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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50 Great Composers, 1 Not-so-Great Compilation

Goulding There are so many guides to classical music it’s hard to know which ones have anything different to say. Phil Goulding’s guide, released in 1995, has the virtue of the author not saying much at all. Instead, he lets the talking be done by others—mostly great composers themselves. “I remain a nonexpert,” Goulding says. “Ninety-five percent of [the book] comes from [what I gleaned in] used bookstores, new bookstores, and assorted public libraries.”

There’s certainly a lot of charm in Goulding’s pre-Internet methodology for learning about classical music. (He says he knew nothing about it before starting his project, which took him seven years.) Basically, he culled commentary from the world’s great composers and from musicologists and others and determined his list of the 50 greatest composers of all time based on who the composers themselves and other experts held in high esteem. Review It should come as little surprise that at the top of the list are three names widely considered the titans of music: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Indeed, Goulding calls these three the immortals, and says that their place at the top is so secure that it could never be tolerated, by anybody anywhere, that someone should try to demote them.

He then lists eight demigods, all either Classical or Romantic composers with the exception of Handel, and then he lists two additional categories: composers of genius and artists of a high order.

As you can guess from his labels, Goulding is quite the wit, and indeed the introductory part of the book is fun to read. The rest of the book is a fairly standard catalogue of the 50 composers , their principal works, and commentary on where their works fit in the context of musical development over the centuries.

Goulding is trying to cover roughly 500 years of music, so it’s hard to give due attention to everyone who deserves it. But he seems to put too much weight on Romatic-era composers, who comprise 27 of the 50 greats, compared to the Baroque era, the period of eight of the greats. Really?

Of the Baroque greats, you have everyone you would expect to have: Bach, Monetverdi, Couperin, Vivaldi, Telemann, Rameau, Handel, and Gluck (a Baroque-Classical transition figure). But there are so many who are not on the list.

You have to wonder if Goulding gave too much weight to Romantic-era composers simply because he had available to him so much more information on them. Does it really make sense to have Camille Saint Saens, the Romatic-era French organist, on the list while Arcangelo Corelli isn’t? Or what about Modest Mussorgsky, a Russian Romatic composer whose music is noted for—what? Okay, he tried to compose music in opposition to convention. So, his music is rough, dissonant. But is his contribution to music really that much greater than, again, Corelli’s, whose work was pivotal for the violin and for the idea that instrumentals could occupy as important a place as vocal works?

Of course, that’s the problem with any compilation. No one will ever be happy with who’s included and who’s not. For the fan of Baroque music, Goulding’s book just doesn’t offer that much. Bach sits at the top of the heap, at No.1, the first of the three immortals, but when more than half of your top 50 are Romantics, covering about 85 years of your 500-year period, than you have to think your compiler spent too much time in old and new book stores and in libraries reading about composers and not enough time listening to music.—Nabob, On Baroque

Classical Music
The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works
Ballantine Books, 1995
636 pages
Phil G. Goulding
$15.82 on Amazon

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