Both the Baroque and the Classical period in music produced great household name composers, such as Johannes Sebastian Bach and George Handel in the Baroque Era, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Josef Haydn in the Classical Period. To many listeners who are vaguely familiar with classical music, there is not much difference between these two musical periods.
However, to avid listeners, the complex differences in style, tone, and structure between these two eras are too great to be ignored. Let us look first at the Baroque Period.
This period is characterized by a strong contrapuntal style and a heavy reliance on polyphony, that is, on many different “voices” layered on top of one another. Baroque melodies usually do not follow a strict, symmetrical order (e. g. four-measure phrases, where there is a cadence every four measures), but instead work with themes or motives that are continuously spun out throughout the piece. This technique of “spinning out” motives is called by its German name, Fortspinnung, and is characterized by continuous motion, asymmetrical phrase lengths, melodic or harmonic sequences, key changes, and phrase omissions (Theory and Analysis 386).
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This technique often gives listeners a feeling of excitement, rendering chord progressions and melodic sequences somewhat unpredictable. Perhaps the greatest composer to come out of the Baroque Period is Johannes Sebastian Bach. His music is filled with complex melodies which work and re-work the themes stated at the beginning of his pieces. In contrast, the Classical Period of music is characterized more or less by a strict, symmetrical structure in the music.
Phrases are often divided every four or eight measures, with these phrases adhering to a two part structure – antecedent and consequent phrases. The antecedent phrase, usually four or eight measures, ends in a half cadence, thereby calling for a harmonic resolution; the consequent phrase, usually of equal length, answers this call by ending in a full cadence (i. e. in the tonic), resolving the tension presented in the antecedent phrase. The biggest difference then between Baroque and Classical Period music, in terms of style, is the difference in phrase structure.
Although both the Baroque and Classical Period share similar phrase endings (full or plagal cadences), the Baroque does not usually follow the antecedent-consequent phrase structure that characterizes so much of the music in the Classical Period. The foremost composer whose work best exemplifies the Classical Period is Wolfgang Mozart. His concertos, sonatas, and symphonies are filled with antecedent-consequent phrase structures that have been influential in music, from the Romantic Period to contemporary popular music.
Given this difference in style, we also see differences in the forms of compositions. Because of the differences in instruments (e. g. Baroque Period is characterized by the use of the harpsichord, where Classical Period is popular for its widespread use of the piano), different forms of music were very popular for each period. In the Baroque Period, the popular forms were Concerti Grossi (full orchestra with many soloists), Fugues (counterpoint style with multiple voices claiming the same melodies), and Suites (four movement pieces written for a select number of instrumentalists).
And in the Classical Period, composers stuck to writing Concertos (three movement pieces for orchestra and a solo instrument), Symphonies (four movement orchestral pieces), and Sonatas (three movement pieces for one or more solo instruments). Most of the pieces in the Classical Period are written in Sonata-form, which divides the piece into three sections: exposition, which presents the main theme; development, which develops the main theme, varying it in complex ways; and recapitulation, which returns back to the main theme.
Both periods of music produced rich pieces which are still listened to and played today, and yet the differences between these two periods, though somewhat subtle, provide a wide range of listening experiences for the classically tuned ear.
Works Cited and Bibliography
- Jane Piper Clendinning and Elizabeth West Marvin. The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. , 2005)
- Donald Jay Grout. A History of Western Music. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. , 1973).
- Charles Rosen. The Classical Style. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. , 1972).
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