Baroque Music in All Its Jargon


For a definitive text on the development of Baroque music, you can’t do better than Claude V. Palisca’s Baroque Music (3rd Edition), originally released in 1968 but periodically updated since then. But bring your decoder ring.

Palisca, a long-time Yale professor who passed away in 2001, is almost as celebrated as the composers he spent his life writing about. Indeed, the American Musicologist Society in 2005 named an award after him to recognize excellence in their profession. So, you know you’re in good hands with him. But don’t expect an easy ride. Like what his students must have experienced when he was standing before them in the classroom, you’re just going to have to keep up, because he’s not slowing down for anybody.


This is a shame and, if the editor of Palisca’s book is to be believed, it’s not what the book is supposed to be about. H. Wiley Hitchcock, who edited Baroque Music and served as the editor of the broader series of music books of which Palisca’s book is a part, says all the books in the series are supposed to be accessible to “informed amateurs” as well as musicologists. The goal of the series, Hitccock says, “has been to present works of solid scholarship that are eminently readable.” Thus, the books are written by specialists “interested in communicating vividly.”

Palisca exempted, apparently. “The second G in measure 64 [of Heinrich Schütz’s O quam tu pulebra es] is a quasi-transitius (relatively accented passing note),” Palisca writes in a typical passage, “a grave-style ornament tendered emphatic here by two other figures belonging to the luxuriant style: an anticipatio notae (anticipation of a note) and prolongatio (prolongation).”

Eminently readable? To a musicologist, yes, but to an informed amateur? That would only be the case if the amateur is as informed as the musicologist.

The apparent pleasure Palisca takes in hearing the sound of his own jargon aside, Baroque Music is structurally skewed. First, he spends two thirds of his book on vocal works, which is justifiable only if the book is on the beginnings of Baroque style. And second, the one-third of the book that looks at sonatas, concertos, and sinfonias is superficial compared to the attention that’s lavished on the smallest detail in the vocal portion.

Given Palisca’s background in Renaissance music, his approach makes sense, since Renaissance music is to a certain extent vocal music. But if Palisca brings this concentration to his work, why did the series editor have him write this book?

Really, what the book should be called is “Monteverdi and the Birth of the Baroque,” becase that’s really what it reads like. And that would be a fine book. But would it be a good book for someone looking for a balanced overview of the Baroque period? I don’t see how it could be. Imagine a book on Baroque music that breezes over Corelli and Vivaldi, barely mentions François Couperin, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, says nothing about Denis Gaultier, and aside from a passing glance here and there leaves out violin virtuosos like Biber, Geminiani, and Tartini.

What Palisca has written is a book for musicologists that looks mainly at changes in vocal styles that helped usher out the Renaissance era and usher in the Baroque period. It also takes a very quick lap atound innovation in instrumental music. What it’s not is an accessible and balanced overview of the Baroque period for informed amateurs, and that’s a missed opportunity given Palisca’s stature and talent.—Nabob, On Baroque

Baroque Music (3rd Edition)
Pearson, 1990
Claude V. Palisca
$87.49 on Amazon

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