How did Baroque composers convey the meaning of the text in their music?
There are a number ways in which Baroque composers conveyed the meaning of the text in their music. Often writing for religious purposes using religious texts, it was important that the music reflected the libretto so that the meaning of the scripture was reinforced by the music and conveyed to the listener.
Texture of baroque pieces was used by composers to convey the meaning of the text. Handel’s Glory to God is again a significant example as it begins piano with ‘and peace on earth’. This is sung in unison which could represent the world united in peace. However, the ‘good will’ section is not homophonic, it is extremely contrapuntal which equally could represent the spreading of this ‘good will to all men’. The alternation at bar 35 really emphasises the importance of these words within the movement. At the end, the texture emptying to an almost inaudible duet between two string instruments returns the mood to that of solemnity.
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Another example of texture being used to convey the meaning of the text is ‘Behold, my saviour now is taken’, an aria and chorus from the oratorio St. Matthew’s Passion by Bach. The first section of the piece includes an alto and soprano duet accompanied by strings and basso continuo and the contrapuntal textures of the two voices beginning at different times contrasted with the homophonic section ‘Moon and stars’ reflects the solemn mood of the libretto. However, there is also a sense of anxiety and anticipation which is shown to be valid when the forte chorus section begins. This section is extremely contrapuntal which reflects God’s anger and power in the independence of the melodic lines. The Neapolitan chord at bar 134 with the F naturals and also the tierce de picardie on the final word ‘blood’ enhances this anxiety and feeling of God’s wrath.
The use of harmony and tonality was also an effective way in which composers conveyed the meaning of their text. For example, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from his Messiah is written in D major, the ‘key of glory’. The major tonality creates a joyous and triumphant mood. While this reflects the words’ meaning, it also allows for the use of trumpets which play a most important role in movements with such celebratory libretto as ‘for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth”. Vivaldi uses D major for the opening movement of his Gloria, creating the same effect as Handel for exactly the same reasons. In fact, the entire of Monteverdi’s Versiculus Responsorium, the first movement of his Vespers is played and sung on a D major chord following the opening chant.
However, tonality and harmony can also be used to convey God’s anger, mourning or even a mood of solemnity. In the 2nd movement of Vivaldi’s Gloria, ‘Et in terra pax’, Vivaldi uses B minor for the words are very sombre, speaking of ‘Peace on earth’. However, ‘Thou Shalt Break Them’, an aria from Handel’s Messiah uses the minor key to reflect God’s power.
Rhythm is also used by composers to illustrate the meaning of the libretto and an example of this is ‘Thou Shalt Break Them’ from the Messiah. There is a shaking semiquaver motif in the accompaniment that evokes the image of ‘like a potter’s vessel’ and the compound 6th intervals in the bass line and heavy, disjunct melody emphasises upon this motif portraying God’s power. Another use of rhythm is in Handel’s Hallelujah from the Messiah as the dotted crotchets followed by quavers and motifs of two semiquavers followed by two quavers on the word ‘Hallelujah’ is idiomatic of celebratory fanfares.
Finally, the ranges of voices used in baroque religious music help to convey the significance of the text because some pieces convey the wrath of God and his power such as ‘Thou Shalt Break Them’ which uses a tenor solo with large intervals, whereas pieces such as ‘Behold, my saviour now is taken’ use voices with higher ranges such as altos and sopranos to reflect a mood of solemnity. However, both pieces use melismas on words such as ‘potter’s’ which can either increase the anxiety of the piece or which can add to suspensions to give a mood of peace.
Baroque composers used many techniques to convey the meaning of the text such as tonality, texture and rhythm because it was incredibly important to comprehend the full significance of the libretto.