Baroque Music

Baroque Music and Instruments

Passion and Persuasion

An essay on Baroque Music and Devon Baroque by Lucy Robinson

“I heard that stupendious Violin Signor Nicholao (with other rare Musitians) whom certainly never mortal man Exceeded on that instrument. He had a stroak so sweete, & made it speake, like the Voice of a man.” (John Evelyn, 19 November 1674).

If we ever thought that music of the 17th and 18th centuries was remote, cold or just plain uninteresting, we must think again. The diarist John Evelyn was evidently amazed and moved by the possibility that a player with a wooden box under his chin could stir emotions to such a degree. Modern recreations of this music must do the same, or they miss the mark.

So what better starting point for a group like Devon Baroque than the desire to transfix its audiences with a kaleidoscope of emotional states, just like musicians of the past. For they knew well what a profound pleasure it was to have the emotions excited and moved, as an observer of the time explained:

“My thoughts are first in generall that Musick is a true pantomime or resemblance of Humanity in all its states, actions, passions and affections. And in every musicall attempt reasonably designed, Humane Nature is the subject… so that a hearer shall put himself into the like condition, as if the state represented were his owne… And if it be sayd that it is impossible to produce speech out of inanimate sounds, or give an idea of thought, as speech doth, I answer that when ever a strong genius with due application hath attempted it, the success hath bin wonderfull; as when the great Corelli used to say ‘Non l’intendite parlare?’” [Do you not hear it (the violin) speak?]

‘Producing speech out of inanimate sounds’ – yes, that sums it up. And the speech is not merely reading names from a telephone directory; it is passionate, persuasive and compelling. And it this connection between speaking and music, the idea that music can do what speech does, which lies at the heart of the art of Devon Baroque.

In the days of Vivaldi, Handel and Bach, school study was based on the system and the concepts of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Apart from learning Greek and Latin, which enabled the schoolboys to read the poets, the playwrights and the philosophers of 2000 years ago, pupils also learned the ancient ways of thinking and of communicating, through the three disciplines of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Where the first two were essential to make a message clear, it was rhetoric that intensified the emotional impact of the message, that defined the persuasive delivery of the politician, the poet or the actor.

In the period of music we now call ‘Baroque’, musicians used the very same rhetorical techniques as speakers, to deliver emotional messages that allowed them to hold their audience in the palm of their hand.

Rhetoric was fundamental to the way musicians thought and acted, and if we are to understand music of the age of rhetoric, we must once again become rhetoricians. Thus this rhetorical, communicative approach is at the core of Devon Baroque’s ethos, in bringing alive music of the Baroque and early Classical eras.

Of course, when a musician reads music from a score, he or she is following instructions. But the instructions are fairly sketchy – especially if the music is fairly old. The score will provide the notes and the rhythms, but little else. So one of Devon Baroque’s tasks is to understand the hidden messages, the unwritten implications of the page. Once one has a grasp of classical rhetoric, these hidden messages begin to reveal themselves. Here follows a few of the rhetorical, emotional messages which the musicians of Devon Baroque will to respond to in their playing:

Viola d'amore

Viola d’amore, with sympathetic vibrating strings under the fingerboard


Musicians did not write capriciously or arbitrarily in any key. Keys were chosen to match the musical mood. D major was seen as ‘somewhat shrill and stubborn, suited to noisy, joyful, warlike and rousing things’ and suitable for ‘songs of mirth and rejoicing’. D major is also the basic key for the Baroque trumpet, and movements in this key commonly have an arpeggiated trumpet-like spirit even when no trumpets are present, as in the first movement of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Minor keys were chosen to signify seriousness, suffering or pain. Thus J S Bach chose B minor for his famous Mass, a key that had special significance for him not least because its sharps are symbolic of the Christian Cross of suffering.


For the Baroque musician, the size and direction of intervals enhances emotion. Upward melodic movement signifies hope and strength whereas descending intervals epitomise despair. To this we can add the tensions and relaxations of musical harmony. Music which is consistently pleasant can soon become bland and dull. But 18th-century musicians were well aware that a much more compelling emotional effect is achieved by using carefully placed unpleasant sounds as well. As one 18th-century author put it: ‘Consonances make the spirit peaceful and tranquil; dissonances, on the other hand, disturb it. But the more displeasing the disturbance of our pleasure, the more pleasing its resolution. Without this mixture of agreeable and disagreeable sounds, music would no longer be able to arouse the different passions instantly, now to still them again’. Players in the orchestra will be constantly reacting to exploit this movement from pain to pleasure.


There is something fundamental about regular rhythm which sets the feet tapping and so it is hardly surprising that a great deal of baroque music is cast in the form of dances. Like keys, types of dances carried emotional messages: an allemande depicted ‘good order and calm… the image of a contented and satisfied spirit’ but the gigue as ‘fleeting ardent zeal’. Dances are tied to certain rhythms, time signatures, speeds and bow strokes which mirror the steps of the dancers, and the musicians of Devon Baroque need to know these well. Beyond this, specific rhythmic patterns were used to convey specific moods: the musical use of the pyrrhic metre (fast, equally accented notes) to depict the anger of war dates back to Monteverdi : ‘in the pyrrhic measure the tempo is fast and, according to all the best philosophers, used warlike, agitated leaps’ (1638) and Handel uses the same pattern in his famous Messiah aria ‘Why do the Nations so furiously rage together?’ Rests, as in speech, may portray strong emotions such as fear, anger, madness or in a different context sobs ‘whereby teares be picked out, or pyty is moved’.


It is the composer’s imagination that allows him or her to extract different sounds from an orchestra, but again it was not an arbitrary process, for strings were noble: viols distinctly more so than violins due to their higher status as the instrument of the nobility. In Germany the viola da gamba became closely linked with the suffering of Christ, and for Bach was symbolic of life-after-death. Flutes, recorders, oboes and horns represented things pastoral and natural, and thus the scene of Christ in the manger with the shepherds in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is in the pastoral key of F major, accompanied by horns and oboes.


A vital element in the armoury of Devon Baroque is its sound, which necessitates using instruments in the form they took at the time the music was written. While only some of Devon Baroque’s players can carry a museum piece around in their violin case, makers are nowadays creating careful copies of early instruments, and you will see trumpets and horns without valves, wooden flutes of a very simple design and string instruments specially built to use gut strings and bows of unusual shape, accompanied by harpsichord, theorbo, guitar or organ.

Using the old instruments is not enough, however, since they respond properly only when played with the correct technique. This can take years to perfect, and Devon Baroque can only draw on musicians who have this specialist training.

Further Reading

Cyr, Mary: Performing Baroque Music (Aldershot, 1992)
Haynes, Bruce: A History of Performing Pitch: the Story of A (Maryland, 2002)
Haynes, Bruce: The End of Early Music (OUP 2007)
Tarling, Judy: The Weapons of Rhetoric (St Albans, 2004)

Lucy Robinson

Viola da gamba

Copy of a seven-string French viola da gamba


Baroque oboe da caccia, oboe d’amore and oboe

Header Photograph by Johnny Fenn