The Baroque Delight in Virtuosity
Winter is my favorite season. Though undoubtedly each of the four seasons has its highlights, the frosty snow and icy north winds of winter are the most captivating to my ears. I am referring, of course, to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, one of the most perfect examples of program music, or music that is composed to narrate a specific story. Through the language of music rather than the language of words, Vivaldi depicts images and emotions of each season. As we traverse the year in Vivaldi’s masterpiece, we unmistakably hear a hailstorm pelting a corn field (Summer, iii), a dog lazily barking next to his master (Spring, ii) and chattering teeth in the icy cold (Winter, i).
If we were to do an informal poll of the audience at the end of the program, I imagine most of us would be able to hum or tap one of the melodies heard tonight. But what lies at the core of the Baroque is the absolute delight in transforming the central melodic idea into a series of breathtaking feats of virtuosity. Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 12, for example, transforms a simple melody known as the La Follia theme (‘folly’ or ‘madness’) into a remarkable virtuosic piece for the entire string orchestra. Here the Baroque delight in virtuosity and relish of excess is on full display. The sheer physical energy and commitment required for the ensemble to execute the piece is palpable.
Without having to resort to a huge number of musicians on stage, Baroque music can be hugely powerful because of dramatic contrasts in the music. Often, moments of breathless exuberance are juxtaposed with slower passages laced with tenderness and aching beauty. This intentional contrast is most clearly seen in the Baroque da capo aria structure. Here, the performer plays the main theme (A) before moving to a contrasting section (B) which is different in almost every way (tempo, key, mood). Often with no obvious transition or bridge, the main theme (A) returns but the performer is expected to embellish and ornament the theme and change it somehow so that it does not sound the same as the first time. In the age before printed editions of sheet music, the performer could, in theory, never perform the piece in the same way. Though we have now standard editions of these pieces, one of the most exciting things about attending a live performance is the sense of spontaneity and freshness of each performance. The main effect of this Baroque principle of composition is to create dramatic tensions in a single composition, not unlike the same tension we see in the visual arts of the Italian Baroque, such as the dramatic interplay of light and dark in Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew (c. 1599-1600), for example.
Yet the artistic sensibilities of the Baroque such as virtuosity, excessive ornamentation and dramatic tension eventually fell out of fashion. Even the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, a stalwart of the Baroque era, languished in archives for centuries before being ‘rediscovered’ and promoted by later composers. It is fair to say that Baroque music is again having its moment in the classical music world. Early music ensembles who specialize in period instrument performance such as the Venice Baroque Orchestra (Italy), The Academy of Ancient Music (UK), Newberry Consort (USA) are receiving tremendous critical and popular acclaim. For example, a recent recording of Venice Baroque Orchestra featuring the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky (with the collaboration of the great Cecilia Bartoli) earned a Grammy Nomination in 2015. What is behind this resurgence of Baroque music today? In an increasingly disordered and seemingly fragmented world, the Baroque sensibility of finding order through confusion resonates with today’s audiences as much as ever.
Dr. Jason Doroga
Assistant Professor of Spanish
His scholarly interests include historical syntax and morphology, semantics and pragmatics, and Spanish/Portuguese contact and language acquisition. Doroga received a B.A. in Spanish language and literature from the University of Dallas, an M.A. in Spanish language and literature from the University of Texas-Arlington, and a Ph.D. in Hispano-romance philology/linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.