How is a baroque orchestra different from a modern orchestra?
- Opera Atelier’s orchestra, Tafelmusik, plays on so-called “original instruments” – the instruments which the composers of baroque music played themselves. Orchestral instruments have changed over the years to reflect changing tastes in sound production. Modern violins have to be loud enough to be heard in the back row of a large concert hall; the violin of Bach’s time was usually played in a small church or the salon of a palace and the warm sound of gut strings (made from sheep intestines) was loud enough to fill the intimate space.
- One of the most striking features of a baroque orchestra is the continuous presence of the harpsichord. It doubles the line played by the cello and bass in the left hand and makes the orchestra sound louder by filling out the harmonies with chords. The harpsichord’s distinctive sound is created by quills made from bird feathers which pluck the strings, making the bass line sound clearer and the rhythms more driving.
- Baroque orchestras were usually directed by one of the players instead of a separate conductor.
The Orchestra – A Baroque Innovation
In renaissance instrumental ensemble music, each part was played by one musician. Baroque composers continued to compose solo and chamber music but they also experimented with creating a fuller sound by putting several performers on one part to form an orchestra.
Baroque composers began to compose more extended instrumental pieces than in former times and they created forms in which several movements could be grouped together. Sometimes these movements were in contrasting but related keys. Our modern system of major and minor keys is an invention of the baroque period; baroque composers were the first to think of their music as a series of chords built above a bass line, each having a relationship with the main note of the key.
Excerpts from Tafelmusik’s study guide, Go for Baroque by Alison Mackay.