The Baroque period lasted from 1600-1750, and was a time of huge growth and development in the world of classical music. Pieces became grander and more complex, often utilising ornate, decorated melodies, while the emergence of pronounced national identities, meant that there was a greater range of styles than in previous eras.
This article will take a closer look at some of the most important composers of the Baroque era, and the stylistic developments that they helped usher in: the explosion of opera as an art form; the establishment of the Common Practice Era, as well as new compositional structures like the concerto and the sonata. Many of these innovations would help shape the course of music over the next few centuries and become mainstays of the Classical and Romantic periods.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643)
The very first opera – a dramatic fusion of vocal music, theatre and staging – was written by Jacopo Peri at the very end of the Renaissance period.
But the earliest opera that is still performed today is L’Orfeo, by the Italian composer Claudio Monteverd, a transitional composer who spanned the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
Written in 1607, L’Orfeo is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus.
The score lists over 40 instruments, with various instrumental groups representing particular scenes and characters.
In keeping with the late Renaissance style, it makes heavy use of polyphony – with multiple independent, interweaving parts – although some of the players are given room to improvise.
Monteverdi was born in the northern Italian city of Cremona and was something of a prodigy, publishing his first compositions at just fifteen.
Among his other important works are his innovative books of madrigals (a type of secular vocal composition), his famous Vespers – an epic religious work scored for soloists, choir and orchestra – and later operas like L’incoronazione di Poppe.
Francesca Caccini (1587-1641)
Caccini was born in Florence, where she would go on to work at the noble Medici family court as a composer, singer and teacher.
Her father was Giulio Caccini, an influential composer who spanned the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
She was one of the few women to publish music in 17th Century Europe, and she is recognised as the first woman known to have composed opera.
Her comic opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina was first performed in 1625 and was one of the first Italian operas to be performed outside of Italy.
She also played the lute and wrote poetry, setting her own words to many of the songs that she composed.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687)
Lully was born into a noble family in Italy, but spent most of his life working in France in the court of Louis XIV, later becoming a French citizen.
One of his greatest musical achievements was the creation of tragédie-lyrique, a uniquely French style of opera that incorporated ballet and ornate staging.
The story of his unfortunate death is well-known.
Whilst directing a performance, he accidentally hit his foot with his long conducting staff.
A keen dancer, he refused to have his leg amputated when the wound became infected, and the resulting gangrene killed him.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713)
The Baroque period marked the beginning of the Common Practice Era, which would remain in place until the 20th Century.
In contrast to the mode-based music of the Medieval era and much of the Renaissance period, music was now rooted firmly within tonal key centres with standard cadences.
The Italian composer Corelli’s music helped establish many of these rules, as well as conventional forms like the sonata.
In addition to writing numerous concertos, he was one of the great violin virtuosos of his day, his playing style influencing accepted instrumental technique for centuries to come.
Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
Purcell is regarded as one of England’s greatest ever composers: following his death, aged just 36, no other English musician would come close to his level of influence until the 20th Century.
He spent his entire life in Westminster, where he was employed at the Royal Court, writing music for the church and for royal occasions.
His best known work is Dido and Aeneas, a chamber opera and one of the great theatrical works of the Baroque era:
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is one of the most popular pieces in all of classical music.
It takes the form of a series of three-movement violin concertos, each of which represents a season of the year.
They were published with accompanying sonnets to help evoke the essence of each section, making them an extremely early and innovative example of program music, or music which attempts to render an extra-musical narrative through sound.
This technique would not become commonplace until much later in the Romantic period.
Vivaldi was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest and was nicknamed il Prete Rosso (the Red Priest) due to the colour of his hair.
Alongside his work in the church he composed prolifically, writing over 500 concertos, more than 40 operas and some sacred choral works.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)
Telemann was born in Magdeburg, Germany, where he was almost entirely self-taught as a musician.
He was friends with both Handel and J.S. Bach and, in fact, enjoyed much greater levels of fame and wealth than his contemporaries, earning considerably more from his church post in Hamburg than Bach did in a similar role in Leipzig.
Telemann is often referred to as the most prolific composer of all time, writing over 3000 pieces, including sacred cantatas, Passions, operas and instrumental suites.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Bach is considered one of the finest composers from any period of music, and one of the great geniuses of the western classical tradition.
His impact has been compared to titans from other artistic disciplines: Shakespeare in the world of literature; Leonardo da Vinci in the realm of visual art.
The German was born into a highly musical family in Eisenach: his father, uncles and older brother were all musicians, and in turn a number of his own children would go on to have successful musical careers, including his son, the composer C.P.E Bach.
J.S. Bach wrote an incredible range of music, including works for keyboard instruments such as the organ and harpsichord (the dominant keyboard instrument of the Baroque period), and four-part settings of Lutheran hymns known as chorales.
He also helped pioneer the concerto grosso – in which a small group of soloists are accompanied by an orchestra – with his Brandenburg Concertos.
The sonata, a multiple-movement piece for solo instrument or small ensemble, was another new form in the Baroque period, and Bach wrote these for violin, harpsichord and flute, amongst others.
A devout Christian, he was employed by the church in Leipzig and whilst in this post he composed some of his most celebrated religious choral music, including two settings of the Gospels: the St. John and St. Mathew Passions.
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Handel was born in Halle, Germany, where he initially studied law before becoming a musician.
After a period in Italy he moved to London in 1712, later becoming a naturalised British subject.
He was already a famous operatic composer, but it was his oratorios that really won over the British public.
Oratorios were similar to operas, but tended to be based on biblical stories and were not staged.
Messiah, which tells the story of Christ in epic fashion and remains hugely popular, is the most famous of these.
He also wrote a number of coronation anthems, such as Zadok the Priest, which has been performed at the coronation of every British monarch since it was first composed for George II.
He would influence later composers from the Classical period such as Mozart and Beethoven, with the latter describing him as “the master of us all… the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.”
Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)
Bach, Handel and Scarlatti were all born in the same year.
The latter hailed from Naples and was the son of Alessandro Scarlatti, a renowned composer himself.
Domenico spent most of his working life in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families, and is best known for his 555 keyboard sonatas.
Originally composed for harpsichord, clavichord or fortepiano, they display the perhaps surprising influence of Spanish folk music.
Thanks for reading our guide to the most important composers of the Baroque Period.
We’ve learnt about some incredible musicians who brought about innovations that would shape the course of music over the following centuries.
Some of these names might already have been familiar to you – pieces by the likes of Bach and Handel are performed much more frequently today than those by earlier composers from the Medieval and Renaissance eras – but we hope that you might still have discovered some brilliant new music.