Friday, November 04, 2005


Baroque Symphony

This is as good a place as any to start Symphony Salon!

The word "symphony," which appears in the titles of some of Giovanni Gabrieli's (ca. 1557-1612) works, requires close attention. Like the term "sonata" it has had many different meanings. For the classic Greeks "symphony" was a musical interval. In the Middle Ages, the term "symphony" was applied to certain musical instruments, notably the hurdy-gurdy. By the late sixteenth-century it had become the title of a composition, and thus approached its later meaning. It appeared in Gabrieli's "sacred symphonies" and in similarly named works by his German pupil, Heinrich Schutz; in Waelrant's "angelic symphonies," Banchieri's "ecclesiastical symphonies," and in other works after 1600. But a symphony in this sense was not necessarily an instrumental piece: Gabrieli's "Sacrae symphoniae" include many motets and canzoni, along with sonatas for several instruments.
After the turn into the seventeenth-century, the term was employed in yet another context. The operas of the first decades sometimes contained instrumental interludes, to which the Italian term "sinfonia" was given. These single movements for instruments alone and often rich and poetic content, appeared separately or were inserted into the middle of an operatic act or into an oratorio; there they enjoyed a vigorous life until well into the eighteenth century. Prime examples are at hand in the "sinfonie" of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," of Handel's "Messiah", and of numerous other choral works of the time.

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, a fifth use of the word appeared in connection with the overtures to the Neapolitan operas. That use of the "sinfonia" is related directly to the present-day meaning of the word.

In the last years of the sixteenth-century, a series of speculations and experiments on the part of a group of aristocratic and professional musicians in Italy led to a radically new style of vocal music. The basic sound ideal of the Renaissance was a polyphony of equal independent voices; the ideal of the Baroque, from a group known as the Florentine Camerata, was a firm bass and florid treble, held together with unobtrusive harmony.

The early decades of the seventeenth-century witnessed the flowering of an extensive and significant literature for large and small instrumental ensembles. That music no longer imitated the melodic style of vocal music, as much of the earlier instrumental music had done. The technical and individual characteristics of the various instruments---viols, flutes, cornetti, and, later, violins---were now taken into account, and one may speak of the beginning of idiomatic writing. A type of figuration that was suitable, let us say, for a string instrument was seen to be unsuited to a woodwind. The violins especially profited from this concern with instrumental idioms; and although violin style was not perfected until the end of the century, notably in the sonatas and concertos of Corelli, its evolution began in the variation sonatas of Salomon Rossi as early as 1613.

The orchestral field is indebted to the seventeenth-century for two of its representatives: the dance suite, which began its development in the early 1600s, and the instrumental concerto, which emerged just before 1700. It is in these two forms that the most significant changes in Baroque instrumental music took place.


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