Characteristics of the Baroque Period

Updated on November 1, 2018
Reginald Thomas profile image

This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.

Baroque Architecture - 'Belvedere'
Baroque Architecture - 'Belvedere' | Source

The Baroque Period

The “Baroque” was a period in history relating to or denoting a style of European architecture, music, and art during the 17th and 18th centuries. Often referred to as being very extravagant, complex, and of bizarre tastes, the Baroque Period was brought about by the Catholic Church. This period was both a political and religious movement.

Our history books refer to this period as the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Resurgence. Let’s examine a small bit of this historic background making it easier to understand the characteristics of the Baroque period.

The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was a revolution of religion in Western Europe centered around grievances against the Catholic Church. The movement was started by a monk named Martin Luther—an advocate for reform of the Christian church. He believe that the church was abusing its powers and disagreed with many of its practices. This Protestant Reformation revolutionized the Christian faith. Prior to the reformation, the church relied on the educated upper-class to follow its lead and not question its rules and doctrines set by the Church.

The Counter-Reformation

As a result of the “Reformation”, the Catholic Church was losing followers and needed a plan to bring people back to the church. The Counter-Reformation was all about this cause. It took a concerted effort to encourage artists, sculptors, architects, and composers to create a new artistic style that were in line with this thinking.

Life During the 1600's

Life in Europe during the Baroque era was built on a tier system. The classes were divided as follows:

  • Nobility: 1 to 5%
  • Clergy: 5 to 10%
  • Bourgeoisie (growing middle class): 5 to 10%
  • The Masses: 75 to 85%

Along with the tier system living conditions during this period consisted of mostly one room houses or huts which would house up to six to eight people. Very little privacy was always the case with these living arrangements. There was a very high infant mortality rate. Many infants didn’t live to see their first or second birthday. People having to live in homes with disease was one of the main reasons for early death.

Art Characteristics of Baroque Period

The term “Baroque“ comes from the Portuguese word "barocco" meaning irregular pearl or stone. It also was referred to as a complex idiom reflecting the religious turmoil of the age. Extravagant style promoted by the Roman Catholic Church in the form of large scale works of public art illustrating key elements of the Catholic Church.

Painters portrayed a strong sense of movement in their works by:

  • using swirling spirals,
  • upward diagonals,
  • and attractive color schemes in order to bring life to the piece of art.

A few of the notable artists of the time included:

  • Annibale Carracci
  • Peter Paul Rubens
  • Carravaggio
  • Rembrandt

Renaissance Art

In comparison to the Baroque era was the period just before called the Renaissance (Rebirth). The period started in Italy and its focus was primarily the repair of classic ideas in artistic works during the time from 1400 to 1600. More attention to humanism and less attention to the church and religious stories was emphasized.

Two famous artists of Renaissance era included Donatello the sculptor and Leonardo da Vinci, creator of the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper."

Below is a slide show of Baroque Art featuring works by the master artist Carravaggio.

Paintings by Baroque Painter - Caravaggio

Sculptures in Both the Renaissance and Baroque Periods

Below are two examples of the sculpture of 'David'. The first is a Renaissance version by Michelangelo.This sculpture has a very calm appearance with the attention the full nude feature of the human body.

The second sculpture is the Baroque version by Bernini. While the attention isn't geared toward the nude, it does bring out the physical appearance of the body. Notice the way Bernini portrays 'David' as if he is in motion with a physical expression on his face. It is designed to ask the viewer to walk around the entire sculpture for examination.

David by Michelangelo.
David by Michelangelo. | Source
Baroque sculpture of David by Berini.
Baroque sculpture of David by Berini. | Source

Architecture in the Baroque Period

Baroque architecture was connected to the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church with an emphasis on the wealth of the church. Architects were encouraged to explore new creations of form using light, shadow and dramatic intensity.

In addition, Baroque architecture displayed complicated shapes, large-curved columns, grand staircases and high domes.

Master Baroque architects included: Bernini, Fontana, Maderno, and Cortano.

Famous buildings included: the church of Santa Susanna designed by Carlo Moderno. It featured dynamic orchestrated columns and pillars along with elaborate and ornamental decorations; The Santa Maria Della Pace was re-designed by Pietro da Cortana; Karlskirche was a church built in Vienna and commissioned by the Holy Roman Catholic Church. It was designed by Austrian architect Bernard Fisher von Erlach.

St Peter's Square, Vatican

Source

Baroque Architecture Slideshow

Music Characteristics of Baroque Period

As was with other art forms, man did not appreciate Baroque music until many years after the deaths of the great masters.

The study of baroque music ( as well as other art forms) is too complicated and detailed to cover every aspect in an article like this, but outlining the more important points will give one a start to further study.

The two major superstars in music during the baroque period were Johann Sebastian Bach and George Fredrick Handel. These two composers alone produced some of the greatest music of all time. Time tested? Yes, most definitely! How about Handel’s “Messiah”? Sung by millions world wide every year.

Other Baroque Composers

  • Henry Purcell
  • Georg Philipp Telemann
  • Domenico Scarlatti
  • Arcangelo Corelli
  • Antonio Vivaldi
  • Claudio Monteverdi

Music in the Baroque Period

  • The introduction of the Orchestra
  • More complex texture to the music composition
  • The creation of tonality - Keys and key relationships
  • New techniques in instrumental performance
  • Changes in music notation
  • Expansion in performance mediums

New Genres in Both Vocal and Instrumental Music

  • Oratorio
  • Concerto
  • Sonata
  • Cantata
  • Opera

The Baroque Period in music was divided into three phases: early, middle, and late.

Statue of J.S. Bach

Baroque Master
Baroque Master | Source

Johann Sebastian Bach: One of the World's Greatest Composers

Born on March 21, 1685 Johan Sebastian Bach was a German composer skilled in performing on the violin and the organ. He was considered by scholars (past and present) as one of the greatest composers of all time. Bach was a very religious man that devoted his life to the church and his music.

Bach came from a large family as was the case with most families of the time. In fact, the Bach name was very well established as a musical family. Johan Sebastian Bach had himself a large family through two marriages. Twenty children of which ten serviced into adulthood.

Bach’s music was monumental in quantity and quality. In vocal music he composed: cantatas, motets, masses, passions, oratorios, four-part chorales, and arias.

His instrumental works consisted of: concertos, suites, sonatas, and fugues.

In total works, Bach is known to have written over 1000 compositions. He is best known composition was the toccata and fugue in D minor. He wrote this composition for the organ and it is played today worldwide by the top organists. This piece is very sophisticated, complicated, and is difficult to perform.

Below I have included an amazing performance by four virtuoso trombone players performing this great work by Johan Sebastian Bach. Please listen to it as you will find it an incredible display of musicianship.

Bach: Toccata & Fugue in D minor

It’s easy to play any musical instrument - All you have to do is put down the correct keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself! - J.S. Bach

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Reginald Thomas

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