A Brief Guide to Baroque Performance Practice

By Jacy Burroughs

The Baroque period is defined as the advent of opera to the death of Bach, which was roughly 1600-1750. Each period of classical music is characterized by its own styles, techniques, and musical characteristics. While most people do not have the option to play on historically accurate instruments, it is still important to work toward historically informed performance by studying the musical style of that time. Several important characteristics of Baroque music are outlined below.

Dynamics             

Have you ever noticed that dynamic markings in music by composers like J.S. Bach, Handel and Vivaldi are sparse? Dynamics during the Baroque period were terraced, meaning dynamic changes were often abrupt, shifting immediately from soft to loud and back. Gradual decrescendos and crescendos are not characteristic of this music. If a section is repeated, it is common to play it piano the first time and forte the second time, or vice versa. Composers did not always dictate dynamics so Baroque music has few written dynamic changes within a piece. In performance, dynamic subtleties would happen at the level of the individual note as opposed to throughout a phrase. For example, a performer may play hairpins on long notes.

Articulation

Articulation markings, like dynamics, were also infrequent. Slurs were rarely used, but short notes were uncommon. In wind playing, performers would use the syllables “ti”, “ri”, and “di” to create articulation. Today, musicians are often taught to articulate with a “ta” sound at the front of the note. While the “ta” creates a harder articulation, Baroque performers would often use “ri” for articulation on the strong beats. This type of unequal tonguing helped achieve notes inegales.

Rhythm

Notes inegales, also known as over-dotting, was a typical rhythm used in the Baroque period. It was found especially in French dance music. Some notes that were written with equal time values were performed with unequal lengths, usually alternating long and short.

Ornamentation

Ornamentation was extremely significant in Baroque music. Today, classical musicians are accustomed to composers dictating every note. In the Baroque period, composers expected musicians to add ornamentation, including trills, mordents, turns, appoggiaturas, grace notes, passing tones, etc. Use of vibrato was also considered an ornament. In addition to adding ornamentations, performers were expected to improvise, especially on cadences.

Types of Ornaments

Types of Ornaments

Tuning

Tuning was much different than it is today. The standard pitch during the Baroque period varied between countries and is outlined below. Meantone temperament was widely used on keyboard instruments from approximately 1500 to 1830. In meantone tuning, the fifth is slightly smaller than a natural fifth. Since the predominant chord type in this period was the major triad, the focus of meantone temperament was to have the root, third, and fifth of a chord sound in tune. However, depending on the key being played, a black key on the piano could only serve for one of its two possible notes. For example, an A-flat would sound different than a G-sharp, based on this system. Fretted instruments, on the other hand, favored equal temperament, in which every semitone is the same size. In classical music today, a twelve tone equal temperament tuning system is most common.

Nationalistic Traits

There were three major centers of western music in Europe during the Baroque period, each with its own unique style.

Italian Baroque music is characterized by homophonic texture, slower harmonic rhythm, and florid ornamentation. The pitch in Italy was high at approximately A460.

German Baroque music is characterized by contrapuntal texture, frequent harmonic rhythmic changes, and rigid ornamentation. Bach would often write out his ornamentations. Pitch was lower than in Italy at approximately A430.

French Baroque music can be identified by its five-part orchestral writing, prevalence of dance movements, and short ornamentations. Mordents or turns were often used on strong beats to create or release tension. Hemiola, the feeling of two against three, was typical of movements in ¾ time. Of the three nations, French music had the lowest pitch at approximately A415.

While I hope this has provided you with a better understanding of Baroque musical characteristics, the best way to understand how Baroque music should sound is to listen to recordings performed on period instruments with and without the music in front of you. Now it’s time to pick up that Baroque sheet music you’ve been dreading and get to listening and practicing!

Jacy Burroughs is the Online Merchandiser for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area. 

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