Our Baroque Symphony Showdown selections are Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 1. Read on for more about the Baroque period and these two pieces.
The Baroque period was born out of an explosion of new artistic styles in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. This period marks the end of the Renaissance in Europe, during which people dramatically shifted their thinking and ways of life to include science, reasoning, individualism, and humanism, among many other new ideas. Following the Renaissance, the Church’s political control of Europe loosened significantly, allowing non-religious activities and perspectives, including instrumental music, to thrive freely and deviate from the restrictions and simplicity of the past.
In terms of music history, the Baroque period occurred between 1600 and 1750. It was during this time that the first versions of the modern orchestra were organized and standard instrument groupings were introduced. Baroque art, both sonic and visual, is characterized by drama, decorative features, and an overall sense of grandeur. Baroque composers experimented with ornamentation and included sonic “conversations” between juxtaposing musical passages. The bold choices musical composers and visual artists made throughout this period solidified their place in history as artistic pioneers who paved the way for centuries of creative exploration. For example, Baroque composer Johann Sebastien Bach, often regarded as one of history’s greatest musical geniuses, created a standard and sophisticated approach to harmony which laid the foundation for music compositions through the end of the 19th century.
The concerto, sonata, and the opera were also introduced during the Baroque era. Opera is perhaps the musical pinnacle of the baroque style, allowing composers to illustrate emotions and moods in their music. This new musical style put great emphasis on musical storytelling and encouraged composers to target the audience’s own emotions through their works. Noteworthy composers from the Baroque era include Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, a champion of the concerto.
FUN FACT: BORN LESS THAN 100 MILES APART, BACH AND HANDEL HAD VASTLY DIFFERENT UPBRINGINGS, YET BOTH WERE ABLE TO ACHIEVE GREAT MUSICAL SUCCESS. BACH GREW UP IN A FAMILY OF MUSICIANS WHILE HANDEL IS THE ONLY MUSICIAN FOUND ACROSS OVER TWO CENTURIES OF HIS FAMILY’S HISTORY.
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is the Italian composer’s most recognizable work. Although this composition is more of a concerto, it is one of the closest Baroque compositions to a symphony. Symphonies did not exist during the Baroque period in the format that we know them today. However, many Baroque orchestral compositions evoke similarities to the “modern” symphony in their structure and even minute details such as phrasing and conversational ideas. Additionally, the meaning of the concerto shifts across musical periods. Baroque concertos highlight musical conversations between the soloist and orchestra, maintaining both elements of the performance as equal levels. It is not until the Classical period that concertos begin to showcase the soloist as a separate aspect of the performance from the orchestral accompaniment. For example, the introduction of cadenzas in symphonic works isolated the soloist entirely, allowing the audience to focus more on the individual instrument’s capabilities and the soloist’s strengths as a performer.
About The Four Seasons
Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote hundreds of compositions during his lifetime, including over 400 concertos. Although The Four Seasons, composed around 1720, is certainly more of a concerto for solo violin and orchestra than a symphony, it is one of the closest Baroque compositions to a true symphony. The Four Seasons takes its audience on a journey through the annual cycle of seasons. Each movement is prefaced by a sonnet which explains the corresponding season and guides the listener as they observe the performance. Each line of the sonnet can be matched to a certain section of its movement, for example, anxious tremolos represent stormy weather while gentler phrases paired with trills embody birdsong.
Listen to a recording of The Four Seasons below, performed by musicians at the Tel-Aviv Museum of Art
About Brandenburg no. 1
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed the Brandenburg Concertos between 1711 and 1721. This collection (one of many that Bach composed) contains six concertos, each with their own unique instrumentation. Concerto no. 1 is recognized as the only true orchestral composition in the collection and features the principal violinist, two French horns, and three oboes as soloists. The first movement is lively and complex in its organization of various rhythms between instruments. The second movement, Adagio, is often cited as the greatest movement of the entire set of concertos. Bach’s tasteful yet modern use of color throughout the collection solidifies the Brandenburg concertos as some of his finest work.
Watch this performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 1, performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Note: The performance begins at 0:38.
Want to learn more about our Summer Symphony Showdown? Read more about the event here!