Monday, December 19, 2016

Music and Art through the Ages: Part 4: Baroque

We are continuing on in our study of music and art. We started in Ancient Greece, traveled to Medieval Times, and then the Renaissance.

Today we are delving into the Baroque era, which is a European musical time period that spans roughly between 1600 and 1750 AD.  Notable composers include Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann, and Bach. Some interesting instruments used are the modern string instruments of today, the hurdy-gurdy (or wheel fiddle), the harpsichord, and recorder.

Terraced dynamics was used extensively in Baroque music. Terraced dynamics just means that the volume of the music changed abruptly from soft to loud without gradual crescendos or decrescendos.  A good example of this is Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2.  It starts loud, gets soft, gets loud, etc. without gradual changes.

One of the most well-known Baroque pieces is Canon in D by Pachelbel.  What you may not know is that it was written as Canon and Gigue in D.  A gigue is a dance, so it is more upbeat than the canon. Here is a very well done version of the canon, but make sure you listen to it all the way to the end so that you can hear the gigue, which starts around 5:02. It is a beautiful part of the piece and is hardly ever heard.

A great instrument of the Baroque area is the harpsichord, which is a string instrument. It is like a piano in that is has a keyboard, but instead of hammers that hit the strings there are little quills that pluck the strings. This makes dynamics difficult and, in turn, harpsichords can only play two dynamics: loud (forte) and quiet (piano).  This is one of the reasons terraced dynamics was used heavily.  This is a dramatic piece written by Scarlatti for harpsichord. Amazing! In this video she is playing a large harpsichord and is standing, but there are also harpsichords you sit at to play just like the piano.

Another fun instrument of the time is the hurdy-gurdy, or the wheel fiddle. This was played by cranking a wheel and using buttons to make the notes, similar to an accordion.  The faster you crank, the louder you play. This is another instrument that could only really be played loud or soft and, in turn, played in terraced dynamics. This video shows a man playing a hurdy-gurdy while wearing time appropriate clothing. It is very interesting to see this instrument up close and watch him play it.


According to Wikipedia, “Baroque Art is a period of artistic style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music. The style began around 1600 in Rome, Italy and spread to most of Europe.” Notable artists include Peter Paul Rubens, Bernini, Rembrant, and Carvaggio. 

It was a time of opulence and extravaganza, as seen in many of the Baroque palaces of the time. Examples include the Augustus Palace and the Trevi Fountain. It is seen in paintings of the time as well, which exaggerated lighting and intense emotions. Many paintings were commissioned by wealthy Catholic families and, instead of capturing life at the time, captured the faith and the power of the church.


  1. Research a composer and an artist. The best thing to do is find biographical books at the library, listen to the music, and look at the art they created.
  2. Listen to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As you listen to each season, create a picture to depict the season. Try to listen to the music for some ideas to put in your picture. In Spring, you may hear birds chirping. In the Winter, you may hear the chattering of teeth. Be creative with the music and your art. With my kids, we added some science to the mix and we talked about deciduous trees and how they change throughout the year. We then drew the same picture, but in each season.  For spring, there were flowers in the tree. In the fall, the leaves had changed colors. This is a way to have music, art, and science come together in one lesson. This YouTube video has the entire Four Seasons with clickable links to each movement so you can easily skip ahead when you are ready to hear the next season.
  3. In the Baroque art style, artists were very dramatic in their use of light. Have your students check out portraits of Rembrant and Vermeer.  Let your students create their own self-portraits using pastels, charcoal, or pencil to enhance the light and emotion. (This would work well for older students, grades 3rd/4th and up)

Have fun with the Baroque Period!  I would love to see what you come up with – please share!

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