“What is it about Baroque music that is so appealing?”: Guest Post by Suzanne Bona of Sunday Baroque

Sunday Baroque is a gem of a radio programme in the United States. This show has a very special place in my heart; in fact, it was Sunday Baroque that first made me fall in love with Baroque music. I’m 27, and Sunday Baroque is now entering its twenty-seventh year as well. I remember the first time I heard it – perhaps in 1998 on National Public Radio – and I was instantly mesmerised by it. I looked forward to listening to this lovely program every Sunday – which has both exquisite music and Suzanne has a lovely, warm delivery. Without further ado, I’m extremely honoured to have Suzanne contribute a Guest Post here on The Seventeenth Century Lady!

“What is it about Baroque music that is so appealing?”

LogoIt’s a question I have been asked repeatedly and have asked myself many times over the 26 years I have hosted Sunday Baroque, my weekly radio program. While I don’t necessarily have the definitive answer – and there really isn’t ONE answer — there are some running themes that have emerged over the years, along with some curious – and occasionally contradictory – observations.

Antonio Vivaldi, by François Morellon la Cave. Image: Wiki Commons.

First, though, to set the stage for how Sunday Baroque originated and how I became the show’s founding host and producer. I was fortunate to begin music lessons at age 8 and play flute in the elementary school band. As my skills developed I began private lessons and eventually majored in music performance at the University of Connecticut. Over the course of my training, I’d learned to play music from virtually all eras, but mostly Romantic era and Contemporary music, with only a little bit from the Baroque and Classical eras thrown in.

When I started my “day job” as a radio announcer at WSHU, the program director assigned me Sunday mornings and instructed me to “play Baroque music.” His primary motivation was probably to keep the radio newbie with the freshly-issued music degree from going off the deep end and programming something too esoteric and/or dissonant. By outlining the Baroque era (1600-1750) he gave me a reasonable boundary. His minimalist instructions were fateful, and I eagerly embraced the new challenge and tried to fill in some of the holes of my musical education.

Johann Sebastian Bach, by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Image: Wikipedia.

Since the little I knew about the Baroque era came from my limited personal experience as a flutist and my general music history classes in college, I approached the responsibility with a mostly blank slate. It was exciting and gratifying to learn as much as possible about the already-familiar composers from the era, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi and Georg Philipp Telemann. It was also thrilling to learn some new names – Johann David Heinichen, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and Santiago de Murcia among many others.

Those early programs were fun. They were also, occasionally, terrifying. One of my early nervous gaffes was announcing the composer (Gaspar Sanz, b. 1640–d.1710) as the performer, and the living performer as the (Baroque era) composer. Yikes! But once the nervous energy subsided and I mastered the technical requirements to be on the air, I found great pleasure in finding those “new” composers and playing their music juxtaposed with the more familiar ones. My own tastes and preferences began coming through, and variety and contrast became a major goal. That may seem contradictory when one is limited to a 150-year time period and the years leading up to it. But … I sought and found variety in other ways. Period instruments? Sure. Modern instruments? Yes, those too. Quiet, mellow and cerebral sounds next to boisterous and busy tunes, or a small chamber ensemble followed by Baroque orchestra. Of course! Sunday Baroque developed its character and its “brand” as my own tastes formed and evolved. That’s when I became aware that what *I* found appealing about Baroque music was the tremendous variety available. There were SO MANY versions of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, and Antonio Vivaldi’s FOUR SEASONS, and George Frideric Handel’s MESSIAH.  There were also their contemporaries who had more to say about the music of that era.

Instrucciòn de Mùsica sobre la Guitarra Española by Gaspar Sans. Image: Biblioteca Nacional de España, via Wikipedia

Finding and sharing the vast array of music was a delight and sometimes a challenge. Sunday Baroque developed a following, and became an increasingly important part of the radio station’s weekend lineup. Clearly there is SOMETHING inherently appealing about this music that has reached out to a wide variety of people, from professional musicians to those who have never before listened to any classical music, and everyone in between.

Over the years, it’s been fascinating to hear the wide variety of stories about what appeals to people about this music. Since public radio listeners are particularly outspoken and opinionated, they regularly communicated their own opinions and preferences. One faction was deeply committed to the idea of historically informed performance. These listeners want the most authentic sound – instruments from the period, gut strings and Baroque tuning. They relish the purest possible approach to the music.  Another faction holds the complete opposite viewpoint: why play those creaky old period instruments if there are more modern incarnations to use? Those are the two extremes, though. Most listeners fall somewhere in the middle.

There has been one running theme over the years – people with an affinity for various genres of rock and pop music often seem to find Baroque music a refreshing entry point to the classical repertory. Many years ago at a solo harpsichord concert I MC’d featuring the great musician Anthony Newman, a young man eagerly approached me during the intermission. He was 13 years old, and was wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a heavy metal band. He told me his favorite two types of music were heavy metal (obviously!) and … Baroque!  I asked him why, but he couldn’t articulate an answer, only that the two genres spoke to him most directly. When I attended my 20th high school reunion, I was approached by several former classmates who were eager to tell me they’d become regular listeners and were surprised and delighted by how much they enjoyed classical music for the first time in their lives. My lifelong friend Nora delights in all things antique – homes, furniture, lifestyles. Loving Baroque and early music is a natural extension of her passion for the history and culture.

Another running theme for people who fall in love with Baroque and early music is the pool of talented musicians who get their hands on a period instrument for the first time, usually after playing a “modern” instrument, and become smitten. I’ve lost track of how many flute playing friends have told me of the epiphanies they experienced when they first tried a Baroque flute. Many of today’s great lutenists started out playing rock and roll guitar. Somewhere along the line they were exposed to Baroque music, or someone put a lute in their hands, and they never looked back. They were each unified in feeling as though they’d met their soul mate – the love of their life – when they “found” their instrument: its sound, feel, appearance, and its response.

Baroque music is also well represented in popular culture. Hollywood has used Baroque music in its soundtracks, and NOT just in period dramas. (Think back to Kramer v. Kramer and its extensive use of Vivaldi Concertos.)  Madison Avenue has also used its share of Baroque music in ad campaigns. (GE lightbulb commercials helped popularize Pachelbel’s now-ubiquitous CANON.) Rock star Sting even collaborated with lutenist Edin Karamazov on a recording (SONGS FROM THE LABYRINTH) of lute songs by John Dowland (1563-1626), one of the first great singer-songwriters. Sting was already a longtime fan of Bach’s music, and when he received a lute as a gift, he wanted to explore Dowland’s music because it had “haunted” him for decades.

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Recently I posed the question on Sunday Baroque’s Facebook page: What makes Baroque music appealing to you? There was a broad range of responses. A few themes emerged. Someone described it as “beautiful mathematics” and several others used words such as “complex,” “contrapuntal” and “deep.” Others pointed to the emotional capacity of Baroque music, using words such as “soothing,” “inspiring,” “uplifting” and “relaxing.” A few replied that the music is “energizing.” Some people praised the music’s unpredictability and surprises, while others pointed to its patterns and familiarity.

So many contradictions!! Or are they? I guess it comes down to one’s own experience, as with any music. I have long speculated that people who were rock or pop enthusiasts and find their way to Baroque music feel an affinity for the harmonic patterns, which can be so similar. The symmetry of Baroque music phrases is also comparable to what pop music has to offer. For more experienced music listeners – including musicians themselves – I hypothesize that their early training, like mine, glossed over music before the 18th century. When they are exposed to the unique complexity of a Bach fugue or the driving sixteenth notes of a Vivaldi concerto, it seems new, almost foreign. It requires a different kind of technique and stamina. Sometimes it calls for ornamentation of notes or improvisation, both skills that many musicians lack in their training.

So, again, I come back to the original question: “What is it about Baroque music that is so appealing?”

And the answer is: I don’t know. Maybe there is no answer. But one of my favorite quotes comes to mind:

THE MORE YOU LOVE MUSIC, THE MORE MUSIC YOU LOVE.

Maybe that is the answer: if you love music — really love music — sooner or later you will come around to loving Baroque and early music.

Suzanne BonaSuzanne Bona is host and executive producer of Sunday Baroque, a weekly radio program of music from the Baroque era (1600-1750) and before. She originated the program in 1987 at WSHU Public Radio in her hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut. In 1998 Sunday Baroque became a nationally syndicated program, and is currently broadcast on approximately 150 public radio stations and networks across the United States. Suzanne is also a classically trained flutist who continues to perform actively in a variety of ensembles and as a soloist. You can listen to Sunday Baroque via radio or online.

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Hear ye! 3 thoughts — so far — on ““What is it about Baroque music that is so appealing?”: Guest Post by Suzanne Bona of Sunday Baroque”:

  1. David Nolan (David73277)

    I think there is room for both modern and “authentic” performances, although personally, particularly when it comes to keyboard music, I increasingly sympathise with the quote “why play those creaky old period instruments if there are more modern incarnations to use?” By that I mean I would probably rather hear Bach on the piano than the harpsichord, not on the electronic keyboard!

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  2. Pedro Nunes

    There is one other path to baroque. Those, like myself, who have enjoyed classical music all their lives (i am 52) but have gradually become more attached to the baroque period almost exclusively. I started with baroque but went on to enjoy immensely other periods over the decades. A process that lasted maybe 5 years has seem me listening less and less to Bruckner, Mahler (how much i enjoyed those long symphonic snakes), Schubert, Brahms, Liszt or Wagner, even Stravinsky or Debussy or Faure to concentrated almost exclusively on the baroque and contemporary music. Bach or Stockhausen, Lully or Emanuel Nunes now, some Schoenberg also. Why ? No idea. Do I care ? No.

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  3. Mark LaMotte Foster

    I’m like that kid…heavy metal, baroque, reggae, garage rock, jazz, Great music transcends labels. It’s all about the emotional content, how it makes me feel. Baroque is the soft warm blanket on a cool night. It’s powdered wigs and ruffled elegance, large estates with well-tended gardens, horse-drawn carriages, green countrysides, rigid social events, decadent affairs in dark candle-lit rooms. It’s an injection of pure calm and joy. An easy stroll in the park. As Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap said, “Simple lines, intertwining.” They rise and fall, dance in and out of each other, threading a perfect tapestry of angels, dukes and duchesses and a life of ease and beauty. Stick it in a heavy movie like Ordinary People and that darn Pachelbel gets me in the gut every time. But play it at a wedding and I cringe. Then to recover I must go home and listen to some Sepultura or Black Flag. My all-time favorite baroque piece is Bach’s Brandenburg Conerto No. 6, Allegro. Right there, that is 100% pure.

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