A Guide to Baroque Vocal Music

Baroque Opera Listening Guide
Baroque Vocal Genres Listening Guide

Baroque Opera Listening Guide

The following table provides useful information about the types of vocal numbers used in Baroque opera (recitative, aria, arioso, & chorus) and the style features that can help you distinguish them from each other.
Recitative
  • for solo voice with only continuo accompaniment
  • free, speech rhythms without a strong sense of meter
  • speechlike melody with many repeated notes, usually not very tuneful
  • ornamentation, melismas, & repetition of words and phrases are rare
Accompanied Recitative
  • for solo voice with orchestral accompaniment
  • otherwise very similar to simple recitative
  • emerges in the mid- and late Baroque
Aria
  • for one solo voice with orchestral accompaniment (most often), frequent use of orchestral ritornelli between sections
  • usually a clear sense of meter (sometimes freer)
  • greater variety of melodic motion than recitative, often very tuneful
  • frequent use of ornamentation, melismas, & repetition of words and phrases
  • strophic, ground bass, & other simple forms common in early Baroque; da capo arias dominate in the late Baroque
Arioso
  • an aria-like passage heard (most often) within a recitative, but too short to be a full-fledged aria
  • for solo voice with continuo or orchestral accompaniment, sometimes with orchestral ritornello
  • a stronger sense of meter than the surrounding recitative
  • melody is more tuneful than the surrounding recitative
  • frequent use of ornamentation, melismas, & repetition of words and phrases
Ensemble
  • for two or more solo voices with orchestral accompaniment (most often)
  • often referred to as duets, trios, quartets, etc.
  • otherwise very similar to an aria (but for more than one solo voice)
Chorus
  • for four to eight parts, usually with more than one singer on each part, with continuo or orchestral accompaniment, often uses orchestral ritornelli between stanzas
  • usually a strong sense of meter (sometimes freer)
  • more tuneful melody, not much ornamentation, texture can be chordal and/or imitative

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Baroque Vocal Genres Listening Guide

The following table provides useful information about several important Baroque vocal genres (opera, continuo madrigal, sacred concerto, oratorio, cantata, etc.) and the style features that can help you distinguish them from each other.

Opera
  • An extended secular work for solo voices, orchestra, & often a chorus.
  • Includes recitatives & arias, and may also include choruses, duets, an orchestral overture, and orchestral interludes.
  • Story often based on mythology or historical events & characters.
  • Performed with action, costumes, and often extravagant sets & machinery.
Continuo Madrigal (Concerted Madrigal)
  • A short secular work for one or more solo voices with continuo accompaniment & sometimes one or two violins.
  • An updated version of the Renaissance polyphonic madrigal, often alternating between imitative & homophonic textures.
  • Often through-composed, but may use strophic form or ostinato bass.
  • Often uses new vocal techniques such as recitative style or virtuoso solo song styles.
Small Sacred Concerto
  • A short sacred work for one or more solo voices with organ continuo accompaniment & often one or two violins.
  • A modest, updated version of the Renaissance motet, often alternating between imitative & homophonic textures.
  • Alternates between a more rhythmic aria style & a freer, melodic recitative style.
  • Texts are frequently drawn from the Bible.
  • Used in both Catholic & Protestant worship services.
Large-Scale Sacred Concerto (Grand Concerto)
  • A short sacred work for one or more solo voices, one or more choruses, an instrumental ensemble, & one or more organs playing continuo.
  • Often written for cori spezzati (divided choirs), with soloists, choruses, & instruments divided into two or more choirs, often located in different parts of the church.
  • A grand, updated version of the Renaissance motet, often alternating between imitative & homophonic textures.
  • Alternates between a more rhythmic style & a freer recitative style.
  • Texts are frequently drawn from the Bible.
  • Used in both Catholic & Protestant worship services.
Oratorio
  • An extended sacred work for choir, solo voices, and orchestra.
  • Includes the same types of numbers found in opera—recitatives, arias, choruses, & occasional duets (later Baroque oratorio often adds orchestral overture and interludes).
  • Heavier emphasis on the chorus in oratorio than in opera
  • Based on a dramatic story drawn from the Bible.
  • Performed without action, costumes, or sets.
  • Not part of a church service.
  • Written for both Catholic & Protestant audiences.
Passion
  • A type of oratorio.
  • Includes arias, recitative, choruses, occasional duets, and chorales.
  • Based on one of the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) of Christ’s passion, that is, the events of the last few days leading up to and including Christ’s crucifixion.
  • Part of worship services for Holy Week (the week before Easter—usually Good Friday).
  • Written for both Catholic and Protestant (Lutheran) audiences.
Cantata
  • A secular work, similar to an opera but much shorter.
  • Most often for one solo voice & continuo (sometimes for two or more solo voices, choir, and orchestra).
  • Includes recitatives & arias (add choruses & occasional ensembles when larger performing forces are used).
  • Performed without action, costumes, or sets.
Church Cantata
  • A sacred work, similar to an oratorio but much shorter.
  • For one or more solo voices, choir, & orchestra.
  • Includes recitatives, arias, choruses, occasional duets, & a chorale.
  • Performed without action, costumes, or sets.
  • Church cantatas were written for Protestant (Lutheran) audiences.
  • Church cantatas were part of the Sunday worship service, based on that weekÝs Bible reading.

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Created 10/25/05 by Mark Harbold—last updated 10/26/05