Glossary: Key Terms of Baroque Music

Adagio:

Comes from the Italian expression ad agio, “at ease,” and in music refers to a slow and stately tempo.

Allemande:

One of the most popular instrumental dance forms in Baroque music, and a standard element of a suite. The allemande originated in the 16th century as a duple meter dance of moderate tempo, derived from dances favored in Germany at the time.

Aria:

Originally any expressive melody, usually performed by a singer. The term became used almost exclusively to describe a self-contained piece for one voice, with or without orchestral accompaniment, typically part of a larger work. The most common context for arias is opera, but vocal arias also feature in oratorios and cantatas,

Baroque:

A style of Western art music composed from approximately 1560 to 1750.”Baroque” comes from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning misshapen pearl, a negative description of the ornate and heavily ornamented music of this period. The Baroque period saw the creation of tonality. During the period, composers and performers used more elaborate musical ornamentation, made changes in musical notation, and developed new instrumental playing techniques. Baroque music expanded the size, range, and complexity of instrumental performance, and also established opera, cantata, oratorio, concerto, and sonata as musical genres.

Basso continuo:

Provides the harmonic structure of the music. The phrase is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part, if more than one, are called the continuo group. The titles of many Baroque works make mention of the continuo section, such as J. S. Bach’s Concerto for 2 violins, strings and continuo in D minor. Here’s a good example, with commentary.

Brisé (or Style Brisé):

Broken, arpeggiated texture in instrumental music. It usually refers to French Baroque music for lute, keyboard instruments, or the viol.

Canon:

A contrapuntal compositional technique that employs a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration (e.g., quarter rest, one measure, etc.). The initial melody is called the leader, while the imitative melody, which is played in a different voice, is called the follower. The follower must imitate the leader, either as an exact replication of its rhythms and intervals or some transformation thereof.

Canticle:

A hymn, psalm, or other song of praise.

Chaconne:

A type of musical composition popular in the Baroque era, when it was much used as a vehicle for variation on a repeated short harmonic progression, often involving a fairly short repetitive bass-line, which offered a compositional outline for variation, decoration, figuration and melodic invention.

Concerto:

A musical composition usually composed in three parts or movements, in which a solo instrument is accompanied by an orchestra.

Contrapuntal (or counterpoint):

The relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent but independent in rhythm and contour. It has been most commonly identified in classical music, developing strongly during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period, especially in Baroque music. The term originates from the Latin punctus contra punctum meaning “point against point.”

Fantasia:

A musical composition with its roots in the art of improvisation and that seldom approximates the textbook rules of any strict musical form.

Fugue:

A contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition. A Fughetta is a short fugue in which the contrapuntal writing typically is not strict, and the setting less formal.

Gavotte:

Originated as a French folk dance, taking its name from the Gavot people of the Pays de Gap region of Dauphiné. It is notated in 4/4 or 2/2 time and is of moderate tempo. The distinctive rhythmic feature of the 18th-century French court gavotte is that phrases begin in the middle of the bar. In either 4/4 or 2/2 time, the phrases begin on the third quarter note of the bar, creating a half-measure upbeat.

Gigue:

A lively Baroque dance originating from the British jig. It was imported into France in the mid-17th century and usually appears at the end of a suite. The gigue was probably never a court dance, but it was danced by nobility on social occasions and several court composers wrote gigues.

Intermezzo:

A composition which fits between other musical or dramatic entities, such as acts of a play or movements of a larger musical work. In music history, the term has had several different usages, which fit into two general categories: the opera intermezzo and the instrumental intermezzo.

Magnificat:

A canticle that’s frequently sung or spoken liturgically in Christian church services. It is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn.

Motet:

Highly varied choral musical compositions.

Partita:

Ooriginally the name for a single-instrumental piece of music (16th and 17th centuries), but Johann Sebastian Bach and other later German composers used it for collections of musical pieces, as a synonym for suite.

Passacaglia:

A musical form that originated in early seventeenth-century Spain and is still used by contemporary composers. It is usually of a serious character and is often, but not always, based on a bass-ostinato and written in triple meter.

Prelude:

A short piece of music that can be thought of as a preface. It may stand on its own or introduce another work. It generally features a small number of rhythmic and melodic motifs that recur through the piece. Stylistically, the prelude is improvisatory in nature. The prelude can also refer to an overture, particularly to those in an opera or an oratorio.

Recitative:

Style of delivery in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms of ordinary speech. Often used in operas, oratorios, and cantatas.

Ricercar:

In common contemporary usage, it refers to an early kind of fugue, particularly one of a serious character in which the subject uses long note values. Historically, it refers to a type of early Baroque instrumental composition, one that “searches out” the key or mode of a following piece.

Scordatura:

A cross-tuning technique. For a good example, listen to this 2-minute excerpt of Franz Biber’s Partia No. 1.

Sonata:

A principle of composing large-scale works. It was applied to most instrumental genres and regarded alongside the fugue as one of two fundamental methods of organizing, interpreting and analyzing concert music.

Stretti:

A close succession of statements of the subject in a fugue, especially in the final section. In stretto, the subject is presented in one voice and then imitated in one or more other voices, with the imitation starting before the subject has finished. The subject is therefore superimposed upon itself contrapuntally.

Toccata

A piece of music typically for a keyboard or plucked string instrument featuring fast-moving, lightly fingered, or otherwise virtuosic passages or sections, with or without imitative or fugal interludes, generally emphasizing the dexterity of the performer’s fingers. Less frequently, the name is applied to works for multiple instruments (the opening of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo being a notable example).

Variation:

A formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, orchestration, or any combination of these.

Vespers:

The sunset evening prayer service in the Western Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran liturgies of the canonical hours. It is also referred to in the Anglican tradition as Evening Prayer or Evensong. The term is also used in some Protestant denominations to describe evening services.

Many of the definitions in this glossary are excerpted from Wikipedia.

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