Opera written during the Baroque era, a period in Europe’s artistic history, is referred to as Baroque opera. The Baroque period is generally considered to span the years 1600 to 1750, following the previous Renaissance period and eventually giving way to the Classical period. Baroque opera encompasses the early evolution of opera and its development into an important form of music, as it predates the beginning of the Baroque era only a few years.
Monody, or music in which a solo vocalist sings the melody of a song while other instruments provide accompaniment, is a key feature of Baroque opera, as it is of later opera. Monody was a significant development in Baroque music, distinguishing it from Renaissance polyphony-based vocal music, in which multiple singers sang different melodic lines at the same time. Basso continuo was a type of accompaniment used frequently the singer’s instrumental accompaniment. A bass line was played a low-pitched instrument or instruments, such as a cello, while a chord-playing instrument, such as a harpsichord, played the notes of the bass line as well as adding additional, higher notes to play a complete chord.
In comparison to previous composers of vocal music, Baroque opera composers were more specific in their compositions, specifying specific instruments or combinations of instruments to suit the emotional tone of each scene in the opera. As a result, instrumentation became more elaborate and complex. The opera of the Baroque period was succeeded the opera of the Classical period, which lasted roughly from 1750 to 1830. Classical opera’s instrumentation was less complex and ornamented than Baroque opera’s, and Classical music placed a greater emphasis on dramatic changes and contrasts within a single piece.
Baroque opera grew out of a variety of musical and non-musical influences. Early opera developed from an existing tradition of Italian vocal music in which one singer sang the main melody while other singers or musicians provided supporting accompaniment in the final years of the 16th century. Several songs could be performed in a row, each with lyrics that told a different story. At the same time, the Renaissance’s increased interest in Classical Greek and Roman literature led to a renewed interest in classical Greek drama with musical elements. During the 16th century, theatrical performances that included musical performances in between acts of a play were becoming increasingly popular. Because of the wealth of the Italian nobleman who funded these events, they were frequently large, grandiose affairs.
On the cusp of the Baroque era, Jacopo Peri composed Dafne, which is widely considered to be the first opera. Claudio Monteverdi, who composed his first opera, L’Orfeo, in 1607, was the first composer of Baroque opera whose work is still widely performed today. The instrumental parts of the music were partly improvised the musicians for each performance, which distinguishes Monteverdi from later Baroque operas, as was typical of Italian music of the Renaissance era in which Monteverdi’s career had begun, rather than fully scored in advance, as was typical of Italian music of the Renaissance era in which Monteverdi’s career had begun. Unlike Peri’s operas, which were small-scale productions with only a few supporting instruments, L’Orfeo was designed to have nearly 40 musicians accompanying the vocalists, with different groups of instruments designated for different characters and scenes. Monteverdi also employed a number of musical techniques that would prove crucial in the development of Baroque opera in the future.
The new art form grew in popularity over the next few decades, eventually transcending noble courts and formal public events to become a form of popular entertainment. It also spread outside of Italy, resulting in operas written in languages such as French, German, and English. Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, and Jean-Philippe Rameau are three Baroque opera composers whose works are still widely performed today.