A Baroque Glossary

1600 to 1750: Although the impulse to harness music’s power unifies much of the music in the baroque era, the technical differences in the period—particularly between early and late works—are striking. In his helpful survey of the era, musicologist Claude Palisca suggests that the period be understood as encompassing several different phases. The first phase, in which the desire to find new ways of musical expression strengthens, takes place from around 1550 to 1640. Between 1640 and 1690, new rules and regulations begin to govern this musical expression, particularly in the area of rhythm, harmony, expressive devices and form. From 1690 to 1740, the formal standards developed in the previous period are accepted as fixed.

allemande: a moderately slow, serious dance in quadruple meter and binary form. The allemande began life as a dance in the Renaissance, and was later cultivated as an independent instrumental piece. By the time it became one of the four standard dances of the suite at the end of the 17th century, the allemande often favored an imitative, ornamented texture over strongly profiled dance rhythms.

bourrée: a lively dance in duple meter and binary form. It was a popular dance in Lully’s operas and at the court of Louis XIV, and retained its homophonic texture and simple rhythms as an independent instrumental work in the baroque.

Back to Top

courante (also It. corrente): a well known dance in the 16th century, the courante became even more important in the 17th. A triple meter dance in binary form, it existed in two versions: the French courante, which was generally solemn and stately and written in an occasionally ambiguous triple meter; and the Italian corrente, which was in a rapid triple meter. In Italy, the corrente was a lively courtship dance, while the courante was one of the most important dances at Louis XIV’s court balls. Since French choreography for the courante survives only from the 18th century, we know very little about its relationship to the Italian version.

da capo aria: the standard aria form by the late 17th century. The da capo aria had two main sections: the opening “A” section in the main key, followed by a contrasting “B” section in other keys. At the end of the “B” section, the words “da capo” (literally “from the head”) directed a repeat of the “A” section, which usually served as an opportunity for singers to show off their vocal prowess through elaborate improvised ornamentation.

fantasia (also Eng. fancy, fantasy; Ger. Fantasie): an unstructured instrumental composition, often characterized by exaggeration, distortion and unpredictability. Throughout its use, fantasia often meant free improvisation, and was used to describe a work that gave the impression of flowing spontaneously from a player’s imagination. The term was sometimes used interchangeably with capriccio, voluntary, toccata and canzona, among others. work of unstructured form, originally an improvisation.

Back to Top

gavotte: an elegant dance in moderate duple meter and in binary form, often with a homophonic texture and simple rhythms. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the gavotte was a type of branle. In the middle of the 17th century, the gavotte emerged as a new dance with similar musical characteristics, becoming popular in the operas and ballets of Lully and Rameau. The gavotte (or frequently a pair of gavottes) often followed the sarabande in a suite.

gigue (also Eng. jig, It. giga): a fast dance typically in compound meter and binary form. It originated in England and Ireland as the jig, and was known in France by the 1650s. In the baroque suite and other compositions, the gigue often served as the final movement. As an independent instrumental composition, the character of the gigue varied widely, but typically retained its fast tempo.

harpsichord: the principal stringed keyboard instrument from the 16th to the 18th centuries and the chief instrument of the basso continuo; small harpsichords were called virginals or spinets. The harpsichord resembles a piano, but its sound is based on quills that pluck the strings rather than hammers. It was superseded by the piano in the 19th century.

intermezzo: in the 18th century, a comic work performed between the acts of an opera seria and the forerunner of opera buffa, which emerged as an important subgenre of opera in early 18th century Naples. The most popular example is Pergolesi’s La Serva padrona (1733).

lute: a plucked string instrument of the 14th to the 17th centuries similar in appearance to the guitar, but with an oblong, pear-shaped body. Although it flourished in the Renaissance, the lute was still an important instrument in the early baroque, and was used to accompany songs and as part of the continuo group. During the course of the 17th century, it was gradually superseded by the theorbo, violin and harpsichord.

Back to Top

madrigal: a polyphonic vocal setting, usually unaccompanied, of various kinds of verse that was extremely popular from the early 16th century to the middle of the 17th century, particularly in Italy. By the middle of the 16th century, the genre was used as fertile ground for musical experimentation.

minuet: a graceful and extremely popular dance in triple meter, usually in binary form. The minuet first emerged in the middle of the 17th century, and became wildly popular at the court of Louis XIV; the king himself was reported to be an excellent minuet dancer. The minuet was the only baroque dance form that did not become obsolete in the classical period, as it often concluded an opera overture and was subsequently incorporated into the symphony.

motet: one of the major vocal genres from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. In the baroque era, the term generally referred to a sacred vocal composition intended for use in church or personal devotion.

sarabande (also It. sarabanda, Sp. zarabanda): a triple meter dance. In France and Germany, the sarabande was slow and stately. The dance was first known in Mexico and Spain in the 16th century as the zarabanda, however, a wild and extremely erotic dance. Although it was banned in Spain in 1583, it survived throughout the baroque era there and in Italy as a fast dance. It eventually became one of the four standard dances of the baroque suite, usually in its slower guise.

Back to Top

semi-opera: in late 17th and early 18th century England, a dramatic work in which the main characters primarily spoke, but which incorporated substantial sections of music. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (1692) is one example.

tragédie-lyrique (also tragédie en musique): French opera of the 17th and 18th centuries, based on serious subjects normally drawn from classical mythology. Usually in five acts, the tragédie-lyrique incorporates ballet and choruses with the typical recitatives and arias.

viol: a member of a family of stringed instruments in use from the 16th through most of the 18th century, and the precursor of the violin. The term viola da gamba referred to those instruments held on the knee or between the legs, while viola da braccio meant those that were played on the arm. Viols have a fretted fingerboard, a flat-backed body, six strings, and are played with a curved bow usually resting on the leg. They were the precursors of the violin family.

viola da gamba: from the Italian “viol for the leg,” the term can refer to any member of the viol family, but by the 17th century designated a bass viol with a range similar to that of a cello.

Back to Top