14 Chapter 14: Baroque and Classical Music

Introduction to Baroque Music

This section contains materials that will give you a general overview of the period. You’ll also find an introduction to some of the musical terms that you’ll encounter in almost any piece of Baroque music.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slideshow: Introduction to Baroque Music
  • The Baroque Period
  • More on the Baroque Period
  • Basso Continuo
  • Doctrine of the affections


Intro to Baroque from Lumen Learning

Music of the Baroque Period

The Baroque period in European music lasted from about 1600 to about 1750. It was preceded by the Renaissance and followed by the Classical period. It was during the Baroque that the major/minor tonal system that still dominates Western music was established. This period is best known for the complex counterpoint of the mature Baroque, as typified by the work of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

Historical Background

This was the European period that is often called the Age of Reason. Brilliant minds such as Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon were laying the foundations for modern science and mathematics. Impressed with the insights that were gained in those fields, other influential thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke sought to apply similar strict rules of observation and reasoning to philosophy and political science. Many historians believe that this was a critical period that set Europe on its course away from the static or backward-looking viewpoints of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and toward the forward-momentum stance that led inexorably to our modern world.

There are discipline and order underlying much of Baroque music, perhaps reflecting the ideals of the age of reason. In particular, the orderly progression of the harmony and the discipline of complex counterpoint are hallmarks of this era. Yet Baroque composers also displayed a very strong interest in expressing emotions or affections through music. The fantasies and toccatas exhibit a freedom of expression that has very little to do with reason, and there is no mistaking the joy, pathos, or passion expressed in much of the era’s most popular works. Even the more staid religious works often seek to express an affective element of mysticism or massive grandeur.

This new exploration of emotion in music may have had its origins in another important historical influence on the music of this period. Previously, most composers were employed by the church, which usually, and often severely, limited their freedom to experiment. During the Baroque period, although churches were still important employers for many composers, the nobility became much more active patrons of music, and their courts became important venues for performances. This era thus saw a flowering of secular (nonchurch) musical forms, compositions for specific instruments (previously a rarity), and experimentation with harmony, rhythm, and form as well as affect that greatly and permanently altered the musical landscape.

Musical Background, Development, and Influence

The Renaissance Springboard

The Baroque is the earliest period in European music whose music is still widely heard. This is probably because music before this period has an exotic, unfamiliar sound to most modern Western listeners. The music of the Middle Ages was modal rather than tonal; in other words, it was not based on chords and harmonies in major and minor keys. Most people strongly prefer the musical tradition that they grew up hearing; it makes sense to them in a way that unfamiliar traditions do not. In a fundamental way, the Baroque marked the beginning of our familiar tradition.

One of the most obvious differences that you can hear even if you don’t realize it or can’t explain it in medieval music is the lack of thirds, the interval that modern (triadic) chords are built from. Medieval music was based instead on the intervals of the perfect fifth and perfect fourth. This gives early music an open, hollow texture and harmonies that are unfamiliar to the modern ear.

It was during the Renaissance that thirds began to be used more often, particularly in the parallel-thirds and parallel-sixths style of fauxbourdon. (Sixths are closely related to thirds in the same way that fourths are closely related to fifths.)

Listen to a phrase accompanied by parallel fifths (medieval-style harmony) and parallel thirds (Baroque-to-modern-style harmony).

The Baroque Sound

The basic sound of the Renaissance was not the parallel harmonies of fauxbourdon but a complex polyphony of equal, independent (i.e., not moving in parallel) voices. The sound most closely associated with the Baroque kept the independent, contrapuntal voices, but with some important differences.

The most important change, as mentioned above, was the development during this era of tonal harmony. The composers of the mature Baroque were not only using major and minor chords but using them in the kinds of chord progressions and with the kinds of cadences that have continued to be used throughout the following centuries to our own times. This is not to say that there were no later changes to the system of harmony developed during the Baroque; the Romantic and early modern eras in particular saw a great deal of experimentation with harmony. The experimentation of the Romantic period expanded the harmonic possibilities inherent within the tonal system; its sound has also strongly influenced subsequent developments, including in popular music. Many modern composers rejected the tonal system altogether, seeking to replace it with other possibilities. Their efforts have been much less influential in other genres, probably since their nontonal offerings are simply too far outside the range of the familiar for most listeners.

Another development of the Baroque period that is still strongly with us was the rise of the bass line. The voices, or lines, of Renaissance music, and of some Baroque counterpoint, were typically equal in importance. But in much of Baroque music, the various parts were rapidly losing their equality. Instead, the highest line (what we hear as the melody) and the lowest line (the bass) became the most important parts, with the middle lines simply filling in the harmony. In fact, harpsichord players were often expected to improvise an accompaniment given only the bass line with some extra notations. This melody-and-bass-dominated texture, with the bass outlining or strongly implying the harmony, still predominates in most Western music genres and styles.

As mentioned above, there were a great variety of musical forms popular with Baroque composers. Some of these, such as the highly contrapuntal fugues and inventions, are closely associated with this period. Others, including fantasies, variations, suites, sonatas, sinfonias, and concertos, proved more influential, with many major composers using, developing, and experimenting with these forms throughout later eras.

Classical Rejections and Continuity

The composers of the Classical period were strongly influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, which strongly preferred the natural over the formal and egalitarianism over elitism. Concluding that the complex counterpoint of the Baroque was too formal and elitist, they consciously set out to develop a new style, with simpler, slower-moving harmonies and dominating melodies, that was easier for the public to follow and understand. Although counterpoint certainly did not disappear from music, the true equal-voices-style counterpoint that had been so common in the Renaissance and Baroque became much rarer. (When independent voices were added to music of the Classical and later periods, they were often clearly subjugated to the main melody.) The simpler texture and harmony of the Classical period produced such a markedly different sound that even the casual listener can easily distinguish the typical Baroque piece from the typical Classical.

And yet most other elements of Baroque music were not rejected. The most important element that remained was, of course, tonal harmony. The tendency to emphasize the melody and bass lines was, if anything, intensified in the simpler textures of the Classical period. Also, many of the forms and ensembles developed during the Baroque were adopted and developed and expanded in the Classical and later periods.

Here is another overview and summary of the Baroque period; however, this reading contains more information on the early years of the Baroque. Pay special attention to the references to the Florentine Camerata, a group of scholar-musicians in Florence, Italy. Their discussions were particularly influential in the development of a new style of music that marks the beginning of the Baroque.

The composer timeline near the end of this page is a handy resource. I want you to get a sense of the number of significant composers that we just don’t have time to study. It’s also a handy index to the composers we do reference in our reading materials. If you’re interested in specific composers, feel free to do an internet search to find more information about them.

There is also a list of instruments common in this period. You don’t need to study the instruments individually; however, as you come across references to different instruments in later readings (instrumental music becomes much more important in the Baroque than it was in the Renaissance), you’ll have this as a glossary that you can refer to.


Baroque music is a style of Western art music composed from approximately 1600 to 1750. This era followed the Renaissance and was followed in turn by the Classical era. The word baroque comes from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning misshapen pearl, a negative description of the ornate and heavily ornamented music of this period. Later, the name came to apply also to the architecture of the same period.

Ornate theater; every element in the room has been accented with decorative styling. The columns flanking the room are solomonic columns and have sculptures of people or ornate pots at their bases.
Figure 1. Baroque theater in Český Krumlov.

Baroque music forms a major portion of the “classical music” canon, being widely studied, performed, and listened to. Composers of the Baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Arcangelo Corelli, Tomaso Albinoni, François Couperin, Denis Gaultier, Claudio Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Jan Dismas Zelenka, and Johann Pachelbel.
The Baroque period saw the creation of tonality. During the period, composers and performers used more elaborate musical ornamentation, made changes in musical notation, and developed new instrumental playing techniques. Baroque music expanded the size, range, and complexity of instrumental performance and also established opera, cantata, oratorio, concerto, and sonata as musical genres. Many musical terms and concepts from this era are still in use today.


History of European Art Music

The term “Baroque” is generally used by music historians to describe a broad range of styles from a wide geographic region, mostly in Europe, composed over a period of approximately 150 years.

Although it was long thought that the word as a critical term was first applied to architecture, in fact it appears earlier in reference to music in an anonymous, satirical review of the premiere in October 1733 of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie printed in the Mercure de France in May 1734. The critic implied that the novelty in this opera was “du baroque,” complaining that the music lacked coherent melody, was filled with unremitting dissonances, constantly changed key and meter, and speedily ran through every compositional device.

The systematic application by historians of the term “baroque” to music of this period is a relatively recent development. In 1919, Curt Sachs became the first to apply the five characteristics of Heinrich Wafflin’s theory of the Baroque systematically to music. Critics were quick to question the attempt to transpose Wafflin’s categories to music, however, and in the second quarter of the 20th century, independent attempts were made by Manfred Bukofzer (in Germany and, after his immigration, in America) and by Suzanne Clercx-Lejeune (in Belgium) to use autonomous, technical analysis rather than comparative abstractions in order to avoid the adaptation of theories based on the plastic arts and literature to music. All of these efforts resulted in appreciable disagreement about time boundaries of the period, especially concerning when it began. In English, the term acquired currency only in the 1940s, in the writings of Bukofzer and Paul Henry Lang.

As late as 1960, there was still considerable dispute in academic circles, particularly in France and Britain, whether it was meaningful to lump together music as diverse as that of Jacopo Peri, Domenico Scarlatti, and J. S. Bach under a single rubric. Nevertheless, the term has become widely used and accepted for this broad range of music. It may be helpful to distinguish the Baroque from both the preceding (Renaissance) and following (Classical) periods of musical history.


The Baroque period is divided into three major phases: early, middle, and late. Although they overlap in time, they are conventionally dated from 1580 to 1630, from 1630 to 1680, and from 1680 to 1730.

Early Baroque Music (1580–1630)

The Florentine Camerata was a group of humanists, musicians, poets, and intellectuals in late Renaissance Florence who gathered under the patronage of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi to discuss and guide trends in the arts, especially music and drama. In reference to music, they based their ideals on a perception of Classical (especially ancient Greek) musical drama that valued discourse and oration. As such, they rejected their contemporaries’ use of polyphony and instrumental music and discussed such ancient Greek music devices as monody, which consisted of a solo singing accompanied by a kithara. The early realizations of these ideas, including Jacopo Peri’s Dafne and L’Euridice, marked the beginning of opera, which in turn was somewhat of a catalyst for Baroque music.

Concerning music theory, the more widespread use of figured bass (also known as thorough bass) represents the developing importance of harmony as the linear underpinnings of polyphony. Harmony is the end result of counterpoint, and figured bass is a visual representation of those harmonies commonly employed in musical performance. Composers began concerning themselves with harmonic progressions and also employed the tritone, perceived as an unstable interval, to create dissonance. Investment in harmony had also existed among certain composers in the Renaissance, notably Carlo Gesualdo; however, the use of harmony directed toward tonality, rather than modality, marks the shift from the Renaissance into the Baroque period. This led to the idea that chords, rather than notes, could provide a sense of closure and one of the fundamental ideas that became known as tonality.

By incorporating these new aspects of composition, Claudio Monteverdi furthered the transition from the Renaissance style of music to that of the Baroque period. He developed two individual styles of composition—the heritage of Renaissance polyphony (prima pratica) and the new basso continuo technique of the Baroque (seconda pratica). With the writing of the operas L’Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea, among others, Monteverdi brought considerable attention to the new genre of opera.

Middle Baroque Music (1630–1680)

The rise of the centralized court is one of the economic and political features of what is often labeled the Age of Absolutism, personified by Louis XIV of France. The style of the palace and the court system of manners and arts he fostered became the model for the rest of Europe. The realities of rising church and state patronage created the demand for organized public music as the increasing availability of instruments created the demand for chamber music.

The middle Baroque period in Italy is defined by the emergence of the cantata, oratorio, and opera during the 1630s and a new concept of melody and harmony that elevated the status of the music to one of equality with the words, which formerly had been regarded as preeminent. The florid, coloratura monody of the early Baroque gave way to a simpler, more polished melodic style. These melodies were built from short, cadentially delimited ideas often based on stylized dance patterns drawn from the sarabande or the courante. The harmonies, too, might be simpler than in the early Baroque monody, and the accompanying bass lines were more integrated with the melody, producing a contrapuntal equivalence of the parts that later led to the device of an initial bass anticipation of the aria melody.

Jean-Baptiste Lully
Figure 2. Jean-Baptiste Lully.

This harmonic simplification also led to a new formal device of the differentiation of recitative and aria. The most important innovators of this style were the Romans Luigi Rossi and Giacomo Carissimi, who were primarily composers of cantatas and oratorios, respectively, and the Venetian Francesco Cavalli, who was principally an opera composer. Later important practitioners of this style include Antonio Cesti, Giovanni Legrenzi, and Alessandro Stradella.

The middle Baroque had absolutely no bearing at all on the theoretical work of Johann Fux, who systematized the strict counterpoint characteristic of earlier ages in his Gradus ad Paranassum (1725).

One preeminent example of a court style composer is Jean-Baptiste Lully. He purchased patents from the monarchy to be the sole composer of operas for the king and to prevent others from having operas staged. He completed 15 lyric tragedies and left unfinished Achille et Polyxne.

Musically, he did not establish the string-dominated norm for orchestras, which was inherited from the Italian opera, and the characteristically French five-part disposition (violins, violas in hautes-contre, tailles and quintes sizes and bass violins) had been used in the ballet from the time of Louis XIII. He did, however, introduce this ensemble to the lyric theater, with the upper parts often doubled by recorders, flutes, and oboes and the bass by bassoons. Trumpets and kettledrums were frequently added for heroic scenes.

Arcangelo Corelli
Figure 3. Arcangelo Corelli.

Arcangelo Corelli is remembered as influential for his achievements on the other side of musical technique as a violinist who organized violin technique and pedagogy and in purely instrumental music, particularly his advocacy and development of the concerto grosso. Whereas Lully was ensconced at court, Corelli was one of the first composers to publish widely and have his music performed all over Europe. As with Lully’s stylization and organization of the opera, the concerto grosso is built on strong contrasts; sections alternate between those played by the full orchestra and those played by a smaller group. Dynamics were “terraced”—that is, with a sharp transition from loud to soft and back again. Fast sections and slow sections were juxtaposed against each other. Numbered among his students is Antonio Vivaldi, who later composed hundreds of works based on the principles in Corelli’s trio sonatas and concerti.

In contrast to these composers, Dieterich Buxtehude was not a creature of court but instead was a church musician, holding the posts of organist and Werkmeister at the Marienkirche at Lübeck. His duties as Werkmeister involved acting as the secretary, treasurer, and business manager of the church, while his position as organist included playing for all the main services, sometimes in collaboration with other instrumentalists or vocalists, who were also paid by the church. Entirely outside of his official church duties, he organized and directed a concert series known as the Abendmusiken, which included performances of sacred dramatic works regarded by his contemporaries as the equivalent of operas.

Late Baroque Music (1680–1730)

Through the work of Johann Fux, the Renaissance style of polyphony was made the basis for the study of composition.

A continuous worker, Handel borrowed from others and often recycled his own material. He was also known for reworking pieces such as the famous Messiah, which premiered in 1742, for available singers and musicians.

Timeline of Baroque Composers

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi Baldassare Galuppi Carlos Seixas Johann Adolf Hasse Riccardo Broschi Johann Joachim Quantz Pietro Locatelli Giuseppe Tartini Leonardo Vinci Johann Friedrich Fasch Francesco Geminiani Nicola Porpora Silvius Leopold Weiss George Frideric Handel Domenico Scarlatti Johann Sebastian Bach Jean-Philippe Rameau Georg Philipp Telemann Jan Dismas Zelenka Antonio Vivaldi Tomaso Albinoni Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer Antonio Caldara Francois Couperin Alessandro Scarlatti Henry Purcell Marin Marais Arcangelo Corelli Johann Pachelbel Heinrich Ignaz Biber Dieterich Buxtehude Marc Antoine Charpentier Jean-Baptiste Lully Jean-Henri d’Anglebert Barbara Strozzi Johann Jakob Froberger Giacomo Carissimi Antonio Bertali William Lawes Francesco Cavalli Samuel Scheidt Heinrich SchÜtz Girolamo Frescobaldi Gregorio Allegri Claudio Monteverdi Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck Jacopo Peri

Baroque composers from 1600 to 1760.

Baroque Instruments


Baroque instruments including a harpsichord, violin, and guitar
Figure 4. Baroque instruments, including hurdy-gurdy, harpsichord, bass viol, lute, violin, and guitar.
  • Violino piccolo
  • Violin
  • Viol
  • Viola
  • Viola d’amore
  • Viola pomposa
  • Tenor violin
  • Cello
  • Contrabass
  • Lute
  • Theorbo
  • Archlute
  • Angelique
  • Mandolin
  • Guitar
  • Harp
  • Hurdy-gurdy


  • Baroque flute
  • Chalumeau
  • Cortol (also known as Cortholt, Curtall, Oboe family)
  • Dulcian
  • Musette de cour
  • Baroque oboe
  • Rackett
  • Recorder
  • Bassoon


  • Cornett
  • Natural horn
  • Baroque trumpet
  • Tromba da tirarsi (also called tromba spezzata)
  • Flatt trumpet
  • Serpent
  • Sackbut (16th- and early 17th-century English name for FR: saquebute, saqueboute; ES: sacabuche; IT: trombone; MHG: busaun, busne, busune / DE [since the early 17th century] Posaune)
  • Trombone (English name for the same instrument, from the early 18th century)


  • Clavichord
  • Tangent piano
  • Fortepiano—early version of piano
  • Harpsichord
  • Organ


  • Baroque timpani
  • Wood snare drum
  • Tenor drum
  • Tambourine
  • Castanets

Styles and Forms

  • Basso continuo is a kind of continuous accompaniment notated with a new music notation system, figured bass, usually for a sustaining bass instrument and a keyboard instrument
  • The concerto and concerto grosso
  • Monody is an outgrowth of song
  • Homophony is music with one melodic voice and rhythmically similar accompaniment (this and monody are contrasted with the typical Renaissance texture, polyphony)
  • Dramatic musical forms like opera, dramma per musica
  • Combined instrumental-vocal forms, such as the oratorio and cantata
  • New instrumental techniques, like tremolo and pizzicato
  • The da capo aria “enjoyed sureness”
  • The ritornello aria is repeated short instrumental interruptions of vocal passages
  • The concertato style is a contrast in sound between groups of instruments
  • Extensive ornamentation



  • Opera
    • Zarzuela
    • Opera seria
    • Opera comique
    • Opera-ballet
  • Masque
  • Oratorio
  • Passion (music)
  • Cantata
  • Mass (music)
  • Anthem
  • Monody
  • Chorale


  • Chorale composition
  • Concerto grosso
  • Fugue
  • Suite
    • Allemande
    • Courante
    • Sarabande
    • Gigue
    • Gavotte
    • Minuet
  • Sonata
    • Sonata da camera
    • Sonata da chiesa
    • Trio sonata
  • Partita
  • Canzona
  • Sinfonia
  • Fantasia
  • Ricercar
  • Toccata
  • Prelude
  • Chaconne
  • Passacaglia
  • Chorale prelude
  • Stylus fantasticus

This page discusses a musical practice found in almost every Baroque piece: the use of basso continuo. With the end of the Baroque period, continuo fell out of fashion and was rarely heard in the music of the Classical era and beyond. The exception to this was in secco recitative in Classical opera, which continued to make use of sparse, improvised harmony on the harpsichord, though not of the harpsichord-cello pairing of Baroque continuo. This means that the presence of a basso continuo line in a piece of music is a strong indication that the piece is from the Baroque period.

The text in this reading is from a larger article about figured bass. Figured bass is a system of numbers and symbols written beneath the continuo line that indicated the harmonies that were to be improvised by the instrument playing the chords, usually the harpsichord. While figured bass is an important part of the practice of basso continuo, and you should be familiar with that definition, it’s not necessary in this class to dig any deeper into the music theory behind figured bass. Your main concern should be to understand the role of continuo in Baroque music and the instruments that most often performed it, so the information on this page will suffice, unless you wish to study the topic in greater depth for your own information.

Basso Continuo

Basso continuo parts, almost universal in the Baroque era (1600–1750), provided the harmonic structure of the music. The phrase is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part, if more than one, are called the continuo group. The titles of many Baroque works make mention of the continuo section, such as J. S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo in D Minor.

The makeup of the continuo group is often left to the discretion of the performers, and practice varied enormously within the Baroque period. At least one instrument capable of playing chords must be included, such as a harpsichord, organ, lute, oboe, guitar, regal, or harp. In addition, any number of instruments that play in the bass register may be included, such as cello, double bass, bass viol, or bassoon. The most common combination, at least in modern performances, is harpsichord and cello for instrumental works and secular vocal works, such as operas, and organ for sacred music. Typically performers match the instrument families used in the full ensemble: including bassoon when the work includes oboes or other winds but restricting it to cello and/or double bass if only strings are involved. Harps, lutes, and other handheld instruments are more typical of early 17th-century music. Sometimes instruments are specified by the composer: in L’Orfeo (1607), Monteverdi calls for an exceptionally varied instrumentation, with multiple harpsichords and lutes, with a bass violin in the pastoral scenes, followed by lamenting to the accompaniment of organo di legno and chitarrone, while Charon stands watch to the sound of a regal.

The keyboard (or other chording instrument) player realizes a continuo part by playing, in addition to the indicated bass notes, upper notes to complete chords, either determined ahead of time or improvised in performance. The figured bass notation, described below, is a guide, but performers are also expected to use their musical judgment and the other instruments or voices as a guide, and experienced players often incorporate motives found in the other instrumental parts. Modern editions of such music usually supply a realized keyboard part, fully written out for a player, in place of improvisation. With the rise in historically informed performance, however, the number of performers who improvise their parts, as Baroque players would have done, has increased.

Basso continuo, though an essential structural and identifying element of the Baroque period, continued to be used in many works, especially sacred choral works, of the Classical period (up to around 1800). An example is C. P. E. Bach’s Concerto in D minor for flute, strings, and basso continuo. Examples of its use in the 19th century are rarer, but they do exist: masses by Anton Bruckner, Beethoven, and Franz Schubert, for example, have a basso continuo part for an organist to play.

Here you’ll find a brief explanation of the doctrine of the affections. Like the use of basso continuo, the practice of composing music that expressed a single emotion (affect) is unique to the Baroque era. Later composers wanted the freedom to express contrasting emotions in a single piece of music. One of the most noticeable results of Baroque composers’ adherence to the Doctrine of Affections was the practice of breaking a longer text up into shorter phrases and setting each as a separate movement with music designed to express a single emotion or affect.

For example, the Utrecht Te Deum by George Frideric Handel (a late Baroque composer) consists of ten separate movements, while the Te Deum No. 2 in C by Franz Joseph Haydn (a composer of the late Classical era) is a single piece of music with no separate movements. Note that those two texts are not exactly the same. Handel’s Te Deum is in English, while Haydn’s is in the original Latin. But they serve to illustrate the impact of the Doctrine of Affections on music composition in the Baroque.


The doctrine of the affections, also known as the doctrine of affects, doctrine of the passions, theory of the affects, or by the German term Affektenlehre (after the German Affekt; plural Affekte) was a theory in the aesthetics of painting, music, and theater widely used in the Baroque era (1600–1750) (Harnoncourt 1983; Harnoncourt 1988). Literary theorists of that age, by contrast, rarely discussed the details of what was called “pathetic composition,” taking it for granted that a poet should be required to “wake the soul by tender strokes of art” (Rogerson 1953, p. 68). The doctrine was derived from ancient theories of rhetoric and oratory (Buelow 2001). Some pieces or movements of music express one Affekt throughout; however, a skillful composer like Johann Sebastian Bach could express different affects within a movement (Boetticher 2010).

History and Definition

The doctrine of the affections was an elaborate theory based on the idea that the passions could be represented by their outward visible or audible signs. It drew largely on elements with a long previous history, but first came to general prominence in the mid-17th century among the French scholar-critics associated with the Court of Versailles, helping to place it at the center of artistic activity for all of Europe (Rogerson 1953, p. 70). The term itself, however, was only first devised in the 20th century by German musicologists Hermann Kretzschmar, Harry Goldschmidt, and Arnold Schering, to describe this aesthetic theory (Buelow 2001; Nagley and Buji, 2002).

René Descartes held that there were six basic affects, which can be combined together into numerous intermediate forms (Descartes 1649, p. 94):

  1. Admiration (admiration)
  2. Amour (love)
  3. Haine (hatred)
  4. Désir (desire)
  5. Joie (joy)
  6. Tristesse (sorrow)

Another authority also mentions sadness, anger, and jealousy (Buelow 2001).

Lorenzo Giacomini (1552–1598) in his Orationi e discorsi defined an affection as “a spiritual movement or operation of the mind in which it is attracted or repelled by an object it has come to know as a result of an imbalance in the animal spirits and vapours that flow continually throughout the body” (Giacomini Tebalducci Malespini 1597).

“Affections are not the same as emotions; however, they are a spiritual movement of the mind” (Palisca 1991, p. 3).

Introduction to Vocal Music in the Baroque Period

A prominent Baroque proponent of the doctrine of the affections was Johann Mattheson (Poultney 1996). This section contains materials that will focus on the major genres of vocal music you’ll encounter in your study of the Baroque period—namely, opera, cantata, and oratorio—and some of the composers who developed those genres. Because Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel are generally viewed as the towering masters of the late Baroque, readings focusing on their lives and works of vocal music will be in a separate section.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slideshow: Vocal Music in the Baroque
  • Opera
  • Monody
  • Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo
  • Henry Purcell
  • Dido and Aeneas
  • Cantata
  • Oratorio


Early Baroque Vocal Music from Lumen Learning
Early Baroque Vocal Music from Lumen Learning

Perhaps the single greatest musical development of the Baroque period is the creation of a new genre of vocal music: opera. As with most genres in this era, opera undergoes significant stylistic evolution from its origins in the early 1600s to the opera seria of Handel in the 1730s. Please pay special attention to the following terms (if you would like to learn more about them, follow the links): libretto, recitative (both forms: secco and accompagnato), and aria.


Opera (English plural: operas; Italian plural: opere) is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theater, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble.

The Palais Garnier of the Paris Opera, one of the world’s most famous opera houses
Figure 1. The Palais Garnier of the Paris Opera, one of the world’s most famous opera houses.

Opera is part of the Western Classical music tradition. It started in Italy at the end of the 16th century (with Jacopo Peri’s lost Dafne, produced in Florence in 1598) and soon spread through the rest of Europe: Schatz in Germany, Lully in France, and Purcell in England all helped to establish their national traditions in the 17th century. In the 18th century, Italian opera continued to dominate most of Europe (except France), attracting foreign composers such as Handel. Opera seria was the most prestigious form of Italian opera, until Gluck reacted against its artificiality with his “reform” operas in the 1760s. Today the most renowned figure of late 18th century opera is Mozart, who began with opera seria but is most famous for his Italian comic operas, especially The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze Di Figaro), Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, as well as The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflute), a landmark in the German tradition.

Operatic Terminology

The words of an opera are known as the libretto (literally “little book”). Some composers, notably Richard Wagner, have written their own libretti; others have worked in close collaboration with their librettists—e.g., Mozart with Lorenzo Da Ponte. Traditional opera, often referred to as “number opera,” consists of two modes of singing: recitative, the plot-driving passages sung in a style designed to imitate and emphasize the inflections of speech, and aria (an “air” or formal song), in which the characters express their emotions in a more structured melodic style. Duets, trios, and other ensembles often occur, and choruses are used to comment on the action. In some forms of opera, such as Singspiel, opera comique, operetta, and semi-opera, the recitative is mostly replaced by spoken dialogue. Melodic or semi-melodic passages occurring in the midst of, or instead of, recitative are also referred to as arioso. During the Baroque and Classical periods, recitative could appear in two basic forms: secco (dry) recitative, sung with a free rhythm dictated by the accent of the words, accompanied only by continuo, which was usually a harpsichord and a cello; or accompagnato (also known as instrumentato), in which the orchestra provided accompaniment. By the 19th century, accompanto had gained the upper hand, the orchestra played a much bigger role, and Richard Wagner revolutionized opera by abolishing almost all distinction between aria and recitative in his quest for what he termed “endless melody.” Subsequent composers have tended to follow Wagner’s example, though some, such as Stravinsky in his The Rake’s Progress, have bucked the trend. The terminology of the various kinds of operatic voices is described in detail below.


The Italian word opera means “work,” in the sense of both the labor done and the result produced. The Italian word derives from the Latin opera, a singular noun meaning “work” and also the plural of the noun opus. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Italian word was first used in the sense of a “composition in which poetry, dance, and music are combined” in 1639; the first recorded English usage in this sense dates to 1648.

Dafne by Jacopo Peri was the earliest composition considered opera, as understood today. It was written around 1597, largely under the inspiration of an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the “Camerata de’ Bardi.” Significantly, Dafne was an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama, part of the wider revival of antiquity characteristic of the Renaissance. The members of the Camerata considered that the “chorus” parts of Greek dramas were originally sung, and possibly even the entire text of all roles; opera was thus conceived as a way of “restoring” this situation. Dafne is unfortunately lost. A later work by Peri, Euridice, dating from 1600, is the first opera score to have survived to the present day. The honor of being the first opera still to be regularly performed, however, goes to Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, composed for the court of Mantua in 1607. The Mantua court of the Gonzagas, employers of Monteverdi, played a significant role in the origin of opera employing not only court singers of the concerto delle donne (till 1598) but also one of the first actual “opera singers”: Madama Europa.

The Baroque Era

Teatro Argentina (Panini, 1747, Musie du Louvre)
Figure 2. Teatro Argentina (Panini, 1747, Musie du Louvre).

Opera did not remain confined to court audiences for long. In 1637, the idea of a “season” (Carnival) of publicly attended operas supported by ticket sales emerged in Venice. Monteverdi had moved to the city from Mantua and composed his last operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, for the Venetian theater in the 1640s. His most important follower, Francesco Cavalli, helped spread opera throughout Italy.

In these early Baroque operas, broad comedy was blended with tragic elements in a mix that jarred some educated sensibilities, sparking the first of opera’s many reform movements, sponsored by the Arcadian Academy, which came to be associated with the poet Metastasio, whose libretti helped crystallize the genre of opera seria, which became the leading form of Italian opera until the end of the 18th century. Once the Metastasian ideal had been firmly established, comedy in Baroque-era opera was reserved for what came to be called opera buffa. Before such elements were forced out of opera seria, many libretti had featured a separately unfolding comic plot as sort of an “opera-within-an-opera.” One reason for this was an attempt to attract members of the growing merchant class, newly wealthy but still not as cultured as the nobility, to the public opera houses. These separate plots were almost immediately resurrected in a separately developing tradition that partly derived from the commedia dell’arte, a long-flourishing improvisatory stage tradition of Italy.

Just as intermedi had once been performed in-between the acts of stage plays, operas in the new comic genre of “intermezzi,” which developed largely in Naples in the 1710s and 1720s, were initially staged during the intermissions of opera seria. They became so popular, however, that they were soon being offered as separate productions.

Opera seria was elevated in tone and highly stylized in form, usually consisting of secco recitative interspersed with long da capo arias. These afforded great opportunity for virtuosic singing, and during the golden age of opera seria the singer really became the star. The role of the hero was usually written for the castrato voice; castrati such as Farinelli and Senesino, as well as female sopranos such as Faustina Bordoni, became in great demand throughout Europe as opera seria ruled the stage in every country except France. Indeed, Farinelli was one of the most famous singers of the 18th century. Italian opera set the Baroque standard. Italian libretti were the norm, even when a German composer like Handel found himself composing the likes of Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare for London audiences. Italian libretti remained dominant in the Classical period as well—for example, in the operas of Mozart, who wrote in Vienna near the century’s close. Leading Italian-born composers of opera seria include Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, and Porpora.


One of the aims of the scholars in the Florentine Camerata was to make the music serve the text. They objected to the obscuring of the text and its meaning that was common in late Renaissance polyphony, and they sought to create a new musical style that would be more expressive and reflective of the text. To do this, they looked back to the traditions of ancient Greek drama or at least to their limited understanding of those traditions. The result of their efforts was the singing style we refer to as monody. Though monody in its strictest form did not remain in use very long, it had enormous influence on the emerging vocal genres of opera, cantata, and oratorio.


In music, the term monody refers to a solo vocal style distinguished by having a single melodic line and instrumental accompaniment. More specifically, it applies to Italian song of the early 17th century, particularly the period from about 1600 to 1640. The term itself is a recent invention of scholars: no composer of the 17th century ever called a piece a monody. In the Baroque, compositions in monodic style were labeled madrigals, motets, or even concertos (in the earlier sense of “concertato,” meaning “with instruments”).

Caccini, Le Nuove musiche, 1601, title page
Figure 1. Caccini, Le Nuove musiche, 1601, title page.

In monody, which developed out of an attempt by the Florentine Camerata in the 1580s to restore ancient Greek ideas of melody and declamation (probably with little historical accuracy), a solo voice sings a rhythmically free melodic line in a declamatory style. Early Baroque composers’ primary goal in monodic composition was to have the music conform to the natural rhythm and meaning of the text. This was a reaction to the complex polyphony of late Renaissance choral music in which the text was often obscured by the independence of the various lines. This vocal melody was sparsely accompanied by the bass line and improvised chords of the basso continuo instrument pair. The development of monody was one of the defining characteristics of early Baroque practice, as opposed to late Renaissance style, in which groups of voices sang independently and with a greater balance between parts.

Existing musical genres that adopted the style of monody were the madrigal and the motet, both of which developed into solo forms after 1600.

Contrasting passages in monodies could be more melodic or more declamatory: these two styles of presentation eventually developed into the aria and the recitative, and the overall form merged with the cantata by about 1635.

An important early treatise on monody is contained in Giulio Caccini’s song collection Le nuove musiche (Florence, 1601).

You have already been introduced to Claudio Monteverdi, whose music straddles the late Renaissance and early Baroque. Now let’s explore one of his most significant compositions, L’Orfeo, the first opera considered to be a masterwork.


L’Orfeo (SV 318), sometimes called La favola d’Orfeo, is an early Baroque favola in musica, or opera (sometimes considered late Renaissance), by Claudio Monteverdi, with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio. It is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus and tells the story of his descent to Hades and his fruitless attempt to bring his dead bride Eurydice back to the living world. It was written in 1607 for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua. While the honor of the first-ever opera goes to Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, and the earliest surviving opera is Euridice (also by Peri), L’Orfeo has the honor of being the earliest surviving opera that is still regularly performed today.

During the early 17th century, the traditional intermedio, a musical sequence between the acts of a straight play, was evolving into the form of a complete musical drama or “opera.” Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo moved this process out of its experimental era and provided the first fully developed example of the new genre. After its initial performance, the work was staged again in Mantua, and possibly in other Italian centers in the next few years. Its score was published by Monteverdi in 1609 and again in 1615. After the composer’s death in 1643, the opera went unperformed for many years and was largely forgotten until a revival of interest in the late 19th century led to a spate of modern editions and performances. At first these tended to be unstaged versions within institutes and music societies, but following the first modern dramatized performance in Paris, in 1911, the work began to be seen increasingly often in theaters. After the Second World War, most new editions sought authenticity through the use of period instruments. Many recordings were issued, and the opera was increasingly staged in opera houses. In 2007, the quatercentenary of the premiere was celebrated by performances throughout the world.

In his published score, Monteverdi lists around 41 instruments to be deployed, with distinct groups of instruments used to depict particular scenes and characters. Thus strings, harpsichords, and recorders represent the pastoral fields of Thrace with their nymphs and shepherds, while heavy brass illustrates the underworld and its denizens. Composed at the point of transition from the Renaissance era to the Baroque, L’Orfeo employs all the resources then known within the art of music, with particularly daring use of polyphony. The work is not orchestrated as such; in the Renaissance tradition, instrumentalists followed the composer’s general instructions but were given considerable freedom to improvise. This separates Monteverdi’s work from the later opera canon and makes each performance of L’Orfeo a uniquely individual occasion.

Historical Background

Claudio Monteverdi, born in Cremona in 1567, was a musical prodigy who studied under Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, the maestro di cappella (head of music) at Cremona Cathedral. After training in singing, strings playing, and composition, Monteverdi worked as a musician in Verona and Milan until, in 1590 or 1591, he secured a post as suonatore di vivuola (viola player) at Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga’s court at Mantua. Through ability and hard work, Monteverdi rose to become Gonzaga’s maestro della musica (master of music) in 1601.

Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, Monteverdi’s employer at Mantua
Figure 1. Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, Monteverdi’s employer at Mantua.

Vincenzo Gonzaga’s particular passion for musical theater and spectacle grew from his family connections with the court of Florence. Toward the end of the 16th century, innovative Florentine musicians were developing the intermedio, a long-established form of musical interlude inserted between the acts of spoken dramas, into increasingly elaborate forms. Led by Jacopo Corsi, these successors to the renowned Camerata were responsible for the first work generally recognized as belonging to the genre of opera: Dafne, composed by Corsi and Jacopo Peri and performed in Florence in 1598. This work combined elements of madrigal singing and monody with dancing and instrumental passages to form a dramatic whole. Only fragments of its music still exist, but several other Florentine works of the same period—Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, Peri’s Euridice, and Giulio Caccini’s identically titled Euridice—survive complete. These last two works were the first of many musical representations of the Orpheus myth as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and as such were direct precursors of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

The Gonzaga court had a long history of promoting dramatic entertainment. A century before Duke Vincenzo’s time, the court had staged Angelo Poliziano’s lyrical drama La favola di Orfeo, at least half of which was sung rather than spoken. More recently, in 1598, Monteverdi had helped the court’s musical establishment produce Giovanni Battista Guarini’s play Il pastor fido, described by theater historian Mark Ringer as a “watershed theatrical work” that inspired the Italian craze for pastoral drama. On 6 October 1600, while visiting Florence for the wedding of Maria de’ Medici to King Henry IV of France, Duke Vincenzo attended a production of Peri’s Euridice. It is likely that his principal musicians, including Monteverdi, were also present at this performance. The duke quickly recognized the novelty of this new form of dramatic entertainment and its potential for bringing prestige to those prepared to sponsor it.


When Monteverdi wrote the music for L’Orfeo, he had a thorough grounding in theatrical music. He had been employed at the Gonzaga court for 16 years, much of it as a performer or arranger of stage music, and in 1604, he had written the ballo Gli amori di Diane ed Endimone for the 1604-5 Mantua Carnival. The elements from which Monteverdi constructed his first opera score—the aria, the strophic song, recitative, choruses, dances, dramatic musical interlude—were, as conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt has pointed out, not created by him, but “he blended the entire stock of newest and older possibilities into a unity that was indeed new.” Musicologist Robert Donington writes similarly: “[The score] contains no element which was not based on precedent, but it reaches complete maturity in that recently-developed form.…Here are words as directly expressed in music as [the pioneers of opera] wanted them expressed; here is music expressing them…with the full inspiration of genius.”

Monteverdi states the orchestral requirements at the beginning of his published score, but in accordance with the practice of the day, he does not specify their exact usage. At that time, it was usual to allow each interpreter of the work freedom to make local decisions based on the orchestral forces at their disposal. These could differ sharply from place to place. Furthermore, as Harnoncourt points out, the instrumentalists would all have been composers and would have expected to collaborate creatively at each performance rather than playing a set text. Another practice of the time was to allow singers to embellish their arias. Monteverdi wrote plain and embellished versions of some arias, such as Orfeo’s “Possente spirito,” but according to Harnoncourt, “it is obvious that where he did not write any embellishments he did not want any sung.”

Each act of the opera deals with a single element of the story, and each ends with a chorus. Despite the five-act structure, with two sets of scene changes, it is likely that L’Orfeo conformed to the standard practice for court entertainments of that time and was played as a continuous entity, without intervals or curtain descents between acts. It was the contemporary custom for scene shifts to take place in sight of the audience, these changes being reflected musically by changes in instrumentation, key, and style.


The action takes place in two contrasting locations: the fields of Thrace (Acts 1, 2, and 5) and the Underworld (Acts 3 and 4). An instrumental toccata (English: tucket, meaning a flourish on trumpets) precedes the entrance of La musica, representing the “spirit of music,” who sings a prologue of five stanzas of verse. After a gracious welcome to the audience, she announces that she can, through sweet sounds, “calm every troubled heart.” She sings a further paean to the power of music before introducing the drama’s main protagonist, Orfeo, who “held the wild beasts spellbound with his song.”

Act 1

After La musica’s final request for silence, the curtain rises on Act 1 to reveal a pastoral scene. Orfeo and Euridice enter together with a chorus of nymphs and shepherds, who act in the manner of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action both as a group and as individuals. A shepherd announces that this is the couple’s wedding day; the chorus responds, first in a stately invocation (“Come, Hymen, O come”) and then in a joyful dance (“Leave the mountains, leave the fountains”). Orfeo and Euridice sing of their love for each other before leaving with most of the group for the wedding ceremony in the temple. Those left on stage sing a brief chorus, commenting on how Orfeo used to be one “for whom sighs were food and weeping was drink” before love brought him to a state of sublime happiness.

Act 2

Orfeo returns with the main chorus, and sings with them of the beauties of nature. Orfeo then muses on his former unhappiness but proclaims, “After grief one is more content, after pain one is happier.” The mood of contentment is abruptly ended when La messaggera enters, bringing the news that, while gathering flowers, Euridice has received a fatal snakebite. The chorus expresses its anguish: “Ah, bitter happening, ah, impious and cruel fate!” while the Messaggera castigates herself as the bearing of bad tidings (“For ever I will flee, and in a lonely cavern lead a life in keeping with my sorrow”). Orfeo, after venting his grief and incredulity (“Thou art dead, my life, and I am breathing?”), declares his intention to descend into the Underworld and persuade its ruler to allow Euridice to return to life. Otherwise, he says, “I shall remain with thee in the company of death.” He departs, and the chorus resumes its lament.

Act 3

Orfeo is guided by Speranza to the gates of Hades. Having pointed out the words inscribed on the gate (“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”), Speranza leaves. Orfeo is now confronted with the ferryman Caronte, who addresses Orfeo harshly and refuses to take him across the river Styx. Orfeo attempts to persuade Caronte by singing a flattering song to him (“Mighty spirit and powerful divinity”), but the ferryman is unmoved. However, when Orfeo takes up his lyre and plays, Caronte is soothed into sleep. Seizing his chance, Orfeo steals the ferryman’s boat and crosses the river, entering the Underworld, while a chorus of spirits reflects that nature cannot defend herself against man: “He has tamed the sea with fragile wood, and disdained the rage of the winds.”

Act 4

In the Underworld, Proserpina, Queen of Hades, who has been deeply affected by Orfeo’s singing, petitions King Plutone, her husband, for Euridice’s release. Moved by her pleas, Plutone agrees on the condition that, as he leads Euridice toward the world, Orfeo must not look back. If he does, “a single glance will condemn him to eternal loss.” Orfeo enters, leading Euridice and singing confidently that on that day he will rest on his wife’s white bosom. But as he sings, a note of doubt creeps in: “Who will assure me that she is following?” Perhaps Plutone, driven by envy, has imposed the condition through spite? Suddenly distracted by an off-stage commotion, Orfeo looks around; immediately, the image of Euridice begins to fade. She sings, despairingly, “Losest thou me through too much love?” and disappears. Orfeo attempts to follow her but is drawn away by an unseen force. The chorus of spirits sings that Orfeo, having overcome Hades, was in turn overcome by his passions.

Act 5

Back in the fields of Thrace, Orfeo has a long soliloquy in which he laments his loss, praises Euridice’s beauty, and resolves that his heart will never again be pierced by Cupid’s arrow. An off-stage echo repeats his final phrases. Suddenly, in a cloud, Apollo descends from the heavens and chastises him: “Why dost thou give thyself up as prey to rage and grief?” He invites Orfeo to leave the world and join him in the heavens, where he will recognize Euridice’s likeness in the stars. Orfeo replies that it would be unworthy not to follow the counsel of such a wise father, and together they ascend. A shepherds’ chorus concludes that “he who sows in suffering shall reap the fruit of every grace,” before the opera ends with a vigorous moresca.

Original Libretto Ending

In Striggio’s 1607 libretto, Orfeo’s Act 5 soliloquy is interrupted not by Apollo’s appearance but by a chorus of maenads or Bacchantes wild, drunken women who sing of the “divine fury” of their master, the god Bacchus. The cause of their wrath is Orfeo and his renunciation of women; he will not escape their heavenly anger, and the longer he evades them, the more severe his fate will be. Orfeo leaves the scene, and his destiny is left uncertain, for the Bacchantes devote themselves for the rest of the opera to wild singing and dancing in praise of Bacchus. Early music authority Claude Palisca believes that the two endings are not incompatible; Orfeo evades the fury of the Bacchantes and is then rescued by Apollo.

https://library.achievingthedream.org/alamomusicappreciation/chapter/henry-purcell/ Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:51:59 +0000

Here is a link to a Naxos article on Henry Purcell, a famous, though tragically short-lived, English composer. His operatic compositions were few but represent the development of a mid-Baroque English operatic tradition that was later supplanted when Italian opera was imported to the English stage, most notably by Handel.

Dido and Aeneas

The final aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, often referred to as “Dido’s Lament,” is one of your listening pieces for the Baroque. While scholars and fans of opera would know exactly what piece is indicated by the popular label “Dido’s Lament,” recitatives and arias are technically titled according to their first line—in this case, “When I am laid in earth.”

This aria is unquestionably among the most beautiful arias in the operatic literature. It features an ostinato in the continuo part, known as a “ground bass,” and is an example of how an aria does not advance the plot but focuses on the expression of emotion. Your listening example begins with the short recitative “Thy hand Belinda” and then proceeds with the aria.

Background and Context

Before Dido and Aeneas, Purcell composed music for several stage works, including nine pieces for Nathaniel Lee’s Theodosius, or The Force of Love (1680) and eight songs for Thomas d’ Urfey’s A Fool’s Preferment (1688). He also composed songs for two plays by Nahum Tate (later the librettist of Dido and Aeneas), The Sicilian Usurper (1680) and Cuckold-Haven (1685). Dido and Aeneas was Purcell’s first (and only) all-sung opera and derives from the English masque tradition.


Originally based on Nahum Tate’s play Brutus of Alba, or The Enchanted Lovers (1678), the opera is likely, at least to some extent, to be allegorical. The prologue refers to the joy of a marriage between two monarchs, which could refer to the marriage between William and Mary. In a poem of about 1686, Tate alluded to James II as Aeneas, who is misled by the evil machinations of the Sorceress and her witches (representing Roman Catholicism, a common metaphor at the time) into abandoning Dido, who symbolizes the British people. The same symbolism may apply to the opera. This explains the addition of the characters of the Sorceress and the witches, which do not appear in the original Aeneid. It would be noble, or at least acceptable, for Aeneas to follow the decree of the Gods but not so acceptable for him to be tricked by ill-meaning spirits.

Although the opera is a tragedy, there are numerous seemingly lighter scenes, such as the First Sailor’s song: “Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore, and silence their mourning with vows of returning, though never intending to visit them more.” Harris considers the callousness and cynicism of the song to underline the “moral” of the story, that young women should not succumb to the advances and promises of ardent young men.


No score in Purcell’s hand is extant, and the only 17th-century source is a libretto, possibly from the original performance. The earliest extant score, held in the Bodleian Library, was copied no earlier than 1750, well over 60 years after the opera was composed. No later sources follow the act divisions of the libretto, and the music to the prologue is lost. The prologue, the end of the act 2 “Grove” scene, and several dances were almost certainly lost when the opera was divided into parts to be performed as interludes between the acts of spoken plays in the first decade of the 18th century.

The first of the arias to be published separately was “Ah, Belinda” in Orpheus Britannicus. The most famous aria of the work is “When I am laid in earth,” popularly known as “Dido’s Lament.” Both arias are formed on a lamento ground bass. “Dido’s Lament” has been performed or recorded by artists far from the typical operatic school, such as Klaus Nomi (as “Death”), Ane Brun, and Jeff Buckley. It has also been transcribed or used in many scores, including the soundtrack to the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (renamed “Nixon’s Walk”). It is played annually by a military band at the Cenotaph remembrance ceremony, which takes place on the Sunday nearest to 11 November (Armistice Day) in London’s Whitehall.

The music is thought by some to be too simple for Purcell in 1689, but this may simply reflect that the intended performers were schoolchildren. The work is scored for four-part strings and continuo. The fact that the libretto from the Chelsea School performance indicates two dances for guitar, the “Dance Gittars Chacony” in act 1 and the “Gittar Ground a Dance” in the Grove scene of act 2, has led one scholar to suggest that Purcell envisioned a guitar as a primary member of the continuo group for the opera. Music for neither of these dances is extant, and it seems likely that Purcell did not compose them but rather left them to be improvised by the guitarist. Several editions of the opera have been made and have been provided with a continuo realization; a notable, if rather idiosyncratic, edition being that made by Imogen Holst and Benjamin Britten. There are a number of editions with realizations, and the opera’s accessibility to amateur performers is a feature that has greatly abetted the growth of its popularity in the latter half of the 20th century. While the Prologue’s music has been lost and has not been reconstructed, several realizations of the opera include a solution to the missing ritornello at the end of the second act. Known to have been part of the score, it is now performed as a dance taken from other, similar works by Purcell, or invented outright in the same vein, to keep the integrity and continuity of the performance.


Act 1

Dido’s court

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland
Figure 1. The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland.

The opera opens with Dido in her court with her attendants. Belinda is trying to cheer up Dido, but Dido is full of sorrow, saying, “Peace and I are strangers grown.” Belinda believes the source of this grief to be the Trojan Aeneas and suggests that Carthage’s troubles could be resolved by a marriage between the two. Dido and Belinda talk for a time. Dido fears that her love will make her a weak monarch, but Belinda and the Second Woman reassure her, “The hero loves as well.” Aeneas enters the court and is at first received coldly by Dido, but she eventually accepts his proposal of marriage.

Act 2

Scene 1: The cave of the Sorceress

The Sorceress/Sorcerer is plotting the destruction of Carthage and its queen and summons companions to help with evil plans. The plan is to send her “trusted elf” disguised as Mercury, someone to whom Aeneas will surely listen, to tempt him to leave Dido and sail to Italy. This would leave Dido heartbroken, and she would surely die. The chorus join in with terrible laughter, and the Enchantresses decide to conjure up a storm to make Dido and her train leave the grove and return to the palace. When the spell is prepared, the witches vanish in a thunderclap.

Scene 2: A grove during the middle of a hunt

Listen: Stay, Prince, and Hear

The Sorceress’s messenger, in the form of Mercury, attempts to convince Aeneas to leave Carthage.

Act 3

Dido and Aeneas are accompanied by their train. They stop at the grove to take in its beauty. A lot of action is going on, with attendants carrying goods from the hunt and a picnic possibly taking place, and Dido and Aeneas are together within the activity. This is all stopped when Dido hears distant thunder, prompting Belinda to tell the servants to prepare for a return to shelter as soon as possible. As every other character leaves the stage, Aeneas is stopped by the Sorceress’s elf, who is disguised as Mercury. This pretend Mercury brings the command of Jove that Aeneas is to wait no longer in beginning his task of creating a new Troy on Latin soil. Aeneas consents to the wishes of what he believes are the gods but is heartbroken that he will have to leave Dido. He then goes off-stage to prepare for his departure from Carthage.

The Harbor at Carthage

Preparations are being made for the departure of the Trojan fleet. The sailors sing a song, which is followed shortly by the Sorceress and her companions’ sudden appearance. The group is pleased at how well their plan has worked, and the Sorceress sings a solo describing her further plans for the destruction of Aeneas “on the ocean.” All the characters begin to clear the stage after a dance in three sections and then disperse.

The palace

Dido and Belinda enter, shocked at Aeneas’s disappearance. Dido is distraught and Belinda comforts her. Suddenly Aeneas returns, but Dido is full of fear before Aeneas speaks, and his words only serve to confirm her suspicions. She derides his reasons for leaving, and even when Aeneas says he will defy the gods and not leave Carthage, Dido rejects him for having once thought of leaving her. After Dido forces Aeneas to leave, she states that “Death must come when he is gone.” The opera and Dido’s life both slowly come to a conclusion as the Queen of Carthage sings her last aria, “When I am laid in Earth,” also known as “Dido’s Lament.” The chorus and orchestra then conclude the opera once Dido is dead by ordering the “cupids to scatter roses on her tomb, soft and gentle as her heart. Keep here your watch, and never never never part.”


Other vocal genres, along with opera, such as the cantata and oratorio, were developing in the early years of the Baroque. This page discusses the cantata. There are two terms that are used in the beginning of this page that I would like you to pay particular attention to: cantata da camera (chamber cantata) and cantata da chiesa (church cantata). These terms are applied to cantatas written as chamber music (music for performance in smaller settings and before smaller audiences) in the middle of the Baroque and distinguish whether the piece was secular or sacred.

By the late Baroque, the genre of cantata had become more substantial. The cantatas of J. S. Bach and his contemporaries were longer, involved more instruments and singers, and were usually performed for larger audiences. We don’t use the terms camera and chiesa when talking about these later Baroque cantatas. Cantatas of that time frame were simply understood to be sacred or secular depending on the occasion for which they were composed.


A cantata (literally “sung,” past participle feminine singular of the Italian verb cantare, “to sing”) is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment, typically in several movements, often involving a choir.

The meaning of the term changed over time from the simple single voice madrigal of the early 17th century, to the multivoice “cantata da camera” and the “cantata da chiesa” of the later part of that century, and from the more substantial dramatic forms of the 18th century, to the usually sacred-texted 19th-century cantata, which was effectively a type of short oratorio. Cantatas for use in the liturgy of church services are called church cantata or sometimes sacred cantata, others sometimes secular cantata. Johann Sebastian Bach composed around 200 cantatas. Several cantatas were, and still are, written for special occasions, such as Christmas cantatas.

Historical Context

The term originated in the early 17th century simultaneously with opera and oratorio. Prior to that, all “cultured” music was vocal. With the rise of instrumental music, the term appeared, while the instrumental art became sufficiently developed to be embodied in sonatas. From the beginning of the 17th century until late in the 18th, the cantata for one or two solo voices with accompaniment of basso continuo (and perhaps a few solo instruments) was a principal form of Italian vocal chamber music.

A cantata consisted first of a declamatory narrative or scene in recitative, held together by a primitive aria repeated at intervals. Fine examples may be found in the church music of Giacomo Carissimi, and the English vocal solos of Henry Purcell (such as Mad Tom and Mad Bess) show the utmost that can be made of this archaic form. With the rise of the da capo aria, the cantata became a group of two or three arias joined by recitative. George Frideric Handel’s numerous Italian duets and trios are examples on a rather large scale. His Latin motet Silete Venti, for soprano solo, shows the use of this form in church music.

Differences from Other Musical Forms

The Italian solo cantata tended, when on a large scale, to become indistinguishable from a scene in an opera in the same way the church cantata, solo or choral, is indistinguishable from a small oratorio or portion of an oratorio. This is equally evident whether we examine the unparalleled church cantatas of Bach, of which nearly 200 are extant (see List of Bach cantatas), or the Chandos Anthems of Handel. In Johann Sebastian Bach’s case, many of the larger cantatas are actually called oratorios, and the Christmas Oratorio is a collection of six church cantatas actually intended for performance on six different days, though together forming as complete an artistic whole as any classical oratorio.

Listen: Cantatas

A sacred cantata by Dieterich Buxtehude: Dialogus inter Christum et fidelem animam


From the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 by Johann Sebastian Bach: 10. Chorale: Jesus bleibet meine Freude


Cantatas were in great demand for the services of the Lutheran church. Sacred cantatas for the liturgy or other occasions were not only composed by Bach but also by Dieterich Buxtehude, Christoph Graupner, Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, and Georg Philipp Telemann, to name a few. Many secular cantatas were composed for events in the nobility. They were so similar in form to the sacred ones that many of them were parodied (in parts or completely) to sacred cantatas—for example, in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.


An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists. Like an opera, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theater, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece, though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio, there is generally little or no interaction between the characters and no props or elaborate costumes. A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints, as well as to biblical topics. Oratorios became extremely popular in early 17th-century Italy partly because of the success of opera and the Catholic Church’s prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.



The word oratorio, from the Italian for “pulpit” or “oratory,” was “named from the kind of musical services held in the church of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Rome (Congregazione dell’Oratorio) in the latter half of the 16th century.”

1600, Origins of the Oratorio

Although medieval plays such as the Ludus Danielis and Renaissance dialogue motets such as those of the Oltremontani had characteristics of an oratorio, the first oratorio is usually seen as Emilio de Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo. Monteverdi composed Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which can be considered as the first secular oratorio.

The origins of the oratorio can be found in sacred dialogues in Italy. These were settings of biblical, Latin texts and musically were quite similar to motets. There was a strong narrative and dramatic emphasis, and there were conversational exchanges between characters in the work. Giovanni Francesco Anerio’s Teatro harmonico spirituale (1619) is a set of 14 dialogues, the longest of which is 20 minutes long and covers the conversion of St. Paul and is for four soloists: Historicus (narrator), tenor; St. Paul, tenor; Voice from Heaven, bass; and ananias, tenor. There is also a four-part chorus to represent any crowds in the drama. The music is often contrapuntal and madrigal-like. Philip Neri’s Congregazione dell’Oratorio featured the singing of spiritual laude. These became more and more popular and were eventually performed in specially built oratories (prayer halls) by professional musicians. Again, these were chiefly based on dramatic and narrative elements. Sacred opera provided another impetus for dialogues, and they greatly expanded in length (although never really beyond 60 minutes long). Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo is an example of one of these works, but technically it is not an oratorio because it features acting and dancing. It does, however, contain music in the monodic style. The first oratorio to be called by that name is Pietro della Valle’s Oratorio della Purificazione, but due to its brevity (only 12 minutes long) and the fact that its other name was “dialogue,” we can see that there was much ambiguity in these names.


During the second half of the 17th century, there were trends toward the secularization of the religious oratorio. Evidence of this lies in its regular performance outside church halls in courts and public theaters. Whether religious or secular, the theme of an oratorio is meant to be weighty. It could include such topics as Creation, the life of Jesus, or the career of a classical hero or biblical prophet. Other changes eventually took place as well, possibly because most composers of oratorios were also popular composers of operas. They began to publish the librettos of their oratorios as they did for their operas. Strong emphasis was soon placed on arias, while the use of the choir diminished. Female singers became regularly employed and replaced the male narrator with the use of recitatives.

By the mid-17th century, two types had developed:

  • oratorio volgare (in Italian)—representative examples include:
    • Giacomo Carissimi’s Daniele
    • Marco Marazzoli’s S Tomaso
    • similar works written by Francesco Foggia and Luigi Rossi

Lasting about 30–60 minutes, oratorio volgares were performed in two sections separated by a sermon; their music resembles that of contemporary operas and chamber cantatas.

  • oratorio latino (in Latin)—first developed at the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso, related to the church of San Marcello al Corso in Rome.

The most significant composer of oratorio latino was Giacomo Carissimi, whose Jephte is regarded as the first masterpiece of the genre. Like most other Latin oratorios of the period, it is in one section only.

The Late Baroque Oratorio

In the late Baroque, oratorios increasingly became “sacred opera.” In Rome and Naples, Alessandro Scarlatti was the most noted composer. In Vienna, the court poet Metastasio produced annually a series of oratorios for the court that were set by Caldara, Hasse, and others. Metastasio’s best-known oratorio libretto, La passione di Gesa Cristo, was set by at least 35 composers from 1730 to 1790. In Germany, the middle Baroque oratorios moved from the early Baroque Historia-style Christmas and Resurrection settings of Heinrich Schatz, to the Passions of J. S. Bach, and oratorio-passions such as Der Tod Jesu set by Telemann and Carl Heinrich Graun. After Telemann came the galante oratorio style of C. P. E. Bach.

https://library.achievingthedream.org/alamomusicappreciation/chapter/introduction-to-instrumental-music-in-the-baroque/ Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:51:59 +0000

This section contains materials on the major instrumental genres of the Baroque period, including sonata, suite, and concerto. You’ll also find information on the composers who worked in those genres. As with our study of vocal music, we’re going to hold off on studying the work of the best-known composers of the late Baroque until you get to the next section. Bach and Handel each composed masterworks in almost all the genres of the period. As mentioned previously, their music represents the culmination of Baroque style, so we’ll put the reading material on Bach and Handel in a separate section.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slideshow: Instrumental Music in the Baroque
  • Sonata
  • Arcangelo Corelli
  • Sonata in B flat Major, Opus 5 No. 2: II Allegro
  • Concerto
  • Antonio Vivaldi
  • The Four Seasons
  • Suite


Baroque Instrumental Music from Lumen Learning

The Baroque period saw a flowering of instrumental music. While the church continued to be an important patron of the arts, many Baroque composers found employment in the service of a nobleman or noblewoman who wished his or her court to be a center of culture and music. Such courtly settings demanded much more instrumental music for entertainment and concerts. These performances generally did not take place in enormous concert halls, but in more modest-sized rooms or chambers in the palace. Music for these smaller settings is accordingly called chamber music. The sonata is one of the primary genres of chamber music in the Baroque.

The name sonata comes from the Latin and Italian verb sonare, which can be literally translated as “to sound” and refers to the fact that the music is sounded or played on instruments rather than sung by voices. The Latin and Italian word meaning “to sing” is cantare, which is where the name for one of the vocal genres you’ve already studied comes from—namely, cantata.

Although the sonata is an important genre, it is important to note that this was a period of great innovation and experimentation in instrumental music. The term sonata is applied to a wide variety of instrumental combinations and forms. The majority of Baroque sonatas featured three or four instruments, but many sonatas were for a solo instrument, most often with continuo, though sometimes without. The most popular type of sonata in the Baroque was the trio sonata, so called because it was written with three lines: two melodic instruments (usually two violins) and a continuo. As the continuo line was performed by two instruments (usually cello and harpsichord), a trio sonata was generally performed by four instruments, though it is important to remember that in the Baroque, it was very common to substitute one instrument for another or even leave out an instrumental part if it wasn’t available. That flexibility in instrumentation is far less common in later historical periods.

As with the cantata, in the mid-Baroque, there was a tendency to divide trio sonatas into two categories: sonata da camera and sonata da chiesa. Although those names indicate music for court vs. music for church, the reality is that both types were often used as concert pieces. We won’t concern ourselves with this distinction, as it had largely disappeared by the late Baroque. However, it is important to note, as you’ll see those terms in the list of sample pieces presented below.

Trio Sonata

The trio sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli (opus 1, 1681; opus 3, 1689) were of unparalleled influence during his lifetime and for a long time after, inspiring slavish imitation by composers whose numbers were legion (Talbot 2001).

The melody instruments used are often both violins. A well-known exception is the trio sonata in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Musical Offering, which is for violin and flute.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s trio sonatas for organ (BWV 525–530) combine all three parts on one instrument. Typically the right hand, left hand and pedals will each take a different part, thus creating the same texture as in a trio. A further innovation by Bach was the trio sonatas involving a concertante (obbligato) right-hand harpsichord part in addition to the bass line, plus one melodic instrument, thus for two players. Examples are the six sonatas for harpsichord and solo violin (BWV 1014–1019), three sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba (BWV 1027–1029), and three sonatas for harpsichord and flute (BWV 1030–1032).

Example Repertoire

  • Tomaso Albinoni, 12 sonatas da chiesa op. 1 and 12 sonatas da camera op. 8.
  • Arcangelo Corelli, 24 sonatas da chiesa opp. 1 and 3; 24 sonatas da camera opp. 2 and 4.
  • Henry Purcell, 12 sonatas of three parts, 1683; 10 sonatas in four parts, 1697 (both sets for two violins and BC).
  • Johann Sebastian Bach, trio sonatas BWV 1036–1039. Some of these are of doubtful attribution, but all are typical of baroque chamber music. They are written for basso continuo and two violins, except 1039, which is written for two flutes and basso continuo (which concurs with BWV 1027).
  • Dieterich Buxtehude, op. 1, six trio sonatas, and op. 2, seven trio sonatas. Scored for violin, viola da gamba, and basso continuo. These were the only works by Buxtehude that were published during his lifetime.
  • George Frideric Handel, trio sonatas opp. 2 and 5.
  • Georg Philipp Telemann, around 150 trio sonatas, most in the Corelli style.
  • Johann Pachelbel, Musikalische Ergazung (“Musical Delight”), containing 6 trio sonatas for two violins and basso continuo. Original score in scordatura.
  • Antonio Vivaldi, 12 trio sonatas da camera op. 1; 2 trio sonatas mixed with solo sonatas in op. 5; and about 10 unpublished trios.
  • Jan Dismas Zelenka, Six trio (or quartet) sonatas, ZWV 181. Scored for two oboes, bassoon, and basso continuo. These are technically difficult pieces, containing some extremely demanding bassoon and oboe parts. The fourth sonata from the set (G minor) can be heard at the Brightcecilia Classical Music Forums.

Arcangelo Corelli

This web page provides a concise biography of Arcangelo Corelli, a middle Baroque composer of considerable influence, especially on violin music, despite writing a relatively small amount of music. The first three paragraphs detail his life and significance in the history of the period, while the later paragraphs provide an overview of the genres in which he did most of his work.

The Corelli Violin Sonatas Op. 5 review is not a description of the characteristics of the listening example itself but rather a review of the performance. This course is not particularly focused on having you read reviews, but this review discusses an important element of Baroque music—namely, improvisation.

The performers in this recording don’t just play the notes that Corelli wrote down. They improvise (make up on the spot) additional notes to enliven the performance. There is no question that Baroque musicians were expected to be able to improvise music in much the same way jazz musicians do today. J. S. Bach was known to be a particularly skilled improviser who once, when presented with a complex melodic theme by Frederick II of Prussia, spontaneously performed a three-voice fugue on the theme at the king’s request. Improvisation is not prioritized today in classical training, but it is thought to have been so commonly expected in the Baroque era that many composers did not feel it necessary to write out everything on the page, on the assumption that a skilled performer would understand what needed to be filled in. The performers in the recording reviewed are known for their improvisatory interpretations of Baroque works, and they have applied that approach to all the sonatas that make up Corelli’s Opus No. 5.

Speaking of this particular opus by Corelli, let’s look at all the numbers in the title of this piece. Opus 5 is a collection of twelve violin sonatas. The first eleven sonatas are four or five movements each, while the 12th is a set of variations set in a single movement. Our listening example comes from the second sonata in the collection, hence the designation Opus 5 No. 2. Furthermore, our listening example is the second movement from that sonata and features a fast tempo. The Italian term for fast is “allegro.” This is why the title ends with the Roman numeral followed by the Italian term (II. Allegro). One last thing: this piece is not a trio sonata. The trio sonata was the most popular form of sonata in the Baroque, and Corelli elevated the genre with his own trio sonata compositions, so it is important you understand that genre. But our listening example is simply a sonata for solo violin with continuo. Furthermore, in the spirit of Baroque flexibility (Baroque musicians thought nothing of substituting one instrument for another or leaving one out if a player wasn’t available), the continuo part on our recording is played by harpsichord alone—no cello.


There are two kinds of concerto that were composed in the Baroque period: concerto grosso and solo concerto. This link will take you to a very interesting summary of the two types of concerto. Even though this site is quite concise in its written descriptions of the two genres, the listening examples embedded in the that page really help clarify a point that can be confusing to students the first time they encounter the concerto grosso—namely, the roles of the concertino and the ripieno (also known as tutti). The examples will make it easier for you to hear the difference between the smaller and larger groups that provide the contrast in a concerto grosso.

Here is one clarification to something stated near the end of the linked article: it mentions that Antonio Vivaldi, who you’ll read about soon, “wrote many solo concertos and in particular for oboe, flute, and bassoon.” This might give you the impression that the bulk of his works were for those instruments. That is not the case. He wrote over 500 concertos (solo and grosso), 350 of which were for solo instruments. The majority of those solo concertos (230) were for solo violin, which is not surprising, given that Vivaldi was a virtuoso violinist. I think they mentioned those additional instruments because there are relatively few concertos written for wind instruments, so his works for those and other instruments stand out in the literature.

Concerto Grosso

Now, let’s take a more in depth look at concerto grosso. Notice the important role that Corelli plays in developing this genre into something that many other composers would want to work with, and in Corelli’s overall style no less. As with previous genres, there was, for a time, a division into chiesa and camera forms.


The concerto grosso (Italian for big concert[o], plural concerti grossi) is a form of baroque music in which the musical material is passed between a small group of soloists (the concertino) and full orchestra (the ripieno or concerto grosso).

The form developed in the late 17th century, although the name was not used at first. Alessandro Stradella seems to have written the first music in which two groups of different sizes are combined in the characteristic way. The name was first used by Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori in a set of 10 compositions published in Lucca in 1698.

The first major composer to use the term concerto grosso was Arcangelo Corelli. After Corelli’s death, a collection of 12 of his concerti grossi was published; not long after, composers such as Francesco Geminiani, Pietro Locatelli, and Giuseppe Torelli wrote concertos in the style of Corelli. He also had a strong influence on Antonio Vivaldi.

Two distinct forms of the concerto grosso exist: the concerto da chiesa (church concert) and the concerto da camera (chamber concert). The concerto da chiesa alternated slow and fast movements; the concerto da camera had the character of a suite, being introduced by a prelude and incorporating popular dance forms. These distinctions blurred over time.

Corelli’s concertino group was invariably two violins and a cello, with a string section as a ripieno group. Both were accompanied by a basso continuo with some combination of harpsichord, organ, lute, or theorbo. Handel wrote several collections of concerti grossi, and several of the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach also loosely follow the concerto grosso form.

The concerto grosso form was superseded by the solo concerto and the sinfonia concertante in the late 18th century, and new examples of the form did not appear for more than a century. In the 20th century, the concerto grosso has been used by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Ernest Bloch, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bohuslav Martinů, Malcolm Williamson, Henry Cowell, Alfred Schnittke, William Bolcom, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Andrei Eshpai, Eino Tamberg, Krzysztof Penderecki, Jean Françaix, and Philip Glass. While Edward Elgar may not be considered a modern composer, his romantic Introduction and Allegro strongly resembled the instrumentation setup of a concerto grosso.


A concertino, literally “little ensemble,” is the smaller group of instruments in a concerto grosso. This is opposed to the ripieno and tutti, which is the larger group contrasting with the concertino.

Though the concertino is the smaller of the two groups, its material is generally more virtuosic than that of the ripieno. Further, the concertino does not share thematic material with the ripieno but presents unique ideas. This contrast of small group to large group and one thematic group against another is very characteristic of Baroque ideology—similar to terraced dynamics, where the idea is significant contrast.

Solo Concerto

As we’ve looked at concerto grosso, here’s a bit more detailed information on the solo concerto. Notice that the solo concerto has a bit more standard structure (three movements in a fast-slow-fast pattern) than the concerto grosso, though we must always remember that Baroque composers were not nearly as concerned about standardization of form as later Classical-era composers were.


A solo concerto is a concerto in which a single soloist is accompanied by an orchestra. It is the most frequent type of concerto. It originated in the Baroque Period (ca. 1600–1750) as an alternative to the traditional concertino (solo group of instruments) in a concerto grosso.

A typical concerto has three movements: traditionally fast, slow and lyrical, and fast. There are many examples of concertos that do not conform to this plan.


The earliest known solo concertos are nos. 6 and 12 of Giuseppe Torelli’s Op. 6 of 1698. These works employ both a three-movement cycle and clear (if diminutive) ritornello form, like that of the ripieno concerto, except that sections for the soloist and continuo separate the orchestral ritornellos. Active in Bologna, Torelli would have known of the operatic arias and the numerous sonatas and sinfonias for trumpet and strings produced in Bologna since the 1660s. He himself composed more than a dozen such works for trumpet, two dated in the early 1690s. Other early violin concertos are the four in Tomaso Albinoni’s Op. 2 (1700) and the six in Torelli’s important Op. 8 (1709; the other six works in this set are double concertos for two violins).

The most influential and prolific composer of concertos during the Baroque period was the Venetian Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741). In addition to his nearly 60 extant ripieno concertos, Vivaldi composed approximately 425 concertos for one or more soloists, including about 350 solo concertos (two-thirds for solo violin) and 45 double concertos (over half for two violins). Vivaldi’s concertos firmly establish the three-movement form as the norm. The virtuosity of the solo sections increases markedly, especially in the later works, and concurrently the texture becomes more homophonic.

Concertos for instruments other than violin began to appear early in the 18th century, including the oboe concertos of George Frideric Handel and the numerous concertos for flute, oboe, bassoon, cello, and other instruments by Vivaldi. The earliest organ concertos can probably be credited to Handel (16 concertos, ca. 1735–51) and the earliest harpsichord concertos to Johann Sebastian Bach (14 concertos for one to four harpsichords, ca. 1735–40). In the latter case, all but probably one of the concertos are arrangements of existing works, though Bach had already approached the idea of a harpsichord concerto before 1721 in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.


Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi was certainly a major composer of the late Baroque, but his enduring legacy is generally concentrated in a single genre: the concerto. Vivaldi was a prolific composer and producer of opera and was very successful in his day, but his operatic compositions are not nearly as widely performed today as his concertos.


Antonio Vivaldi (engraving by Francois Morellon de La Cave (fr), from Michel-Charles Laene’s edition of Vivaldi’s Op. 8)
Figure 1. Antonio Vivaldi (engraving by Francois Morellon de La Cave (fr), from Michel-Charles Laene’s edition of Vivaldi’s Op. 8).

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (4 March 1678–28 July 1741) was an Italian Baroque composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher, and cleric. Born in Venice, he is recognized as one of the greatest Baroque composers, and his influence during his lifetime was widespread across Europe. He is known mainly for composing many instrumental concertos for the violin and a variety of other instruments, as well as sacred choral works and more than forty operas. His best-known work is a series of violin concertos known as The Four Seasons.

Many of his compositions were written for the female music ensemble of the Ospedale della Pieta, a home for abandoned children where Vivaldi (who had been ordained as a Catholic priest) was employed from 1703 to 1715 and from 1723 to 1740. Vivaldi also had some success with expensive stagings of his operas in Venice, Mantua, and Vienna. After meeting the Emperor Charles VI, Vivaldi moved to Vienna, hoping for preferment. However, the emperor died soon after Vivaldi’s arrival, and Vivaldi himself died less than a year later in poverty.


At the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pietà

In September 1703, Vivaldi became maestro di violino (master of violin) at an orphanage called the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice. While Vivaldi is most famous as a composer, he was regarded as an exceptional technical violinist as well. The German architect Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach referred to Vivaldi as “the famous composer and violinist” and said that “Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment excellently, and at the conclusion he added a free fantasy [an improvised cadenza] which absolutely astounded me, for it is hardly possible that anyone has ever played, or ever will play, in such a fashion.”

Vivaldi was only 25 when he started working at the Ospedale della Pietà. Over the next 30 years, he composed most of his major works while working there. There were four similar institutions in Venice; their purpose was to give shelter and education to children who were abandoned or orphaned or whose families could not support them. They were financed by funds provided by the Republic. The boys learned a trade and had to leave when they reached 15. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir.

Shortly after Vivaldi’s appointment, the orphans began to gain appreciation and esteem abroad too. Vivaldi wrote concertos, cantatas, and sacred vocal music for them. These sacred works, which number over 60, are varied: they included solo motets and large-scale choral works for soloists, double chorus, and orchestra. In 1704, the position of teacher of viola all’inglese was added to his duties as violin instructor. The position of maestro di coro, which was at one time filled by Vivaldi, required a lot of time and work. He had to compose an oratorio or concerto at every feast and teach the orphans both music theory and how to play certain instruments.

His relationship with the board of directors of the Ospedale was often strained. The board had to take a vote every year on whether to keep a teacher. The vote on Vivaldi was seldom unanimous and went 7 to 6 against him in 1709. After a year as a freelance musician, he was recalled by the Ospedale with a unanimous vote in 1711; clearly during his year’s absence, the board realized the importance of his role. He became responsible for all of the musical activity of the institution when he was promoted to maestro de’ concerti (music director) in 1716.

Commemorative plaque beside the Ospedale della Pietà.
Figure 2. Commemorative plaque beside the Ospedale della Pietà.

In 1705, the first collection (Connor Cassara) of his works was published by Giuseppe Sala: his Opus 1 is a collection of 12 sonatas for two violins and basso continuo in a conventional style. In 1709, a second collection of 12 sonatas for violin and basso continuo appeared, his Opus 2. A real breakthrough as a composer came with his first collection of 12 concerti for one, two, and four violins with strings, L’estro armonico Opus 3, which was published in Amsterdam in 1711 by Estienne Roger, dedicated to Grand Prince Ferdinand of Tuscany. The prince sponsored many musicians, including Alessandro Scarlatti and George Frideric Handel. He was a musician himself, and Vivaldi probably met him in Venice. L’estro armonico was a resounding success all over Europe. It was followed in 1714 by La stravaganza Opus 4, a collection of concerti for solo violin and strings dedicated to an old violin student of Vivaldi’s, the Venetian noble Vettor Dolfin.

In February 1711, Vivaldi and his father traveled to Brescia, where his setting of the Stabat Mater (RV 621) was played as part of a religious festival. The work seems to have been written in haste: the string parts are simple, the music of the first three movements is repeated in the next three, and not all the text is set. Nevertheless, perhaps in part because of the forced essentiality of the music, the work is one of his early masterpieces.

Despite his frequent travels from 1718, the Pieta paid him 2 sequins to write two concerti a month for the orchestra and to rehearse with them at least five times when in Venice. The Pietà’s records show that he was paid for 140 concerti between 1723 and 1733.

Opera Impresario

First edition of Juditha triumphans
Figure 3. First edition of Juditha triumphans.

In early 18th-century Venice, opera was the most popular musical entertainment. It proved most profitable for Vivaldi. There were several theaters competing for the public’s attention. Vivaldi started his career as an opera composer as a sideline: his first opera, Ottone in villa (RV 729), was performed not in Venice but at the Garzerie Theater in Vicenza in 1713. The following year, Vivaldi became the impresario of the Teatro San Angelo in Venice, where his opera Orlando finto pazzo (RV 727) was performed. The work was not to the public’s taste, and it closed after a couple of weeks, being replaced with a repeat of a different work already given the previous year.

In 1715, he presented Nerone fatto Cesare (RV 724, now lost), with music by seven different composers, of which he was the leader. The opera contained 11 arias and was a success. In the late season, Vivaldi planned to put on an opera composed entirely by him, Arsilda, regina di Ponto (RV 700), but the state censor blocked the performance. The main character, Arsilda, falls in love with another woman, Lisea, who is pretending to be a man. Vivaldi got the censor to accept the opera the following year, and it was a resounding success.

At this period, the Pietà commissioned several liturgical works. The most important were two oratorios. Moyses Deus Pharaonis (RV 643) is lost. The second, Juditha triumphans (RV 644), celebrates the victory of the Republic of Venice against the Turks and the recapture of the island of Corfu. Composed in 1716, it is one of his sacred masterpieces. All 11 singing parts were performed by girls of the Pieta, both the female and male roles. Many of the arias include parts for solo instruments such as recorders, oboes, violas d’amore, and mandolin that showcased the range of talents of the girls.

Also in 1716, Vivaldi wrote and produced two more operas, L’incoronazione di Dario (RV 719) and La costanza trionfante degli amori e degli odi (RV 706). The latter was so popular that it performed two years later, reedited and retitled Artabano re dei Parti (RV 701, now lost). It was also performed in Prague in 1732. In the following years, Vivaldi wrote several operas that were performed all over Italy.

His progressive operatic style caused him some trouble with more conservative musicians, like Benedetto Marcello, a magistrate and amateur musician who wrote a pamphlet denouncing him and his operas. The pamphlet, Il teatro alla moda, attacks Vivaldi without mentioning him directly. The cover drawing shows a boat (the Sant’ Angelo), on the left end of which stands a little angel wearing a priest’s hat and playing the violin. The Marcello family claimed ownership of the Teatro Sant’ Angelo, and a long legal battle had been fought with the management for its restitution, without success. The obscure writing under the picture mentions nonexistent places and names: ALDIVIVA is an anagram of A. Vivaldi.

In a letter written by Vivaldi to his patron Marchese Bentivoglio in 1737, he makes reference to his “94 operas.” Only around 50 operas by Vivaldi have been discovered, and no other documentation of the remaining operas exists. Although Vivaldi may have exaggerated, in his dual role of composer and impresario, it is plausible that he may either have written or been responsible for the production of as many as 94 operas during a career that, by then, had spanned almost 25 years. While Vivaldi certainly composed many operas in his time, he never reached the prominence of other great composers like Alessandro Scarlatti, Johann Adolph Hasse, Leonardo Leo, and Baldassare Galuppi, as evidenced by his inability to keep a production running for any extended period of time in any major opera house.

His most successful operas were La costanza trionfante and Farnace, which garnered six revivals each.

Mantua and the Four Seasons

In 1717 or 1718, Vivaldi was offered a new prestigious position as Maestro di Cappella of the court of Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, governor of Mantua. He moved there for three years and produced several operas, among which was Tito Manlio (RV 738). In 1721, he was in Milan, where he presented the pastoral drama La Silvia (RV 734; 9 arias survive). He visited Milan again the following year with the oratorio L’adorazione delli tre re magi al bambino Gesù (RV 645, also lost). In 1722 he moved to Rome, where he introduced his operas’ new style. The new pope Benedict XIII invited Vivaldi to play for him. In 1725, Vivaldi returned to Venice, where he produced four operas in the same year.

During this period, Vivaldi wrote the Four Seasons, four violin concertos depicting scenes appropriate for each season. Three of the concerti are of original conception, while the first, “Spring,” borrows motifs from a sinfonia in the first act of his contemporaneous opera “Il Giustino.” The inspiration for the concertos was probably the countryside around Mantua. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires. Each concerto is associated with a sonnet, possibly by Vivaldi, describing the scenes depicted in the music. They were published as the first four concertos in a collection of 12, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Opus 8, published in Amsterdam by Michel-Charles Le Cène in 1725.

During his time in Mantua, Vivaldi became acquainted with an aspiring young singer Anna Tessieri Girò who was to become his student, protégée, and favorite prima donna. Anna, along with her older half-sister Paolina, became part of Vivaldi’s entourage and regularly accompanied him on his many travels. There was speculation about the nature of Vivaldi’s and Girò’s relationship, but no evidence to indicate anything beyond friendship and professional collaboration. Although Vivaldi’s relationship with Anna Girò was questioned, he adamantly denied any romantic relationship in a letter to his patron Bentivoglio dated 16 November 1737.

Later Life and Death

At the height of his career, Vivaldi received commissions from European nobility and royalty. The serenata (cantata) Gloria e Imeneo (RV 687) was commissioned in 1725 by the French ambassador to Venice in celebration of the marriage of Louis XV. The following year, another serenata, La Sena festeggiante (RV 694), was written for and premiered at the French embassy as well, celebrating the birth of the French royal princesses, Henriette and Louise Elisabeth. Vivaldi’s Opus 9, La Cetra, was dedicated to Emperor Charles VI. In 1728, Vivaldi met the emperor while the emperor was visiting Trieste to oversee the construction of a new port. Charles admired the music of the Red Priest so much that he is said to have spoken more with the composer during their one meeting than he spoke to his ministers in over two years. He gave Vivaldi the title of knight, a gold medal, and an invitation to Vienna. Vivaldi gave Charles a manuscript copy of La Cetra, a set of concerti almost completely different from the set of the same title published as Opus 9. The printing was probably delayed, forcing Vivaldi to gather an improvised collection for the emperor.

Accompanied by his father, Vivaldi traveled to Vienna and Prague in 1730, where his opera Farnace (RV 711) was presented. Some of his later operas were created in collaboration with two of Italy’s major writers of the time. L’Olimpiade and Catone in Utica were written by Pietro Metastasio, the major representative of the Arcadian movement and court poet in Vienna. La Griselda was rewritten by the young Carlo Goldoni from an earlier libretto by Apostolo Zeno.

Like many composers of the time, the final years of Vivaldi’s life found him in financial difficulties. His compositions were no longer held in such high esteem as they once were in Venice; changing musical tastes quickly made them outmoded. In response, Vivaldi chose to sell off sizable numbers of his manuscripts at paltry prices to finance his migration to Vienna. The reasons for Vivaldi’s departure from Venice are unclear, but it seems likely that, after the success of his meeting with Emperor Charles VI, he wished to take up the position of a composer in the imperial court. On his way to Vienna, Vivaldi may have stopped in Graz to see Anna Girò.

Caricature by P. L. Ghezzi, Rome (1723)
Figure 4. Caricature by P. L. Ghezzi, Rome (1723).

It is also likely that Vivaldi went to Vienna to stage operas, especially as he took up residence near the Karntnertor theater. Shortly after his arrival in Vienna, Charles VI died, which left the composer without any royal protection or a steady source of income. Soon afterward, Vivaldi became impoverished and died during the night of 27/28 July 1741, aged 63, of “internal infection,” in a house owned by the widow of a Viennese saddlemaker. On 28 July he was buried in a simple grave in a burial ground that was owned by the public hospital fund. Vivaldi’s funeral took place at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, but the young Joseph Haydn had nothing to do with this burial, since no music was performed on that occasion. The cost of his funeral with a “Kleingelut” was 19 Gulden, 45 Kreuzer, which was rather expensive for the lowest class of peal of bells.

He was buried next to Karlskirche, in an area which is now part of the site of the Technical Institute. The house where he lived in Vienna has since been destroyed; the Hotel Sacher is built on part of the site. Memorial plaques have been placed at both locations, as well as a Vivaldi “star” in the Viennese Musikmeile and a monument at the Roosevelt platz.

Only three portraits of Vivaldi are known to survive: an engraving, an ink sketch, and an oil painting. The ink sketch, a caricature (as seen in figure 4), was done by Ghezzi in 1723 and shows Vivaldi’s head and shoulders in profile.

Style and Influence

Listen: “La primavera” (Spring)—Movement 1: Allegro from The Four Seasons

Please listen to a 2000 live performance by Wichita State University Chamber Players.

Vivaldi’s music was innovative. He brightened the formal and rhythmic structure of the concerto, in which he looked for harmonic contrasts and innovative melodies and themes; many of his compositions are flamboyantly, almost playfully, exuberant.

Johann Sebastian Bach was deeply influenced by Vivaldi’s concertos and arias (recalled in his St. John Passion, St. Matthew Passion, and cantatas). Bach transcribed six of Vivaldi’s concerti for solo keyboard, three for organ, and one for four harpsichords, strings, and basso continuo (BWV 1065) based upon the concerto for four violins, two violas, cello, and basso continuo (RV 580).

Posthumous Reputation

During his lifetime, Vivaldi’s popularity quickly made him famous in other countries, including France, but after his death, the composer’s popularity dwindled. After the Baroque period, Vivaldi’s published concerti became relatively unknown and were largely ignored. Even Vivaldi’s most famous work, The Four Seasons, was unknown in its original edition during the Classical and Romantic periods.

During the early 20th century, Fritz Kreisler’s Concerto in C, in the Style of Vivaldi (which he passed off as an original Vivaldi work) helped revive Vivaldi’s reputation. This spurred the French scholar Marc Pincherle to begin an academic study of Vivaldi’s oeuvre. Many Vivaldi manuscripts were rediscovered, which were acquired by the Turin National University Library as a result of the generous sponsorship of Turinese businessmen Roberto Foa and Filippo Giordano, in memory of their sons. This led to a renewed interest in Vivaldi by, among others, Mario Rinaldi, Alfredo Casella, Ezra Pound, Olga Rudge, Desmond Chute, Arturo Toscanini, Arnold Schering, and Louis Kaufman, all of whom were instrumental in the Vivaldi revival of the 20th century.

In 1926, in a monastery in Piedmont, researchers discovered 14 folios of Vivaldi’s work that were previously thought to have been lost during the Napoleonic Wars. Some missing volumes in the numbered set were discovered in the collections of the descendants of the Grand Duke Durazzo, who had acquired the monastery complex in the 18th century. The volumes contained 300 concertos, 19 operas, and over 100 vocal-instrumental works.

The resurrection of Vivaldi’s unpublished works in the 20th century is mostly due to the efforts of Alfredo Casella, who in 1939 organized the historic Vivaldi Week, in which the rediscovered Gloria (RV 589) and l’Olimpiade were revived. Since World War II, Vivaldi’s compositions have enjoyed wide success. Historically informed performances, often on “original instruments,” have increased Vivaldi’s fame still further.

Recent rediscoveries of works by Vivaldi include two psalm settings of Nisi Dominus (RV 803, in 8 movements) and Dixit Dominus (RV 807, in 11 movements). These were identified in 2003 and 2005, respectively, by the Australian scholar Janice Stockigt. The Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot described RV 807 as “arguably the best nonoperatic work from Vivaldi’s pen to come to light since . . . the 1920s.” Vivaldi’s lost 1730 opera Argippo (RV 697) was rediscovered in 2006 by the harpsichordist and conductor Ondřej Macek, whose Hofmusici orchestra performed the work at Prague Castle on 3 May 2008, its first performance since 1730.


A composition by Vivaldi is identified by RV number, which refers to its place in the “Ryom-Verzeichnis” or “Répertoire des oeuvres d’Antonio Vivaldi,” a catalog created in the 20th century by the musicologist Peter Ryom.

Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) of 1723 is his most famous work. Part of Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (“The Contest between Harmony and Invention”), it depicts moods and scenes from each of the four seasons. This work has been described as an outstanding instance of pre-19th century program music.

Vivaldi wrote more than 500 other concertos. About 350 of these are for solo instrument and strings, of which 230 are for violin, the others being for bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, viola d’amore, recorder, lute, or mandolin. About 40 concertos are for two instruments and strings, and about 30 are for three or more instruments and strings.

As well as about 46 operas, Vivaldi composed a large body of sacred choral music. Other works include sinfonias, about 90 sonatas, and chamber music.

Some sonatas for flute, published as Il Pastor Fido, have been erroneously attributed to Vivaldi but were composed by Nicolas Chédeville.

You don’t have to read this article, but I’ve provided the link, as it has the entire Four Seasons embedded for streaming or download (for free!) in case you’re interested in hearing more. Our playlist only has one movement from one concerto. There are four concertos with three movements each, and they’re all awesome. There is a reason this is one of the most popular works in all classical literature. It is great music!

The Suite

The suite was a widely used genre in the Baroque era that grew out of Renaissance dance music. In the Renaissance and early Baroque, composers wrote collections of short dance pieces for actual dancing at court. But over time, the dances and their order became more standardized, and this became a handy framework for composers to create instrumental music for everything from solo instruments to full orchestra. Suites were especially favored by composers of keyboard music. By the late Baroque, the suite was used primarily as a concert piece and had little to do with the actual dances that it used as its organizing structure.

As you read this page, pay attention to the order of the pieces and the fact that each dance had its own tempo, meter, and character; however, you don’t have to memorize the specifics of each dance—in this class, you won’t have to identify individual movements of a suite. As always, remember that while Baroque composers generally followed the pattern of dances listed here when they composed suites, they did not hesitate, especially by the late Baroque, to depart from the normal order or even insert movements that had nothing to do with dances. The movement from the Handel suite you’ll hear later is called “Alla Hornpipe,” which essentially means “here come the horns!”

Dance Suite

A characteristic Baroque form was the dance suite. Some Dance suites by Bach are called partitas, although this term is also used for other collections of pieces. The dance suite often consists of the following movements:

  • Overture—The Baroque suite often began with a French overture (ouverture in French), which was followed by a succession of dances of different types, principally the following four.
  • Allemande—Often the first dance of an instrumental suite, the allemande was a very popular dance that had its origins in the German Renaissance era. The allemande was played at a moderate tempo and could start on any beat of the bar.
  • Courante—The second dance is the courante, a lively French dance in triple meter. The Italian version is called the corrente.
  • Sarabande—The sarabande, a Spanish dance, is the third of the four basic dances and is one of the slowest of the baroque dances. It is also in triple meter and can start on any beat of the bar, although there is an emphasis on the second beat, creating the characteristic halting or iambic rhythm of the sarabande.
  • Gigue—The gigue is an upbeat and lively baroque dance in compound meter, typically the concluding movement of an instrumental suite and the fourth of its basic dance types. The gigue can start on any beat of the bar and is easily recognized by its rhythmic feel. The gigue originated in the British Isles. Its counterpart in folk music is the jig.

These four dance types (allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue) make up the majority of 17th-century suites; later suites interpolate one or more additional dances between the sarabande and gigue:

  • Gavotte—The gavotte can be identified by a variety of features; it is in 4/4 time and always starts on the third beat of the bar, although this may sound like the first beat in some cases, as the first and third beats are the strong beats in quadruple time. The gavotte is played at a moderate tempo, although in some cases, it may be played faster.
  • Bourrée—The bourrée is similar to the gavotte as it is in 2/2 time although it starts on the second half of the last beat of the bar, creating a different feel to the dance. The bourrée is commonly played at a moderate tempo, although for some composers, such as Handel, it can be taken at a much faster tempo.
  • Minuet—The minuet is perhaps the best-known of the baroque dances in triple meter. It can start on any beat of the bar. In some suites there may be a Minuet I and II, played in succession, with the Minuet I repeated.
  • Passepied—The passepied is a fast dance in binary form and triple meter that originated as a court dance in Brittany. Examples can be found in later suites, such as those of Bach and Handel.
  • Rigaudon—The rigaudon is a lively French dance in duple meter, similar to the bourrée but rhythmically simpler. It originated as a family of closely related southern-French folk dances, traditionally associated with the provinces of Vavarais, Languedoc, Dauphiné, and Provence.

This section contains materials on the two composers considered by many to be the greatest composers of the Baroque and among the greatest composers of all time. Both these composers are known for applying their considerable genius to existing genres rather than establishing a genre as Monteverdi and Corelli did. In some cases, such as with Bach’s church cantatas, their compositions elevated the genre to a level of technical and artistic mastery that has been rarely duplicated since. Our readings will focus on the biographies of these two composers and their contributions to particular musical genres.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slideshow: The Late Baroque
  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    • Chorale
    • Bach’s Cantatas
    • Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
    • Cello Suites
    • Fugue
    • Fugue in G minor, “Little” BWV 578
    • Brandenburg Concertos
  • George Frideric Handel
    • Messiah
    • Water Music


The Late Baroque from Lumen Learning

Johann Sebastian Bach is without a doubt one of the great geniuses to have walked the stage of history. Though now considered one of the great composers, he was recognized in his day primarily for his skill as a virtuoso organist and improviser. It wasn’t until the 19th century that his music began to be internationally revered the way it is now, though great 18th century composers such as Mozart and Beethoven greatly admired and studied his manuscripts. The material on this page is quite extensive. While you should spend most of this page reading carefully, I would suggest skimming through all of the section called “Life,” looking for major musical influences in his life. Additionally, you should try to identify where he composed the pieces we have on our playlist by Bach. Bach is one of the greats. I hope you enjoy getting to know him a little better.


Portrait of Bach, aged 61, Haussmann, 1748
Figure 1. Portrait of Bach, aged 61, Haussmann, 1748.

Johann Sebastian Bach (31 March 1685–28 July 1750) was a German composer and musician of the Baroque period. He enriched established German styles through his skill in counterpoint, harmonic and motivic organization, and the adaptation of rhythms, forms, and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France. Bach’s compositions include the Brandenburg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations, the Mass in B minor, two Passions, and over three hundred sacred cantatas of which nearly two hundred survive. His music is revered for its technical command, artistic beauty, and intellectual depth.

Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, into a great musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the director of the town musicians, and all of his uncles were professional musicians. His father probably taught him to play the violin and harpsichord, and his brother, Johann Christoph Bach, taught him the clavichord and exposed him to much contemporary music. Apparently at his own initiative, Bach attended St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg for two years. After graduating, he held several musical posts across Germany: he served as Kapellmeister (director of music) to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen; Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig; and Royal Court Composer to Augustus III. Bach’s health and vision declined in 1749, and he died on 28 July 1750. Modern historians believe that his death was caused by a combination of stroke and pneumonia.

Bach’s abilities as an organist were respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognized as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century. He is now generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.


Childhood (1685–1703)

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, on 31 March 1685. He was the son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the town musicians, and Maria Elisabeth Lammerhirt. He was the eighth child of Johann Ambrosius (the eldest son in the family was 14 at the time of Bach’s birth), who probably taught him violin and the basics of music theory. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts included church organists, court chamber musicians, and composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645–93), introduced him to the organ, and an older second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach (1677–1731), was a well-known composer and violinist. Bach drafted a genealogy around 1735 titled “Origin of the Musical Bach Family.”

Bach’s mother died in 1694, and his father died eight months later. Bach, aged 10, moved in with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. There he studied, performed, and copied music, including his own brother’s, despite being forbidden to do so because scores were so valuable and private, and blank ledger paper of that type was costly. He received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. J. C. Bach exposed him to the works of great composers of the day, including South German composers such as Johann Pachelbel (under whom Johann Christoph had studied) and Johann Jakob Froberger; North German composers; Frenchmen such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais; and the Italian clavierist Girolamo Frescobaldi. Also during this time, he was taught theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian at the local gymnasium.

At the age of 14, Bach, along with his older school friend Georg Erdmann, was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Laneburg in the Principality of Laneburg. Although it is not known for certain, the trip was likely taken mostly on foot. His two years there were critical in exposing him to a wider facet of European culture. In addition to singing in the choir, he played the School’s three-manual organ and harpsichords. He came into contact with sons of noblemen from northern Germany sent to the highly selective school to prepare for careers in other disciplines.

While in Lüneburg, Bach had access to St. John’s Church and possibly used the church’s famous organ, built in 1549 by Jasper Johannsen, since it was played by his organ teacher, Georg Böhm. Given his musical talent, Bach had significant contact with Böhm while a student in Lüneburg and also took trips to nearby Hamburg, where he observed “the great North German organist Johann Adam Reincken.” Stauffer reports the discovery in 2005 of the organ tablatures that Bach wrote out when still in his teens of works by Reincken and Dieterich Buxtehude, showing “a disciplined, methodical, well-trained teenager deeply committed to learning his craft.”

Weimar, Arnstadt, and Muhlhausen (1703–8)

St. Boniface’s Church, Arnstadt
Figure 2. St. Boniface’s Church, Arnstadt.

In January 1703, shortly after graduating from St. Michael’s and being turned down for the post of organist at Sangerhausen, Bach was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III in Weimar. His role there is unclear but likely included menial, nonmusical duties. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboardist spread so much that he was invited to inspect the new organ and give the inaugural recital at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt, located about 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Weimar. In August 1703, he became the organist at St. Boniface’s, with light duties, a relatively generous salary, and a fine new organ tuned in the modern tempered system that allowed a wide range of keys to be used.

Despite strong family connections and a musically enthusiastic employer, tension built up between Bach and the authorities after several years in the post. Bach was dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir, while his employer was upset by his unauthorized absence from Arnstadt; Bach was gone for several months in 1705–6, to visit the great organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude and his Abendmusiken at St. Mary’s Church in the northern city of Labeck. The visit to Buxtehude involved a 450-kilometer (280 mi) journey each way, reportedly on foot.

In 1706, Bach was offered a post as organist at St. Blasius’s Church in Mühlhausen, which he took up the following year. It included significantly higher remuneration, improved conditions, and a better choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood, including Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who both became important composers as well. Bach was able to convince the church and town government at Mühlhausen to fund an expensive renovation of the organ at St. Blasius’s Church. Bach, in turn, wrote an elaborate, festive cantata—Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)—for the inauguration of the new council in 1708. The council paid handsomely for its publication, and it was a major success.

Return to Weimar (1708–17)

In 1708, Bach left Mühlhausen, returning to Weimar this time as organist and, from 1714, Konzertmeister (director of music) at the ducal court, where he had an opportunity to work with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians. Bach moved with his family into an apartment very close to the ducal palace. In the following year, their first child was born, and Maria Barbara’s elder, unmarried sister joined them. She remained to help run the household until her death in 1729.

Bach’s time in Weimar was the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works. He attained the proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing structures and to include influences from abroad. He learned to write dramatic openings and employ the dynamic motor rhythms and harmonic schemes found in the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli, and Torelli. Bach absorbed these stylistic aspects in part by transcribing Vivaldi’s string and wind concertos for harpsichord and organ; many of these transcribed works are still regularly performed. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian style in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement.

In Weimar, Bach continued to play and compose for the organ and to perform concert music with the duke’s ensemble. He also began to write the preludes and fugues that were later assembled into his monumental work The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperierte Clavier“Clavier” meaning clavichord or harpsichord), consisting of two books, compiled in 1722 and 1744, each containing a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key.

Listen: Prelude No. 1 in C major (BWV 846)

Please listen to the following performance from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, performed on harpsichord by Robert Schrater.

Also in Weimar, Bach started work on the Little Organ Book, containing traditional Lutheran chorales (hymn tunes) set in complex textures. In 1713, Bach was offered a post in Halle when he advised the authorities during a renovation by Christoph Cuntzius of the main organ in the west gallery of the Market Church of Our Dear Lady. Johann Kuhnau and Bach played again when it was inaugurated in 1716.

In the spring of 1714, Bach was promoted to Konzertmeister, an honor that entailed performing a church cantata monthly in the castle church. The first three cantatas Bach composed in Weimar were Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, for Palm Sunday, which coincided with the Annunciation that year; Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, for Jubilate Sunday; and Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172 for Pentecost. Bach’s first Christmas cantata, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63, was premiered in 1714 or 1715.

In 1717, Bach eventually fell out of favor in Weimar and was, according to a translation of the court secretary’s report, jailed for almost a month before being unfavorably dismissed: “On November 6, [1717], the quondam concertmaster and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavorable discharge.”

Kathen (1717–23)

The autograph of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001)
Figure 3. The autograph of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001).

Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Kathen, hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister (director of music) in 1717. Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach’s talents, paid him well, and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. The prince was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship; accordingly, most of Bach’s work from this period was secular, including the orchestral suites, the cello suites, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the Brandenburg Concertos. Bach also composed secular cantatas for the court, such as Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht, BWV 134a. A significant influence upon Bach’s musical development during his years with the prince is recorded by Stauffer as Bach’s “complete embrace of dance music, perhaps the most important influence on his mature style other than his adoption of Vivaldi’s music in Weimar.”

Despite being born in the same year and only about 130 kilometers (81 mi) apart, Bach and Handel never met. In 1719, Bach made the 35-kilometer (22 mi) journey from Kathen to Halle with the intention of meeting Handel; however, Handel had left the town. In 1730, Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann traveled to Halle to invite Handel to visit the Bach family in Leipzig, but the visit did not come to pass.

On 7 July 1720, while Bach was traveling to Carlsbad with Prince Leopold, Bach’s first wife suddenly died. The following year, he met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano 17 years his junior who performed at the court in Kathen; they married on 3 December 1721. Together they had 13 more children, 6 of whom survived into adulthood: Gottfried Heinrich; Elisabeth Juliane Friederica (1726–81), who married Bach’s pupil Johann Christoph Altnickol; Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, who both became significant musicians; Johanna Carolina (1737–81); and Regina Susanna (1742–1809).

Leipzig (1723–50)

In 1723, Bach was appointed Thomaskantor, Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig, which served four churches in the city (the Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), the Neue Kirche, and the Peterskirche), and musical director of public functions such as city council elections and homages. This was a prestigious post in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, which he held for 27 years until his death. It brought him into contact with the political machinations of his employer, Leipzig’s city council.

Bach was required to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing and to provide church music for the main churches in Leipzig. Bach was required to teach Latin, but he was allowed to employ a deputy to do this instead. A cantata was required for the church services on Sundays and additional church holidays during the liturgical year. He usually performed his own cantatas, most of which were composed during his first three years in Leipzig. The first of these was Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, first performed in the Nikolaikirche on 30 May 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity. Bach collected his cantatas in annual cycles. Five are mentioned in obituaries; three are extant. Of the more than 300 cantatas which Bach composed in Leipzig, over 100 have been lost to posterity. Most of these concerted works expound on the Gospel readings prescribed for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran year. Bach started a second annual cycle the first Sunday after Trinity of 1724 and composed only chorale cantatas, each based on a single church hymn. These include O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20; Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140; Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62; and Wie schan leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1.

Listen: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140)

Please listen to the following opening chorale from cantata BWV 140, performed by the MIT Concert Choir.

Bach drew the soprano and alto choristers from the school and the tenors and basses from the school and elsewhere in Leipzig. Performing at weddings and funerals provided extra income for these groups; it was probably for this purpose, and for in-school training, that he wrote at least six motets. As part of his regular church work, he performed other composers’ motets, which served as formal models for his own.

Bach’s predecessor as Cantor, Johann Kuhnau, had also been music director for the Paulinerkirche, the church of Leipzig University. But when Bach was installed as Cantor in 1723, he was put in charge only of music for “festal” (church holiday) services at the Paulinerkirche; his petition to provide music also for regular Sunday services there (for corresponding salary increase) went all the way up to King Augustus II but was denied. After this, in 1725, Bach “lost interest” in working even for festal services at the Paulinerkirche and appeared there only on “special occasions.” The Paulinerkirche had a much better and newer (1716) organ than did the Thomaskirche or the Nikolaikirche. Bach had been consulted officially about the 1716 organ after its completion, came from Köthen, and submitted a report. Bach was not required to play any organ in his official duties, but it is believed he liked to play on the Paulinerkirche organ “for his own pleasure.”

Bach broadened his composing and performing beyond the liturgy by taking over, in March 1729, the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble started by the composer Georg Philipp Telemann. This was one of the dozens of private societies in the major German-speaking cities that was established by musically active university students; these societies had become increasingly important in public musical life and were typically led by the most prominent professionals in a city. In the words of Christoph Wolff, assuming the directorship was a shrewd move that “consolidated Bach’s firm grip on Leipzig’s principal musical institutions.” Year round, the Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum performed regularly in venues such as the Cafa Zimmermann, a coffeehouse on Catherine Street off the main market square. Many of Bach’s works during the 1730s and 1740s were written for and performed by the Collegium Musicum; among these were parts of his Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice) and many of his violin and keyboard concertos.

In 1733, Bach composed a mass for the Dresden court (Kyrie and Gloria), which he later incorporated in his Mass in B minor. He presented the manuscript to the King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Elector of Saxony, Augustus III, in an eventually successful bid to persuade the monarch to appoint him as Royal Court Composer. He later extended this work into a full mass, by adding a Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, the music for which was partly based on his own cantatas, partly new composed. Bach’s appointment as court composer was part of his long-term struggle to achieve greater bargaining power with the Leipzig council. Between 1737 and 1739, Bach’s former pupil Carl Gotthelf Gerlach took over the directorship of the Collegium Musicum.

In 1747, Bach visited the court of King Frederick II at Potsdam. The king played a theme for Bach and challenged him to improvise a fugue based on his theme. Bach improvised a three-part fugue on one of Frederick’s fortepianos, then a novelty, and later presented the king with a Musical Offering that consists of fugues, canons, and a trio based on this theme. Its six-part fugue includes a slightly altered subject more suitable for extensive elaboration.

In the same year, Bach joined the Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences (Correspondierende Societat der musicalischen Wissenschaften) of Lorenz Christoph Mizler. On the occasion of his entry into the society, Bach composed the Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” (BWV 769). A portrait had to be submitted by each member of the society, so in 1746, during the preparation of Bach’s entry, the famous Bach portrait was painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. The Canon triplex á 6 Voc. (BWV 1076) on this portrait was dedicated to the society. Other late works by Bach may also have a connection with the music theory-based society. One of those works was The Art of Fugue, which consists of 18 complex fugues and canons based on a simple theme. The Art of Fugue was only published posthumously in 1751.

Bach’s last large work was the Mass in B minor (1748-49), which Stauffer describes as “Bach’s most universal church work. Consisting mainly of recycled movements from cantatas written over a thirty-five year period, it allowed Bach to survey his vocal pieces one last time and pick select movements for further revision and refinement.” Although the complete mass was never performed during the composer’s lifetime, it is considered to be among the greatest choral works of all time.

Death (1750)

Bach’s grave, St. Thomas Church, Leipzig
Figure 4. Bach’s grave, St. Thomas Church, Leipzig.

Bach’s health declined in 1749; on 2 June, Heinrich von Brahl wrote to one of the Leipzig burgomasters to request that his music director, Johann Gottlob Harrer, fill the Thomaskantor and Director musices posts “upon the eventual . . . decease of Mr. Bach.” Bach became increasingly blind, so the British eye surgeon John Taylor operated on Bach while visiting Leipzig in March or April 1750.

On 28 July 1750, Bach died at the age of 65. A contemporary newspaper reported “the unhappy consequences of the very unsuccessful eye operation” as the cause of death. Modern historians speculate that the cause of death was a stroke complicated by pneumonia. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola wrote an obituary of Bach. In 1754, it was published by Lorenz Christoph Mizler in the musical periodical Musikalische Bibliothek. This obituary arguably remains “the richest and most trustworthy” early source document about Bach.

Bach’s estate included 5 harpsichords, 2 lute-harpsichords, 3 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet, and 52 “sacred books,” including books by Martin Luther and Josephus. He was originally buried at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. His grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years. In 1894, his remains were located and moved to a vault in St. John’s Church. This building was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, so in 1950, Bach’s remains were taken to their present grave in St. Thomas Church. Later research has called into question whether the remains in the grave are actually those of Bach.


After his death, Bach’s reputation as a composer at first declined; his work was regarded as old-fashioned compared to the emerging gallant style. Initially he was remembered more as a virtuoso player of the organ and as a teacher.

Many of Bach’s unpublished manuscripts were distributed among his wife and musician sons at the time of his death. Unfortunately, the poor financial condition of some of the family members led to the sale and subsequent loss of parts of Bach’s compositions, including over 100 cantatas and his St. Mark Passion, of which no copies are known to survive.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Bach was recognized by several prominent composers for his keyboard work. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn were among his admirers; they began writing in a more contrapuntal style after being exposed to Bach’s music. Beethoven described him as “Urvater der Harmonie”—the “original father of harmony.”

Bach’s reputation among the wider public was enhanced in part by Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s 1802 biography of the composer. Felix Mendelssohn significantly contributed to the renewed interest in Bach’s work with his 1829 Berlin performance of the St. Matthew Passion. In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded to promote the works; in 1899, the society published a comprehensive edition of the composer’s works with little editorial intervention.

During the 20th century, the process of recognizing the musical as well as the pedagogic value of some of the works continued, perhaps most notably in the promotion of the cello suites by Pablo Casals, the first major performer to record these suites. Another development has been the growth of the historically informed performance movement, which attempts to take into account the aesthetic criteria and performance practice of the period in which the music was conceived. Examples include the playing of keyboard works on harpsichord rather than modern grand piano and the use of small choirs or single voices instead of the larger forces favored by 19th- and early 20th-century performers.

The liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church remembers Bach annually with a feast day on 28 July, together with George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell; the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church on the same day remembers Bach and Handel with Heinrich Schütz. In other circles, Bach’s music is bracketed with the literature of William Shakespeare and the science of Isaac Newton.

During the 20th century, many streets in Germany were named and statues were erected in honor of Bach. A large crater in the Bach quadrangle on Mercury is named in Bach’s honor, as are the main-belt asteroids 1814 Bach and 1482 Sebastiana. Bach’s music features three times—more than that of any other composer—on the Voyager Golden Record, a gramophone record containing a broad sample of the images, common sounds, languages, and music of Earth, sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes.


In 1950, a thematic catalog called Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalog) was compiled by Wolfgang Schmieder. Schmieder largely followed the Bach-Gesellschaft-Ausgabe, a comprehensive edition of the composer’s works that was produced between 1850 and 1900: BWV 1224 are cantatas; BWV 225–249, large-scale choral works including his Passions; BWV 250–524, chorales and sacred songs; BWV 525–748, organ works; BWV 772–994, other keyboard works; BWV 995–1000, lute music; BWV 1001–40, chamber music; BWV 1041–71, orchestral music; and BWV 1072–1126, canons and fugues.

Organ Works

Bach was best known during his lifetime as an organist, organ consultant, and composer of organ works in both the traditional German free genre, such as preludes, fantasias, and toccata, and stricter forms, such as chorale preludes and fugues. At a young age, he established a reputation for his great creativity and ability to integrate foreign styles into his organ works. A decidedly North German influence was exerted by Georg Bahm, with whom Bach came into contact in Laneburg, and Dieterich Buxtehude, whom the young organist visited in Labeck in 1704 on an extended leave of absence from his job in Arnstadt. Around this time, Bach copied the works of numerous French and Italian composers to gain insights into their compositional languages and later arranged violin concertos by Vivaldi and others for organ and harpsichord. During his most productive period (1708–14), he composed about a dozen pairs of preludes and fugues, 5 toccatas and fugues, and the Little Organ Book, an unfinished collection of 46 short chorale preludes that demonstrates compositional techniques in the setting of chorale tunes. After leaving Weimar, Bach wrote less for organ, although some of his best-known works (the six trio sonatas, the German Organ Mass in Clavier-àbung III from 1739, and the Great Eighteen chorales, revised late in his life) were composed after his leaving Weimar. Bach was extensively engaged later in his life in consulting on organ projects, testing newly built organs, and dedicating organs in afternoon recitals.

Listen: Keyboard Work

Please listen to the opening aria from the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), performed on piano by Kimiko Ishizaka.

Orchestral and Chamber Music

Bach wrote for single instruments, duets, and small ensembles. Many of his solo works, such as his six sonatas and partitas for violin (BWV 1001–1006), six cello suites (BWV 1007–1012), and partita for solo flute (BWV 1013), are widely considered among the most profound works in the repertoire. Bach composed a suite and several other works that have been claimed (since 1900) for the solo lute, but there is no evidence that he wrote for this instrument. He wrote trio sonatas; solo sonatas (accompanied by continuo) for the flute and for the viola da gamba; and a large number of canons and ricercars, mostly with unspecified instrumentation. The most significant examples of the latter are contained in The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering.

Bach’s best-known orchestral works are the Brandenburg Concertos, so named because he submitted them in the hope of gaining employment from Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721; his application was unsuccessful. These works are examples of the concerto grosso genre. Other surviving works in the concerto form include two violin concertos (BWV 1041 and BWV 1042); a concerto for two violins in D minor (BWV 1043), often referred to as Bach’s “double” concerto; and concertos for one to four harpsichords. It is widely accepted that many of the harpsichord concertos were not original works but arrangements of his concertos for other instruments now lost. A number of violin, oboe, and flute concertos have been reconstructed from these. In addition to concertos, Bach wrote four orchestral suites and a series of stylized dances for orchestra, each preceded by a French overture.


St. Thomas Church
Figure 5. St. Thomas Church, Leipzig.

As the Thomas Kantor, beginning mid-1723, Bach performed a cantata each Sunday and feast day that corresponded to the lectionary readings of the week. Although Bach performed cantatas by other composers, he composed at least three entire annual cycles of cantatas at Leipzig, in addition to those composed at Muhlhausen and Weimar. In total he wrote more than 300 sacred cantatas, of which nearly 200 survive.

His cantatas vary greatly in form and instrumentation, including those for solo singers, single choruses, small instrumental groups, and grand orchestras. Many consist of a large opening chorus followed by one or more recitative-aria pairs for soloists (or duets) and a concluding chorale. The recitative is part of the corresponding Bible reading for the week, and the aria is a contemporary reflection on it. The melody of the concluding chorale often appears as a Cantus Firmus in the opening movement. Among his best known cantatas are:

  • Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4
  • Ich hatte viel Bekammernis, BWV 21
  • Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80
  • Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 (Actus Tragicus)
  • Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140
  • Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147

In addition, Bach wrote a number of secular cantatas, usually for civic events such as council inaugurations. These include wedding cantatas, the Wedding Quodlibet, the Peasant Cantata, and the Coffee Cantata.

Before we can dive into a study of Bach’s cantatas, we need to learn about an important element of Lutheran sacred music: the chorale. Bach worked these chorales or hymn tunes into many of his church cantatas, and the three movements from Cantata 140 Wachet auf all make use of the chorale tune on which that cantata is based.


A chorale is a melody to which a hymn is sung by a congregation in a German Protestant Church service. The typical four-part setting of a chorale, in which the sopranos (and the congregation) sing the melody along with three lower voices, is known as a chorale harmonization. In certain modern usage, this term may include classical settings of such hymns and works of a similar character.

Chorales tend to be simple and singable tunes. The words are often sung to a rhyming scheme and are in a strophic form (the same melody used for different verses). Within a verse, many chorales follow the AAB pattern of melody that is known as the German bar form.

The third stanza in Johann Sebastian Bach’s setting as the final movement of his chorale cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140
Figure 1. The third stanza in Johann Sebastian Bach’s setting as the final movement of his chorale cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140.


Starting in 1523, Martin Luther began translating worship texts into German from the Latin so that the people could understand, continue to learn, and participate. This created an immediate need for a large repertoire of new chorales. He composed some chorales himself, such as A Mighty Fortress. For other chorales, he used Gregorian chant melodies used in Roman Catholic worship and fitted them with new German texts, sometimes adapting the same melody more than once. For example, he fitted the melody of the hymn “Veni redemptor gentium” to three different texts, “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich,” “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort,” and “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” A famous example is “Christ lag in Todes Banden,” which is based on the tune of the Catholic Easter Sequence, “Victimae Paschali Laudes.” As early as 1524, Johann Walter published Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn, the first hymnal for choir, in Wittenberg.

Johann Sebastian Bach harmonized hundreds of chorales, typically used at the end of his cantatas and concluding scenes in his Passions. In his St. Matthew Passion, he set five stanzas of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” in four different ways. He also used hymns as the base for his cycle of chorale cantatas and chorale preludes. Bach concentrated on the chorales, especially in the Chorale cantatas of his second annual cycle, composed mostly in 1724–25.

Today, many of the Lutheran chorales are familiar as hymns used in Protestant churches, sometimes sung in four-voice harmony.

Derived Forms

Chorales also appear in chorale preludes, pieces generally for organ designed to be played immediately before the congregational singing of the hymn. A chorale prelude includes the melody of the chorale and adds contrapuntal lines. One of the first composers to write chorale preludes was Samuel Scheidt. Bach’s many chorale preludes are the best-known examples of the form. Later composers of the chorale prelude include Johannes Brahms, such as Eleven Chorale Preludes, and Max Reger, who composed Wie schan leucht’ uns der Morgenstern on Nicolai’s hymn, among many others.

Anton Bruckner made frequent use of the chorale as a compositional device based on his understanding of musical settings of the liturgy and Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale preludes. He used it in his symphonies, masses, and motets—for example, Dir, Herr, dir will ich mich ergeben and In jener letzten der Nächte, often in contrast to and combination with the fugue, as in Psalm 22 and in the Finale of Symphony No. 5.

https://library.achievingthedream.org/alamomusicappreciation/chapter/bachs-cantatas/ Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:52:00 +0000

This page will give you an overview of Bach’s approach to the composition of cantatas. In some of these sections, you will find the names of specific cantatas or cantata movements that serve as an example of the characteristics discussed. You won’t be tested on any of those examples; our goal is to get a general sense of Bach’s approach.


The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are among his most significant and celebrated compositions. While many have been lost, at least 209 of the cantatas composed by Bach have survived.

Thomaskirche, one of the two Leipzig churches where Bach composed and performed church cantatas almost weekly from 1723 to 1726
Figure 1. Thomaskirche, one of the two Leipzig churches where Bach composed and performed church cantatas almost weekly from 1723 to 1726.

As far as we know, Bach’s earliest surviving cantatas date from 1707, the year he moved to Muhlhausen (although he may have begun composing them at his previous post at Arnstadt). Many of Bach’s cantatas date from the years between 1723 (when he took up the post of Thomaskantor, cantor of the main churches of Leipzig) and 1745 (when the last one was probably written). Working especially at the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche, it was part of his job to perform a church cantata every Sunday and holiday, conducting soloists, the Thomanerchor, and orchestra as part of the church service. Works from three annual cycles of cantatas for the liturgical calendar have survived. These relate to the readings prescribed by the Lutheran liturgy for the specific occasion. In his first years in Leipzig, starting after Trinity of 1723, it was not unusual for him to compose a new work every week.

In addition to the church cantatas, he composed sacred cantatas for functions like weddings or Ratswahl (the inauguration of a new town council), music for academic functions of the University of Leipzig at the Paulinerkirche, and secular cantatas for anniversaries and entertainment in nobility and society, some of them Glackwunschkantaten (congratulatory cantatas) and Huldigungskantaten (homage cantatas).

His cantatas usually require four soloists and a four-part choir, but he also wrote solo cantatas for typically one soloist and dialogue cantatas for two singers. The words for many cantatas combine Bible quotes, contemporary poetry, and chorale, but he also composed a cycle of chorale cantatas based exclusively on one chorale.

Structure of a Bach Cantata

A typical Bach cantata of his first year in Leipzig follows the scheme:

  1. Opening chorus
  2. Recitative
  3. Aria
  4. Recitative (or Arioso)
  5. Aria
  6. Chorale

The opening chorus (Eingangschor) is usually a polyphonic setting, the orchestra presenting the themes or contrasting material first. Most arias follow the form of a da capo aria, repeating the first part after a middle section. The final chorale is typically a homophonic setting of a traditional melody.

Bach used an expanded structure to take up his position in Leipzig with the cantatas Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, and Die Himmel erzahlen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76, both in two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon (post orationem) and during communion (sub communione), each part a sequence of opening movement, five movements alternating recitatives and arias, and chorale. In an exemplary way, both cantatas cover the prescribed readings: starting with a related psalm from the Old Testament, Part I reflects the Gospel, Part II the Epistle.

Bach did not follow any scheme strictly, but composed as he wanted to express the words. A few cantatas are opened by an instrumental piece before the first chorus, such as the Sinfonia of Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV 29. A solo movement begins Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille, BWV 120, because its first words speak of silence. Many cantatas composed in Weimar are set like chamber music, mostly for soloists, with a four-part setting only in the closing chorale, which may have been sung by the soloists. In an early cantata Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172, Bach marked a repeat of the opening chorus after the chorale.

The chorale can be as simple as a traditional four-part setting, or be accompanied by an obbligato instrument, or be accompanied by the instruments of the opening chorus, or even expanded by interludes based on its themes, or have the homophonic vocal parts embedded in an instrumental concerto as in the familiar Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147), or have complex vocal parts embedded in the concerto as in Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht (BWV 186) in a form called Choralphantasie (chorale fantasia). In Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, for the 1st Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year, he shaped the opening chorus as a French overture.

Singers and Instrumentation


Schlosskirche in Weimar where Bach composed and performed church cantatas monthly from 1714 to 1717
Figure 2. Schlosskirche in Weimar where Bach composed and performed church cantatas monthly from 1714 to 1717.

Typically Bach employs soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists and a four-part choir, also SATB. He sometimes assigns the voice parts to the dramatic situation—for example, soprano for innocence or alto for motherly feelings. The bass is often the vox Christi, the voice of Jesus, when Jesus is quoted directly, as in Es wartet alles auf dich, BWV 187, or indirectly, as in O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60.

In the absence of clear documentary evidence, there are different options as to how many singers to deploy per part in choral sections. This is reflected in the recordings discussed below. Ton Koopman, for example, is a conductor who has recorded a complete set of the cantatas and who favors a choir with four singers per part. On the other hand, some modern performances and recordings use one voice per part, although Bach would have had more singers available at Leipzig, for example, while the space in the court chapel in Weimar was limited. One size of choir probably does not fit all the cantatas.


The orchestra that Bach used is based on string instruments (violin, viola) and basso continuo, typically played by cello, double bass (an octave lower), and organ. A continuous bass is the rule in Baroque music; its absence is worth mentioning and has a reason, such as describing fragility.

The specific character of a cantata or a single movement is rather defined by wind instruments, such as oboe, oboe da caccia, oboe d’amore, flauto traverso, recorder, trumpet, horn, trombone, and timpani. In movements with winds, a bassoon usually joins the continuo group.

Festive occasions call for richer instrumentation. Some instruments also carry symbolic meaning, such as a trumpet, the royal instrument of the Baroque, for divine majesty, and three trumpets for the Trinity. In an aria of BWV 172, addressing the Heiligste Dreifaltigkeit (most holy Trinity), the bass is accompanied only by three trumpets and timpani.

In many arias, Bach uses obbligato instruments, which correspond with the singer as an equal partner. These instrumental parts are frequently set in virtuoso repetitive patterns called figuration. Instruments include, in addition to the ones mentioned, flauto piccolo (sopranino recorder), violino piccolo, viola d’amore, violoncello piccolo (a smaller cello), tromba da tirarsi (slide trumpet), and corno da tirarsi.

In his early compositions, Bach also used instruments that had become old-fashioned, such as viola da gamba and violone. Recorders (flauti dolci) are sometimes used to express humility or poverty, such as in the cantata Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39.

Solo Cantata

Some cantatas are composed for only one solo singer (Solokantate), as Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 for soprano, sometimes concluded by a chorale, as Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56 for bass.

Dialogue Cantata

Some cantatas are structured as a dialogue, mostly for Jesus and the Soul (bass and soprano), set like miniature operas. Bach titled them, for example, Concerto in Dialogo, concerto in dialogue. An early example is Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn, BWV 152 (1714). He composed four such works in his third annual cycle, Selig ist der Mann, BWV 57 (1725); Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32; Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49 (both 1726); and Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV 58 (1727).

Text of Bach’s Sacred Cantatas

Within the Lutheran liturgy, certain readings from the Bible were prescribed for every event during the church year; specifically, it was expected that an Epistel from an Epistle and Evangelium from a Gospel would be read. Music was expected for all Sundays and Holidays except the quiet times (tempus clausum) of Advent and Lent; the cantatas were supposed to reflect the readings. Many opening movements are based on quotations from the Bible, such as Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65, from Isaiah 60:6. Ideally, a cantata text started with an Old Testament quotation related to the readings and reflected both the Epistle and the Gospel, as in the exemplary Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76. Most of the solo movements are based on poetry of contemporary writers, such as court poet Salomon Franck in Weimar or Georg Christian Lehms or Picander in Leipzig, with whom Bach collaborated. The final words were usually a stanza from a chorale. Bach’s Chorale cantatas are based exclusively on one chorale—for example, the early Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, and most cantatas of his second annual cycle in Leipzig.

Here is some more specific information on the Bach cantata featured on our playlist. Please note that this reading deals with all seven movements of the piece. On the listening exam, you will only be responsible for movements I, IV, and VII.


Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us), BWV 140, also known as Sleepers Wake, is a church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. He composed the chorale cantata in Leipzig for the 27th Sunday after Trinity and first performed it on 25 November 1731. It is based on the hymn “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (1599) by Philipp Nicolai. Movement 4 of the cantata is the base for the first of Bach’s Schübler Chorales, BWV 645. The cantata is a late addition to Bach’s cycle of chorale cantatas, featuring additional poetry for two duets of Jesus and the Soul, which expand the theme of the hymn.

Scoring and Structure

The cantata in seven movements is scored for three soloists (soprano, tenor, and bass), a four-part choir, horn, two oboes, taille, violino piccolo, two violins, viola, and basso continuo.

  1. Chorale: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, the voice calls to us)
  2. Recitative (tenor): Er kommt (He comes)
  3. Aria (soprano, bass): Wann kommst du, mein Heil? (When will you come, my salvation?)
  4. Chorale (tenor): Zion hört die Wächter singen (Zion hears the watchmen singing)
  5. Recitative: So geh herein zu mir (So come in with me)
  6. Aria (soprano, bass): Mein Freund ist mein! (My friend is mine!)
  7. Chorale: Gloria sei dir gesungen (May Gloria be sung to you)


The first movement is a chorale fantasia based on the first verse of the chorale, a common feature of Bach’s earlier chorale cantatas. It is in E-flat major. The cantus firmus is sung by the soprano. The orchestra plays independent material mainly based on two motifs: a dotted rhythm and an ascending scale “with syncopated accent shifts.” The lower voices add in unusually free polyphonic music images, such as the frequent calls “wach auf!” (wake up!) and “wo, wo?” (where, where?), and long melismas in a fugato on “Halleluja.”

The second movement is a recitative for tenor as a narrator who calls the “Tachter Zions” (daughters of Zion). In the following duet with obbligato violino piccolo, the soprano represents the Soul, and the bass is the vox Christi (voice of Jesus).

The fourth movement, based on the second verse of the chorale, is written in the style of a chorale prelude, with the phrases of the chorale, sung as a cantus firmus by the tenors (or by the tenor soloist), entering intermittently against a famously lyrical melody played in unison by the violins (without the violino piccolo) and the viola, accompanied by the basso continuo. Bach later transcribed this movement for organ (BWV 645), and it was subsequently published along with five other transcriptions Bach made of his cantata movements as the Schübler Chorales.

The fifth movement is a recitative for bass, accompanied by the strings. It pictures the unity of the bridegroom and the “chosen bride.” The sixth movement is another duet for soprano and bass with obbligato oboe. This duet, like the third movement, is a love duet between the soprano Soul and the bass Jesus. Alfred Darr describes it as giving “expression to the joy of the united pair,” showing a “relaxed mood” in “artistic intensity.”

The closing chorale is a four-part setting of the third verse of the hymn. The high pitch of the melody is doubled by a violino piccolo an octave higher, representing the bliss of the “heavenly Jerusalem.”

The suite as a genre has previously been described in the Instrumental Music in the Baroque section. Bach composed many suites for various instruments. His six suites for unaccompanied cello are some of the best-known works written for the instrument. You’ll notice that there are recordings of every movement of Suite No. 1. You only have the Prelude (1st movement) on your playlist, though at some point I highly recommend listening to more for your own enjoyment.


The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach are some of the most frequently performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for cello. They were most likely composed during the period 1717–1723, when Bach served as a Kapellmeister in Kathen. The title of Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript was Suites á Violoncello Solo senza Basso.

The suites have been transcribed for numerous instruments, including the violin, viola, double bass, viola da gamba, mandolin, piano, marimba, classical guitar, recorder, flute, electric bass, horn, saxophone, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, ukulele, and charango and Rap.

The suites have been performed and recorded by many renowned cellists; Yo-Yo Ma won the 1985 Best Instrumental Soloist Grammy Award for his bestselling album Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites.


The suites are in six movements each and have the following structure and order of movements:

  1. Prelude
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Galanteries: Minuets for Suites 1 and 2, Bourrées for 3 and 4, Gavottes for 5 and 6
  6. Gigue

Scholars believe that Bach intended the works to be considered as a systematically conceived cycle rather than an arbitrary series of pieces. Compared to Bach’s other suite collections, the cello suites are the most consistent in order of their movements. In addition, to achieve a symmetrical design and go beyond the traditional layout, Bach inserted intermezzo or galanterie movements in the form of pairs between the Sarabande and the Gigue.

Only five movements in the entire set of suites are completely non-chordal, meaning that they consist only of a single melodic line. These are the second Minuet of the 1st Suite, the second Minuet of the 2nd suite, the second Bourrée of the 3rd suite, the Gigue of the 4th suite, and the Sarabande of the 5th Suite. The 2nd Gavotte of the 5th Suite has but one prim-chord (the same note played on two strings at the same time), but only in the original scordatura version of the suite; in the standard tuning version, it is completely free of chords.

Suite No. 1 in G major

The Prelude, mainly consisting of arpeggiated chords, is probably the best-known movement from the entire set of suites and is regularly heard on television and in films.

Fugue is a complex style of composition that can be employed in almost any genre; this page will give you a general sense of what late Baroque fugues involved. Fugal writing is a very complex form of counterpoint. In the Baroque, it could also be considered a genre, as many pieces were composed as stand-alone fugues. The most important thing to remember is the role of the fugue subject as the main melodic idea that is imitated throughout the piece.

Even though fugues were being composed throughout the Baroque, Bach is considered to have no equal in the composition of fugues, so this page is included in this section with him rather than in the Instrumental Music in the Baroque section.


In music, a fugue is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.

The English term fugue originated in the 16th century and is derived from the French word fugue or the Italian fuga. This in turn comes from Latin, also fuga, which is itself related to both fugere (“to flee”) and fugare (“to chase”). The adjectival form is fugal. Variants include fughetta (literally, “a small fugue”) and fugato (a passage in fugal style within another work that is not a fugue).

A fugue usually has three sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation containing the return of the subject in the fugue’s tonic key, though not all fugues have a recapitulation. In the Middle Ages, the term was widely used to denote any works in canonic style; by the Renaissance, it had come to denote specifically imitative works. Since the 17th century, the term fugue has described what is commonly regarded as the most fully developed procedure of imitative counterpoint.

Most fugues open with a short main theme, the subject, which then sounds successively in each voice (after the first voice is finished stating the subject, a second voice repeats the subject at a different pitch, and other voices repeat in the same way); when each voice has entered, the exposition is complete. This is often followed by a connecting passage, or episode, developed from previously heard material; further “entries” of the subject are heard in related keys. Episodes (if applicable) and entries are usually alternated until the “final entry” of the subject, by which point the music has returned to the opening key, or tonic, which is often followed by closing material, the coda. In this sense, a fugue is a style of composition rather than a fixed structure.

The form evolved during the 18th century from several earlier types of contrapuntal compositions, such as imitative ricercars, capriccios, canzonas, and fantasias. The famous fugue composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) shaped his own works after those of Johann Jakob Froberger (1616–1667), Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706), Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643), Dieterich Buxtehude (ca. 1637–1707), and others. With the decline of sophisticated styles at the end of the Baroque period, the fugue’s central role waned, eventually giving way as the sonata form and the symphony orchestra rose to a dominant position. Nevertheless, composers continued to write and study fugues for various purposes; they appear in the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), as well as modern composers like Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975).

Baroque Era

It was in the Baroque period that the writing of fugues became central to composition, in part as a demonstration of compositional expertise. Fugues were incorporated into a variety of musical forms. Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Johann Jakob Froberger, and Dieterich Buxtehude all wrote fugues, and George Frideric Handel included them in many of his oratorios. Keyboard suites from this time often conclude with a fugal gigue. Domenico Scarlatti has only a few fugues among his corpus of over 500 harpsichord sonatas. The French overture featured a quick fugal section after a slow introduction. The second movement of a sonata da chiesa, as written by Arcangelo Corelli and others, was usually fugal.

The Baroque period also saw a rise in the importance of music theory. Some fugues during the Baroque period were pieces designed to teach contrapuntal technique to students. The most influential text was published by Johann Joseph Fux (1660–1741), his Gradus Ad Parnassum (“Steps to Parnassus”), which appeared in 1725. This work laid out the terms of “species” of counterpoint and offered a series of exercises to learn fugue writing. Fux’s work was largely based on the practice of Palestrina’s modal fugues. Mozart studied from this book, and it remained influential into the 19th century. Haydn, for example, taught counterpoint from his own summary of Fux and thought of it as the basis for formal structure.

This musical form was also apparent in chamber music Bach would later compose for Weimar; the famous Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor (BWV 1043) (although not contrapuntal in its entirety) has a fugal opening section to its first movement.

Bach’s most famous fugues are those for the harpsichord in The Well-Tempered Clavier, which many composers and theorists look at as the greatest model of fugue. The Well-Tempered Clavier comprises two volumes written in different times of Bach’s life, each comprising 24 prelude and fugue pairs, one for each major and minor key. Bach is also known for his organ fugues, which are usually preceded by a prelude or toccata. The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, is a collection of fugues (and four canons) on a single theme that is gradually transformed as the cycle progresses. Bach also wrote smaller single fugues and put fugal sections or movements into many of his more general works.

J. S. Bach’s influence extended forward through his son C. P. E. Bach and through the theorist Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1718–1795), whose Abhandlung von der Fuge (“Treatise on the fugue,” 1753) was largely based on J. S. Bach’s work.

This brief synopsis of Bach’s “Little” fugue in G minor includes a listening guide that, while it may not line up exactly with the timing of the piece in our playlist due to variations from one performance to another, will serve as a helpful checklist of the contrapuntal “events” that make up this particular fugue. As noted in the article, the subject of this fugue is one of the best-known of Bach’s melodies. Here is the subject written out in musical notation.

The Brandenburg Concertos are six concerti grossi that Bach wrote as a gift for the Margrave of Brandenburg, a nobleman that Bach was hoping to impress in order to obtain employment in his court (he didn’t get the job). This link will take you to an article at National Public Radio detailing the origins of these concertos, widely considered to be among the greatest orchestral compositions of the period. Remember that while this article discusses all six concertos, the piece on our playlist is the 1st movement from Concerto No. 5 in D major. You can also visit the Wikipedia page on the Brandenburg Concertos, where you can listen to all six works in their entirety.

In the Olympic games of music history, Bach and Handel share the gold medal platform as the greatest composers of the Baroque era. However, that is the view from our 21st-century vantage point. In the late Baroque era, there would have been only one reigning composer, and that composer was Handel.

While Bach was respected as a supremely gifted organist, his compositions would have been little known outside the region of Germany in which he lived and worked. Handel, on the other hand, was internationally famous during his lifetime and, largely due to his oratorios, well known and highly regarded in the decades and centuries that followed his death.


Portrait of Handel, by Balthasar Denner
Figure 1. Portrait of Handel, by Balthasar Denner.

George Frideric (or Frederick) Handel, born Georg Friedrich Handel (5 March 1685–14 April 1759), was a German-born, British Baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, and organ concertos. Born into a family indifferent to music, Handel received critical training in Halle, Hamburg, and Italy before settling in London (1712) and became a naturalized British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced by both the great composers of the Italian Baroque and the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition.

Within 15 years, Handel had started three commercial opera companies to supply the English nobility with Italian opera. Musicologist Winton Dean writes that his operas show that “Handel was not only a great composer; he was a dramatic genius of the first order.” As Alexander’s Feast (1736) was well received, Handel made a transition to English choral works. After his success with Messiah (1742), he never performed an Italian opera again. Almost blind, and having lived in England for nearly 50 years, he died in 1759, a respected and rich man. His funeral was given full state honors, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, Handel is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, with works such as Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, and Messiah remaining steadfastly popular. One of his four Coronation Anthems, Zadok the Priest (1727), composed for the coronation of George II of Great Britain, has been performed at every subsequent British coronation, traditionally during the sovereign’s anointing. Handel composed more than 40 operas in over 30 years, and since the late 1960s, with the revival of Baroque music and historically informed musical performance, interest in Handel’s operas has grown.

Move to London

George Frideric Handel (left) and King George I on the River Thames, 17 July 1717, by Edouard Hamman
Figure 2. George Frideric Handel (left) and King George I on the River Thames, 17 July 1717, by Edouard Hamman (1819–88).

In 1710, Handel became Kapellmeister to German prince George, the Elector of Hanover, who in 1714 would become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland. He visited Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici and her husband in Dusseldorf on his way to London in 1710. With his opera Rinaldo, based on La Gerusalemme Liberata by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, Handel enjoyed great success, although it was composed quickly, with many borrowings from his older Italian works. This work contains one of Handel’s favorite arias, Cara sposa, amante cara, and the famous Lascia ch’io pianga.

In 1712, Handel decided to settle permanently in England. He received a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne after composing for her the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, first performed in 1713.

One of his most important patrons was the 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork, a young and incredibly wealthy member of an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family. For the young Lord Burlington, Handel wrote Amadigi di Gaula, a magical opera about a damsel in distress based on the tragedy by Antoine Houdar de la Motte.

The conception of an opera as a coherent structure was slow to capture Handel’s imagination, and he composed no operas for five years. In July 1717, Handel’s Water Music was performed more than three times on the Thames for the king and his guests. It is said the compositions spurred reconciliation between the king and Handel.

Royal Academy of Music

Handel House at 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, London
Figure 3. Handel House at 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, London.

In May 1719, the 1st Duke of Newcastle, the Lord Chamberlain, ordered Handel to look for new singers. Handel traveled to Dresden to attend the newly built opera. He saw Teofane by Antonio Lotti and engaged members of the cast for the Royal Academy of Music, founded by a group of aristocrats to assure themselves a constant supply of Baroque opera or opera seria. Handel may have invited John Smith, his fellow student in Halle, and his son Johann Christoph Schmidt to become his secretary and amanuensis. By 1723, he had moved into a Georgian house at 25 Brook Street, which he rented for the rest of his life. This house, where he rehearsed, copied music, and sold tickets is now the Handel House Museum. During 12 months between 1724 and 1725, Handel wrote three outstanding and successful operas: Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda. Handel’s operas are filled with da capo arias, such as Svegliatevi nel core. After composing Silete venti, he concentrated on opera and stopped writing cantatas. Scipio, from which the regimental slow march of the British Grenadier Guards is derived, was performed as a stopgap, waiting for the arrival of Faustina Bordoni.

In 1727, Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of King George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest, has been played at every British coronation ceremony since. In 1728, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera premiered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and ran for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in theater history up to that time. After nine years, the Royal Academy of Music ceased to function, but Handel soon started a new company.

The Queen’s Theatre at the Haymarket (now Her Majesty’s Theatre), established in 1705 by architect and playwright John Vanbrugh, quickly became an opera house. Between 1711 and 1739, more than 25 of Handel’s operas premiered there. In 1729, Handel became joint manager of the theater with John James Heidegger.

Handel traveled to Italy to engage new singers and also composed seven more operas, among them the comic masterpiece Partenope and the “magic” opera Orlando. After two commercially successful English oratorios, Esther and Deborah, he was able to invest again in the South Sea Company. Handel reworked his Acis and Galatea, which then became his most successful work ever. Handel failed to compete with the Opera of the Nobility, who engaged musicians such as Johann Adolph Hasse, Nicolo Porpora, and the famous castrato Farinelli. The strong support by Frederick, Prince of Wales, caused conflicts in the royal family. In March 1734, Handel composed a wedding anthem, This is the day which the Lord hath made, and a serenata Parnasso in Festa for Anne of Hanover.

Despite the problems the Opera of the Nobility was causing him at the time, Handel’s neighbor in Brook Street, Mary Delany, reported on a party she invited Handel to at her house on 12 April 1734, where he was in good spirits:

I had Lady Rich and her daughter, Lady Cath. Hanmer and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Percival, Sir John Stanley and my brother, Mrs. Donellan, Strada [star soprano of Handel’s operas] and Mr. Coot. Lord Shaftesbury begged of Mr. Percival to bring him, and being a profess’d friend of Mr. Handel (who was here also) was admitted; I never was so well entertained at an opera! Mr. Handel was in the best humour in the world, and played lessons and accompanied Strada and all the ladies that sang from seven o’clock till eleven. I gave them tea and coffee, and about half an hour after nine had a salver brought in of chocolate, mulled white wine and biscuits. Everybody was easy and seemed pleased.

Opera at Covent Garden

In 1733, the Earl of Essex received a letter with the following sentence: “Handel became so arbitrary a prince, that the Town murmurs.” The board of chief investors expected Handel to retire when his contract ended, but Handel immediately looked for another theater. In cooperation with John Rich, he started his third company at Covent Garden Theatre. Rich was renowned for his spectacular productions. He suggested Handel use his small chorus and introduce the dancing of Marie Salla, for whom Handel composed Terpsichore. In 1735, he introduced organ concertos between the acts. For the first time, Handel allowed Gioacchino Conti, who had no time to learn his part, to substitute arias. Financially, Ariodante was a failure, although he introduced ballet suites at the end of each act. Alcina, his last opera with a magic content, and Alexander’s Feast or the Power of Music, based on John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast, starred Anna Maria Strada del and John Beard.

In April 1737, at age 52, Handel apparently suffered a stroke that disabled the use of four fingers on his right hand, preventing him from performing. In summer, the disorder seemed at times to affect his understanding. Nobody expected that Handel would ever be able to perform again. But whether the affliction was rheumatism, a stroke, or a nervous breakdown, he recovered remarkably quickly. To aid his recovery, Handel had traveled to Aachen, a spa in Germany. During six weeks, he took long hot baths and ended up playing the organ for a surprised audience. It was even possible for him to write one of his most popular operas, Serse (including the famous aria Ombra mai, better known as “Handel’s largo,” that he wrote for the famous castrato Caffarelli), just one year after his stroke.

Deidamia, his last opera, was performed three times in 1741. Handel gave up the opera business while he enjoyed more success with his English oratorios.


Il Trionfo del tempo e del Dsinganno, an allegory, Handel’s first oratorio, was composed in Italy in 1707, followed by La resurrezione in 1708, which uses material from the Bible. The circumstances of Esther and its first performance, possibly in 1718, are obscure. Another 12 years had passed when an act of piracy caused him to take up Esther once again. Three earlier performances aroused such interest that they naturally prompted the idea of introducing it to a larger public. Next came Deborah, strongly colored by the Coronation Anthems and Athaliah, his first English oratorio. In these three oratorios Handel laid the foundation for the traditional use of the chorus that marks his later oratorios. Handel became sure of himself, broader in his presentation, and more diverse in his composition.

It is evident how much he learned from Arcangelo Corelli about writing for instruments and from Alessandro Scarlatti about writing for the solo voice, but there is no single composer who taught him how to write for chorus. Handel tended more and more to replace Italian soloists with English ones. The most significant reason for this change was the dwindling financial returns from his operas. Thus a tradition was created for oratorios that was to govern their future performance. The performances were given without costumes and action; the singers appeared in their own clothes.

Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy (1754)
Figure 4. Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy (1754).

In 1736, Handel produced Alexander’s Feast. John Beard appeared for the first time as one of Handel’s principal singers and became Handel’s permanent tenor soloist for the rest of Handel’s life. The piece was a great success, and it encouraged Handel to make the transition from writing Italian operas to English choral works. In Saul, Handel was collaborating with Charles Jennens and experimenting with three trombones, a carillon, and extra-large military kettledrums (from the Tower of London) to be sure “it will be most excessive noisy.” Saul and Israel in Egypt, both from 1739, head the list of great, mature oratorios, in which the da capo aria became the exception and not the rule. Israel in Egypt consists of little else but choruses, borrowing from the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline. In his next works, Handel changed his course. In these works, he laid greater stress on the effects of orchestra and soloists; the chorus retired into the background. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato has a rather diverting character; the work is light and fresh.

During the summer of 1741, The 3rd Duke of Devonshire invited Handel to Dublin, capital of the Kingdom of Ireland, to give concerts for the benefit of local hospitals. His Messiah was first performed at the New Music Hall in Fishamble Street on 13 April 1742, with 26 boys and 5 men from the combined choirs of St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals participating. Handel secured a balance between soloists and chorus that he never surpassed.

In 1747, Handel wrote his oratorio Alexander Balus. This work was produced at Covent Garden Theatre on March 23, 1748, and to the aria Hark! hark! He strikes the golden lyre, Handel wrote the accompaniment for mandolin, harp, violin, viola, and violoncello.

The use of English soloists reached its height at the first performance of Samson. The work is highly theatrical. The role of the chorus became increasingly important in his later oratorios. Jephtha was first performed on 26 February 1752; even though it was his last oratorio, it was no less a masterpiece than his earlier works.


Handel’s compositions include 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, and 16 organ concerti. His most famous work, the oratorio Messiah with its “Hallelujah” chorus is among the most popular works in choral music and has become the centerpiece of the Christmas season. Among the works with opus numbers published and popularized in his lifetime are the Organ Concertos Op. 4 and Op. 7, together with the Opus 3 and Opus 6 concerti grossi; the latter incorporate an earlier organ concerto The Cuckoo and the Nightingale, in which birdsong is imitated in the upper registers of the organ. Also notable are his 16 keyboard suites, especially The Harmonious Blacksmith.

Handel introduced previously uncommon musical instruments in his works: the viola d’amore and violetta marina (Orlando), the lute (Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day), three trombones (Saul), clarinets or small high cornetts (Tamerlano), theorbo, French horn (Water Music), lyrichord, double bassoon, viola da gamba, bell chimes, positive organ, and harp (Giulio Cesare, Alexander’s Feast).


A Masquerade at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket (c. 1724)
Figure 5. A Masquerade at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket (c. 1724).

Handel’s works were collected and preserved by two men: Sir Samuel Hellier, a country squire whose musical acquisitions form the nucleus of the Shaw-Hellier Collection, and the abolitionist Granville Sharp. The catalog accompanying the National Portrait Gallery exhibition marking the tercentenary of the composer’s birth calls them two men of the late 18th century “who have left us solid evidence of the means by which they indulged their enthusiasm.”

After his death, Handel’s Italian operas fell into obscurity, except for selections such as the aria from Serse, Ombra mai. The oratorios continued to be performed, but not long after Handel’s death they were thought to need some modernization, and Mozart orchestrated a German version of Messiah and other works. Throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, particularly in the Anglophone countries, his reputation rested primarily on his English oratorios, which were customarily performed by enormous choruses of amateur singers on solemn occasions. The centenary of his death, in 1859, was celebrated by a performance of Messiah at the Crystal Palace involving 2,765 singers and 460 instrumentalists who played for an audience of about 10,000 people.

A carved marble statue of Handel, created in 1738 by Louis-François Roubiliac
Figure 6. A carved marble statue of Handel, created in 1738 by Louis-François Roubiliac.

Since the early music revival, many of the 42 operas he wrote have been performed in opera houses and concert halls. Giulio Cesare (1724), Tamerlano (1724), and Rodelinda (1725), each on a libretto by Nicola Francesco Hayen, stand out and are considered as masterpieces, each in a different style.

Recent decades have revived his secular cantatas and what one might call secular oratorios or concert operas. Of the former, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739; set to texts by John Dryden) and Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (1713) are noteworthy. For his secular oratorios, Handel turned to classical mythology for subjects, producing such works as Acis and Galatea (1719), Hercules (1745), and Semele (1744). These works have a close kinship with the sacred oratorios, particularly in the vocal writing for the English-language texts. They also share the lyrical and dramatic qualities of Handel’s Italian operas. As such, they are sometimes performed onstage by small chamber ensembles. With the rediscovery of his theatrical works, Handel, in addition to his renown as instrumentalist, orchestral writer, and melodist, is now perceived as being one of opera’s great musical dramatists.

The original form of his name, Georg Friedrich Handel, is generally used in Germany and elsewhere, but he is known as “Handel” in France. A different composer, Jacob Handl or Handl (1550–1591) is usually known by the Latin form Jacobus Gallus that appears in his publications.


Handel has generally been accorded high esteem by fellow composers, both in his own time and since. Bach attempted, unsuccessfully, to meet with Handel while he was visiting Halle. Mozart is reputed to have said of him, “Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt.” To Beethoven, he was “the master of us all . . . the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” Beethoven emphasized, above all, the simplicity and popular appeal of Handel’s music when he said, “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”

Messiah is undoubtedly Handel’s best-known work and one of the main reasons his popularity endured after the Baroque era when so many other Baroque composers were forgotten until the revival of interest in older music in the mid-19th century. Remember that of the 53 movements that make up this oratorio, you will only have to identify one, “Rejoice Greatly,” on the listening exam.

Messiah (HWV 56) is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

Handel’s reputation in England, where he had lived since 1712, had been established through his compositions of Italian opera. He turned to English oratorio in the 1730s in response to changes in public taste; Messiah was his sixth work in this genre. Although its structure resembles that of opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and no direct speech. Instead, Jennens’s text is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah. The text begins in Part I with prophecies by Isaiah and others and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds, the only “scene” taken from the Gospels. In Part II, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. In Part III, he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.

Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers. In the years after his death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. In other efforts to update it, its orchestration was revised and amplified by (among others) Mozart. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the trend has been toward reproducing a greater fidelity to Handel’s original intentions, although “big Messiah” productions continue to be mounted. A near-complete version was issued on 78 rpm discs in 1928; since then, the work has been recorded many times.

“Rejoice Greatly”

Let’s go into more specific detail on the first section of Handel’s Messiah. The most important thing to remember about this piece is that it is a da capo aria sung by a soprano at a fast (allegro) tempo. Those will be the most useful characteristics to remember when trying to identify the piece on the listening exam.

Part I begins with the prophecy of the Messiah and his virgin birth by several prophets—namely, Isaiah. His birth is still rendered in words by Isaiah, followed by the annunciation to the shepherds as the only scene from a Gospel in the oratorio and reflections on the Messiah’s deeds. Part II covers the Passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and the later spreading of the Gospel. Part III concentrates on Paul’s teaching of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.

The popular Part I of Messiah is sometimes called the “Christmas” portion, as it is frequently performed during Advent in concert, as a sing-along, or as a Scratch Messiah. When performed in this way, it usually concludes with “Hallelujah” (chorus) from Part II as the finale.

Listen: Hallelujah Chorus

Please listen to the “Hallelujah” (chorus) performed by the MIT Concert Choir.

Part I, Scene 5

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” (Zechariah 9:9–10) is a virtuoso coloratura aria of the soprano, which might express any kind of great joy as seen in an opera. An upward fourth, followed by a rest, accents “Rejoice,” and further repeats of the word are rendered as seemingly endless coloraturas. “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee” is given in dotted rhythm and is reminiscent of the French overture. The middle section tells in mellow movement, “He is the righteous Savior and he shall speak peace unto the heathen,” with “peace” repeated several times as a long note. Finally, a da capo seems to begin, but only the first entry of the voice is exactly the same, followed by even more varied coloraturas and embellishments to end the aria.

https://library.achievingthedream.org/alamomusicappreciation/chapter/water-music/ Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:52:00 +0000

Handel’s Water Music is a collection of three suites for orchestra. Our listening piece from this larger work is “Alla Hornpipe,” the 2nd movement from the Suite in D major. It is a perfect example of Handel’s emphasis on the louder, brass instruments heard throughout Water Music. After you read this page on the origins of the piece you’ll understand why Handel needed to boost the volume of Water Music as much as possible. “Alla Hornpipe” is written in ternary form (ABA) with the opening A section repeated once before the B section begins.


"Westminster Bridge on Lord Mayor’s Day" by Canaletto, 1746 (detail)
Figure 1. “Westminster Bridge on Lord Mayor’s Day” by Canaletto, 1746 (detail).

The Water Music is a collection of orchestral movements, often published as three suites, composed by George Frideric Handel. It premiered on 17 July 1717 after King George I had requested a concert on the River Thames.

The Water Music is scored for a relatively large orchestra, making it suitable for outdoor performance. Some of the music is also preserved in arrangement for a smaller orchestra; this version is not suitable for outdoor performance, as the sound of stringed instruments does not carry well in the open air.


The Water Music opens with a French overture and includes minuets, bourrées, and hornpipes. It is divided into three suites:

Suite in F major (HWV 348)

  1. Overture (Largo Allegro)
  2. Adagio e staccato
  3. Allegro—Andante—Allegro da capo Aria
  4. Minuet
  5. Air
  6. Minuet
  7. Bourrée
  8. Hornpipe
  9. Allegro (no actual tempo marking)
  10. Allegro (variant)
  11. Alla Hornpipe (variant)

Suite in D major (HWV 349)

  1. Overture (Allegro)
  2. Alla Hornpipe
  3. Minuet
  4. Lentement
  5. Bourrée

Suite in G major (HWV 350)

  1. Allegro
  2. Rigaudon
  3. Allegro
  4. Minuet
  5. Allegro

There is evidence for the different arrangement found in Chrysander’s Gesellschaft edition of Handel’s works (in volume 47, published in 1886), where the movements from the “suites” in D and G were mingled and published as one work with HWV 348. This sequence derives from Samuel Arnold’s first edition of the complete score in 1788 and the manuscript copies dating from Handel’s lifetime. Chrysander’s edition also contains an earlier version of the first two movements of HWV 349 in the key of F major composed in 1715 (originally scored for two natural horns, two oboes, bassoon, strings, and continuo), where in addition to the horn fanfares and orchestral responses, the original version contained an elaborate concerto-like first violin part.

The music in each of the suites has no set order today.

First Performance

The first performance of the Water Music suites is recorded in the Daily Courant, a London newspaper. At about 8 p.m. on Wednesday, 17 July 1717, King George I and several aristocrats boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace for an excursion up the Thames toward Chelsea. The rising tide propelled the barge upstream without rowing. Another barge provided by the City of London contained about 50 musicians who performed Handel’s music. Many other Londoners also took to the river to hear the concert. According to the Courant, “The whole River in a manner was covered” with boats and barges. On arriving at Chelsea, the king left his barge, then returned to it at about 11 p.m. for the return trip. The king was so pleased with the Water Music that he ordered it to be repeated at least three times, both on the trip upstream to Chelsea and on the return, until he landed again at Whitehall.

King George’s companions in the royal barge included Anne Vaughan, the Duchess of Bolton, the Duchess of Newcastle, the Duke of Kingston, the Countess of Darlington, the Countess of Godolphin, Madam Kilmarnock, and the Earl of Orkney. Handel’s orchestra is believed to have performed from about 8 p.m. until well after midnight, with only one break while the king went ashore at Chelsea.

It was rumored that the reason for the spectacular performance of the Water Music was proposed to help King George steal some of the London spotlight back from the prince, who at the time was worried that his time to rule would be shortened due to his father’s long life and was throwing lavish parties and dinners to compensate for it. In a long term, the Water Music’s first performance on the water was the king’s way of reminding London that he was still there and showing he could carry out gestures of even more grandeur than his son.

In this exam, I would like you to ask yourself when you are listening to a piece, “What am I hearing?” Specifically listen for the musical characteristics that would enable you to recognize the genre (concerto, fugue, etc.) or individual movement (aria from an opera). One of the easiest ways to distinguish pieces on this listening exam is to identify whether the music is vocal or instrumental, so that’s where we’ll start. Remember the all important question: “What am I hearing?”

I Hear Singing

This immediately rules out several genres: Trio Sonata, Solo Concerto, Concerto Grosso, Fugue, and Suite. Those are instrumental genres. It must be an Opera, Cantata, or Oratorio. Unlike the instrumental pieces, knowing the genre won’t necessarily give you the piece. After all, an aria from an opera sounds the same as an aria from a cantata or oratorio. So in these paragraphs, we’ll talk about how to pick out specific pieces by once again asking the question, “What am I hearing?”

I Hear One Singer with Continuo

There are two pieces that feature a singer with sparse accompaniment: “Tu se’ morta” and “Possente spirto” from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. The two vocal movements from L’Orfeo can be distinguished from each other by the fact that one movement is an arioso (“Tu se’ morta”) while the other is an aria (“Possente spirto”). You might be surprised an aria falls under the category “I hear one singer with continuo,” but in the early days of the Baroque, the concept of an orchestra was quite different from the large ensemble that we think of. Even the orchestras of Bach and Handel in the late Baroque, though small by modern standards, were much larger than those used in the earliest operas. The orchestra in L’Orfeo is composed of less than a dozen instruments, and it punctuates the singer’s melody rather than accompanies it.

Speaking of the tiny orchestra, it provides an easy means of recognizing the aria: if you hear violins or trumpets interspersed with Orpheus singing, you know you are hearing “Possente spirto.” Also remember that because “Possente spirto” is an aria, it’s going to show off the singer’s ability. That means you’re going to have ornamented melodies. The tune will be much more active and nimble than in “Tu se’ morta.” Also, there is a particular vocal ornament that early Baroque audiences really liked but that we tend to think sounds a little silly—a kind of stuttering sound on a sustained pitch. However funny it may sound to our ears, it’s really hard to do (try it and see), so it was a sign to the audience that this was a very talented singer. If you hear any ornamentation (the singer showing off his voice), especially what I call the stutter, you’re hearing “Possente spirto.” The arioso “Tu se’ morta” is tuneful but not nearly as ornamented as the aria. It also, because of the subject matter, is more somber and forlorn in its expression. It is only accompanied by continuo, so you won’t hear any violins or trumpets playing as Orpheus makes his decision to descend into Hades in search of his beloved Euridice.

I Hear One Singer with an Orchestra

It must be in the middle or late Baroque aria. You have two arias on this test that are accompanied by an orchestra: “When I am laid in earth” (Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, an opera) and “Rejoice Greatly” (Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio). Arias’ main purpose is to express emotion, and the emotions of these to arias make them easy to distinguish. “Rejoice Greatly” expresses joy and happiness (at least during the first and last sections of the da capo aria) while “When I am laid in earth” expresses sorrow. Both arias are in English, so the emotion being expressed in each piece will be easier to pick up on, as you can rely on the words as well as the character of the music. That may be enough to tell these two apart, but in addition you can listen for the bass line. In “When I am laid in earth,” there is a ground bass. As a result the bass line is a short, descending melodic idea that repeats over and over without change for the entire aria. “He shall feed His flock” does not have this feature, so the bass line will also help you tell these two similar pieces apart.

I mentioned earlier that “Rejoice Greatly” is a da capo aria. While it’s important to understand that musical characteristic (da capo arias are essentially in ABA form with the singer expected to ornament the melodic line in the second A section), it may not be evident in a one-minute excerpt. That said, I promise that I won’t throw you a trick question by playing only the B section from this particular aria, since it’s the A section that expresses the emotion of the piece. You’ll hear either the A section (the part that actually says “rejoice greatly”) alone or portions of both sections.

I Hear a Choir with an Orchestra

There are three choruses on this test, and they are all from the same cantata by J. S. Bach. We have movements I, IV, and VII (that’s one, four, and seven) from Bach’s church cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. While at first it might seem like these would be hard to tell apart, these three movements are actually quite different from each other. One of the best things to listen for is how Bach treats the texture. While all three movements are polyphonic, Bach handles the polyphony quite differently each time. We will just go through them each in order.

Movement I features the most active and independent polyphony of the three. By that I mean that each voice part in the choir and each instrument in the orchestra has its own independent line that is woven together with the rest to create a glorious but very dense and complex musical fabric. For example, the sopranos sing a stately melody (the chorale tune) in long notes. Underneath them, the altos, tenors, and basses race around with more active lines. All the while the violins, woodwinds, and low strings add their own lines to the elaborate mix. This is also the fastest of the three movements.

Movement IV has independent polyphonic lines too, but a lot fewer of them than movement I. There are only 3 lines woven together: the walking bass line played by the low strings, a beautiful countermelody played by the violins, and the main melody (the chorale tune) sung by the tenors. You’ll still be able to hear that this is a choir, as there are a lot of tenors singing, but they all sing the same part. It’s basically a song for choir.

Movement VII is distinguished by a homo rhythmic texture. That means that while there are four lines (polyphony) of music being worked together, they move more or less in lockstep with each other. The rhythm for each part (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) is largely the same, hence the term homo rhythm. This means that they all sing the words at pretty much the same time, so even if you don’t speak German you can hear the words (unlike movement I, where each part is singing different words at the same time). You’ll also notice that unlike the other two movements, the orchestra does not have independent lines. It plays the same notes as the singers. This is called doubling. Finally, movement VII is the slowest of the three.

I Hear Instruments Only, No Singing

If no voices are present in the piece, you can immediately rule out Opera, Oratorio, and Cantata. Those are vocal genres. It must be one of the instrumental genres, such as Trio Sonata, Concerto, or Suite. Because our Baroque pieces consist of one example from each genre, determining the genre will give you the correct answer. Often the kinds of instruments featured in the piece and how they are used will provide major clues as to the genre. As always, ask yourself, “What am I hearing?”

I Hear Solo Organ

This has to be the Organ Fugue in G minor by Bach. This is another piece where the title also provides the genre: fugue. Now I suppose it is naive of me to think that anyone would listen for anything besides the solo organ instrumentation on the exam. Basically, if you hear an organ by itself, it’s this piece. However, I do want to point out a major characteristic of a fugue so that if you were to come across one in the last 6 questions of a listening exam, you would be able to recognize it. A fugue is a complex style of polyphony based on the imitation of a single melodic idea: the fugue subject. This is what makes a fugue different from the imitative writing we heard in the Renaissance. The points of imitation we heard from Josquin and Palestrina were a series of different melodic ideas, each of which would be imitated once by every voice, or voice part (soprano, alto, tenor, etc.), in the choir. In a fugue, there is only one central idea, the subject, that is imitated in all voices many times throughout the piece. That provides a real sense of unity and repetition in an otherwise highly complex and elaborate piece of music. That in itself is something that you can recognize, but there is one more thing to be aware of. Because this subject is so important to the piece, a fugue always begins with the first voice presenting the subject all by itself. Notice how our organ fugue by Bach starts out with a single melodic line (the subject). Almost every fugue will do the same thing. So if you hear a melodic line presented all by itself (especially if it’s instrumental), which is then joined imitatively by successive voices or lines of music, you are probably hearing a fugue.

I Hear Solo Cello

If you hear a cello playing all by itself it can only be the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major. Once again, instrumentation will be the giveaway for this piece. Only one piece on this exam features the cello as the solo instrument, so this should be a fairly easy piece to recognize. That said, I hope you will pay attention to the fact that this piece consists primarily of arpeggios—notes of a chord played in succession, one after the other, instead of all at once. Preludes were often written as a kind of warm-up for more challenging pieces to follow. Often you’ll find composers pairing a prelude with a fugue, the prelude serving to help prepare the performer’s fingers and the audience’s ears for the more complex and challenging fugue to come. In this case, the prelude paves the way for the subsequent dance movements of the suite. It is a testament to Bach’s talent that an introductory musical composition sounds so beautiful all by itself.

I Hear Solo Violin and Harpsichord

Correlli’s Sonata in B flat Major, Opus 5 No. 2: II Allegro is our only piece of chamber music on the exam. The solo violin should really stand out. Don’t get this confused with the solo violin concerto by Vivaldi. That piece features the contrast between a full orchestra and a solo violin. This is a sonata in which the only thing playing along with the violin is the continuo. And in this particular performance, the continuo is played by harpsichord alone rather than the usual cello/harpsichord pair. Remember that sonatas are a form of chamber music. Chamber music is intended for performance in a smaller space for smaller audiences. It is easy to imagine a group of aristocrats gathered in an elegantly appointed room in a palace listening to the performance of the violinist. A concerto features a much larger ensemble and would need to be performed in a larger space such as a concert hall.

I Hear Orchestra and Solo Violin

This has to be the 1st movement of Vivaldi’s Spring from The Four Seasons. This work is a solo concerto and, as such, features a contrast between a full orchestra and a soloist. They also are designed to show off the virtuosity of the soloist, so you can expect to hear some really flashy playing from the soloist. Vivaldi doesn’t disappoint in that regard. He was a virtuoso violinist as well as a composer, so he was writing music that would show off his abilities as a performer. If you hear orchestral music with virtuosic solo violin passages, it has to be Spring.

I Hear Orchestra with Concertino (Contrasting Small Group of Instruments)

This has to be Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, 1st movement. This piece is a concerto grosso. Like a solo concerto, it is based on the principle of contrasting groups of instruments. Instead of the orchestra vs. soloist contrast that you expect from a solo concerto, however, you have orchestra vs. concertino. The concertino could be made up of any instruments, generally 2 to 4, drawn from the larger orchestra. In the first movement of this piece, you have a concertino of flute, violin, and harpsichord. Sometimes all the instruments of the concertino play together, and at other times they alternate. This makes the concerto grosso a bit more flexible in its sound. One unusual characteristic of this particular piece is Bach’s emphasis on the harpsichord. Normally the harpsichord is in the background, but Bach puts it center stage with some extremely virtuosic passages for the keyboard. In fact, there are times when the harpsichord plays all by itself in this piece, almost as though it were a solo harpsichord concerto. Listen for the small group/large group contrast and the fiery harpsichord playing.

I Hear an Orchestra All by Itself, No Contrasting Soloist or Concertino

There is only one piece on your exam for full orchestra without any soloist or concertino: “Alla Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music. Remember what Handel was writing his Water Music for. It is a series of suites to be played in the presence of the king of England while on a royal barge trip (a parade really) on the River Thames. By the way, I know when I say barge you think of a big flat thing hauling coal or logs on the Mississippi, but these were really fancy boats. Anyway, this music was for an outdoor performance on a busy commercial waterway with only as many musicians as you could fit on the barge (not many). So it’s no surprise that Handel gave some really prominent passages to the loudest instruments: the horns, trumpets, and drums. If you hear a big orchestral sound with standout moments for the brass, you’re hearing Water Music. I should mention that in this movement, you have an ABA form, with the prominent use of brass instruments found only in the A section. The B section is comparatively shorter, features active lines for the strings and woodwinds without brass or percussion, and is in a minor key to contrast the major key of the A section. As with other pieces that feature a similar ternary form, I feel it would be misleading if your listening excerpt was taken solely from the B section. On the listening exam, if you hear a portion of this piece, it will either come from the A section alone or will have both B and A sections represented.

Titles, Composers, and Genres for the Baroque Music Exam

Here is a list of all the titles, composers, and genres that you could encounter on the Baroque Music Listening Exam. They are listed just as they will be on the exam. Good luck!

Title Composer Genre
Vocal Music
Tu se’ morta, L‘Orfeo Claudio Monteverdi Opera
Possente Spirto, L’Orfeo Claudio Monteverdi Opera
When I am laid in earth, Dido and Aeneas Henry Purcell Opera
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, I Johann Sebastian Bach Cantata
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, IV Johann Sebastian Bach Cantata
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, VII Johann Sebastian Bach Cantata
Rejoice Greatly, Messiah George Frederic Handel Oratorio
Instrumental Music
Sonata in B flat Major, Opus 5 No. 2: II Allegro Arcangelo Corelli Sonata
Spring, The Four Seasons Antonio Vivaldi Solo Concerto
Prelude, Cello Suite No. 1 in G major Johann Sebastian Bach Suite
Organ Fugue in G minor Johann Sebastian Bach Fugue
Brandenburg Concerto 5, 1st movement Johann Sebastian Bach Concerto Grosso
Alla Hornpipe, Water Music George Frederic Handel Suite

This page contains some additional study resources, including the “Mystery Music” selections. Those selections will help prepare for the listening exam.

Online Resources

There are a number of websites worth checking out when studying the Baroque period. Many of these sites contain extensive information that would take quite a bit of time to review completely. I will direct you to specific portions of these websites that you should examine, but I encourage you to poke around these sites and dig up as much information as you can. Don’t feel that you have to limit yourselves to the specific sections I link you to.

  1. Chronology: This isn’t something you need to spend hours and hours on, but I’d like you to scroll through this chronological listing of important events in the 1600s and early 1700s. While this is a music class, not a Western Civilization course, I still want you to get an idea of what was going on when composers like Monteverdi, Purcell, and Bach were doing their thing. If you see an event that you’d like to learn more about, go to the Santa Ana College Library Encyclopedias website, click on Encarta Concise Encyclopedia, and do a search on the event you’re interested in.
  2. Cultural Background: This page contains a lot of information on the characteristics of Baroque music and instruments. Though I encourage you to read it all, I’d like you to focus on the general historical and cultural background presented in the first several paragraphs (top of the page down to where it says “The Elements of Baroque Music”). If you continue a little farther down the page, you can listen to excerpts of pieces of Baroque music. There is also (even farther down the page) a great section called “The Baroque Musical Aesthetic,” which I highly recommend.

A Few More Links

  • Baroque Music: This site has lots of good general information plus lots more links.
  • JS Bach Website: This is an extensive website on one of the greatest composers of all time, J. S. Bach.
  • Vivaldi Website: This is also a very extensive site dealing with Antonio Vivaldi.
  • Classical.net: A good resource for information on “classical” music of all periods.

Mystery Music

Here are some Baroque works you haven’t heard in class. Listen to each piece, then try to answer the following questions: What genre or genres could this possibly represent, and what characteristics can I hear in the music?

Mystery Music 3 is about 8 minutes long, and you’ll need to hear the whole thing to make a correct decision.

Mystery Music 1

Mystery Music 2

Mystery Music 3

Mystery Music 4

Here is a collection of podcasts designed to help you understand Classical-period musical terms and recognize musical elements common to the era.

Opera Podcast

Opera Follow Up

Theme podcast

Sonata-Allegro Form podcast

Concerto vs. Sonata

Listening Help 1—Mozart vs. Beethoven

Listening Help 2—Beethoven’s 5th

Listening Help 3—Classical Era

Introduction to Classical Music

We will begin our study of the Classical era by looking at some of the most important genres from this period of music history. Many of these genres are not new. The concerto, opera, and sonata are all examples of genres that have their origins in the Baroque period but continue to develop and evolve in the Classical era. Two new genres made their debut here in the 18th century—namely, the symphony and the string quartet. In this section, you’ll find materials for all of these genres.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slide Show: Classical Genres
  • Slide Show: Classical Vocal Music
  • The Classical Era
  • Symphony
  • Chamber Music
  • String Quartet
  • Serenade
  • Concerto
  • Sonata
  • Classical Opera
  • Opera Buffa


Classical Genres from Lumen Learning
Classical Genres from Lumen Learning

https://library.achievingthedream.org/alamomusicappreciation/chapter/slide-show-classical-vocal-music/ Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:52:01 +0000


Classical Vocal Music from Lumen Learning

Well before J. S. Bach’s death in 1750, musical tastes were changing. Two of Bach’s sons were very successful composers in this newer “Gallant” style that had taken hold in the final decades of what we still consider the Baroque. This preference for simplicity and homophonic texture over the complex counterpoint of Bach and Handel paved the way for a new musical era that we label as classical.


The dates of the Classical period in Western music are generally accepted as being between about 1750 and 1820. However, the term is used in a colloquial sense as a synonym for Western art music, which describes a variety of Western musical styles from the 9th century to the present, and especially from the 16th or 17th to the 19th. This article is about the specific period from 1730 to 1820.

The Classical period falls between the Baroque and the Romantic periods. The best-known composers from this period are Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert; other notable names include Luigi Boccherini, Muzio Clementi, Antonio Soler, Antonio Salieri, François Joseph Gossec, Johann Stamitz, Carl Friedrich Abel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Christoph Willibald Gluck. Ludwig van Beethoven is also regarded as either a Romantic composer or a composer who was part of the transition to the Romantic.

Franz Schubert is also something of a transitional figure, as are Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Mauro Giuliani, Friedrich Kuhlau, Fernando Sor, Luigi Cherubini, Jan Ladislav Dussek, and Carl Maria von Weber. The period is sometimes referred to as the era of Viennese Classic or Classicism (German: Wiener Klassik), since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Antonio Salieri, and Ludwig van Beethoven all worked at some time in Vienna, and Franz Schubert was born there.


Classicist door in Olomouc, The Czech Republic. An example of Classicist architecture.
Figure 2. Classicist door in Olomouc, Czech Republic. An example of Classicist architecture.

In the middle of the 18th century, Europe began to move toward a new style in architecture, literature, and the arts generally known as Classicism. This style sought to emulate the ideals of Classical antiquity, especially those of Classical Greece. While still tightly linked to court culture and absolutism, with its formality and emphasis on order and hierarchy, the new style was also cleaner—that is to say, more orderly. It favored clearer divisions between parts, brighter contrasts and colors, and simplicity rather than complexity. In addition, the typical size of orchestras began to increase.

The remarkable development of ideas in “natural philosophy” had already established itself in the public consciousness. In particular, Newton’s physics was taken as a paradigm: structures should be well-founded in axioms and be both well-articulated and orderly. This taste for structural clarity began to affect music, which moved away from the layered polyphony of the Baroque period toward a style known as homophony, in which the melody is played over a subordinate harmony. This move meant that chords became a much more prevalent feature of music, even if they interrupted the melodic smoothness of a single part. As a result, the tonal structure of a piece of music became more audible.

The new style was also encouraged by changes in the economic order and social structure. As the 18th century progressed, the nobility became the primary patrons of instrumental music, while public taste increasingly preferred comic opera. This led to changes in the way music was performed, the most crucial of which was the move to standard instrumental groups and the reduction in the importance of the continuo, the rhythmic and harmonic ground of a piece of music, typically played by a keyboard (harpsichord or organ) and potentially by several other instruments. One way to trace the decline of the continuo and its figured chords is to examine the disappearance of the term obbligato, meaning a mandatory instrumental part in a work of chamber music. In Baroque compositions, additional instruments could be added to the continuo according to preference; in Classical compositions, all parts were specifically noted, though not always notated, so the term “obbligato” became redundant. By 1800, it was practically extinct.

Economic changes also had the effect of altering the balance of availability and quality of musicians. While in the late Baroque, a major composer would have the entire musical resources of a town to draw on, the forces available at a hunting lodge were smaller and more fixed in their level of ability. This was a spur to having primarily simple parts to play and, in the case of a resident virtuoso group, a spur to writing spectacular, idiomatic parts for certain instruments, as in the case of the Mannheim orchestra. In addition, the appetite for a continual supply of new music, carried over from the Baroque, meant that works had to be performable with, at best, one rehearsal. Indeed, even after 1790, Mozart writes about “the rehearsal,” with the implication that his concerts would have only one.

Since polyphonic texture was no longer the main focus of music (excluding the development section) but rather a single melodic line with accompaniment, there was greater emphasis on notating that line for dynamics and phrasing. The simplification of texture made such instrumental detail more important and also made the use of characteristic rhythms, such as attention-getting opening fanfares, the funeral march rhythm, or the minuet genre, more important in establishing and unifying the tone of a single movement.

Forms such as the concerto and sonata were more heavily defined and given more specific rules, whereas the symphony was created in this period (this is popularly attributed to Joseph Haydn). The concerto grosso (a concerto for more than one musician) began to be replaced by the solo concerto (a concerto featuring only one soloist) and therefore began to place more importance on the particular soloist’s ability to show off. There were, of course, some concerti grossi that remained, the most famous of which being Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E flat Major.

Main Characteristic

Classical music has a lighter, clearer texture than Baroque music and is less complex. It is mainly homophonic—melody above chordal accompaniment (but counterpoint by no means is forgotten, especially later in the period). It also makes use of style galant in the Classical period, which was drawn in opposition to the strictures of the Baroque style, emphasizing light elegance in place of the Baroque’s dignified seriousness and impressive grandeur.

Variety and contrast within a piece became more pronounced than before. Variety of keys, melodies, rhythms, and dynamics (using crescendo, diminuendo and sforzando), along with frequent changes of mood and timbre, were more commonplace in the Classical period than they had been in the Baroque. Melodies tended to be shorter than those of Baroque music, with clear-cut phrases and clearly marked cadences. The orchestra increased in size and range, the harpsichord continuo fell out of use, and the woodwind became a self-contained section. As a solo instrument, the harpsichord was replaced by the piano (or fortepiano). Early piano music was light in texture, often with Alberti bass accompaniment, but it later became richer, more sonorous, and more powerful.

Importance was given to instrumental music; the main kinds were sonata, trio, string quartet, symphony, concerto, serenade, and divertimento. Sonata form developed and became the most important form. It was used to build up the first movement of most large-scale works but also other movements and single pieces (such as overtures).

By the end of the Classical period, the symphony was the preeminent genre for large-scale instrumental composition. However, it had its origins in smaller, less substantial instrumental genres. This article from Hubpages.com provides a detailed but fairly concise description of the evolution of the symphony from its Baroque origins in opera overtures.

Chamber Music

Chamber music, which is a broad category of music, not a specific genre, is not unique to the Classical era. We certainly encountered chamber music in our study of the Baroque.

Haydn, Mozart, and the Classical Style

Joseph Haydn is generally credited with creating the modern form of chamber music as we know it. In 83 string quartets, 45 piano trios, and numerous string trios, duos, and wind ensembles, Haydn established the conversational style of composition and the overall form that was to dominate the world of chamber music for the next two centuries.

An example of the conversational mode of composition is Haydn’s string quartet Op. 20, No. 4 in D major. In the first movement, after a statement of the main theme by all the instruments, the first violin breaks into a triplet figure, supported by the second violin, viola, and cello. The cello answers with its own triplet figure, then the viola, while the other instruments play a secondary theme against this movement. Unlike counterpoint, where each part plays essentially the same melodic role as the others, here each instrument contributes its own character, its own comment on the music as it develops.

Haydn also settled on an overall form for his chamber music compositions, which would become the standard, with slight variations, to the present day. The characteristic Haydn string quartet has four movements:

  • An opening movement in sonata form, usually with two contrasting themes, followed by a development section where the thematic material is transformed and transposed, and ending with a recapitulation of the initial two themes.
  • A lyrical movement in a slow or moderate tempo, sometimes built out of three sections that repeat themselves in the order A B C A B C, and sometimes a set of variations.
  • A minuet or scherzo, a light movement in three quarter time, with a main section, a contrasting trio section, and a repeat of the main section.
  • A fast finale section in rondo form, a series of contrasting sections with a main refrain section opening and closing the movement and repeating between each section.

His innovations earned Haydn the title “father of the string quartet,” and he was recognized by his contemporaries as the leading composer of his time. But he was by no means the only composer developing new modes of chamber music. Even before Haydn, many composers were already experimenting with new forms. Giovanni Battista Sammartini, Ignaz Holzbauer, and Franz Xaver Richter wrote precursors of the string quartet.

Joseph Haydn playing string quartets
Figure 1. Joseph Haydn playing string quartets.

If Haydn created the conversational style of composition, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart greatly expanded its vocabulary. His chamber music added numerous masterpieces to the chamber music repertoire. Mozart’s seven piano trios and two piano quartets were the first to apply the conversational principle to chamber music with piano. Haydn’s piano trios are essentially piano sonatas with the violin and cello playing mostly supporting roles, doubling the treble and bass lines of the piano score. But Mozart gives the strings an independent role, using them as a counter to the piano and adding their individual voices to the chamber music conversation.

Mozart introduced the newly invented clarinet into the chamber music arsenal with the Kegelstatt Trio for viola, clarinet, and piano, K. 498, and the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, K. 581. He also tried other innovative ensembles, including the quintet for violin, two violas, cello, and horn, K. 407, quartets for flute and strings, and various wind instrument combinations. He wrote six string quintets for two violins, two violas, and cello that explore the rich tenor tones of the violas, adding a new dimension to the string quartet conversation.

Mozart’s string quartets are considered the pinnacle of Classical art. The six string quartets that he dedicated to Haydn, his friend and mentor, inspired the elder composer to say to Mozart’s father, “I tell you before God as an honest man that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by reputation. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

Many other composers wrote chamber compositions during this period that were popular at the time and are still played today. Luigi Boccherini, Spanish composer and cellist, wrote nearly a hundred string quartets and more than one hundred quintets for two violins, viola, and two cellos. In this innovative ensemble, later used by Schubert, Boccherini gives flashy, virtuosic solos to the principal cello as a showcase for his own playing. Violinist Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and cellist Johann Baptist Wanhal, who both played pickup quartets with Haydn on second violin and Mozart on viola, were popular chamber music composers of the period.

Listen: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quintet No. 4, K. 516

Please listen to the first movement played by Roxana Pavel Goldstein, Elizabeth Choi, violins; Elias Goldstein, Sally Chisholm, violas; and Jocelyn Butler, cello.

From Home to Hall

The turn of the 19th century saw dramatic changes in society and in music technology that had far-reaching effects on the way chamber music was composed and played.

Collapse of the Aristocratic System

Throughout the 18th century, the composer was normally an employee of an aristocrat, and the chamber music he composed was for the pleasure of and performance by aristocratic amateurs. Haydn, for example, was an employee of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterhazy, a music lover and amateur baryton player, for whom Haydn wrote many of his string trios. Mozart wrote three string quartets for the King of Prussia, Frederick William II, a cellist. Many of Beethoven’s quartets were first performed with patron Count Andrey Razumovsky on second violin. Boccherini composed for the king of Spain.

With the bankruptcy of the aristocracy and new social orders throughout Europe, composers increasingly had to make their own ways by selling and performing compositions. They often gave subscription concerts, renting a hall and collecting the receipts from the performance. Increasingly, they wrote chamber music not only for rich amateurs to perform but for professional musicians playing to a paying audience.

Changes in the Structure of Stringed Instruments

Copy of a pianoforte from 1805
Figure 2. Copy of a pianoforte from 1805.

At the beginning of the 19th century, luthiers developed new methods of constructing the violin, viola, and cello that gave these instruments a richer tone, more volume, and more carrying power. Also at this time, bow makers made the violin bow longer, with a thicker ribbon of hair under higher tension. This improved projection and also made possible new bowing techniques. In 1820, Louis Spohr invented the chinrest, which gave violinists more freedom of movement in their left hands, for a more nimble technique. These changes contributed to the effectiveness of public performances in large halls and expanded the repertoire of techniques available to chamber music composers.

Invention of the Pianoforte

The pianoforte was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori at the beginning of the 18th century, but not until the end of that century, with technical improvements in its construction, did it become an effective instrument for performance. The improved pianoforte was immediately adopted by Mozart and other composers, who began composing chamber ensembles with the piano playing a leading role. The piano was to become more and more dominant through the 19th century, so much so that many composers, such as Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin, wrote almost exclusively for solo piano.

String Quartet

Another prominent instrumental genre that originates in the Classical era is the string quartet. String quartets were the most popular genre of chamber music in the Classical era and are always written for the same four instruments: two violins, one viola, and one cello. As with the symphony, Haydn plays a critical role in elevating the genre to the position of prominence it enjoyed in the 18th century and beyond.


A string quartet in performance. From left to right violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello
Figure 1. A string quartet in performance. From left to right violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello.

A string quartet is a musical ensemble of four string players (two violin players, a viola player, and a cellist) or a piece written to be performed by such a group. The string quartet is one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in classical music, with most major composers from the mid- to late 18th century onward writing string quartets.

The string quartet was developed into its current form by the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, with his works in the 1750s establishing the genre. Ever since Haydn’s day, the string quartet has been considered a prestigious form and represents one of the true tests of the composer’s art. With four parts to play with, a composer working in anything like the classical key system has enough lines to fashion a full argument, but none to spare for padding. The closely related characters of the four instruments, moreover, while they cover in combination an ample compass of pitch, do not lend themselves to indulgence in purely coloristic effects. Thus, where the composer of symphonies commands the means for textural enrichment beyond the call of his harmonic discourse, and where the concerto medium offers the further resource of personal characterization and drama in the individual-pitted-against-the-mass vein, the writer of string quartets must perforce concentrate on the bare bones of musical logic. Thus, in many ways the string quartet is preeminently the dialectical form of instrumental music, the one most naturally suited to the activity of logical disputation and philosophical enquiry.

Quartet composition flourished in the Classical era, with Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert following Haydn in each writing a number of quartets. A slight slackening in the pace of quartet composition occurred in the later 19th century, in part due to a movement away from classical forms by composers such as Liszt, Wagner, and Richard Strauss, though it received a resurgence in the 20th with the Second Viennese School, with Bartok, Shostakovich, and Elliot Carter producing highly regarded examples of the genre. In the 21st century, it remains an important and refined musical form.

The standard structure for a string quartet is four movements: the 1st movement is in Sonata form, Allegro, in the tonic key; the 2nd movement is a slow movement, in the subdominant key; the 3rd movement is a Minuet and Trio, in the tonic key; and the 4th movement is often in Rondo form or Sonata rondo form, in the tonic key.

Some quartets play together for many years in ensembles that may be named after the first violinist (e.g., the Takacs Quartet), a composer (e.g., the Borodin Quartet), or a location (e.g., the Budapest Quartet). Well-known string quartets can be found in the list of string quartet ensembles.

History and Development

If the notion of Joseph Haydn as the “Father of the Symphony” needs serious qualification, his status as the father of the string quartet remains unchallenged, and the early history of the string quartet is in many ways the history of Haydn’s journey with the genre. Not that he composed the first quartet of all: before Haydn alighted on the genre, there had been several spasmodic examples of divertimenti for two solo violins, viola, and cello by Viennese composers such as Wagenseil and Holzbauer, and there had long been a tradition of performing orchestral works with one instrument to a part. Wyn Jones cites the widespread practice of playing works written for string orchestra, such as divertimenti and serenades, with just four players, one to a part, there being no separate (fifth) contra basso part in string scoring before the 19th century. However, these composers showed no interest in exploring the development of the string quartet as a medium.

The origins of the string quartet can be further traced back to the Baroque trio sonata, in which two solo instruments performed with a continuo section consisting of a bass instrument (such as the cello) and keyboard. A very early example is a four-part sonata for string ensemble by Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652) that might be considered an important prototype string quartet. By the early 18th century, composers were often adding a third soloist; and moreover it became common to omit the keyboard part, letting the cello support the bass line alone. Thus when Alessandro Scarlatti wrote a set of six works entitled “Sonata à Quattro per due Violini, Violetta [viola], e Violoncello senza Cembalo” (Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola, and cello without harpsichord), this was a natural evolution from the existing tradition.

String quartet score (quartal harmony from Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1).
Figure 2. String quartet score (quartal harmony from Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1).

The string quartet in its now accepted form came about with Haydn. If the combination of two violins, viola, and cello was not unknown before Haydn, when it occurred in chamber music, it was more likely through circumstance than conscious design; certainly the string quartet enjoyed no recognized status as an ensemble in the way that two violins with basso continuo—the so-called “trio sonata”—had for more than a hundred years. Even the composition of Haydn’s earliest string quartets owed more to chance than artistic imperative. During the 1750s, when the young composer was still working mainly as a teacher and violinist in Vienna, he would occasionally be invited to spend time at the nearby castle of one Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Farnberg. There he would play chamber music in an ad hoc ensemble consisting of Farnberg’s steward, a priest, and a local cellist, and when the Baron asked for some new music for the group to play, Haydn’s first string quartets were born. It is not clear whether any of these works ended up in the two sets published in the mid-1760s and known as Haydn’s Opp. 1 and 2 (“Op. 0” is a quartet included in some early editions of Op. 1, and only rediscovered in the 1930s), but it seems reasonable to assume that they were similar in character.

Haydn’s early biographer Georg August Griesinger tells the story thus:

The following purely chance circumstance had led him to try his luck at the composition of quartets. A Baron Farnberg had a place in Weinzierl, several stages from Vienna, and he invited from time to time his pastor, his manager, Haydn, and Albrechtsberger (a brother of the celebrated contrapuntist Albrechtsberger) in order to have a little music. Farnberg requested Haydn to compose something that could be performed by these four amateurs. Haydn, then 18 years old, took up this proposal, and so originated his first quartet which, immediately it appeared, received such general approval that Haydn took courage to work further in this form.

Haydn went on to write nine other quartets around this time. These works were published as his Op. 1 and Op. 2; one quartet went unpublished, and some of the early “quartets” are actually symphonies missing their wind parts. They have five movements and take the following form: fast movement, minuet and trio I, slow movement, minuet and trio II, and fast finale. As Finscher notes, they draw stylistically on the Austrian divertimento tradition.

After these early efforts, Haydn did not return to the string quartet for several years, but when he did so, it was to make a significant step in the genre’s development. The intervening years saw Haydn begin his lifelong employment as Kapellmeister to the Esterhazy princes, for whom he was required to compose numerous symphonies and dozens of trios for violin, viola, and the curious bass instrument called the Baryton (played by Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy himself). The opportunities for experimentation that both these genres offered Haydn perhaps helped him in the pursuit of the more advanced quartet style found in the 18 works published in the early 1770s as Opp. 9, 17 and 20. These are written in a form that became established as standard both for Haydn and for other composers. Clearly composed as sets, these quartets feature a four-movement layout with more broadly conceived, moderately paced first movements and, in increasing measure, a democratic and conversational interplay of parts, close-knit thematic development, and skillful though often self-effacing use of counterpoint. The convincing realizations of the progressive aims of the Op. 20 set, in particular, make them the first major peak in the history of the string quartet. Certainly they offered to their own time state-of-the art models to follow for the best part of a decade; the teenage Mozart, in his early quartets, was among the composers moved to imitate many of their characteristics, right down to the vital fugues with which Haydn sought to bring greater architectural weight to the finales of nos. 2, 5, and 6.

After Op. 20, it becomes harder to point to similar major jumps in the string quartet’s development in Haydn’s hands, though not due to any lack of invention or application on the composer’s part. As Donald Tovey put it, “With Op. 20 the historical development of Haydn’s quartets reaches its goal; and further progress is not progress in any historical sense, but simply the difference between one masterpiece and the next.”

Ever since Haydn’s day, the string quartet has been prestigious and considered one of the true tests of a composer’s art. This may be partly because the palette of sound is more restricted than with orchestral music, forcing the music to stand more on its own rather than relying on tonal color, or from the inherently contrapuntal tendency in music written for four equal instruments.

Quartet composition flourished in the Classical era, with Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert each writing a number of quartets to set alongside Haydn’s. Beethoven in particular is credited with developing the genre in an experimental and dynamic fashion, especially in his later series of quartets written in the 1820s up until his death. Their forms and ideas inspired and continue to inspire musicians and composers such as Richard Wagner and Bela Bartok. Schubert’s last musical wish was to hear Beethoven’s Op. 131 in C-sharp minor quartet, which he did on 14 November 1828, just five days before his death. Upon listening to an earlier performance of this quartet, Schubert had remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” Wagner, when reflecting on Op. 131’s first movement, said that it “reveals the most melancholy sentiment expressed in music.” Of the late quartets, Beethoven cited his own favorite as Op. 131, which he saw as his most perfect single work.

A slight slackening in the pace of quartet composition occurred in the 19th century; here, composers often wrote only one quartet, perhaps to show that they could fully command this hallowed genre, although Antonín Dvorak wrote a series of 14. With the onset of the Modern era of classical music, the quartet returned to full popularity among composers and played a key role in the development of Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartok, and Dmitri Shostakovich especially. After the Second World War, some composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen, questioned the relevance of the string quartet and avoided writing them. However, from the 1960s onward, many composers have shown a renewed interest in the genre. During his tenure as Master of the Queen’s Music, Peter Maxwell Davies produced a set of 10 entitled the Naxos Quartets (to a commission from Naxos Records) from 2001 to 2007.

String Quartet Traditional Form

A composition for four players of stringed instruments may be in any form. Quartets written in the classical period usually have four movements with a large-scale structure similar to that of a symphony:

  • 1st movement: Sonata form, Allegro, in the tonic key;
  • 2nd movement: Slow, in the subdominant key;
  • 3rd movement: Minuet and Trio, in the tonic key;
  • 4th movement: Rondo form or Sonata rondo form, in the tonic key.

Substantial modifications to the typical structure were already achieved in Beethoven’s later quartets, and despite some notable examples to the contrary, composers writing in the 20th century increasingly abandoned this structure.

Variations of String Quartet

Many other chamber groups can be seen as modifications of the string quartet: the string quintet is a string quartet with an extra viola, cello, or double bass. Mozart’s string quintets used an additional viola, while Schubert’s string quintet in C major (D.956, 1828) utilized two cellos. Boccherini wrote a few quintets for string quartet with a double bass included as the fifth instrument. The string trio has one violin, a viola, and a cello; the piano quintet is a string quartet with an added piano; the piano quartet is a string quartet with one of the violins replaced by a piano; and the clarinet quintet is a string quartet with an added clarinet, such as those by Mozart and Brahms. Brahms also wrote a pair of string sextets. Further expansions have also been produced, such as the string octet by Mendelssohn.

Notable String Quartets

Some of the most popular or widely acclaimed works for string quartet include:

  • Joseph Haydn’s 68 string quartets, in particular Op. 20, Op. 33, Op. 76, and Op. 64, No. 5 (“The Lark”)
  • Luigi Boccherini’s more than 90 string quartets
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 23 string quartets, in particular K. 465 (“Dissonance”)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven’s 18 string quartets, in particular the five “middle” quartets, Op. 59 no. 13, Op. 74, and Op. 95, as well as the five late quartets, Op. 127 in E flat major, Op. 130 in B flat major, Op. 131 in C sharp minor (in seven movements), Op. 135 in F major, and the Grosse Fugue in B flat major Op. 133, the original final movement of Op. 130
  • Franz Schubert’s 15 string quartets, notably his String Quartet No. 12 in C minor (“Quartet satz”), String Quartet No. 13 in A minor (“Rosamunde”), String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (“Death and the Maiden”), and String Quartet No. 15 in G major
  • Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 (early example of cyclic form)
  • Johannes Brahms’s three string quartets, Op. 51 No. 1 (in C minor), Op. 51 No. 2 (in A minor), and op. Op(in B flat major)
  • Bedřich Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, “From My Life,” considered the first piece of chamber program music
  • Antonín Dvorak’s String Quartets Nos. 9–14, particularly String Quartet No. 12 in F major, “American”; also No. 3 is an exceptionally long quartet (lasting 56 minutes)
  • Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893)
  • Jean Sibelius’s String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56, “Voces intimate”
  • Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F major
  • Leo Janek’s two string quartets, String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata” (1923), inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novel The Kreutzer Sonata, itself named after Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata; and his second string quartet, Intimate Letters (1928)
  • Arnold Schoenberg’s four string quartets, No. 1 Op. 7 (1904–5), No. 2 Op. 10 (1907–8, noteworthy for its first-ever inclusion of the human voice in a string quartet), No. 3 Op. 30 (1927) and No. 4 Op. 37 (1936)
  • Bela Bartok’s six string quartets (1909, 1915–17, 1926, 1927, 1934, 1939)
  • Alban Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3 and Lyric Suite, later adapted for string orchestra
  • Anton Webern’s six Bagatelles for string quartet Op. 9 and his String Quartet Op. 28
  • Sergei Prokofiev’s two string quartets
  • Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, in particular the String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960), and No. 15 Op. 144 (1974) in six Adagio movements
  • Benjamin Britten’s three string quartets
  • Charles Ives’s two string quartets, No. 1 (1896) but more importantly the complex No. 2 (1911–13)
  • Elliott Carter’s five string quartets
  • Henri Dutilleux’s string quartet Ainsi la nuit (1973–76)
  • Gyagy Ligeti’s two string quartets, especially his Second String Quartet (1968)
  • Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 (1983), exceptionally long quartet (four and a half to over five hours depending on performance, although in some performances, the audience is not expected to stay for its entirety)
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett (1992–93), to be played by the four musicians in four helicopters
  • Helmut Lachenmann’s three string quartets, Gran Torso (1971/76/88), Reigen seliger Geister (1989), and Grido (2001)
  • Brian Ferneyhough’s six string quartets
  • Salvatore Sciarrino’s nine string quartets
  • Alfred Schnittke’s four string quartets

String Quartets (Ensembles)

Whereas individual string players often group together to make ad hoc string quartets, others continue to play together for many years in ensembles which may be named after the first violinist (e.g., the Takacs Quartet), a composer (e.g., the Borodin Quartet), or a location (e.g., the Budapest Quartet). Established quartets may undergo changes in membership while retaining their original name. Well-known string quartets can be found in the list of string quartet ensembles.

https://library.achievingthedream.org/alamomusicappreciation/chapter/serenade/ Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:52:01 +0000

The serenade is a genre of chamber music that was quite popular in the Classical era. One of Mozart’s most famous works, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, is a serenade. You have two movements from that piece on our playlist for Exam 3.

Classical and Romantic Eras

The most important and prevalent type of serenade in music history is a work for large instrumental ensembles in multiple movements, related to the divertimento, and mainly being composed in the Classical and Romantic periods, though a few examples exist from the 20th century. Usually the character of the work is lighter than other multiple-movement works for large ensembles (for example, the symphony), with tunefulness being more important than thematic development or dramatic intensity. Most of these works are from Italy, Germany, Austria, and Bohemia.

Among the most famous examples of the serenade from the 18th century are those by Mozart, whose serenades contain a multiplicity of movements ranging from four to ten. His serenades were often purely instrumental pieces written for special occasions, such as those commissioned for wedding ceremonies. The most typical ensemble for a serenade was a wind ensemble augmented with basses and violas—instrumentalists who could stand, since the works were often performed outdoors. Frequently the serenades began and ended with movements of a march-like character, since the instrumentalists often had to march to and from the place of performance. Famous serenades by Mozart include the Haffner Serenade, the Serenata notturna, and one of his most famous works, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the last two of which would have been atypical for only using string instruments had they been written earlier in the century.

https://library.achievingthedream.org/alamomusicappreciation/chapter/concerto-2/ Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:52:01 +0000

The concerto is a genre we’ve already encountered, though it continues to evolve as we move into the Classical period. The concerto grosso falls out of fashion and is rarely composed after the Baroque. From this point forward in history, the term concerto refers to a solo concerto. Though the basic principle of contrasting a soloist with a full orchestra remains, changes are made to the form of the movements and the most commonly used solo instruments. While violin concertos remain popular, the advent of the piano and its rise in popularity makes it the dominant solo instrument in concerto compositions.


The Classical period brought the triumph of the solo concerto over the group or multiple concerto, assisted by the continued rise of the virtuoso soloist and the growing demand for up-to-date works for performance by amateurs. The former trend appears most obviously in the large number of violin concertos written by violinists for their own use.

The Classical period also witnessed the rise of the keyboard concerto. Until about 1770, the preferred stringed keyboard instrument was usually the harpsichord, but it was gradually supplanted by the piano. The most important composers of keyboard concertos before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were Bach’s sons. Vienna saw the production of many keyboard concertos. The last decades of the 18th century brought the rise of traveling piano virtuosos.

The concertos of this period show a broad transition from Baroque to Classical style, though many are more conservative than contemporaneous symphonies. Most are in three movements, though a significant minority adopt lighter two-movement patterns, such as Allegro-Minuet and Allegro-Rondo. Dance and rondo finales are also frequent in three-movement concertos. Additionally, the ritornello form in the fast movements was replaced with the sonata form and rondo forms, respectively.

Joseph Haydn’s concertos are mostly from his early career. Exceptions are the Piano Concerto in D, the Cello Concerto in D, and the Trumpet Concerto.

Of Mozart’s 23 original piano concertos, 17 date from his Viennese period. They are the crowning achievement of the concerto in the 18th century. Most of the works he wrote for Vienna are a type that Mozart called grand concertos. These were intended for performance at his own subscription concerts, which were held in sizable halls. They call for an orchestra that is much larger than a typical concerto of the time, especially in the expanded role assigned to the winds. The orchestra is rendered fully capable of sustaining a dramatic confrontation with the virtuosity and individuality of the soloist. Mozart’s approach in these concertos is often clearly symphonic, both in the application of formal symphonic principles and in a Haydnesque interest in thematic unity in the later concertos. The range of styles and expression is greater than that of most other concertos of the period, from the comic-opera elements of K. 467 to the Italianate lyricism of K. 488, the tragic character of K. 466 and 491, to the Beethovenian heroism of K. 503.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s five piano concertos date from between ca. 1793 and 1809, and he also wrote an early concertante work for piano and orchestra in 1784. They are longer than Mozart’s concertos, and call for even more virtuosity from the soloist. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (1806) exhibits similar achievements—Mozart’s five violin concertos are all early works written in Salzburg in 1775.

https://library.achievingthedream.org/alamomusicappreciation/chapter/sonata-2/ Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:52:01 +0000


The Sonata is a genre you have already become familiar with. Like the concerto however, it is a genre that becomes more narrow in its focus as we move into the classical period. As you recall, a Baroque sonata could be written for a wide variety of instruments or combination of instruments. Of course the trio sonata was very popular and had a fairly standard group of instruments, but the sonata in general was quite a flexible genre in terms of instrumentation. By contrast, in the Classical era, a sonata is a piece for solo instrument, almost always solo piano, or a duet between piano and solo instrument, usually a violin or cello.

Early in the Classical era these duo sonatas were essentially a piece for solo instrument with piano accompaniment. By the end of the classical era duo sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven feature the stringed instrument and the piano as equal partners. Duo sonatas, however, were not the most widely composed form of the genre. By far the most popular kind of sonata was the piano sonata, a piece in multiple movements for piano alone. The BBC provides a very brief summary of classical sonata information, including the most common structures of sonata movements, along with an introduction to the musical form that was always used in the first movement of a sonata. This form is known as sonata-allegro form or sometimes just sonata form. We’ll cover this form in more detail later, but this site provides a simple introduction to the concept.

This short article from Education Scotland details some of the stylistic changes that occurred in opera during the transition from the Baroque to the Classical era. It highlights the role played by Christoph Willibald Gluck in this transition or reform of opera. Though we don’t have any pieces by Gluck on our playlist, he is significant for the changes he pioneered. As you’ll read in a subsequent article, there were two main genres of opera in the Classical period: opera Seria and opera buffa. Gluck’s reforms were applied by many Classical composers to both types of opera.

The style of opera that was popular in the Baroque came to be known as opera Seria. It dealt with serious historical and/or mythological themes. This style of opera remained popular in the early part of the Classical era, but a new genre of opera emerged: opera Buffa. This page talks about the characteristics of opera Buffa and the ways it differed from opera Seria. Also make note of some of the regional variations of opera Buffa (Singspiel, opera Comique, etc.).


Opera buffa (Italian, plural: opere buffe; English: comic opera) is a genre of opera. It was first used as an informal description of Italian comic operas variously classified by their authors as “commedia in musica,” “commedia per musica,” “dramma bernesco,” “dramma comico,” “divertimento giocoso.”

Especially associated with developments in Naples in the first half of the 18th century, whence its popularity spread to Rome and northern Italy, buffa was at first characterized by everyday settings, local dialects, and simple vocal writing (the basso buffo is the associated voice type), the main requirement being clear diction and facility with patter.

The New Grove Dictionary of Opera considers La Cilla (music by Michelangelo Faggioli, text by F. A. Tullio, 1706) and Luigi and Federico Ricci’s Crispino e la comare (1850) to be the first and last appearances of the genre, although the term is still occasionally applied to newer work (for example Ernst Krenek’s Zeitoper Schwergewicht). High points in this history are the 80 or so libretti by Carlindo Grolo, Loran Glodici, Sogol Cardoni and various other approximate anagrams of Carlo Goldoni, the three Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, and the comedies of Gioachino Rossini.

Similar foreign genres such as opera comique or Singspiel differed as well in having spoken dialogue in place of recitativo secco, although one of the most influential examples, Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (which is an intermezzo, not opera buffa), sparked the Querelle des bouffons in Paris as an adaptation without sung recitatives.


Comic characters had been a part of opera until the early 18th century, when “opera buffa” began to emerge as a separate genre. Opera buffa was a parallel development to opera seria and arose in reaction to the so-called first reform of Zeno and Metastasio. It was, in part, intended as a genre that the common man could relate to more easily. Whereas opera seria was an entertainment that both was made for and depicted kings and nobility, opera buffa was made for and depicted common people with more common problems. High-flown language was generally avoided in favor of dialogue that the lower class would relate to, often in the local dialect, and the stock characters were often derived from those of the Italian commedia dell’arte.

In the early 18th century, comic operas often appeared as short, one-act interludes known as intermezzi that were performed in between acts of opera seria. These gave way to the full-fledged opera buffa later in the 18th century. La serva padrona by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736) is the one intermezzo still performed with any regularity today and provides an excellent example of the style.

Apart from Pergolesi, the first major composers of opera buffa were Nicola Logroscino, Baldassare Galuppi, and Alessandro Scarlatti, all of them based in Naples or Venice.

The opera buffa’s importance diminished during the Romantic period. Here, the forms were freer and less extended than in the serious genre, and the set numbers were linked by recitativo secco, the exception being Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in 1843. With Rossini, a standard distribution of four characters is reached: a prima donna soubrette (soprano or mezzo); a light, amorous tenor; a basso cantante or baritone capable of lyrical, mostly ironical expression; and a basso buffo whose vocal skills, largely confined to clear articulation and the ability to “patter,” must also extend to the baritone for the purpose of comic duets.

The type of comedy could vary, and the range was great: from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in 1816, which was purely comedic, to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, which added drama and pathos. Another example of Romantic opera buffa would be Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore of 1832.

Relation to and Differences from Opera Seria

While opera seria deals with gods and ancient heroes and only occasionally contains comic scenes, opera buffa involves the predominant use of comic scenes, characters, and plotlines in a contemporary setting. The traditional model for opera seria had three acts, dealt with serious subjects in mythical settings, as stated above, and used high voices (both sopranos and castrati) for principal characters, often even for monarchs.

In contrast, the model that generally held for opera buffa was having two acts (as, for example, The Barber of Seville), presenting comic scenes and situations as earlier stated, and using the lower male voices to the exclusion of the castrati. This led to the creation of the characteristic “basso buffo,” a specialist in patter who was the center of most of the comic action. (A well-known basso buffo role is Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.)

To a composer in the Classical era, elegance and symmetry of form were integral parts of beauty in music. During the early part of this period, very clear expectations for the structure of larger works and the form of each movement within those works developed. The readings in this section will explain some of the most common musical forms of the Classical era.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slide Show: Classical Forms
  • Ternary Form
  • Sonata-Allegro Form
  • Theme and Variations
  • Rondo Form

Theme and Variation

Building a piece of music around the presentation of a theme (a melodic idea) followed by a series of variations on that theme is not new to the Classical era. However, the frequent use of this structure in movements, often the 2nd movement, of larger Classical works such as symphonies and string quartets merits some additional study as we consider Classical forms.

In music, variation is a formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, orchestration, or any combination of these.

Variation Form

Variation forms include ground bass, passacaglia, chaconne, and theme and variations. Ground bass, passacaglia, and chaconne are typically based on brief ostinato motifs providing a repetitive harmonic basis and are also typically continuous, evolving structures. “Theme and variation” forms are however based specifically on melodic variation, in which the fundamental musical idea, or theme, is repeated in altered form or accompanied in a different manner. “Theme and variation” structure generally begins with a theme (which is itself sometimes preceded by an introduction), typically between 8 and 32 bars in length; each variation, particularly in music of the 18th century and earlier, will be of the same length and structure as the theme. This form may in part have derived from the practical inventiveness of musicians: “Court dances were long; the tunes which accompanied them were short. Their repetition became intolerably wearisome, and inevitably led the player to indulge in extempore variation and ornament.” However, the format of the dance required these variations to maintain the same duration and shape of the tune.

Variation forms can be written as “freestanding” pieces for solo instruments or ensembles or can constitute a movement of a larger piece. Most jazz music is structured on a basic pattern of theme and variations.

Examples include John Bull’s Salvator Mundi, Bach’s Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her,” Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, Violin Chaconne, and (D minor solo violin suite), Corelli’s La Folia Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, the Finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Franck’s Variations Symphoniques, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote. Both Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet and Trout Quintet take their titles from his songs used as variation movements.


Classical Forms from Lumen Learning

Sonata Allegro Form


Sonata-allegro form is one of the most significant forms of the Classical era. Because of its importance, we’ll have multiple reading items on the topic. This first link will take you to a very brief definition of the form. There are melodic and harmonic elements to sonata-allegro form, but the most important thing for us to understand for the purposes of this class is its structure.


Let’s flesh out the definition you’ve just read. There are common melodic and harmonic practices within this form, the explanation of which requires a deeper understanding of music theory than is required for this class. This brief introduction will suffice for our purposes.

Sonata form (also sonata-allegro form or first movement form) is a large-scale musical structure used widely since the middle of the 18th century (the early Classical period).

While it is typically used in the first movement of multi-movement pieces, it is sometimes used in subsequent movements as well—particularly the final movement. The teaching of sonata form in music theory rests on a standard definition and a series of hypotheses about the underlying reasons for the durability and variety of the form, a definition that arose in the second quarter of the 19th century. There is little disagreement that on the largest level, the form consists of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation; however, beneath this, sonata form is difficult to pin down in a single model.

The standard definition focuses on the thematic and harmonic organization of tonal materials that are presented in an exposition, elaborated and contrasted in a development, and then resolved harmonically and thematically in a capitulation. In addition, the standard definition recognizes that an introduction and a coda may be present. Each of the sections is often further divided or characterized by the particular means by which it accomplishes its function in the form.

Since its establishment, the sonata form became the most common form in the first movement of works entitled “sonata,” as well as other long works of classical music, including the symphony, concerto, string quartet, and so on. Accordingly, there is a large body of theory on what unifies and distinguishes practice in the sonata form, both within eras and between eras. Even works that do not adhere to the standard description of a sonata form often present analogous structures or can be analyzed as elaborations or expansions of the standard description of sonata form.


Here’s one more look at sonata form: a video lecture by Dr. Craig Wright at Yale University. In his presentation, he relates sonata form to some of the musical structures you may have come across in popular music. He also begins to explain some of the most common melodic and harmonic practices associated with sonata form. This lecture is also available directly through YouTube, but the Yale page we’ve linked to provides a transcript of the lecture and the ability to download the entire presentation if you’d like.

Ternary Form

Ternary form is a symmetrical structure in music most often represented by the letters ABA. The A represents a musical idea or ideas; the B represents new, contrasting material; and the final A represents a return to the familiar music heard in the opening of the piece. This structure is important for us to review for two reasons. First, it provides the foundation of the more elaborate sonata-allegro form that develops in the Classical period. Second, in many larger works that feature four movements, such as symphonies and string quartets, the third movement consists of two dance movements, minuet and trio, organized in ternary form (minuet-trio-minuet).

Ternary form, sometimes called song form, is a three-part musical form where the first section (A) is repeated after the second section (B) ends. It is usually schematized as ABA. Examples include the de capo aria “The trumpet shall sound” from Handel’s Messiah, Chopin’s Prelude in D-Flat Major (Op. 28), and the opening chorus of Bach’s St John Passion.

Simple Ternary Form

In ternary form, each section is self-contained both thematically and tonally—that is, each section contains distinct and complete themes and ends with an authentic cadence. The B section is generally in a contrasting but closely related key, usually a perfect fifth above or the parallel minor of the home key of the A section (V or i); however, in many works of the Classical period, the B section stays in tonic but has contrasting thematic material. It usually also has a contrasting character; for example, section A might be stiff and formal, while the contrasting B section would be melodious and flowing. Da capo arias are usually in simple ternary form.

Commonly, the third section will feature more ornamentation than the first section (as is often the case with da capo arias). In these cases, the last section is sometimes labeled A’ or A1 to indicate that it is slightly different from the first A section.

Compound Ternary or Trio Form

In a trio form, each section is a dance movement in binary form (two subsections that are each repeated) and a contrasting trio movement also in binary form with repeats. An example is the minuet and trio from the Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. The minuet consists of one section (1A), which is repeated, and a second section (1B), which is also repeated. The trio section follows the same format (2A repeated and 2B repeated). The complete minuet is then played again at the end of the trio represented as [(1A 1A 1B 1B) (2A 2A 2B 2B) (1A 1A 1B 1B)]. By convention, in the second rendition of the minuet, the sections are not repeated with the scheme [(1A 1A 1B 1B) (2A 2A 2B 2B) (1A 1B)]. The trio may also be referred to as a double or as I/II, such as in Bach’s Polonaise and double (or Polonaise I/II) from his second orchestral suite and his Bourrée and Double (or Bourrée I/II) from his second English suite for harpsichord.

Diagram of a minuet and trio
Figure 1. Diagram of a minuet and trio.

The Scherzo and Trio is identical in structure to other trio forms developed in the late Classical period. Examples include the Scherzo and Trio (second movement) from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and the Scherzo and Trio in Schubert’s String Quintet. Another name for the latter is “composite ternary form.” Trio form movements (especially scherzos) written from the early Romantic era sometimes include a short coda (a unique ending to complete the entire movement) and possibly a short introduction. The second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is written in this style, which can be diagrammed as [(INTRO) (1A 1A 1B 1B) (2A 2A 2B 2B) (1A B) (CODA)].

Polkas are also often in compound ternary form.

Ternary Form within a Ternary Form

In a complex ternary form, each section is itself in ternary form in the scheme of [(A B A)(C D C)(A B A)]. By convention, each part is repeated and only on its first rendition [(A A B B A)(C C D D C)(A B A)]. The Impromptus (Op. 7) by Jan Voeek are an example.

Rondo form is also not new to this period. The term dates back to the medieval fixed poetic form rondeau. Medieval chansons that used poetic Rondeaux as their texts often used a musical structure that mimicked the poetic structure.

Rondo and its French part-equivalent rondeau are words that have been used in music in a number of ways, most often in reference to a musical form, but also to a character type that is distinct from the form.

Typical tonal structure of classical seven-part rondo, late 18th & early 19th centuries
Figure 1. Typical tonal structure of classical seven-part rondo, late 18th and early 19th centuries.


The term and formal principle may have derived from the medieval poetic form, rondeau, which contains repetitions of a couplet separated by longer sections of poetry.

In rondo form, a principal theme (sometimes called the “refrain”) alternates with one or more contrasting themes, generally called “episodes” but also occasionally referred to as “digressions” or “couplets.” Possible patterns in the Classical period include ABA, ABACA, or ABACABA. The number of themes can vary from piece to piece, and the recurring element is sometimes embellished and/or shortened in order to provide for variation.

The Baroque predecessor to the rondo was the ritornello. Ritornello form was used in the fast movements of Baroque concertos. The entire orchestra (in Italian, tutti) plays the main ritornello theme, while soloists play the intervening episodes. While rondo form is similar to ritornello form, it is different in that ritornello brings back the subject or main theme in fragments and in different keys, but the rondo brings back its theme complete and in the same key.

A common expansion of rondo form is to combine it with sonata form to create the sonata rondo form. Here, the second theme acts in a similar way to the second theme group in sonata form by appearing first in a key other than the tonic and later being repeated in the tonic key. Unlike sonata form, thematic development does not need to occur except possibly in the coda.

We’re going to take a different approach to our study of Classical composers than we did with earlier periods. Rather than study a chronological progression of composers who contributed to the evolution of Classical style, we’ll examine in greater depth the lives and music of the composers whose work represents the highest achievements of the era. This section contains the readings on the three composers we study from the Classical era: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slide Show: Classical Composers
  • Franz Joseph Haydn
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Symphony No. 5 in C minor

As on the last test, the question you should ask yourself when you are listening to a piece is, What am I hearing? Specifically listen for the musical characteristics that would enable you to recognize the genre (concerto, fugue, etc.) or individual movement (1st–4th movements of a symphony). Unlike the last test, there are very few pieces of vocal music, so the “vocal vs. instrumental” question won’t really narrow things down much. We’ll need to be able to hear more specific characteristics within the music.

I Hear Singing

If you hear a singer or ensemble of singers, then the only two possible answers are “Notte e giorno fatticar” and “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. These should be fairly easy to distinguish by the performance forces. In other words, the number and type of singers you hear will provide the most obvious clue as to which piece you’re hearing. Both pieces contain a great deal of stylistic and variation as well. Understanding the order of the styles (e.g., recitative, ensemble, aria) in each piece will also be a key to identification. First, a quick primer on operatic voice parts: male voices (from lowest to highest) are bass, baritone, tenor; female voices (from lowest to highest) are contralto, mezzo-soprano, soprano. In “Notte e giorno fatticar,” we begin with a lively, comical bass aria, followed by a very frantic ensemble consisting of three voices (soprano, baritone, bass). A duel is fought, and then our recording ends with a somber ensemble (two basses and a baritone). Our exam excerpt, of course, will not be long enough for you to hear all of that, but you will certainly hear some of the dramatic emotional changes for which Mozart is so well known. In “La ci darem la mano,” you hear only two characters (soprano and baritone). First they sing a simple recitative (listen for the speech-like delivery of the recitative accompanied by harpsichord), and then they sing a lyrical duet (essentially an aria for two). Again, if you understand the performance forces and styles found in each piece, you’ll be in good shape on these two pieces.

I Hear Instruments Only

On this test you not only need to be able to recognize the various genres (serenade, symphony, concerto, sonata) but, in certain cases, the individual movements of a piece (Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor). Let’s start with the pieces that don’t involve individual movements as separate listening examples.

I Hear Solo Piano

This has to be Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, 1st movement. The first movement is the only one on your CD, though you should remember that this work, like all sonatas, consists of 3 movements. Remember that in the Classical period, a sonata was played by either a piano/violin or piano/cello duet or by a solo piano. Also remember that the solo piano sonatas are considered the “New Testament” for piano players (Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier being the Old Testament), so his solo sonatas are very significant. Don’t get this confused with the concerto by Mozart. A concerto must have an orchestra. Although the instrumentation of this piece gives it away, it is worth remembering that the 1st movement of any multi-movement instrumental work in this period is going to have a fast tempo and sonata-allegro form. Beethoven likes to bend the rules, so he starts off with a slow introduction followed by the first (very fast) theme.

I Hear Orchestra and Solo Piano

This has to be Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, 1st movement. A concerto features the contrast between a solo instrument and full orchestra, and we definitely hear that contrast in this piece. Remember that in the Classical era, the term concerto refers to a solo concerto, as the concerto grosso falls out of favor at the end of the Baroque. If you were to hear this piece from the beginning, you might think it was a symphony, as the orchestra plays the first exposition (the first movement of any multi-movement instrumental work is going to be in sonata-allegro form) and the piano doesn’t enter until the repeat of the exposition. Once you hear those solo piano passages, though, the genre becomes clear. Solo piano and orchestra must be the piano concerto by Mozart. Again, the instrumentation of this piece gives it away, but it is worth remembering that along with the sonata-allegro form, the 1st movement of any multi-movement instrumental work is going to have a fast tempo and duple meter.

I Hear Orchestra and Solo French Horn

This has to be Mozart’s Horn Concerto in E flat major, 3rd movement. As a concerto, this piece is based on the same solo vs. orchestra contrast as in the piano concerto. While the alternation between the orchestra and the horn should give this piece away, it’s also worth noting that the form of this movement is a rondo. That means that the opening theme heard in the horn will return over and over throughout the piece.

I Hear a Chamber Ensemble That Features Only Stringed Instruments

Okay, now we have to listen a bit more carefully. There are three pieces for chamber strings: movements 1 and 3 of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Haydn’s Emperor Quartet, 2nd movement. These pieces feature only strings—namely, violins, violas, and cellos—so if you hear any other instruments, such as piano, woodwinds, or brass, it must be another piece. The size of the ensembles will help you distinguish between Haydn and Mozart. The Emperor is a string quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello. It will have a very delicate, intimate sound compared to the larger string ensemble that plays the Mozart movements. So even though the same instruments are in use, being able to hear the difference between the large group and the small group will be a big help to you. However, the best way to tell these three examples apart is to listen for tempo and meter. Those distinctions are as follows:

  • I hear a fast tempo and a familiar theme. This is the 1st movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It is faster than the 3rd movement and a lot faster than the Haydn quartet. The opening theme should also be a big clue. It’s very catchy, and most of us have heard that tune before. If you haven’t, consider committing the tune or theme to memory so that you can easily recognize the 1st movement. No matter where the excerpt is taken from, you’re bound to hear that theme.
  • I hear a triple meter and moderate tempo. The triple meter gives away the 3rd movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. This movement is a minuet and trio, two dances with a 1-2-3 beat. Minuets are typically stately and crisp, while trios are more flowing and lyrical. The moderate or medium tempo is also a good clue that you’re hearing the 3rd movement.
  • I hear a slow tempo. Slow tempo has to be the Emperor Quartet, 2nd movement, by Haydn. 2nd movements are always slow and lyrical so the tempo, along with the small size of the ensemble, should be a pretty strong clue for you.

I Hear an Orchestra

A full orchestra without soloists indicates a symphony or an overture. This category will probably present the biggest challenge for the identification questions, as you’ll need to hear the difference between a larger number of pieces or movements: Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Mozart, the Overture to Don Giovanni by Mozart, and the four individual movements of Symphony No. 5 in C minor by Beethoven. Remember that a full orchestra will feature instruments from all four orchestral families: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. If all you hear are the strings, you aren’t hearing a symphony—you’re hearing chamber music, such as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It should be easy to tell when you’re hearing the Beethoven symphony, as it features the largest orchestra and makes much greater use of brass and percussion, along with the strings and woodwinds, than the other pieces. The challenge with the Beethoven symphony is to correctly ID the movements. Knowing the characteristics of the multi-movement cycle work will be vital to your success, so be sure to study those slides carefully as you listen to the CD. Let’s start with the movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor.

  • I hear a fast tempo and a familiar theme. This is the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. As in the Mozart serenade, the first movement should be easily recognizable by its fast tempo and first theme. Most of us have heard the “da-da-da-dum” tune before. If you haven’t, I suspect you’ll have it memorized quickly after listening to the symphony a few times. It’s a very memorable, powerful theme. Remember that this is in sonata-allegro form; you’ll hear all the themes in the exposition, some of the themes being modified in the development, and then all the themes again (along with an oboe mini-cadenza) in the recapitulation. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of characteristics that would rule this movement out. If you hear a slow tempo or a triple meter, it can’t be the first movement.
  • I hear a slow tempo. If you know you’re hearing Beethoven’s symphony and it’s slow, it must be the 2nd movement; 2nd movements are always slow and lyrical. Unlike most second movements, this one is in triple meter. The form of this movement is theme and variations. That means you’re going to hear theme 1 (the lush, lyric opening theme) coming back with changes in its rhythm, instrumentation, and mode (major vs. minor). Furthermore, theme 2 is very majestic. While it doesn’t get varied, it is quite heroic. I like to say that Beethoven’s music often seems to depict a struggle of good against evil. In that context, the 1st movement is the theme music for the villain, while the 2nd movement is the theme music for the hero.
  • I hear a lot of activity in the low strings. This is the 3rd movement. While this movement features a triple meter, this characteristic can be a little tough to pick out. Most 3rd movements feature a moderate (medium) tempo, but this movement is marked Allegro, or fast, and that makes the triple meter harder to hear or feel. It should be said that the trio section seems faster than the opening scherzo, but they are both pretty fast for a 3rd movement, not to mention the fact that Ludwig throws us a curve ball by putting the 2nd movement in a triple meter. What can I say? Beethoven was a rule-breaker. Instead of tempo and meter, I suggest listening for an emphasis on certain instruments—namely, the low strings. They start off the scherzo (this is a scherzo and trio, not a minuet and trio) with a rocket theme in the low strings (cellos and basses). Then when the trio begins, the trio theme is treated fugally. The instruments that start off this series of imitations are, you guessed it, the low strings. The trio theme really gives those bass players a workout, so if you find yourself imagining low string players breaking a sweat, you are hearing the trio. If you hear the pitch run from low to high in the low strings, you are hearing a rocket, and that means scherzo.
  • I hear a fast tempo with a heroic quality. The 4th movement is the most heroic sounding of all four movements. While I can’t confirm this, I am 99.9% sure that the transition theme was copied by the composer of the film score for the old (the real) Superman movie with Christopher Reeves. It must sound heroic if they’re copying it for Superman, right? Remember that 4th movements are essentially the finale, and in Beethoven’s hands, there is usually a very strong sense of triumph. Remember our struggle of good against evil analogy? The 4th movement is the hero beating the villain, getting the girl, and then coming home to a ticker tape parade. Now let’s get down to some musical specifics. Often the 4th movement of a work like this is the fastest. That really isn’t the case here. The 1st movement has a tempo marking of Allegro con brio, which means fast with brilliance. The 4th movement is just Allegro, or fast. For this reason, tempo by itself isn’t going to give this movement away, though it certainly can eliminate the 2nd and to some extent 3rd movements as possibilities. However, tempo combined with mode is another story. Mode refers to whether we are hearing a major, which often seems happy or joyful, or minor, which often seems sad or foreboding, tonality in the music. The symphony begins, as the title indicates, in C minor. Remember how dark and foreboding the 1st movement seemed? The symphony ends with a triumphant C major. So if you hear a fast tempo in a minor mode, chances are it’s the 1st movement. Fast tempo and a triumphant major mode would indicate the 4th movement.

Now, there are two other works for orchestra besides the Beethoven symphony. Both of these works are by Mozart, the Symphony No. 40 in G minor and the Overture to Don Giovanni, which means that there will generally be a more elegant, understated, even delicate quality to these pieces. They are no less masterful than the Beethoven symphony; it’s just that these two geniuses each spoke their own expressive language. To oversimplify, Mozart’s music has grace and class, while Beethoven’s music has raw emotive power. To oversimplify even more, Mozart wore a powdered wig and Beethoven did not. So as I said before, I think you should be able to, once you’ve determined that you’re hearing an orchestral work with no soloists, easily determine whether you’re hearing Mozart or Beethoven. If the determination is Mozart, then here are some suggestions for distinguishing Symphony No. 40 from the Overture to Don Giovanni.

  • I hear a change in tempo (slow to fast). If you hear a slow, solemn tempo suddenly change to a fast, lively tempo, you are definitely listening to the Overture to Don Giovanni. This Overture is in sonata-allegro form, but he does not immediately start with the first theme. He leads into the faster music with a kind of dark musical premonition of the Don’s ultimate end. The slow, writhing string passages of this introduction are incredibly moving. To then shift gears to the sprightly acrobatics of the first theme is a kind of contrast that in the hands of a lesser composer would just seem jarring and overdone. Mozart carries it off with ease. In case the excerpt comes from later in the piece, it is also worth noting that Mozart makes use of occasional brass and percussion in the Overture. There is no percussion in the 1st movement of his Symphony No. 40, and he makes such subtle use of the horns that you almost don’t notice the brass. One last thing: the genre for this piece is listed as opera. This overture is often performed as a stand-alone piece, so I could have listed the genre as overture. I just felt that since Mozart has integrated the overture so seamlessly into the larger work, it would be best to give it the same designation as the two vocal works—namely, opera.
  • I hear an insistent, urgent theme in the violins. The first theme of Symphony No. 40 in G minor is so captivating in its urgency that it’s the best way to pick out this piece. It appears in all the sections of the movement, exposition, development, and recapitulation, so it would be nearly impossible to have an excerpt that didn’t include it. I’ve also mentioned that this piece doesn’t have any of the percussion that the overture has, so instrumentation will provide a significant clue.

Titles, Composers, and Genres for Exam 3

Title Composer Genre
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1st mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Serenade
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 3rd mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Serenade
Horn Concerto in E flat major, 3rd mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Concerto
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, 1st mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony
Emperor Quartet, 2nd mvmt. Franz Joseph Haydn String Quartet
Piano Concerto in A major, 1st mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Concerto
Overture to Don Giovanni Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Opera
“Notte e giorno fatticar,” Don Giovanni Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Opera
“La ci darem la mano,” Don Giovanni Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Opera
Pathetique Sonata, 1st mvmt. Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, 1st mvmt. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, 2nd mvmt. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, 3rd mvmt. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, 4th mvmt. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Chances are that if you asked random students on campus to name a classical composer, Mozart would be one of the best-known names. A child prodigy whose life and career were cut short by illness, he stands as one of the truly great talents of music history. He created masterworks in all the major genres, though he is perhaps best known for his operas. This sets him apart from Haydn and Beethoven, who composed relatively little for the operatic stage.


Mozart ca. 1780, detail from portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce
Figure 1. Mozart ca. 1780, detail from portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27 January 1756–5 December 1791), baptized as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, was a prolific and influential composer of the Classical era.

Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already competent on keyboard and violin, he composed from the age of 5 and performed before European royalty. At 17, he was engaged as a court musician in Salzburg but grew restless and traveled in search of a better position, always composing abundantly. While visiting Vienna in 1781, he was dismissed from his Salzburg position. He chose to stay in the capital, where he achieved fame but little financial security. During his final years in Vienna, he composed many of his best-known symphonies, concertos, and operas and portions of the Requiem, which was largely unfinished at the time of his death. The circumstances of his early death have been much mythologized. He was survived by his wife Constanze and two sons.

He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral music. He is among the most enduringly popular of Classical composers, and his influence on subsequent Western art music is profound; Ludwig van Beethoven composed his own early works in the shadow of Mozart, and Joseph Haydn wrote that “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.”


Family and childhood

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on 27 January 1756 to Leopold Mozart (1719–1787) and Anna Maria, née Pertl (1720–1778), at 9 Getreidegasse Salzburg. This was the capital of the Archbishopric of Salzburg, an ecclesiastic principality in what is now Austria, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was the youngest of seven children, five of whom died in infancy. His elder sister was Maria Anna (1751–1829), nicknamed “Nannerl.” Mozart was baptized the day after his birth at St. Rupert’s Cathedral. The baptismal record gives his name in Latinized form as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. He generally called himself “Wolfgang Amadè Mozart” as an adult, but his name had many variants.

Mozart’s birthplace at Getreidegasse 9, Salzburg
Figure 2. Mozart’s birthplace at Getreidegasse 9, Salzburg.

Leopold Mozart, a native of Augsburg, was a minor composer and an experienced teacher. In 1743, he was appointed as fourth violinist in the musical establishment of Count Leopold Anton von Firmian, the ruling Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Four years later, he married Anna Maria in Salzburg. Leopold became the orchestra’s deputy Kapellmeister in 1763. During the year of his son’s birth, Leopold published a violin textbook, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, which achieved success.

When Nannerl was seven, she began keyboard lessons with her father while her three-year-old brother looked on. Years later, after her brother’s death, she reminisced:

He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good. . . . In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the clavier. . . . He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time. . . . At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.

These early pieces, K. 1–5, were recorded in the Nannerl Notenbuch.

There is some scholarly debate as to whether Mozart was four or five years old when he created his first musical compositions, though there is little doubt that Mozart composed his first three pieces of music within a few weeks of each other: KVs 1a, 1b, and 1c.

Solomon notes that, while Leopold was a devoted teacher to his children, there is evidence that Mozart was keen to progress beyond what he was taught. His first ink-spattered composition and his precocious efforts with the violin were of his own initiative and came as a surprise to his father. Leopold eventually gave up composing when his son’s musical talents became evident. In his early years, Mozart’s father was his only teacher. Along with music, he taught his children languages and academic subjects.

1762–73: Travel

During Mozart’s youth, his family made several European journeys in which he and Nannerl performed as child prodigies. These began with an exhibition, in 1762, at the court of the Prince-elector Maximilian III of Bavaria in Munich and at the Imperial Court in Vienna and Prague. A long concert tour spanning three and a half years followed, taking the family to the courts of Munich, Mannheim, Paris, London, The Hague, again to Paris, and back home via Zurich, Donaueschingen, and Munich.

Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was eight years old. It is probable that his father transcribed most of it for him.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, ca. 1763
Figure 3. The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, ca. 1763.

During this trip, Mozart met a number of musicians and acquainted himself with the works of other composers. A particularly important influence was Johann Christian Bach, whom Mozart visited in London in 1764 and 1765. The family again went to Vienna in late 1767 and remained there until December 1768.

These trips were often difficult, and travel conditions were primitive. The family had to wait for invitations and reimbursement from the nobility, and they endured long, near-fatal illnesses far from home: first Leopold (London, summer 1764), then both children (The Hague, autumn 1765).

After one year in Salzburg, Leopold and Mozart set off for Italy, leaving Mozart’s mother and sister at home. This travel lasted from December 1769 to March 1771. As with earlier journeys, Leopold wanted to display his son’s abilities as a performer and a rapidly maturing composer. Mozart met Josef Mysliveaek and Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna and was accepted as a member of the famous Accademia Filarmonica. In Rome, he heard Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere twice in performance in the Sistine Chapel and wrote it out from memory, thus producing the first unauthorized copy of this closely guarded property of the Vatican.

In Milan, Mozart wrote the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770), which was performed with success. This led to further opera commissions. He returned with his father later twice to Milan (August–December 1771; October 1772–March 1773) for the composition and premieres of Ascanio in Alba (1771) and Lucio Silla (1772). Leopold hoped these visits would result in a professional appointment for his son in Italy, but these hopes were never realized.

Toward the end of the final Italian journey, Mozart wrote the first of his works to be still widely performed today, the solo motet Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165.

1773-77: Employment at the Salzburg court

After finally returning with his father from Italy on 13 March 1773, Mozart was employed as a court musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. The composer had a great number of friends and admirers in Salzburg and had the opportunity to work in many genres, including symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, masses, serenades, and a few minor operas. Between April and December 1775, Mozart developed an enthusiasm for violin concertos, producing a series of five (the only ones he ever wrote), which steadily increased in their musical sophistication. The last three—K. 216, K. 218, and K. 219—are now staples of the repertoire. In 1776, he turned his efforts to piano concertos, culminating in the E-flat concerto K. 271 of early 1777, considered by critics to be a breakthrough work.

Despite these artistic successes, Mozart grew increasingly discontented with Salzburg and redoubled his efforts to find a position elsewhere. One reason was his low salary, 150 florins a year; Mozart longed to compose operas, and Salzburg provided only rare occasions for these. The situation worsened in 1775 when the court theater was closed, especially since the other theater in Salzburg was largely reserved for visiting troupes.

Two long expeditions in search of work interrupted this long Salzburg stay: Mozart and his father visited Vienna from 14 July to 26 September 1773 and Munich from 6 December 1774 to March 1775. Neither visit was successful, though the Munich journey resulted in a popular success with the premiere of Mozart’s opera La finta giardiniera.

1777–78: Journey to Paris

In August 1777, Mozart resigned his position at Salzburg and on 23 September ventured out once more in search of employment, with visits to Augsburg, Mannheim, Paris, and Munich.

Mozart became acquainted with members of the famous orchestra in Mannheim, the best in Europe at the time. He also fell in love with Aloysia Weber, one of four daughters of a musical family. There were prospects of employment in Mannheim, but they came to nothing, and Mozart left for Paris on 14 March 1778 to continue his search. One of his letters from Paris hints at a possible post as an organist at Versailles, but Mozart was not interested in such an appointment. He fell into debt and took to pawning valuables. The nadir of the visit occurred when Mozart’s mother was taken ill and died on 3 July 1778. There had been delays in calling a doctor, probably, according to Halliwell, because of a lack of funds. Mozart stayed with Melchior Grimm, who, as personal secretary of the Duke d’Orlans, lived in his mansion.

While Mozart was in Paris, his father was pursuing opportunities of employment for him in Salzburg. With the support of the local nobility, Mozart was offered a post as court organist and concertmaster. The annual salary was 450 florins, but he was reluctant to accept. By that time, relations between Grimm and Mozart had cooled, and Mozart moved out. After leaving Paris in September 1778 for Strasbourg, he lingered in Mannheim and Munich, still hoping to obtain an appointment outside Salzburg. In Munich, he again encountered Aloysia, now a very successful singer, but she was no longer interested in him. Mozart finally returned to Salzburg on 15 January 1779 and took up his new appointment, but his discontent with Salzburg remained undiminished.

Among the better-known works which Mozart wrote on the Paris journey are the A minor piano sonata, K. 310/300d, and the “Paris” Symphony (No. 31), which were performed in Paris on 12 and 18 June 1778.


1781: Departure

The Mozart family ca. 1780. The portrait on the wall is of Mozart’s mother.
Figure 4. The Mozart family ca. 1780. The portrait on the wall is of Mozart’s mother.

In January 1781, Mozart’s opera Idomeneo premiered with “considerable success” in Munich. The following March, Mozart was summoned to Vienna, where his employer, Archbishop Colloredo, was attending the celebrations for the accession of Joseph II to the Austrian throne. Fresh from the adulation he had earned in Munich, Mozart was offended when Colloredo treated him as a mere servant and particularly when the archbishop forbade him to perform before the emperor at Countess Thun’s for a fee equal to half of his yearly Salzburg salary. The resulting quarrel came to a head in May: Mozart attempted to resign and was refused. The following month, permission was granted, but in a grossly insulting way: the composer was dismissed literally “with a kick in the arse” administered by the archbishop’s steward, Count Arco. Mozart decided to settle in Vienna as a freelance performer and composer.

The quarrel with the archbishop went harder for Mozart because his father sided against him. Hoping fervently that he would obediently follow Colloredo back to Salzburg, Mozart’s father exchanged intense letters with his son, urging him to be reconciled with their employer. Mozart passionately defended his intention to pursue an independent career in Vienna. The debate ended when Mozart was dismissed by the archbishop, freeing himself of both his employer and his father’s demands to return. Solomon characterizes Mozart’s resignation as a “revolutionary step,” and it greatly altered the course of his life.

Early Years

Mozart’s new career in Vienna began well. He performed often as a pianist, notably in a competition before the emperor with Muzio Clementi on 24 December 1781, and he soon “had established himself as the finest keyboard player in Vienna.” He also prospered as a composer, and in 1782 completed the opera Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail (“The Abduction from the Seraglio”), which premiered on 16 July 1782 and achieved a huge success. The work was soon being performed “throughout German-speaking Europe” and fully established Mozart’s reputation as a composer.

Near the height of his quarrels with Colloredo, Mozart moved in with the Weber family, who had moved to Vienna from Mannheim. The father, Fridolin, had died, and the Webers were now taking in lodgers to make ends meet. Aloysia, who had earlier rejected Mozart’s suit, was now married to the actor and artist Joseph Lange. Mozart’s interest shifted to the third Weber daughter, Constanze. The courtship did not go entirely smoothly; surviving correspondence indicates that Mozart and Constanze briefly separated in April 1782. Mozart faced a very difficult task in getting his father’s permission for the marriage. The couple were finally married on 4 August 1782 in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the day before his father’s consent arrived in the mail.

The couple had six children, of whom only two survived infancy:

  • Raimund Leopold (17 June–19 August 1783)
  • Karl Thomas Mozart (21 September 1784–31 October 1858)
  • Johann Thomas Leopold (18 October–15 November 1786)
  • Theresia Constanzia Adelheid Friedericke Maria Anna (27 December 1787–29 June 1788)
  • Anna Maria (died soon after birth, 16 November 1789)
  • Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart (26 July 1791–29 July 1844)

In the course of 1782 and 1783, Mozart became intimately acquainted with the work of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel as a result of the influence of Gottfried van Swieten, who owned many manuscripts of the Baroque masters. Mozart’s study of these scores inspired compositions in Baroque style and later influenced his personal musical language—for example, in fugal passages in Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”) and the finale of Symphony No. 41.

In 1783, Mozart and his wife visited his family in Salzburg. His father and sister were cordially polite to Constanze, but the visit prompted the composition of one of Mozart’s great liturgical pieces, the Mass in C minor. Though not completed, it was premiered in Salzburg, with Constanze singing a solo part.

Mozart met Joseph Haydn in Vienna around 1784, and the two composers became friends. When Haydn visited Vienna, they sometimes played together in an impromptu string quartet. Mozart’s six quartets dedicated to Haydn (K. 387, K. 421, K. 428, K. 458, K. 464, and K. 465) date from the period 1782 to 1785 and are judged to be a response to Haydn’s Opus 33 set from 1781. Haydn in 1785 told Mozart’s father, “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.”

From 1782 to 1785, Mozart mounted concerts with himself as soloist, presenting three or four new piano concertos in each season. Since space in the theaters was scarce, he booked unconventional venues: a large room in the Trattnerhof (an apartment building) and the ballroom of the Mehlgrube (a restaurant). The concerts were very popular, and the concertos he premiered at them are still firm fixtures in the repertoire. Solomon writes that during this period, Mozart created “a harmonious connection between an eager composer-performer and a delighted audience, which was given the opportunity of witnessing the transformation and perfection of a major musical genre.”

With substantial returns from his concerts and elsewhere, Mozart and his wife adopted a rather plush lifestyle. They moved to an expensive apartment with a yearly rent of 460 florins. Mozart bought a fine fortepiano from Anton Walter for about 900 florins and a billiard table for about 300. The Mozarts sent their son Karl Thomas to an expensive boarding school and kept servants. Saving was therefore impossible, and the short period of financial success did nothing to soften the hardship the Mozarts were later to experience.

On 14 December 1784, Mozart became a Freemason, admitted to the lodge Zur Wohltatigkeit (“Beneficence”). Freemasonry played an important role in the remainder of Mozart’s life: he attended meetings, a number of his friends were Masons, and on various occasions he composed Masonic music—e.g., the Maurerische Trauermusik.

1786–87: Return to opera

Despite the great success of Die Entfahrung aus dem Serail, Mozart did little operatic writing for the next four years, producing only two unfinished works and the one-act Der Schauspieldirektor. He focused instead on his career as a piano soloist and writer of concertos. Around the end of 1785, Mozart moved away from keyboard writing and began his famous operatic collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. The year 1786 saw the successful premiere of The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna. Its reception in Prague later in the year was even warmer, and this led to a second collaboration with Da Ponte: the opera Don Giovanni, which premiered in October 1787 to acclaim in Prague but less success in Vienna in 1788. The two are among Mozart’s most important works and are mainstays of the operatic repertoire today, though at their premieres, their musical complexity caused difficulty for both listeners and performers. These developments were not witnessed by Mozart’s father, who had died on 28 May 1787.

In December 1787, Mozart finally obtained a steady post under aristocratic patronage. Emperor Joseph II appointed him as his “chamber composer,” a post that had fallen vacant the previous month on the death of Gluck. It was a part-time appointment, paying just 800 florins per year, and required Mozart only to compose dances for the annual balls in the Redoutensaal. This modest income became important to Mozart when hard times arrived. Court records show that Joseph’s aim was to keep the esteemed composer from leaving Vienna in pursuit of better prospects.

In 1787, the young Ludwig van Beethoven spent several weeks in Vienna, hoping to study with Mozart. No reliable records survive to indicate whether the two composers ever met.

Later Years and Death


Drawing of Mozart in silverpoint, made by Dora Stock during Mozart's visit to Dresden, April 1789
Figure 5. Drawing of Mozart in silverpoint, made by Dora Stock during Mozart’s visit to Dresden, April 1789.

Toward the end of the decade, Mozart’s circumstances worsened. Around 1786, he had ceased to appear frequently in public concerts, and his income shrank. This was a difficult time for musicians in Vienna because of the Austro-Turkish War, and both the general level of prosperity and the ability of the aristocracy to support music had declined.

By mid-1788, Mozart and his family had moved from central Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund. Although it has been thought that Mozart reduced his rental expenses, research shows that by moving to the suburb, Mozart had not reduced his expenses (as claimed in his letter to Puchberg) but merely increased the housing space at his disposal. Mozart began to borrow money, most often from his friend and fellow Mason Michael Puchberg; “a pitiful sequence of letters pleading for loans” survives. Maynard Solomon and others have suggested that Mozart was suffering from depression, and it seems that his output slowed. Major works of the period include the last three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41, all from 1788), and the last of the three Da Ponte operas, Così fan tutte, premiered in 1790.

Around this time, Mozart made long journeys hoping to improve his fortunes: to Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin in the spring of 1789 and to Frankfurt, Mannheim, and other German cities in 1790. The trips produced only isolated success and did not relieve the family’s financial distress.


Mozart’s last year was, until his final illness struck, a time of great productivity and, by some accounts, one of personal recovery. He composed a great deal, including some of his most admired works: the opera The Magic Flute; the final piano concerto (K. 595 in B-flat); the Clarinet Concerto K. 622; the last in his great series of string quintets (K. 614 in E-flat); the motet Ave verum corpus K. 618; and the unfinished Requiem K. 626.

Mozart’s financial situation, a source of extreme anxiety in 1790, finally began to improve. Although the evidence is inconclusive, it appears that wealthy patrons in Hungary and Amsterdam pledged annuities to Mozart in return for the occasional composition. He is thought to have benefited from the sale of dance music written in his role as imperial chamber composer. Mozart no longer borrowed large sums from Puchberg and made a start on paying off his debts.

He experienced great satisfaction in the public success of some of his works, notably The Magic Flute (which was performed several times in the short period between its premiere and Mozart’s death) and the Little Masonic Cantata K. 623, which premiered on 15 November 1791.

Final Illness and Death

Mozart fell ill while in Prague for the 6 September 1791 premiere of his opera La clemenza di Tito, written in that same year on commission for the emperor’s coronation festivities. He continued his professional functions for some time and conducted the premiere of The Magic Flute on 30 September. His health deteriorated on 20 November, at which point he became bedridden, suffering from swelling, pain, and vomiting.

Mozart was nursed in his final illness by his wife and her youngest sister and was attended by the family doctor, Thomas Franz Closset. He was mentally occupied with the task of finishing his Requiem, but the evidence that he actually dictated passages to his student Franz Xaverssmayr is minimal.

Mozart died in his home on 5 December 1791 (aged 35) at 1:00 am. The New Grove describes his funeral:

Mozart was interred in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St. Marx Cemetery outside the city on 7 December. If, as later reports say, no mourners attended, that too is consistent with Viennese burial customs at the time; later Jahn (1856) wrote that Salieri, Süssmayr, van Swieten and two other musicians were present. The tale of a storm and snow is false; the day was calm and mild.

The expression “common grave” refers to neither a communal grave nor a pauper’s grave but to an individual grave for a member of the common people (i.e., not the aristocracy). Common graves were subject to excavation after ten years; the graves of aristocrats were not.

The cause of Mozart’s death cannot be known with certainty. The official record has it as “hitziges Frieselfieber” (“severe military fever,” referring to a rash that looks like millet seeds), more a description of the symptoms than a diagnosis. Researchers have posited at least 118 causes of death, including acute rheumatic fever, streptococcal infection, trichinosis, influenza, mercury poisoning, and a rare kidney ailment.

Mozart’s modest funeral did not reflect his standing with the public as a composer: memorial services and concerts in Vienna and Prague were well attended. Indeed, in the period immediately after his death, his reputation rose substantially: Solomon describes an “unprecedented wave of enthusiasm” for his work; biographies were written (first by Schlichtegroll, Niemetschek, and Nissen); and publishers vied to produce complete editions of his works.

Appearance and Character

Mozart’s physical appearance was described by tenor Michael Kelly in his Reminiscences: “a remarkably small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of fine, fair hair of which he was rather vain.” As his early biographer Niemetschek wrote, “There was nothing special about [his] physique. […] He was small and his countenance, except for his large intense eyes, gave no signs of his genius.” His facial complexion was pitted, a reminder of his childhood case of smallpox. There is a photofit of Mozart created from four contemporary portraits. He loved elegant clothing. Kelly remembered him at a rehearsal: “[He] was on the stage with his crimson pelisse and gold-laced cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra.” Of his voice, his wife later wrote that it “was a tenor, rather soft in speaking and delicate in singing, but when anything excited him, or it became necessary to exert it, it was both powerful and energetic.”

Mozart usually worked long and hard, finishing compositions at a tremendous pace as deadlines approached. He often made sketches and drafts; unlike Beethoven’s, these are mostly not preserved, as his wife sought to destroy them after his death.

He was raised a Catholic and remained a loyal member of the Church throughout his life.

Mozart lived at the center of the Viennese musical world and knew a great number and variety of people: fellow musicians, theatrical performers, fellow Salzburgers, and aristocrats, including some acquaintance with the Emperor Joseph II. Solomon considers his three closest friends to have been Gottfried von Jacquin, Count August Hatzfeld, and Sigmund Barisani; others included his older colleague Joseph Haydn, singers Franz Xaver Gerl and Benedikt Schack, and the horn player Joseph Leutgeb. Leutgeb and Mozart carried on a curious kind of friendly mockery, often with Leutgeb as the butt of Mozart’s practical jokes.

He enjoyed billiards and dancing and kept pets: a canary, a starling, a dog, and a horse for recreational riding. He had a startling fondness for scatological humor, which is preserved in his surviving letters, notably those written to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart around 1777–1778, and in his correspondence with his sister and parents. Mozart also wrote scatological music, a series of canons that he sang with his friends.

Works, Musical Style, and Innovations


Listen: Mozart

Please listen to the following audio file to hear Symphonie No. 40 g-moll, K. 550. Movement: 1. Molto allegro.

Please listen to the following audio file to hear Overture to Don Giovanni

Mozart’s music, like Haydn’s, stands as an archetype of the Classical style. At the time he began composing, European music was dominated by the style galant, a reaction against the highly evolved intricacy of the Baroque. Progressively, and in large part at the hands of Mozart himself, the contrapuntal complexities of the late Baroque emerged once more, moderated and disciplined by new forms and adapted to a new aesthetic and social milieu. Mozart was a versatile composer and wrote in every major genre, including symphony, opera, the solo concerto, chamber music (including string quartet and string quintet), and the piano sonata. These forms were not new, but Mozart advanced their technical sophistication and emotional reach. He almost single-handedly developed and popularized the Classical piano concerto. He wrote a great deal of religious music, including large-scale masses, as well as dances, divertimenti, serenades, and other forms of light entertainment.

The central traits of the Classical style are all present in Mozart’s music. Clarity, balance, and transparency are the hallmarks of his work, but simplistic notions of its delicacy mask the exceptional power of his finest masterpieces, such as the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491; the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550; and the opera Don Giovanni. Charles Rosen makes the point forcefully:

It is only through recognizing the violence and sensuality at the center of Mozart’s work that we can make a start toward a comprehension of his structures and an insight into his magnificence. In a paradoxical way, Schumann’s superficial characterization of the G minor Symphony can help us to see Mozart’s daemon more steadily. In all of Mozart’s supreme expressions of suffering and terror, there is something shockingly voluptuous.

Especially during his last decade, Mozart exploited chromatic harmony to a degree rare at the time, with remarkable assurance and to great artistic effect.

Mozart always had a gift for absorbing and adapting valuable features of others’ music. His travels helped in the forging of a unique compositional language. In London as a child, he met J. C. Bach and heard his music. In Paris, Mannheim, and Vienna, he met with other compositional influences, as well as the avant-garde capabilities of the Mannheim orchestra. In Italy, he encountered the Italian overture and opera buffa, both of which deeply affected the evolution of his own practice. In London and Italy, the galant style was in the ascendent: simple, light music with a mania for cadencing; an emphasis on tonic, dominant, and subdominant to the exclusion of other harmonies; symmetrical phrases; and clearly articulated partitions in the overall form of movements. Some of Mozart’s early symphonies are Italian overtures, with three movements running into each other; many are homotonal (all three movements having the same key signature, with the slow middle movement being in the relative minor). Others mimic the works of J. C. Bach, and others show the simple rounded binary forms turned out by Viennese composers.

A facsimile sheet of music from the Dies Irae movement of the Requiem Mass in D minor (K. 626) in Mozart's own handwriting. It is located at the Mozarthaus in Vienna.
Figure 6. A facsimile sheet of music from the Dies Irae movement of the Requiem Mass in D minor (K. 626) in Mozart’s own handwriting. It is located at the Mozart house in Vienna.

As Mozart matured, he progressively incorporated more features adapted from the Baroque. For example, the Symphony No. 29 in A major K. 201 has a contrapuntal main theme in its first movement and experimentation with irregular phrase lengths. Some of his quartets from 1773 have fugal finales, probably influenced by Haydn, who had included three such finales in his recently published Opus 20 set. The influence of the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) period in music, with its brief foreshadowing of the Romantic era, is evident in the music of both composers at that time. Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor K. 183 is another excellent example.

Mozart would sometimes switch his focus between operas and instrumental music. He produced operas in each of the prevailing styles: opera buffa, such as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosa-fan tutte; opera seria, such as Idomeneo; and Singspiel, of which Die Zauberflute is the most famous example by any composer. In his later operas, he employed subtle changes in instrumentation, orchestral texture, and tone color for emotional depth and to mark dramatic shifts. Here his advances in opera and instrumental composing interacted: his increasingly sophisticated use of the orchestra in the symphonies and concertos influenced his operatic orchestration, and his developing subtlety in using the orchestra to psychological effect in his operas was in turn reflected in his later nonoperatic compositions.


Mozart’s most famous pupil, whom the Mozarts took into their Vienna home for two years as a child, was probably Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a transitional figure between Classical and Romantic eras. More important is the influence Mozart had on composers of later generations. Ever since the surge in his reputation after his death, studying his scores has been a standard part of the training of classical musicians.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Mozart’s junior by 15 years, was deeply influenced by his work, with which he was acquainted as a teenager. He is thought to have performed Mozart’s operas while playing in the court orchestra at Bonn, and he traveled to Vienna in 1787 hoping to study with the older composer. Some of Beethoven’s works have direct models in comparable works by Mozart, and he wrote cadenzas (WoO 58) to Mozart’s D minor piano concerto K. 466. For further details, see Mozart and Beethoven.

A number of composers have paid homage to Mozart by writing sets of variations on his themes. Beethoven wrote four such sets (Op. 66, WoO 28, WoO 40, WoO 46). Others include Fernando Sor’s Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart (1821), Mikhail Glinka’s Variations on a Theme from Mozart’s Opera Die Zauberflute (1822), Frederic Chopin’s Variations on “La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni (1827), and Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart (1914), based on the variation theme in the piano sonata K. 331.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote his Orchestral Suite No. 4 in G, “Mozartiana” (1887), as a tribute to Mozart.

Köchel Catalog

For unambiguous identification of works by Mozart, a Köchel catalog number is used. This is a unique number assigned, in regular chronological order, to every one of his known works. A work is referenced by the abbreviation “K.” or “KV” followed by this number. The first edition of the catalog was completed in 1862 by Ludwig von Köchel. It has since been repeatedly updated, as scholarly research improves knowledge of the dates and authenticity of individual works.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Along with Mozart, Beethoven is likely one of the best-known composers, and his 5th symphony is undoubtedly one of the best known works of classical music. Of the three composers we study in the Classical era, Beethoven exerted the greatest influence on the composers of the Romantic period that followed. Beethoven’s music represents a transition from Classical to Romantic style.


Background and early life

Beethoven's birthplace at Bonngasse 20, now the Beethoven House museum
Figure 1. Beethoven’s birthplace at Bonngasse 20, now the Beethoven House museum.

Beethoven was the grandson of Lodewijk van Beethoven (1712–1773), a musician from Mechelen in the Southern Netherlands (now part of Belgium), who at the age of 20 moved to Bonn. Lodewijk (the Dutch cognate of German Ludwig) was employed as a bass singer at the court of the Elector of Cologne, eventually rising to become Kapellmeister (music director). Lodewijk had one son, Johann (1740–1792), who worked as a tenor in the same musical establishment and gave lessons on piano and violin to supplement his income. Johann married Maria Magdalena Keverich in 1767; she was the daughter of Johann Heinrich Keverich, who had been the head chef at the court of the Archbishopric of Trier.

Beethoven was born of this marriage in Bonn. There is no authentic record of the date of his birth; however, the registry of his baptism, in a Roman Catholic service at the Parish of St. Regius on 17 December 1770, survives. As children of that era were traditionally baptized the day after birth in the Catholic Rhine country, and it is known that Beethoven’s family and his teacher Johann Albrechtsberger celebrated his birthday on 16 December, most scholars accept 16 December 1770 as Beethoven’s date of birth. Of the seven children born to Johann van Beethoven, only Ludwig, the second-born, and two younger brothers survived infancy. Caspar Anton Carl was born on 8 April 1774, and Nikolaus Johann, the youngest, was born on 2 October 1776.

Beethoven’s first music teacher was his father. Although tradition has it that Johann van Beethoven was a harsh instructor and that the child Beethoven, “made to stand at the keyboard, was often in tears,” the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians claimed that no solid documentation supported this, and asserted that “speculation and myth-making have both been productive.” Beethoven had other local teachers: the court organist Gilles van den Eeden (d. 1782), Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer (a family friend, who taught Beethoven the piano), and Franz Rovantini (a relative, who instructed him in playing the violin and viola). Beethoven’s musical talent was obvious at a young age. Johann, aware of Leopold Mozart’s successes in this area (with son Wolfgang and daughter Nannerl), attempted to exploit his son as a child prodigy, claiming that Beethoven was six (he was seven) on the posters for Beethoven’s first public performance in March 1778.

Some time after 1779, Beethoven began his studies with his most important teacher in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, who was appointed the Court’s Organist in that year. Neefe taught Beethoven composition and by March 1783 had helped him write his first published composition: a set of keyboard variations (WoO 63). Beethoven soon began working with Neefe as assistant organist, at first unpaid (1781) and then as a paid employee (1784) of the court chapel conducted by the Kapellmeister Andrea Luchesi. His first three piano sonatas, named “Kurfurst” (“Elector”) for their dedication to the Elector Maximilian Friedrich (1708–1784), were published in 1783. Maximilian Frederick noticed Beethoven’s talent early and subsidized and encouraged the young man’s musical studies.

A portrait of the 13-year-old Beethoven by an unknown Bonn master (ca. 1783)
Figure 2. A portrait of the 13-year-old Beethoven by an unknown Bonn master (ca. 1783).

Maximilian Frederick’s successor as the Elector of Bonn was Maximilian Franz, the youngest son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and he brought notable changes to Bonn. Echoing changes made in Vienna by his brother Joseph, he introduced reforms based on Enlightenment philosophy, with increased support for education and the arts. The teenage Beethoven was almost certainly influenced by these changes. He may also have been influenced at this time by ideas prominent in freemasonry, as Neefe and others around Beethoven were members of the local chapter of the Order of the Illuminati.

In March 1787, Beethoven traveled to Vienna (possibly at another’s expense) for the first time, apparently in the hope of studying with Mozart. The details of their relationship are uncertain, including whether they actually met. Having learned that his mother was ill, Beethoven returned about two weeks after his arrival. His mother died shortly thereafter, and his father lapsed deeper into alcoholism. As a result, Beethoven became responsible for the care of his two younger brothers and spent the next five years in Bonn.

Beethoven was introduced in these years to several people who became important in his life. Franz Wegeler, a young medical student, introduced him to the von Breuning family (one of whose daughters Wegeler eventually married). Beethoven often visited the von Breuning household, where he taught piano to some of the children. Here he encountered German and classical literature. The von Breuning family environment was less stressful than his own, which was increasingly dominated by his father’s decline. Beethoven also came to the attention of Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, who became a lifelong friend and financial supporter.

In 1789, Beethoven obtained a legal order by which half of his father’s salary was paid directly to him for support of the family. He also contributed further to the family’s income by playing viola in the court orchestra. This familiarized Beethoven with a variety of operas, including three by Mozart that were performed at court in this period. He also befriended Anton Reicha, a flautist and violinist of about his own age who was a nephew of the court orchestra’s conductor, Josef Reicha.

Establishing His Career in Vienna

From 1790 to 1792, Beethoven composed a significant number of works (none were published at the time, and most are now listed as works without opus) that demonstrated his growing range and maturity. Musicologists have identified a theme similar to those of his Third Symphony in a set of variations written in 1791. Beethoven was probably first introduced to Joseph Haydn in late 1790, when the latter was traveling to London and stopped in Bonn around Christmastime. A year and a half later they met in Bonn on Haydn’s return trip from London to Vienna in July 1792, and it is likely that arrangements were made at that time for Beethoven to study with the old master. With the Elector’s help, Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna in November 1792, amid rumors of war spilling out of France; he learned shortly after his arrival that his father had died. Mozart had also recently died. Count Waldstein, in his farewell note to Beethoven, wrote, “Through uninterrupted diligence you will receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands.” Over the next few years, Beethoven responded to the widespread feeling that he was a successor to the recently deceased Mozart by studying that master’s work and writing works with a distinctly Mozartean flavor.

Beethoven did not immediately set out to establish himself as a composer but rather devoted himself to study and performance. Working under Haydn’s direction, he sought to master counterpoint. He also studied violin under Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Early in this period, he also began receiving occasional instruction from Antonio Salieri, primarily in Italian vocal composition style; this relationship persisted until at least 1802 and possibly 1809. With Haydn’s departure for England in 1794, Beethoven was expected by the Elector to return home. He chose instead to remain in Vienna, continuing his instruction in counterpoint with Johann Albrechtsberger and other teachers. Although his stipend from the Elector expired, a number of Viennese noblemen had already recognized his ability and offered him financial support, among them Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, and Baron Gottfried van Swieten.

By 1793, Beethoven had established a reputation as an improviser in the salons of the nobility, often playing the preludes and fugues of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. His friend Nikolaus Simrock had begun publishing his compositions; the first are believed to be a set of variations (WoO 66). By 1793, he had established a reputation in Vienna as a piano virtuoso, but he apparently withheld works from publication so that their publication in 1795 would have greater impact. Beethoven’s first public performance in Vienna was in March 1795, a concert in which he first performed one of his piano concertos. It is uncertain whether this was the First or Second. Documentary evidence is unclear, and both concertos were in a similar state of near-completion (neither was completed or published for several years). Shortly after this performance, he arranged for the publication of the first of his compositions to which he assigned an opus number, the three piano trios, Opus 1. These works were dedicated to his patron Prince Lichnowsky and were a financial success; Beethoven’s profits were nearly sufficient to cover his living expenses for a year.

Musical Maturity

Beethoven composed his first six string quartets (Op. 18) between 1798 and 1800 (commissioned by, and dedicated to, Prince Lobkowitz). They were published in 1801. With premieres of his First and Second Symphonies in 1800 and 1803, Beethoven became regarded as one of the most important of a generation of young composers following Haydn and Mozart. He also continued to write in other forms, turning out widely known piano sonatas like the “Pathétique” sonata (Op. 13), which Cooper describes as “surpass[ing] any of his previous compositions, in strength of character, depth of emotion, level of originality, and ingenuity of motivic and tonal manipulation.” He also completed his Septet (Op. 20) in 1799, which was one of his most popular works during his lifetime.

For the premiere of his First Symphony, Beethoven hired the Burgtheater on 2 April 1800 and staged an extensive program of music, including works by Haydn and Mozart as well as his Septet, the First Symphony, and one of his piano concertos (the latter three works all then unpublished). The concert, which the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described as “the most interesting concert in a long time,” was not without difficulties; among the criticisms was that “the players did not bother to pay any attention to the soloist.”

Mozart and Haydn were undeniable influences. For example, Beethoven’s quintet for piano and winds is said to bear a strong resemblance to Mozart’s work for the same configuration, albeit with his own distinctive touches. But Beethoven’s melodies, musical development, use of modulation and texture, and characterization of emotion all set him apart from his influences and heightened the impact some of his early works made when they were first published. By the end of 1800, Beethoven and his music were already much in demand from patrons and publishers.

Ludwig van Beethoven: detail of an 1804–5 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mahler. The complete painting depicts Beethoven with a lyre-guitar
Figure 3. Ludwig van Beethoven: detail of an 1804–5 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mahler. The complete painting depicts Beethoven with a lyre-guitar.

In May 1799, Beethoven taught piano to the daughters of Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik. During this time, Beethoven fell in love with the younger daughter, Josephine, who has therefore been identified as one of the more likely candidates for the addressee of his letter to the “Immortal Beloved” (in 1812). Shortly after these lessons, Josephine was married to Count Josef Deym. Beethoven was a regular visitor at their house, continuing to teach Josephine and playing at parties and concerts. Her marriage was by all accounts happy (despite initial financial problems), and the couple had four children. Her relationship with Beethoven intensified after Deym died suddenly in 1804.

Beethoven had few other students. From 1801 to 1805, he tutored Ferdinand Ries, who went on to become a composer and later wrote Beethoven Remembered, a book about their encounters. The young Carl Czerny studied with Beethoven from 1801 to 1803. Czerny went on to become a renowned music teacher himself, instructing Franz Liszt, and gave on 11 February 1812 the Vienna premiere of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto (the “Emperor”).

Beethoven’s compositions between 1800 and 1802 were dominated by two large-scale orchestral works, although he continued to produce other important works, such as the piano sonata Sonata quasi una fantasia, known as the “Moonlight Sonata.” In the spring of 1801 he completed The Creatures of Prometheus, a ballet. The work received numerous performances in 1801 and 1802, and Beethoven rushed to publish a piano arrangement to capitalize on its early popularity. In the spring of 1802, he completed the Second Symphony, intended for performance at a concert that was canceled. The symphony received its premiere instead at a subscription concert in April 1803 at the Theater an der Wien, where Beethoven had been appointed composer in residence. In addition to the Second Symphony, the concert also featured the First Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. Reviews were mixed, but the concert was a financial success; Beethoven was able to charge three times the cost of a typical concert ticket.

Beethoven’s business dealings with publishers also began to improve in 1802 when his brother Carl, who had previously assisted him casually, began to assume a larger role in the management of his affairs. In addition to negotiating higher prices for recently composed works, Carl also began selling some of Beethoven’s earlier unpublished works and encouraged Beethoven (against the latter’s preference) to also make arrangements and transcriptions of his more popular works for other instrument combinations. Beethoven acceded to these requests, as he could not prevent publishers from hiring others to do similar arrangements of his works.

Loss of Hearing

Around 1796, by the age of 26, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered from a severe form of tinnitus, a “ringing” in his ears that made it hard for him to hear music; he also tried to avoid conversations. The cause of Beethoven’s deafness is unknown, but it has variously been attributed to typhus, auto-immune disorders (such as systemic lupus erythematosus), and even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. The explanation from Beethoven’s autopsy was that he had a “distended inner ear,” which developed lesions over time.

Beethoven in 1815 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mahler
Figure 4. Beethoven in 1815 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler.

As early as 1801, Beethoven wrote to friends describing his symptoms and the difficulties they caused in both professional and social settings (although it is likely some of his close friends were already aware of the problems). Beethoven, on the advice of his doctor, lived in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, from April to October 1802 in an attempt to come to terms with his condition. There he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers that records his thoughts of suicide due to his growing deafness and records his resolution to continue living for and through his art. Over time, his hearing loss became profound: at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony in 1824, he had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience because he could hear neither it nor the orchestra. Beethoven’s hearing loss did not prevent him from composing music, but it made playing at concerts, a lucrative source of income, increasingly difficult. After a failed attempt in 1811 to perform his own Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor”), which was premiered by his student Carl Czerny, he never performed in public again until he conducted the Ninth Symphony in 1824.

A large collection of Beethoven’s hearing aids, such as a special ear horn, can be viewed at the Beethoven House Museum in Bonn, Germany. Despite his obvious distress, Czerny remarked that Beethoven could still hear speech and music normally until 1812. Around 1814, however, by the age of 44, Beethoven was almost totally deaf, and when a group of visitors saw him play a loud arpeggio of thundering bass notes at his piano, remarking, “Ist es nicht schan?” (Is it not beautiful?), they felt deep sympathy considering his courage and sense of humor (he lost the ability to hear higher frequencies first).

As a result of Beethoven’s hearing loss, his conversation books are an unusually rich written resource. Used primarily in the last ten or so years of his life, his friends wrote in these books so that he could know what they were saying, and he then responded either orally or in the book. The books contain discussions about music and other matters and give insights into Beethoven’s thinking; they are a source for investigations into how he intended his music should be performed and also his perception of his relationship to art. Out of a total of 400 conversation books, it has been suggested that 264 were destroyed (and others were altered) after Beethoven’s death by Anton Schindler, who wished only an idealized biography of the composer to survive. However, Theodore Albrecht contests the verity of Schindler’s destruction of a large number of conversation books.


While Beethoven earned income from publication of his works and from public performances, he also depended on the generosity of patrons for income, for whom he gave private performances and copies of works they commissioned for an exclusive period prior to their publication. Some of his early patrons, including Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Lichnowsky, gave him annual stipends in addition to commissioning works and purchasing published works.

Perhaps Beethoven’s most important aristocratic patron was Archduke Rudolph, the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, who in 1803 or 1804 began to study piano and composition with Beethoven. The cleric (Cardinal-Priest) and the composer became friends, and their meetings continued until 1824. Beethoven dedicated 14 compositions to Rudolph, including the Archduke Trio (1811) and his great Missa Solemnis (1823). Rudolph, in turn, dedicated one of his own compositions to Beethoven. The letters Beethoven wrote to Rudolph are today kept at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Another patron was Count (later Prince) Andreas Razumovsky, for whom the String Quartets Nos. 7–9, Op. 59, Rasumovsky, were named.

In the Autumn of 1808, after having been rejected for a position at the royal theater, Beethoven received an offer from Napoleon’s brother Jérôme Bonaparte, then king of Westphalia, for a well-paid position as Kapellmeister at the court in Cassel. To persuade him to stay in Vienna, the Archduke Rudolph, Prince Kinsky, and Prince Lobkowitz, after receiving representations from the composer’s friends, pledged to pay Beethoven a pension of 4,000 florins a year. Only Archduke Rudolph paid his share of the pension on the agreed date. Kinsky, immediately called to military duty, did not contribute and soon died after falling from his horse. Lobkowitz stopped paying in September 1811. No successors came forward to continue the patronage, and Beethoven relied mostly on selling composition rights and a small pension after 1815. The effects of these financial arrangements were undermined to some extent by war with France, which caused significant inflation when the government printed money to fund its war efforts.

The Middle Period

Beethoven’s return to Vienna from Heiligenstadt was marked by a change in musical style and is now designated as the start of his middle or “heroic” period. According to Carl Czerny, Beethoven said, “I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way.” This “heroic” phase was characterized by a large number of original works composed on a grand scale. The first major work employing this new style was the Third Symphony in E flat, known as the Eroica. This work was longer and larger in scope than any previous symphony. When it premiered in early 1805, it received a mixed reception. Some listeners objected to its length or misunderstood its structure, while others viewed it as a masterpiece.

Listen: Symphony No. 5

Please listen to the following audio file to hear Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 (1st movement), composed during Beethoven’s middle period.

The “middle period” is sometimes associated with a “heroic” manner of composing, but the use of the term “heroic” has become increasingly controversial in Beethoven scholarship. The term is more frequently used as an alternative name for the middle period. The appropriateness of the term “heroic” to describe the whole middle period has been questioned as well: while some works, like the Third and Fifth Symphonies, are easy to describe as “heroic,” many others, like his Symphony No. 6, Pastoral, are not.

Some of the middle period works extend the musical language Beethoven had inherited from Haydn and Mozart. The middle period work includes the Third through Eighth Symphonies, the Rasumovsky, Harp and Serioso string quartets, the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas, Christ on the Mount of Olives, the opera Fidelio, the Violin Concerto, and many other compositions. During this time, Beethoven’s income came from publishing his works, from performances of them, and from his patrons. His position at the Theater an der Wien was terminated when the theater changed management in early 1804, and he was forced to move temporarily to the suburbs of Vienna with his friend Stephan von Breuning. This slowed work on Fidelio, his largest work to date, for a time. It was delayed again by the Austrian censor and finally premiered in November 1805 to houses that were nearly empty because of the French occupation of the city. In addition to being a financial failure, this version of Fidelio was also a critical failure, and Beethoven began revising it.

During May 1809, when the attacking forces of Napoleon bombarded Vienna, according to Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven, very worried that the noise would destroy what remained of his hearing, hid in the basement of his brother’s house, covering his ears with pillows.

The work of the middle period established Beethoven as a master. In a review from 1810, he was enshrined by E. T. A. Hoffmann as one of the three great “Romantic” composers; Hoffman called Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “one of the most important works of the age.”

Personal and Family Difficulties

Beethoven’s love life was hampered by class issues. In late 1801, he met a young countess, Julie (“Giulietta”) Guicciardi through the Brunsvik family at a time when he was giving regular piano lessons to Josephine Brunsvik. Beethoven mentions his love for Julie in a November 1801 letter to his boyhood friend, Franz Wegeler, but he could not consider marrying her due to the class difference. Beethoven later dedicated to her his Sonata No. 14, now commonly known as the “Moonlight sonata” or “Mondscheinsonate” (in German).

His relationship with Josephine Brunsvik deepened after the death in 1804 of her aristocratic first husband, the Count Joseph Deym. Beethoven wrote Josephine 15 passionate love letters from late 1804 to around 1809/10. Although his feelings were obviously reciprocated, Josephine was forced by her family to withdraw from him in 1807. She cited her “duty” and the fact that she would have lost the custodianship of her aristocratic children had she married a commoner. After Josephine married Baron von Stackelberg in 1810, Beethoven may have proposed unsuccessfully to Therese Malfatti, the supposed dedicatee of “Für Elise”; his status as a commoner may again have interfered with those plans.

In the spring of 1811, Beethoven became seriously ill, suffering headaches and high fever. On the advice of his doctor, he spent six weeks in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz. The following winter, which was dominated by work on the Seventh symphony, he was again ill, and his doctor ordered him to spend the summer of 1812 at the spa in Teplitz. It is certain that he was at Teplitz when he wrote a love letter to his “Immortal Beloved.” The identity of the intended recipient has long been a subject of debate; candidates include Julie Guicciardi, Therese Malfatti, Josephine Brunsvik, and Antonie Brentano.

Beethoven visited his brother Johann at the end of October 1812. He wished to end Johann’s cohabitation with Therese Obermayer, a woman who already had an illegitimate child. He was unable to convince Johann to end the relationship and appealed to the local civic and religious authorities. Johann and Therese married on 9 November.

In early 1813, Beethoven apparently went through a difficult emotional period, and his compositional output dropped. His personal appearance degraded; it had generally been neat as did his manners in public, especially when dining. Beethoven took care of his brother (who was suffering from tuberculosis) and his family, an expense that he claimed left him penniless.

Beethoven was finally motivated to begin significant composition again in June 1813, when news arrived of the defeat of one of Napoleon’s armies at Vitoria, Spain, by a coalition of forces under the Duke of Wellington. This news stimulated him to write the battle symphony known as Wellington’s Victory. It was first performed on 8 December, along with his Seventh Symphony, at a charity concert for victims of the war. The work was a popular hit, probably because of its programmatic style, which was entertaining and easy to understand. It received repeat performances at concerts Beethoven staged in January and February 1814. Beethoven’s renewed popularity led to demands for a revival of Fidelio, which, in its third revised version, was also well received at its July opening. That summer, he composed a piano sonata for the first time in five years (No. 27, Opus 90). This work was in a markedly more Romantic style than his earlier sonatas. He was also one of many composers who produced music in a patriotic vein to entertain the many heads of state and diplomats who came to the Congress of Vienna that began in November 1814. His output of songs included his only song cycle, “An die ferne Geliebte,” and the extraordinarily expressive second setting of the poem “An die Hoffnung” (Op. 94) in 1815. Compared to its first setting in 1805 (a gift for Josephine Brunsvik), it was “far more dramatic.…The entire spirit is that of an operatic scena.”

Custody Struggle and Illness

Between 1815 and 1817, Beethoven’s output dropped again. Beethoven attributed part of this to a lengthy illness (he called it an “inflammatory fever”) that afflicted him for more than a year, starting in October 1816. Biographers have speculated on a variety of other reasons that also contributed to the decline, including the difficulties in the personal lives of his would-be paramours and the harsh censorship policies of the Austrian government. The illness and death of his brother Carl from tuberculosis may also have played a role.

Carl had been ill for some time, and Beethoven spent a small fortune in 1815 on his care. After Carl died on 15 November 1815, Beethoven immediately became embroiled in a protracted legal dispute with Carl’s wife Johanna over custody of their son Karl, then nine years old. Beethoven, who considered Johanna an unfit parent because of her morals (she had an illegitimate child by a different father before marrying Carl and had been convicted of theft) and financial management, had successfully applied to Carl to have himself named sole guardian of the boy. A late codicil to Carl’s will gave him and Johanna joint guardianship. While Beethoven was successful at having his nephew removed from her custody in February 1816, the case was not fully resolved until 1820, and he was frequently preoccupied by the demands of the litigation and seeing to Karl’s welfare, whom he first placed in a private school.

The Austrian court system had one court for the nobility and members of the Landtafel, the Landrecht, and many other courts for commoners, among them the Civil Court of the Vienna Magistrate. Beethoven disguised the fact that the Dutch “van” in his name did not denote nobility as does the German “von,” and his case was tried in the Landrecht. Owing to his influence with the court, Beethoven felt assured of the favorable outcome of being awarded sole guardianship. While giving evidence to the Landrecht, however, Beethoven inadvertently admitted that he was not nobly born. On 18 December 1818, the case was transferred to the Magistracy, where he lost sole guardianship.

Beethoven appealed and regained custody. Johanna’s appeal to the emperor was not successful: the emperor “washed his hands of the matter.” During the years of custody that followed, Beethoven attempted to ensure that Karl lived to the highest moral standards. Beethoven had an overbearing manner and frequently interfered in his nephew’s life. Karl attempted suicide on 31 July 1826 by shooting himself in the head. He survived and was brought to his mother’s house, where he recuperated. He and Beethoven were reconciled, but Karl insisted on joining the army and last saw Beethoven in early 1827.

Late Works

Beethoven began a renewed study of older music, including works by J. S. Bach and Handel that were then being published in the first attempts at complete editions. He composed the overture The Consecration of the House, which was the first work to attempt to incorporate these influences. A new style emerged, now called his “late period.” He returned to the keyboard to compose his first piano sonatas in almost a decade: the works of the late period are commonly held to include the last five piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, the last two sonatas for cello and piano, the late string quartets (see below), and two works for very large forces: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony.

A modern medallion bearing the face of Beethoven
Figure 5. A modern medallion bearing the face of Beethoven.

By early 1818, Beethoven’s health had improved, and his nephew moved in with him in January. On the downside, his hearing had deteriorated to the point that conversation became difficult, necessitating the use of conversation books. His household management had also improved somewhat; Nanette Streicher, who had assisted in his care during his illness, continued to provide some support, and he finally found a skilled cook. His musical output in 1818 was still somewhat reduced but included song collections and the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, as well as sketches for two symphonies that eventually coalesced into the epic Ninth. In 1819, he was again preoccupied by the legal processes around Karl and began work on the Diabelli Variations and the Missa Solemnis.

For the next few years, he continued to work on the Missa, composing piano sonatas and bagatelles to satisfy the demands of publishers and the need for income, and completing the Diabelli Variations. He was ill again for an extended time in 1821 and completed the Missa in 1823, three years after its original due date. He also opened discussions with his publishers over the possibility of producing a complete edition of his work, an idea that was arguably not fully realized until 1971. Beethoven’s brother Johann began to take a hand in his business affairs, much in the way Carl had earlier, locating older unpublished works to offer for publication and offering the Missa to multiple publishers with the goal of getting a higher price for it.

Two commissions in 1822 improved Beethoven’s financial prospects. The Philharmonic Society of London offered a commission for a symphony, and Prince Nikolas Golitsin of St. Petersburg offered to pay Beethoven’s price for three string quartets. The first of these commissions spurred Beethoven to finish the Ninth Symphony, which was first performed, along with the Missa Solemnis, on 7 May 1824 to great acclaim at the Karntnertortheater. The Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung gushed, “Inexhaustible genius had shown us a new world,” and Carl Czerny wrote that his symphony “breathes such a fresh, lively, indeed youthful spirit . . . so much power, innovation, and beauty as ever [came] from the head of this original man, although he certainly sometimes led the old wigs to shake their heads.” Unlike his more lucrative earlier concerts, this did not make Beethoven much money, as the expenses of mounting it were significantly higher. A second concert on 24 May, in which the producer guaranteed Beethoven a minimum fee, was poorly attended; nephew Karl noted that “many people [had] already gone into the country.” It was Beethoven’s last public concert.

Listen: Piano Sonata No. 32

Please listen to the following audio file to hear Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 (1st movement), written between 1821 and 1822, during Beethoven’s late period.

Beethoven then turned to writing the string quartets for Golitsin. This series of quartets, known as the “Late Quartets,” went far beyond what musicians or audiences were ready for at that time. One musician commented, “We know there is something there, but we do not know what it is.” Composer Louis Spohr called them “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors.” Opinion has changed considerably from the time of their first bewildered reception: their forms and ideas inspired musicians and composers including Richard Wagner and Béla Bartók and continue to do so. Of the late quartets, Beethoven’s favorite was the Fourteenth Quartet, Op. 131 in C-sharp minor, which he rated as his most perfect single work. The last musical wish of Schubert was to hear the Op. 131 quartet, which he did on 14 November 1828, five days before his death.

Beethoven wrote the last quartets amid failing health. In April 1825, he was bedridden and remained ill for about a month. The illness, or more precisely, his recovery from it, is remembered for having given rise to the deeply felt slow movement of the Fifteenth Quartet, which Beethoven called “Holy song of thanks (‘Heiliger Dankgesang’) to the divinity, from one made well.” He went on to complete the quartets now numbered 13th, 14th, and 16th. The last work completed by Beethoven was the substitute final movement of the Thirteenth Quartet, which replaced the difficult Groae Fugue. Shortly thereafter, in December 1826, illness struck again, with episodes of vomiting and diarrhea that nearly ended his life.

In 1825, his nine symphonies were performed in a cycle for the first time by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Johann Philipp Christian Schulz. This was repeated in 1826.

Illness and Death

Beethoven’s grave site, Vienna Zentralfriedhof
Figure 6. Beethoven’s grave site, Vienna Zentralfriedhof.

Beethoven was bedridden for most of his remaining months, and many friends came to visit. He died on 26 March 1827 at the age of 56 during a thunderstorm. His friend Anselm Hattenbrenner, who was present at the time, said that there was a peal of thunder at the moment of death. An autopsy revealed significant liver damage, which may have been due to heavy alcohol consumption. It also revealed considerable dilation of the auditory and other related nerves.

Beethoven’s funeral procession on 29 March 1827 was attended by an estimated 20,000 Viennese citizens. Franz Schubert, who died the following year and was buried next to Beethoven, was one of the torchbearers. Beethoven was buried in a dedicated grave in the Wahring cemetery, north-west of Vienna, after a requiem mass at the church of the Holy Trinity (Dreifaltigkeitskirche). His remains were exhumed for study in 1862 and moved in 1888 to Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof. In 2012, his crypt was checked to see if his teeth had been stolen during a series of grave robberies of other famous Viennese composers.

There is dispute about the cause of Beethoven’s death: alcoholic cirrhosis, syphilis, infectious hepatitis, lead poisoning, sarcoidosis, and Whipple’s disease have all been proposed. Friends and visitors before and after his death clipped locks of his hair, some of which have been preserved and subjected to additional analysis, as have skull fragments removed during the 1862 exhumation. Some of these analyses have led to controversial assertions that Beethoven was accidentally poisoned to death by excessive doses of lead-based treatments administered under instruction from his doctor.

While musicologists and music historians delve into details that are often too obscure for the purposes of our class, it’s worth reviewing this information on Beethoven’s 5th symphony.


A typical performance usually lasts around 30–40 minutes. The work is in four movements.

First Movement: Allegro con brio

Listen: First Movement

Please listen to the first movement performed by the Fulda Symphony.

The first movement opens with the four-note motif discussed above, one of the most famous in Western music. There is considerable debate among conductors as to the manner of playing the four opening bars. Some conductors take it in strict allegro tempo; others take the liberty of a weighty treatment, playing the motif in a much slower and more stately tempo; yet others take the motif molto ritardando (a pronounced slowing through each four-note phrase), arguing that the fermata over the fourth note justifies this. Some critics and musicians consider it crucial to convey the spirit of [pause] and-two-and one, as written, and consider the more common one-two-three-four to be misleading. To wit:

About the “ta-ta-ta-Taaa”: Beethoven begins with eight notes. They rhyme, four plus four, and each group of four consists of three quick notes plus one that is lower and much longer (in fact unmeasured). The space between the two rhyming groups is minimal, about one-seventh of a second if we go by Beethoven’s metronome mark; moreover, Beethoven clarifies the shape by lengthening the second of the long notes. This lengthening, which was an afterthought, is tantamount to writing a stronger punctuation mark. As the music progresses, we can hear in the melody of the second theme, for example (or later, in the pairs of antiphonal chords of woodwinds and strings), that the constantly invoked connection between the two four-note units is crucial to the movement. . . . The source of Beethoven’s unparalleled energy here is in his writing long sentences and broad paragraphs whose surfaces are articulated with exciting activity. Indeed, we discover soon enough that the double “ta-ta-ta-Taaa” is an open-ended beginning, not a closed and self-sufficient unit. (Misunderstanding of this opening was nurtured by a 19th-century performance tradition in which the first five measures were read as a slow, portentous exordium, the main tempo being attacked only after the second hold.) What makes this opening so dramatic is the violence of the contrast between the urgency in the eighth notes and the ominous freezing of motion in the unmeasured long notes. The music starts with a wild outburst of energy but immediately crashes into a wall. Seconds later, Beethoven jolts us with another such sudden halt. The music draws up to a half-cadence on a G-major chord, short and crisp in the whole orchestra, except for the first violins, who hang on to their high C for an unmeasured length of time. Forward motion resumes with a relentless pounding of eighth notes.

The first movement is in the traditional sonata form that Beethoven inherited from his classical predecessors, Haydn and Mozart (in which the main ideas that are introduced in the first few pages undergo elaborate development through many keys, with a dramatic return to the opening section—the recapitulation—about three-quarters of the way through). It starts out with two dramatic fortissimo phrases, the famous motif, commanding the listener’s attention. Following the first four bars, Beethoven uses imitations and sequences to expand the theme, with these pithy imitations tumbling over each other with such rhythmic regularity that they appear to form a single, flowing melody. Shortly after, a very short fortissimo bridge, played by the horns, takes place before a second theme is introduced. This second theme is in E­ major, the relative major, and it is more lyrical, written piano and featuring the four-note motif in the string accompaniment. The codetta is again based on the four-note motif. The development section follows, including the bridge. During the recapitulation, there is a brief solo passage for oboe in quasi-improvisatory style, and the movement ends with a massive coda.

Second Movement: Andante con moto

Listen: Second Movement

Please listen to the second movement performed by the Fulda Symphony.

The second movement, in A major, is a lyrical work in double variation form, which means that two themes are presented and varied in alternation. Following the variations, there is a long coda.

The movement opens with an announcement of its theme, a melody in unison by violas and cellos, with accompaniment by the double basses. A second theme soon follows, with a harmony provided by clarinets, bassoons, and violins, with a triplet arpeggio in the violas and bass. A variation of the first theme reasserts itself. This is followed up by a third theme, thirty-second notes in the violas and cellos with a counter phrase running in the flute, oboe, and bassoon. Following an interlude, the whole orchestra participates in a fortissimo, leading to a series of crescendos and a coda to close the movement.

Third Movement: Scherzo, Allegro

Listen: Third Movement

Please listen to the third movement performed by the Fulda Symphony.

The third movement is in ternary form, consisting of a scherzo and trio. It follows the traditional mold of Classical-era symphonic third movements, containing in sequence the main scherzo, a contrasting trio section, a return of the scherzo, and a coda. However, while the usual Classical symphonies employed a minuet and trio as their third movement, Beethoven chose to use the newer scherzo and trio form.

Listen: Theme

The movement returns to the opening key of C minor and begins with the following theme, played by the cellos and double basses:

A line of music

The opening theme is answered by a contrasting theme played by the winds, and this sequence is repeated. Then the horns loudly announce the main theme of the movement, and the music proceeds from there.

The trio section is in C major and is written in a contrapuntal texture. When the scherzo returns for the final time, it is performed by the strings pizzicato and very quietly.

“The scherzo offers contrasts that are somewhat similar to those of the slow movement in that they derive from extreme difference in character between scherzo and trio. . . . The Scherzo then contrasts this figure with the famous ‘motto’ (3 + 1) from the first movement, which gradually takes command of the whole movement.”

The third movement is also notable for its transition to the fourth movement, widely considered one of the greatest musical transitions of all time.

Fourth Movement: Allegro

Listen: Fourth Movement

Please listen to the fourth movement performed by the Fulda Symphony.

The fourth movement begins without pause from the transition. The music resounds in C major, an unusual choice by the composer, as a symphony that begins in C minor is expected to finish in that key. In Beethoven’s words:

Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. Nego! . . . Joy follows sorrow, sunshine rain.

The triumphant and exhilarating finale is written in an unusual variant of sonata form: at the end of the development section, the music halts on a dominant cadence, played fortissimo, and the music continues after a pause with a quiet reprise of the “horn theme” of the scherzo movement. The recapitulation is then introduced by a crescendo coming out of the last bars of the interpolated scherzo section, just as the same music was introduced at the opening of the movement. The interruption of the finale with material from the third “dance” movement was pioneered by Haydn, who had done the same in his Symphony No. 46 in B from 1772. It is not known whether Beethoven was familiar with this work.

The Fifth Symphony finale includes a very long coda, in which the main themes of the movement are played in temporally compressed form. Toward the end, the tempo is increased to presto. The symphony ends with 29 bars of C major chords, played fortissimo. In The Classical Style, Charles Rosen suggests that this ending reflects Beethoven’s sense of Classical proportions: the “unbelievably long” pure C major cadence is needed “to ground the extreme tension of [this] immense work.”

It was shown recently that this long chord sequence was a pattern that Beethoven borrowed from the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini, whom Beethoven esteemed the most among his contemporary musicians. Spending much of his life in France, Cherubini employed this pattern consistently to close his overtures, which Beethoven knew well. The ending of his famous symphony repeats almost note by note and pause by pause the conclusion of Cherubini’s overture to his opera Eliza, composed in 1794 and presented in Vienna in 1803.

Fate Motif

The initial motif of the symphony has sometimes been credited with symbolic significance as a representation of Fate knocking at the door. This idea comes from Beethoven’s secretary and factotum Anton Schindler, who wrote, many years after Beethoven’s death,

The composer himself provided the key to these depths when one day, in this author’s presence, he pointed to the beginning of the first movement and expressed in these words the fundamental idea of his work: “Thus Fate knocks at the door!”

Schindler’s testimony concerning any point of Beethoven’s life is disparaged by experts (he is believed to have forged entries in Beethoven’s conversation books). Moreover, it is often commented that Schindler offered a highly romanticized view of the composer.

There is another tale concerning the same motif; the version given here is from Antony Hopkins’s description of the symphony. Carl Czerny (Beethoven’s pupil, who premiered the “Emperor” Concerto in Vienna) claimed that “the little pattern of notes had come to [Beethoven] from a yellow-hammer’s song, heard as he walked in the Prater-park in Vienna.” Hopkins further remarks that “given the choice between a yellow-hammer and Fate-at-the-door, the public has preferred the more dramatic myth, though Czerny’s account is too unlikely to have been invented.”

In his Omnibus television lecture series in 1954, Leonard Bernstein has likened the Fate Motif to the four-note coda common to classical symphonies. These notes would terminate the classical symphony as a musical coda, but for Beethoven, they become a motif repeating throughout the work for a very different and dramatic effect, he says.

Evaluations of these interpretations tend to be skeptical: “The popular legend that Beethoven intended this grand exordium of the symphony to suggest ‘Fate Knocking at the gate’ is apocryphal; Beethoven’s pupil, Ferdinand Ries, was really author of this would-be poetic exegesis, which Beethoven received very sarcastically when Ries imparted it to him.” Elizabeth Schwarm Glesner remarks that “Beethoven had been known to say nearly anything to relieve himself of questioning pests”; this might be taken to impugn both tales.

Repetition of the Opening Motif

It is commonly asserted that the opening four-note rhythmic motif (short-short-short-long; see above) is repeated throughout the symphony, unifying it: “It is a rhythmic pattern (dit-dit-dit-dot*) that makes its appearance in each of the other three movements and thus contributes to the overall unity of the symphony” (Doug Briscoe); “a single motif that unifies the entire work” (Peter Gutmann); “the key motif of the entire symphony”; “the rhythm of the famous opening figure…recurs at crucial points in later movements” (Richard Bratby). The New Grove encyclopedia cautiously endorses this view, reporting that “the famous opening motif is to be heard in almost every bar of the first movement and, allowing for modifications, in the other movements.”

There are several passages in the symphony that have led to this view. For instance, in the third movement, the horns play the following solo in which the short-short-short-long pattern occurs repeatedly:

A line of music


In the second movement (at measure 76), an accompanying line plays a similar rhythm:


In the finale, Doug Briscoe (cited above) suggests that the motif may be heard in the piccolo part, presumably meaning the following passage:

Two lines of music one on with a bass clef

Later, in the coda of the finale, the bass instruments repeatedly play the following:

Two lines of music with the part Presto at the top

On the other hand, some commentators are unimpressed with these resemblances and consider them to be accidental. Antony Hopkins, discussing the theme in the scherzo, says “no musician with an ounce of feeling could confuse [the two rhythms],” explaining that the scherzo rhythm begins on a strong musical beat, whereas the first-movement theme begins on a weak one. Donald Francis Tovey pours scorn on the idea that a rhythmic motif unifies the symphony: “This profound discovery was supposed to reveal an unsuspected unity in the work, but it does not seem to have been carried far enough.” Applied consistently, he continues, the same approach would lead to the conclusion that many other works by Beethoven are also “unified” with this symphony, as the motif appears in the “Appassionata” piano sonata, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and in the String Quartet, Op. 74. Tovey concludes, “The simple truth is that Beethoven could not do without just such purely rhythmic figures at this stage of his art.”

To Tovey’s objection can be added the prominence of the short-short-short-long rhythmic figure in earlier works by Beethoven’s older Classical contemporaries Haydn and Mozart. To give just two examples, it is found in Haydn’s “Miracle” Symphony, No. 96, and in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, K. 503. Such examples show that “short-short-short-long” rhythms were a regular part of the musical language of the composers of Beethoven’s day.

It seems likely that whether or not Beethoven deliberately, or unconsciously, wove a single rhythmic motif through the Fifth Symphony will (in Hopkins’s words) “remain eternally open to debate.”

Franz Joseph Haydn

While Haydn is not well represented in our current listening playlist, his historical importance cannot be overstated. He was an innovator and a master. His influence on younger composers such as Mozart and Beethoven was substantial. He is known colloquially as “Papa Haydn.”


Early Life

Joseph Haydn was born in Rohrau, Austria, a village that at that time stood on the border with Hungary. His father was Mathias Haydn, a wheelwright who also served as “Marktrichter,” an office akin to village mayor. Haydn’s mother Maria, née Koller, had previously worked as a cook in the palace of Count Harrach, the presiding aristocrat of Rohrau. Neither parent could read music; however, Mathias was an enthusiastic folk musician who, during the journeyman period of his career, had taught himself to play the harp. According to Haydn’s later reminiscences, his childhood family was extremely musical and frequently sang together and with their neighbors.

Haydn’s parents had noticed that their son was musically gifted and knew that in Rohrau he would have no chance to obtain serious musical training. It was for this reason that they accepted a proposal from their relative Johann Matthias Frankh, the schoolmaster and choirmaster in Hainburg, that Haydn be apprenticed to Frankh in his home to train as a musician. Haydn therefore went off with Frankh to Hainburg, 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) away, and never again lived with his parents. He was about six years old.

Life in the Frankh household was not easy for Haydn, who later remembered being frequently hungry and humiliated by the filthy state of his clothing. He began his musical training there and could soon play both harpsichord and violin. The people of Hainburg heard him sing treble parts in the church choir.

There is reason to think that Haydn’s singing impressed those who heard him, because in 1739 he was brought to the attention of Georg von Reutter, the director of music in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, who happened to be visiting Hainburg and was looking for new choirboys. Haydn successfully auditioned with Reutter and, after several months of further training, moved to Vienna (1740), where he worked for the next nine years as a chorister.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral. In the foreground is the Kapellhaus (demolished 1804) where Haydn lived as a chorister.
Figure 1. St. Stephen’s Cathedral. In the foreground is the Kapellhaus (demolished 1804) where Haydn lived as a chorister.

Haydn lived in the Kapellhaus next to the cathedral, along with Reutter, Reutter’s family, and the other four choirboys, which after 1745 included his younger brother Michael. The choirboys were instructed in Latin and other school subjects as well as voice, violin, and keyboard. Reutter was of little help to Haydn in the areas of music theory and composition, giving him only two lessons in his entire time as chorister. However, since St. Stephen’s was one of the leading musical centers in Europe, Haydn learned a great deal simply by serving as a professional musician there.

Like Frankh before him, Reutter did not always bother to make sure Haydn was properly fed. As he later told his biographer Albert Christoph Dies, Haydn was motivated to sing very well in hopes of gaining more invitations to perform before aristocratic audiences, where the singers were usually served refreshments.

Struggles as a Freelancer

By 1749, Haydn had matured physically to the point that he was no longer able to sing high choral parts. Empress Maria Theresa herself complained to Reutter about his singing, calling it “crowing.” One day, Haydn carried out a prank, snipping off the pigtail of a fellow chorister. This was enough for Reutter: Haydn was first caned, then summarily dismissed and sent into the streets. He had the good fortune to be taken in by a friend, Johann Michael Spangler, who shared his family’s crowded garret room with Haydn for a few months. Haydn immediately began his pursuit of a career as a freelance musician.

Haydn struggled at first, working at many different jobs: as a music teacher, as a street serenader, and eventually, in 1752, as valet accompanist for the Italian composer Nicola Porpora, from whom he later said he learned “the true fundamentals of composition.” He was also briefly in Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz’s employ, playing the organ in the Bohemian Chancellery chapel at the Judenplatz.

While a chorister, Haydn had not received any systematic training in music theory and composition. As a remedy, he worked his way through the counterpoint exercises in the text Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux and carefully studied the work of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whom he later acknowledged as an important influence.

As his skills increased, Haydn began to acquire a public reputation, first as the composer of an opera, Der krumme Teufel, “The Limping Devil,” written for the comic actor Johann Joseph Felix Kurz, whose stage name was “Bernardon.” The work premiered successfully in 1753 but was soon closed down by the censors due to “offensive remarks.” Haydn also noticed, apparently without annoyance, that works he had simply given away were being published and sold in local music shops. Between 1754 and 1756, Haydn also worked freelance for the court in Vienna. He was among several musicians who were paid for services as supplementary musicians at balls given for the imperial children during carnival season and as supplementary singers in the imperial chapel (the Hofkapelle) in Lent and Holy Week.

With the increase in his reputation, Haydn eventually obtained aristocratic patronage, crucial for the career of a composer in his day. Countess Thun, having seen one of Haydn’s compositions, summoned him and engaged him as her singing and keyboard teacher. In 1756, Baron Carl Josef Fürnberg employed Haydn at his country estate, Weinzierl, where the composer wrote his first string quartets. Fürnberg later recommended Haydn to Count Morzin, who, in 1757, became his first full-time employer.

The Years as Kapellmeister

The Morzin palace in Dolní Lukavice, Czech Republic
Figure 2. The Morzin palace in Dolní Lukavice, Czech Republic.

Haydn’s job title under Count Morzin was Kapellmeister—that is, music director. He led the count’s small orchestra and wrote his first symphonies for this ensemble. In 1760, with the security of a Kapellmeister position, Haydn married. His wife was the former Maria Anna Theresia Keller (1730–1800), the sister of Therese (b. 1733), with whom Haydn had previously been in love. Haydn and his wife had a completely unhappy marriage, from which the laws of the time permitted them no escape. They produced no children. Both took lovers.

Count Morzin soon suffered financial reverses that forced him to dismiss his musical establishment, but Haydn was quickly offered a similar job (1761) by Prince Paul Anton, head of the immensely wealthy Esterházy family. Haydn’s job title was only Vice-Kapellmeister, but he was immediately placed in charge of most of the Esterházy musical establishment, with the old Kapellmeister, Gregor Werner, retaining authority only for church music. When Werner died in 1766, Haydn was elevated to full Kapellmeister.

Portrait by Ludwig Guttenbrunn, painted ca. 1791–2, depicts Haydn c. 1770
Figure 3. Portrait by Ludwig Guttenbrunn, painted ca. 1791–2, depicts Haydn c. 1770.

As a “house officer” in the Esterházy establishment, Haydn wore livery and followed the family as they moved among their various palaces, most importantly the family’s ancestral seat, Schloss Esterházy, in Eisenstadt and later on Esterháza, a grand new palace built in rural Hungary in the 1760s. Haydn had a huge range of responsibilities, including composition, running the orchestra, playing chamber music for and with his patrons, and eventually the mounting of operatic productions. Despite this backbreaking workload, the job was, in artistic terms, a superb opportunity for Haydn. The Esterházy princes (Paul Anton, then from 1762 to 1790 Nikolaus I) were musical connoisseurs who appreciated his work and gave him daily access to his own small orchestra. During the nearly thirty years that Haydn worked at the Esterházy court, he produced a flood of compositions, and his musical style continued to develop.

Much of Haydn’s activity at the time followed the specific musical interest of his patron Prince Nikolaus. Thus, in about 1765, the prince obtained, and began to learn to play, the baryton, an uncommon musical instrument similar to the bass viol but with a set of plucked sympathetic strings. Haydn was commanded to provide music for the prince to play and over the next ten years produced about 200 works for this instrument in various ensembles, of which the most notable are the 126 baryton trios. But around 1775, for unknown reasons, the prince abandoned the baryton and took up a new hobby. Opera productions, previously a sporadic event for special occasions, became the focus of musical life in the prince’s court, and the opera theater he built at Esterháza came to host a major season, with multiple productions, each year. Haydn served as director of the company, recruiting and training the singers and preparing and leading the performances. He also wrote several of the operas performed (see List of operas by Joseph Haydn) and wrote substitution arias to insert into the operas of other composers.

The year 1779 was a watershed year for Haydn, as his contract was renegotiated: whereas previously all his compositions were the property of the Esterházy family, he now was permitted to write for others and sell his work to publishers. Haydn soon shifted his emphasis in composition to reflect this (fewer operas and more quartets and symphonies), and he negotiated with multiple publishers, both Austrian and foreign. Of Haydn’s new employment contract Jones writes,

This single document acted as a catalyst in the next stage in Haydn’s career, the achievement of international popularity. By 1790 Haydn was in the paradoxical, if not bizarre, position of being Europe’s leading composer, but someone who spent his time as a duty-bound Kapellmeister in a remote palace in the Hungarian countryside.

The new publication campaign resulted in the composition of a great number of new string quartets (the six-quartet sets of Op. 33, 50, 54/55, and 64). Haydn also composed in response to commissions from abroad: the Paris symphonies (1785–1786) and the original orchestral version of The Seven Last Words of Christ (1786), a commission from Cadiz, Spain.

The remoteness of Esterháza, which was farther from Vienna than Eisenstadt, led Haydn gradually to feel more isolated and lonely. He longed to visit Vienna because of his friendships there. Of these, a particularly important one was with Maria Anna von Genzinger (1754–93), the wife of Prince Nikolaus’s personal physician in Vienna, who began a close, platonic relationship with the composer in 1789. Haydn wrote to Mrs. Genzinger often, expressing his loneliness at Esterháza and his happiness for the few occasions on which he was able to visit her in Vienna; later on, Haydn wrote to her frequently from London. Her premature death in 1793 was a blow to Haydn, and his F minor variations for piano, Hob. XVII:6, may have been written in response to her death.

Another friend in Vienna was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whom Haydn had met sometime around 1784. According to later testimony by Michael Kelly and others, the two composers occasionally played in string quartets together. Haydn was hugely impressed with Mozart’s work and praised it unstintingly to others. Mozart evidently returned the esteem, as seen in his dedication of a set of six quartets, now called the “Haydn” quartets, to his friend. For further details, see Haydn and Mozart.

The London Journeys

The Hanover Square Rooms, principal venue of Haydn’s performances in London
Figure 4. The Hanover Square Rooms, principal venue of Haydn’s performances in London.

In 1790, Prince Nikolaus died and was succeeded as prince by his son Anton. Following a trend of the time, Anton sought to economize by dismissing most of the court musicians. Haydn retained a nominal appointment with Anton at a reduced salary of 400 florins, as well as a 1,000-florin pension from Nikolaus. Since Anton had little need of Haydn’s services, he was willing to let him travel, and the composer accepted a lucrative offer from Johann Peter Salomon, a German violinist and impresario, to visit England and conduct new symphonies with a large orchestra.

The choice was a sensible one because Haydn was already a very popular composer there. Since the death of Johann Christian Bach in 1782, Haydn’s music had dominated the concert scene in London; “hardly a concert did not feature a work by him” (Jones). Haydn’s work was widely distributed by publishers in London, including Forster (who had their own contract with Haydn) and Longman & Broderip (who served as the agent in England for Haydn’s Vienna publisher Artaria). Efforts to bring Haydn to London had been undertaken since 1782, though Haydn’s loyalty to Prince Nikolaus had prevented him from accepting.

After fond farewells from Mozart and other friends, Haydn departed Vienna with Salomon on 15 December 1790, arriving in Calais in time to cross the English Channel on New Year’s Day of 1791. It was the first time that the 58-year-old composer had seen the ocean. Arriving in London, Haydn stayed with Salomon in Great Pulteney Street, working in a borrowed studio at the Broadwood piano firm nearby.

It was the start of a very auspicious period for Haydn; both the 1791–1792 journey and a repeat visit in 1794–1795, were greatly successful. Audiences flocked to Haydn’s concerts; he augmented his fame and made large profits, thus becoming financially secure. Charles Burney reviewed the first concert thus: “Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.” Haydn made many new friends and, for a time, was involved in a romantic relationship with Rebecca Schroeter.

Musically, Haydn’s visits to England generated some of his best-known work, including the Surprise, Military, Drumroll, and London symphonies; the Rider quartet; and the “Gypsy Rondo” piano trio.

The great success of the overall enterprise does not mean that the journeys were free of trouble. Notably, his very first project, the commissioned opera L’anima del filosofo was duly written during the early stages of the trip, but the opera’s impresario John Gallini was unable to obtain a license to permit opera performances in the theater he directed, the King’s Theatre. Haydn was well paid for the opera (300 pounds), but much time was wasted. Thus only two new symphonies, No. 95 and No. 96 “Miracle,” could be premiered in the 12 concerts of Salomon’s spring concert series.

The end of Salomon’s series in June gave Haydn a rare period of relative leisure. He spent some of the time in the country (Hertingfordbury) but also had time to travel, notably to Oxford, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university. The symphony performed for the occasion, No. 92 has since come to be known as the Oxford Symphony, although it had been written in 1789.

While traveling to London in 1790, Haydn had met the young Ludwig van Beethoven in his native city of Bonn. On Haydn’s return, Beethoven came to Vienna and during the time up to the second London visit was Haydn’s pupil. For discussion of their relationship, see Beethoven and his contemporaries.

Years of Celebrity in Vienna

Haydn returned to Vienna in 1795. Prince Anton had died, and his successor Nikolaus II proposed that the Esterházy musical establishment be revived with Haydn serving again as Kapellmeister. Haydn took up the position on a part-time basis. He spent his summers with the Esterházys in Eisenstadt and over the course of several years wrote six masses for them.

The house in Vienna (now a museum) where Haydn lived in the last years of his life
Figure 5. The house in Vienna (now a museum) where Haydn lived in the last years of his life.

By this time, Haydn had become a public figure in Vienna. He spent most of his time in his home, a large house in the suburb of Windmühle, and wrote works for public performance. In collaboration with his librettist and mentor Gottfried van Swieten, and with funding from van Swieten’s Gesellschaft der Associierten, he composed his two great oratorios, The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801). Both were enthusiastically received. Haydn frequently appeared before the public, often leading performances of The Creation and The Seasons for charity benefits, including Tonkünstler-Societät programs with massed musical forces. He also composed instrumental music: the popular Trumpet Concerto and the last nine in his long series of string quartets, including the Fifths, Emperor, and Sunrise. A brief work, “Gotterhalte Franz den Kaiser” (the “Emperor’s Hymn”; 1797), achieved great success and became “the enduring emblem of Austrian identity right up to the First World War” (Jones); in modern times it became (with different words) the national anthem of Germany.

During the later years of this successful period, Haydn faced incipient old age and fluctuating health, and he had to struggle to complete his final works. His last major work, from 1802, was the sixth mass for the Esterházys, the Harmoniemesse.

Retirement, Illness, and Death

By the end of 1803, Haydn’s condition had declined to the point that he became physically unable to compose. He suffered from weakness, dizziness, inability to concentrate, and painfully swollen legs. Since diagnosis was uncertain in Haydn’s time, it is unlikely that the precise illness can ever be identified, though Jones suggests arteriosclerosis.

The illness was especially hard for Haydn because the flow of fresh musical ideas waiting to be worked out as compositions (something he could no longer do) continued unabated. His biographer Dies reported a conversation from 1806:

[Haydn said] “I must have something to do—usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the point of torture, I cannot escape them, they stand like walls before me. If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier.” Haydn smiled, the blood rushed to his face, and he said “I am really just a living clavier.”

The winding down of Haydn’s career was gradual. The Esterházy family kept him on as Kapellmeister to the very end (much as they had with his predecessor Werner long before), but they appointed new staff to lead their musical establishment: Johann Michael Fuchs in 1802 as Vice-Kapellmeister and Johann Nepomuk Hummel as Konzertmeister in 1804. Haydn’s last summer in Eisenstadt was in 1803, and his last appearance before the public as a conductor was a charity performance of The Seven Last Words on 26 December 1803. As debility set in, he made largely futile efforts at composition, attempting to revise a rediscovered Missa brevis from his teenage years and complete his final string quartet. The latter project was abandoned for good in 1805, and the quartet was published with just two movements.

Haydn was well cared for by his servants, and he received many visitors and public honors during his last years, but they could not have been very happy years for him. During his illness, Haydn often found solace by sitting at the piano and playing his “Emperor’s Hymn.”

A final triumph occurred on 27 March 1808, when a performance of The Creation was organized in his honor. The very frail composer was brought into the hall on an armchair to the sound of trumpets and drums and was greeted by Beethoven, Salieri (who led the performance), and other musicians and members of the aristocracy. Haydn was both moved and exhausted by the experience and had to depart at intermission.

The Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, site of Haydn’s tomb
Figure 6. The Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, site of Haydn’s tomb.

Haydn lived on for 14 more months. His final days were hardly serene, as in May 1809, the French army under Napoleon launched an attack on Vienna and on 10 May bombarded his neighborhood. According to Griesinger, “Four case shots fell, rattling the windows and doors of his house. He called out in a loud voice to his alarmed and frightened people, ‘Don’t be afraid, children, where Haydn is, no harm can reach you!’ But the spirit was stronger than the flesh, for he had hardly uttered the brave words when his whole body began to tremble.” More bombardments followed until the city fell to the French on 13 May. Haydn, was, however, deeply moved and appreciative when on 17 May a French cavalry officer named Sulmy came to pay his respects and sang, skillfully, an aria from The Creation.

On 26 May, Haydn played his “Emperor’s Hymn” with unusual gusto three times; the same evening, he collapsed and was taken to what proved to be his deathbed. He died peacefully at 12:40 a.m. on 31 May 1809, aged 77.

On 15 June, a memorial service was held in the Schottenkirche at which Mozart’s Requiem was performed. Haydn’s remains were interred in the local Hundsturm cemetery until 1820, when they were moved to Eisenstadt by Prince Nikolaus. His head took a different journey; it was stolen shortly after burial by phrenologists, and the skull was reunited with the other remains only in 1954; for details, see Haydn’s head.

Character and Appearance

"Laus Deo" ("praise be to God") at the conclusion of a Haydn manuscript
Figure 7. “Laus Deo” (“praise be to God”) at the conclusion of a Haydn manuscript.

James Webster writes of Haydn’s public character thus: “Haydn’s public life exemplified the Enlightenment ideal of the honnete homme (honest man): the man whose good character and worldly success enable and justify each other. His modesty and probity were everywhere acknowledged. These traits were not only prerequisites to his success as Kapellmeister, entrepreneur and public figure, but also aided the favorable reception of his music.” Haydn was especially respected by the Esterházy court musicians whom he supervised, as he maintained a cordial working atmosphere and effectively represented the musicians’ interests with their employer; see Papa Haydn and the tale of the “Farewell” Symphony. Haydn had a robust sense of humor, evident in his love of practical jokes and often apparent in his music, and he had many friends. For much of his life, he benefited from a “happy and naturally cheerful temperament,” but in his later life, there is evidence for periods of depression, notably in the correspondence with Mrs. Genzinger and in Dies’s biography, based on visits made in Haydn’s old age.

Haydn was a devout Catholic who often turned to his rosary when he had trouble composing, a practice that he usually found to be effective. He normally began the manuscript of each composition with “in Nomine Domini” (“in the name of the Lord”) and ended with “Laus Deo” (“praise be to God”).

Haydn’s primary character flaw was greed as it related to his business dealings. Webster writes: “As regards money, Haydn was so self-interested as to shock [both] contemporaries and many later authorities.…He always attempted to maximize his income, whether by negotiating the right to sell his music outside the Esterházy court, driving hard bargains with publishers or selling his works three and four times over; he regularly engaged in ‘sharp practice’ and occasionally in outright fraud. When crossed in business relations, he reacted angrily.” Webster notes that Haydn’s ruthlessness in business might be viewed more sympathetically in light of his struggles with poverty during his years as a freelance and that outside of the world of business; in dealings, for example, with relatives and servants and in volunteering his services for charitable concerts, Haydn was a generous man.

Haydn was short in stature, perhaps as a result of having been underfed throughout most of his youth. He was not handsome, and like many in his day, he was a survivor of smallpox; his face was pitted with the scars of this disease. His biographer Dies wrote: “He couldn’t understand how it happened that in his life he had been loved by many a pretty woman. ‘They couldn’t have been led to it by my beauty.’”

His nose, large and aquiline, was disfigured by the polypus he suffered during much of his adult life, an agonizing and debilitating disease that at times prevented him from writing music.


Classical Composers from Lumen Learning



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