Baroque instruments

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Musical instruments used in Baroque music were partly used already before, partly are still in use today, but with changed technology. The movement to perform music in a historically informed way, trying to recreate the sound of the period, led to the use of historic instruments of the period and to the reconstruction of instruments.

The following table lists instruments, classified as brass instruments, woodwinds, strings, keyboard and basso continuo. The continuous bass is played by a group of instruments, depending on the given situation. Many instruments have an Italian or French name which is used as a common name also in English. The use of instruments by composers is shown in examples mostly by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Table of instruments[edit]

Common name Baroque era name Type Plural Baroque era plural Example of use by Bach Notes
trumpet tromba it brass, trumpet trumpets trombe BWV 172 see also Baroque trumpet
tromba da tirarsi tromba da tirarsi it brass, trumpet trombe da tirarsi
high trumpet clarino it brass, trumpet clarini
cornett cornetto it brass, cornett cornetts cornetti used with trombones
trombone trombone it brass, trombone trombones tromboni
horn corno it brass, horn horns corni
corno da caccia corno da caccia it brass, horn corni da caccia
corno da tirarsi corno da tirarsi it brass, horn corni da tirarsi
lituus lituo it brass, lituus lituuses litui
timpani timpani it percussion used with trumpets
recorder flauto (dolce) it woodwind, recorder recorders flauti (dolci) BWV 39
descant recorder flauto piccolo it woodwind, recorder flauti piccoli BWV 96, BWV 103
transverse flute flauto traverso it woodwind, flute transverse flutes flauti traversi
oboe oboe it woodwind, oboe oboes oboi
oboe d'amore oboe d'amore it woodwind, oboe oboes d'amore oboi d'amore
tenor oboe taille fr woodwind, oboe tailles
oboe da caccia oboe da caccia it woodwind, oboe oboes da caccia oboi da caccia
bassoon fagotto it woodwind, bassoon bassoons fagotti
violin violino it string, Baroque violin violins violini
viola viola it string, viola violas viole
cello violoncello it string, cello celli violoncelli
violoncello piccolo violoncello piccolo it string, cello violoncelli piccoli
viola d'amore viola d'amore it string, viola viole d'amore
viola da gamba viola da gamba it string, viol viole da gamba
violetta violetta it string, viola violette
violone violone it string, viol violono
organ organo it key, organ organs organi
harpsichord cembalo it key, harpsichord harpsichords cembali
lute liuto it string, lute lutes liuti
continuo basso continuo it bass group

Baroque instrumentation[edit]

The typical orchestra of the Baroque period is based on string instruments (violin, viola) and continuo. A continuous bass is the rule in Baroque music; its absence is worth mentioning and has a reason, such as describing fragility.

The specific character of a movement is often defined by wind instruments, such as oboe, oboe da caccia, oboe d'amore, flauto traverso, recorder, trumpet, horn, trombone, and timpani.

For Bach, some instruments carry symbolic meaning such as a trumpet, the royal instrument of the Baroque, for secular and divine majesty: three trumpets for the Trinity. In arias, Bach often uses obbligato instruments, which correspond with the singer as an equal partner. In his early compositions he used instruments that had become old-fashioned, such as viola da gamba and violone.

Continuo[edit]

The basso continuo, or short: continuo, the typical bass group of the period, consists of a group of instruments, depending upon the other instruments playing and the performance location. A group may consist of cello, double bass (an octave lower) and organ. A bassoon is typically playing when other wind instruments are called for. While an organ will be played in church, a harpsichord will be used in secular surroundings.

Trumpet[edit]

The trumpet is the royal instrument of the Baroque, representing secular and divine majesty. Three trumpets symbolize the Trinity in an aria of Bach's BWV 172, addressing the "Heiligste Dreifaltigkeit" (Most holy Trinity), where the bass voice is accompanied only by three trumpets and timpani.

Recorder[edit]

Recorders in different sizes, flauto piccolo at the bottom

Recorders (flauti dolci) are sometimes used to express humility or poverty, such as in Bach's cantata Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39.

Flauto piccolo[edit]

Bach used a flauto piccolo, a high recorder in D ("descant recorder" or "sopranino recorder"), to express for example the sparkling of the morning star in Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn, BWV 96.