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In the history of Western music, the Baroque orchestra holds a very important position.

In this lesson, explore the formation and structure of the Baroque orchestra, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

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The Baroque Orchestra

Hey, what’s wrong with this orchestra? Somebody told me that it’s broken. Yeah, they said it was a broke orchestra.

So what’s wrong with it? Oh, not broke? Baroque! That makes more sense.The Baroque period was an era in western history that lasted from roughly 1600-1750. This period was characterized by powerful monarchs, elaborate and intricate art, massive, grandiose architecture and, of course, a musical style to match. And one of the greatest innovations of the Baroque era was the orchestra, a large instrumental ensemble.Although musical groups were common throughout Western history, the Baroque orchestra standardized instrumental music in new ways, ways that define Western music to this day. That’s a long-lasting legacy, but hey, if it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it!

Baroque Music

Before we really get into the orchestra, let’s talk a bit about Baroque music.

Before this era, music was rarely played by large groups. It was much more along the lines of medieval minstrels and that sort of thing. Composers would write melodies, and those melodies could really be picked up by any instrument.Then, in the early 1600s, the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi said forget this, I know exactly what I want my music to sound like and wrote a score for specific instruments. The flutes played this piece, the cornets played this piece, the percussion played this piece.

Thus, the idea of the modern orchestra was born, in which each member of an ensemble has a specific part of the music to play.Baroque music, like everything else Baroque, was much more elaborate and intricate than anything that came before. Rather than all instruments playing variations of the melody, the main musical theme, composers experimented more with harmonies, complementary notes and rhythms that support the melody. So, you’d have one set of instruments play the melody, and the others playing harmonies. This made for a much more intricate and ornate type of music.Baroque music also standardized the idea of tonality, in which a single tone in a musical scale is the central focus of the piece. All other notes are written based on their relation to that central tone.

Tonality gives Baroque music a consistent structure and form and defined Western music for centuries.We can thank French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau for really setting this up. His 1722 Treatise on Harmony was one of the most important works of Baroque musical theory, which standardized tonality through mathematical formulas and the relationships between harmonies.

This sounds complex, but really it was these ideas that gave Western music the sounds that we think of as classical music.

Orchestras and Composers

So Baroque orchestras played Baroque music, but what did the orchestras look like? The modern orchestra is very standardized in terms of size and instruments, but the Baroque orchestra was still nailing these things down. After all, the orchestra was a pretty new phenomenon. Some were as large as 150 instrumentalists; some were only about 20.

This wasn’t really standardized until later.However, what instruments were used was a bit more common. Generally, the Baroque orchestra had five sections of instruments: woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and harpsichord.

The strings or harpsichord almost always carried the melody, with brass and woodwinds providing the harmonies. The percussion section was pretty small at this time, and often only included a timpani drum.But, do you notice anything missing? How about a conductor? Baroque orchestras generally did not have a conductor. Instead, the first violinist or the harpsichordist would often keep time and indicate when the orchestra should start or stop playing. Actually, this person was commonly the composer of the music as well.And what composers! In the pages of great Western composers, some of the first major names originate from this period.

George Handel was a German-British composer who helped bring the Baroque to England. Antonio Vivaldi was an Italian Baroque composer. His orchestral pieces, most notably The Four Seasons, are considered amongst the most notable works in Western music. I’m willing to bet you recognize this.

(music plays)Another of the great Baroque musicians to be remembered as one of the greatest composers of all time was Johann Sebastian Bach, a German composer who created works of such depth and intricacy that they are often said to be the definitive works of Baroque music. These three composers, along with several others, helped establish not only the sound of the orchestra but also its role in society.Musical performance rose to be one of the most highly respected professions, and for the first time in many parts of Europe, a full-time career because these large ensembles traveled and performed together. And here I thought musicians were generally broke. Guess not, as long as they’re Baroque.

Lesson Summary

The Baroque era lasted from roughly 1600-1750, and during this time societies were filled with serious, intricate, and ornate displays of art and music. One of the major innovations of this period was the orchestra, a large ensemble of instrumentalists who were assigned specific parts to play. Baroque music standardized the use of harmonies, notes to complement the melody, as well as tonality, the focus on a central tone to compose music.Baroque orchestras played music that was intricate and ornate, but the size was still not very standardized, and these ensembles could range from 20 to over 100 members. Still, some incredibly important music was composed in this time by Baroque composers like George Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach.The Baroque orchestra defined many aspects of Western music, aspects that we still respect today.

And all because music got Baroque.

Baroque Music – Characteristics ; Composers

Terms/Characteristics/Composers Explanations
Baroque period era in western history from 1600-1750; characterized by powerful monarchs, elaborate and intricate art, and massive, grandiose architecture
Orchestra large instrumental ensemble
Claudio Monteverdi early Italian Baroque composer
Melody the main musical theme
Harmonies complementary notes and rhythms that support the melody
Tonality a single tone in a musical scale is the central focus of the piece
Jean-Philippe Rameau French composer who standardize tonality
Treatise on Harmony one of the most important works of Baroque musical theory
George Handel German-British composer who helped bring the Baroque to England
Antonio Vivaldi Italian Baroque composer best known for The Four Seasons
Johann Sebastian Bach German composer whose works of such depth and intricacy are said to be the definitive works of Baroque music

Learning Outcomes

Carefully study this lesson on the Baroque orchestra so that you can successfully achieve these objectives:

  • Dissect the term ‘Baroque orchestral music’
  • Name some of the most famous Baroque composers
  • Recognize the characteristics of Baroque music

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