Baroque Art and Music: Activities
An Exercise in Comparison
The Baroque in Art
Baroque art emerged in Europe around 1600 as a reaction against the intricacies of the Mannerist style that had dominated the Late Renaissance. Baroque art was more direct, more realistic and certainly more emotionally intense than Mannerism. The word “baroque” is derived from the Portuguese and Spanish barroco or French baroque, both referring to a rough or imperfect pearl. This movement was characterized by drama and grandeur. The aristocracy saw the dramatic style of Baroque art and architecture as a means of expressing power and impressing visitors. In addition, Baroque art was encouraged by the Catholic Church, the most important patron of the arts at that time, as a return to the spiritual in art. Leading names in Baroque art include Caravaggio, Rubens, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Vermeer, Annibale Carracci and Bernini. A special exhibit devoted to Bernini was held in Ottawa in early 2009.
The Baroque in Music
Early composers of the Baroque period strengthened the fundamentals of Renaissance style while integrating new elements. Single, individual lines, as opposed to complex polyphony, ushered in the birth of opera, which in turn gave rise to the golden age of the castratos, the true stars of the era. Singers added numerous decorative, often elaborate touches to the composers’ melodic lines, a practice also found in instrumental music.
In Baroque music we find the transition from the use of a whole range of church modes like Dorian, Phrygian and Mixolydian to just two, which became our major and minor scales. The concept of basso continuo (a kind of numerical shorthand for keyboard instruments indicating which chords are to be played) and the employment of cadences, which act as musical punctuation, helped solidify the importance of harmony as a vertical support for horizontally-conceived melody.
The love of contrast was another prime characteristic of Baroque music: the contrast between loud and soft, high and low, fast and slow, energetic and relaxed, chordal and contrapuntal, duple and triple meter, full texture and solo writing.
Musical forms became better defined. The trio sonata (a composition in three or four movements for two melody instruments of similar range and a keyboard instrument for harmonic support), the suite (a series of numbers derived from actual dances of various European countries), the fugue (a form in which a single subject is continuously repeated and developed in several voices) and the concerto (a sort of dialogue between full orchestra and one or more soloists) became dominant instrumental forms employed by such composers as Bach, Handel, Couperin, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann and Corelli.
In The Classroom...
These activities are suitable for students at all grade levels.
Activity #1 - Comparing Art and Music
Objective: Draw parallels between an example
of Baroque art and one of these three suggested musical works (or
any other of your choice):
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major (1st movement)
Bach: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor (1st movement)
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (any movement from any season)
The Three Trees
This is one of the largest and most evocative of Rembrandt’s
landscape paintings. It features three magnificent trees on a low
hill with a view of Amsterdam in the far distance. The number of
trees and their arrangement allude to the crosses of the
Crucifixion, and the fierce rainstorm reinforces the mood of that
allusion. The strong contrast of light and shade is
characteristic of Rembrandt’s paintings. :
Examine Rembrandt’s painting and try to answer these questions:
Are lines independent or do they overlap? For example, where are the trees in relation to the field? Did Rembrandt draw them as separate objects or as a group? Are the lines clean and clear or do they merge, i.e., is it difficult to differentiate where one element of the painting begins and another ends? Does Rembrandt use more straight lines or curved ones?
How is the painting organised? Are all subjects treated equally (examine carefully foreground and background)? How does Rembrandt use light and shade?
Describe what you see. Is there a story here or is this simply a landscape, nothing more?
Do you find any repetition of patterns? Are some elements repeated in different forms or manner?
What emotion does the painting convey? Simple, strong, dramatic expression was the norm in the Baroque era. Is that the case here?
What overall impression do you get from the work?
Now listen to one of the musical compositions listed above and answer these questions, which will lead you to draw parallels between art and music:
Is each musical line heard independently or do the lines overlap? Can you clearly hear the melodic lines or are they obscured by other instruments? Can you easily perceive each musical idea?
How is the piece organised? Are all the musical motifs treated equally or do some seem to be more prominent than others?
Is there a story here? (Think of this as a film score.) Or is the music just an arrangement of abstract sounds set to rhythmic impulses?
Do you detect any musical ideas that keep recurring or returning, like a refrain in a folk or popular song?
What emotion does the music convey? Does a single emotion prevail throughout or are there contrasts?
What overall impression do you get from the work?
Other activities you may wish to pursue:
- Search the National Gallery website for Baroque art works and make a video presentation (with PowerPoint or Moviemaker, for example). Choose a musical composition from the Baroque to accompany your video. (Grade 10 and up)
- Vivaldi inscribed in his score a sonnet for each of his Four Seasons. Write your own sonnet (a poem of fourteen lines that follow a strict rhyme scheme) or a poem inspired by one of the suggested musical works, describing in it an aspect of the Canadian landscape. (Grade 11 and up)
- Draw parallels between Baroque poetry and one of the listed musical works. (Grade 10 and up)