Introduction to Baroque Instruments

So, why do some people think it best to play baroque music on instruments of that period rather than using instruments in the modern symphony orchestra? Good question!


Still life with Musical Instruments and Fruit, Cristoforo Munari, Florence, Italy, 1705. It is not wrong to use modern instruments. Increasingly modern instrument ensembles are giving very stylish performances of baroque music - one of my favorites is the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. However, my preference is to use period instruments to play baroque music in a style as close as possible to the original intentions of the composer. There is much to learn about the style from using instruments of the period, or at least from studying period instrument performances. I will include one or more recordings in each Early Music Monday post.


The performance of baroque music died out quite quickly after 1750, and was forgotten as a new style, made famous by Haydn and Mozart, came into fashion. From the late 19thc. there was a revival of interest in baroque music that was typically played in the same style as Brahms and Mahler by large symphony orchestras in large concert halls. During the 17thc. and 18thc. music was typically performed in large 'rooms' in palaces, small opera houses, and in churches - there were no large concert halls needing louder more powerful instruments.


The baroque orchestra is more like a chamber ensemble, with direction typically from the harpsichord player: 3 first violins, 3 second violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, bass, 2 oboes, flute, bassoon, harpsichord, and a lute - would be a good average size. For some pieces 2 trumpets and/or horns and timpani would be added, and some of the repertoire only requires strings.


At the start of recording in the early 20thc. little was known about period instruments. In the late 1960s, what is known as 'Historically Informed Performance' (HIP) developed - taking into account research about original performance style, the composer's intentions, and the type of instruments used originally. The tempo of modern instrument performances in the early 20thc. were often slower, sometimes much slower than recent HIP performances - as you will hear:


Example - J S Bach, Brandenburg Concerto for strings, #3


European Union Baroque Orchestra, directed from the harpsichord by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJvPAoYpbew


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, 1930: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRVUgx71uFI


Two already large international period instrument orchestras + extra woodwind and brass players, playing Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks in London. (A small orchestra would not make enough sound for such a large hall!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qzB_5O-aK0


Next week - The Birth of Baroque Music

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