretation, elegance, complexity and pathos. These elements make Baroque music an incredibly rich and rewarding listening experience that has much to offer for those who take the time to explore it.

In many ways, the music of this period reflects the historical trends of the seventeenth century, including its political, sociological and philosophical revolutions. Baroque style is characterized by fluidity, with melodies that seem to effortlessly merge from one phrase to the next. The use of ornamental figures such as trills (a form of trembling distinct from mere vibrato), mordents (an embellishment featuring a quick descending note) and turns (a similar, ascending ornament), which are added to the principal melody, provide a sense of naturality. The gracefulness of the music creates a sense of ease and lightness, helping the listener to fully immerse themselves in the music. It is almost as if the music itself is dancing and flowing as water from a stream. It is invariably elegant, and its musical constitution creates a sense of refinement and sophistication. The listener is enveloped in the world of embellished artistry and materialism of the seventeenth century. Music is truly a window into the past, and listening to it can give one a glimpse into the worldviews and values of the people who created it. 

Many composers wrote music for the courts of kings and queens, and the harmony often reflects this grandeur and splendor. Music was written for specific occasions and performances, often with a precise goal in mind. This resulted in a level of purity and elegance in the notes that is not found in later music. For instance, in a fugue, each voice has a specific role that is strictly adhered to, and there is a sense of order and balance that is lacking in later works. In addition, Baroque music is often written in a style that is clear and easy to understand, without the dense harmonies and chromaticism that characterize later music. This ensures that the music is accessible to all listeners, regardless of their level of musical knowledge.

Another important aspect of Baroque music is its emotional power. One of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth, wrote in his famous “Tintern Abbey,” that he could sometimes hear the “still, sad music of humanity” whenever he visited the sequestered, beautiful groves around the abbey. I believe the same “still, sad music” is often evoked by the Baroque canon. The music is often highly expressive, with soaring melodies and intricate harmonies that can evoke feelings of joy, sorrow and everything in between. The powerful and intricate chord progressions in Baroque music can be almost tasted, it can be quite an immersive experience to focus attentively on the function of the chords themselves.

Many people find listening to Baroque music is a form of meditation, reducing stress and anxiety. Due to its ornateness, it can be challenging to listen to, and consequentially, it stimulates attention and provokes the formation of neural pathways in brain regions associated with language and memory. The emotional expressiveness of Baroque music can help to soothe the soul and bring a sense of peace and tranquility. Take the principal melody in Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred aria from “St. Matthew Passion,” “Mache dich mein Herze, rein” (Make yourself pure, my heart). It is a tune of repentance sung by Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man who assumed the task of burying Jesus shortly after his death. The piece is practically begging the listener to dance along to its glorious rhythm. Bach parses out “..for from now on he shall have in me, forever and ever, his sweet rest,” longingly and mellifluously, while the stark resolution to let the “world” out and “let Jesus in!” is brief and definitive. Bach takes a simple, elegant theme and modifies it in a myriad of creative ways, provoking an aspect of mystery and surprise to the resignation expressed through the text.

Because of the way music notation developed given the ancient character of baroque music, it possesses an added layer of subjective interpretation, whereby performers may decide to develop their own twist, or rendition of, a particular piece. This allows for creativity and spontaneity in the performance, making each one unique. The interpretive aspect is particularly evident in works like Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, where different performers often bring out or evoke contrasting elements from this single body of work. The slightest change in dynamics, articulation or tempo can accentuate a huge difference in the overall effect of a piece. Phrasing is frequently short and concise, following the natural rhythms of the words being sung. Another important aspect of interpretation is knowing when to use “rubato” — a term referring to an idea of “stolen time” — it is the art of taking a little bit of extra time or slowing down a section of music. 

Ultimately, the goal of interpretation in Baroque music is to create a performance that is both musically and emotionally satisfying to the listener. Baroque improvisation is often compared to jazz and pop music because of its ability to be expressive and creative. It can be spontaneously composed on the spot, making it unique.

Its beauty can remind us of the wonder of the world, inspiring feelings of awe and reverence. Yet another reason Baroque music stands out to me is simply due to the virtuosity and technical skill of composers and performers. Emulating the antiquated style is often highly demanding, both in terms of the technical skill required to play it and the mental and emotional effort required to understand it. In many ways, Baroque interpretation differs from our modern conception of classical music (for instance, the Baroque style often stresses the purity of notes and will not include much vibrato). When performed accurately, many conjunct, evocative melodies — played simultaneously — produce intricate and sensuous melodies. Further, it is usually quite festive, employing lush harmonies and jubilant rhythms.

Additionally, many of the texts used in baroque music are religious or mythological in nature and can be a rich source of spiritual or mystical reflection. Music is meant to be enjoyed and to touch the soul. It is no wonder that baroque music is often used in film and television to provoke an emotional response in the viewer. It is incredibly soulful and human and can often give the impression that the musicians are directly communicating with the audience, sharing their thoughts and feelings in a way that is both intimate and inspiring. It can be a powerful tool for storytelling.

One can even (dare I say it) compare Baroque music to rock or heavy metal. Both are considered loud and aggressive genres of music. They also share common features such as strong, impactful and vibrant rhythms and melodies. Many of the composers of the Baroque era laid the foundations for the music of the Classical, Romantic and even our contemporary musical movements. 

Finally, it is incredibly diverse and rich in variation. Whether you prefer vocal music or instrumental music, fast-paced pieces or slow, contemplative ones, you are sure to find something that appeals to you within the vast corpus of Baroque music. Whether you are looking to relax, reflect or be moved, Baroque music has something to offer you. It is a treasure trove of some of the most beautiful and intricate compositions ever written. From the grandeur and majesty of pieces like Handel’s choral works to the tenderness and introspection of a piece like Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1,” Baroque music is able to elicit a wide range of feelings in listeners through the skillful use of dynamics, rhythm and carefully constructed polyphony.

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About Marcelle Couto

Marcelle Couto was born in Rochester, Minnesota, but she was raised in São Paulo, Brazil. She is a Sophomore in the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in Philosophy, Theology, and Digital Marketing.

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