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Young Person’s Guide to the Baroque Orchestra

This week on Harmonia, we’ll introduce you the main parts that make up a baroque orchestra, plus a new release by harpsichordist Davitt Moroney.

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photo of orchestra

Photo: Randi Beach

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, one of America's finest period instrument ensembles.

Today’s modern orchestra is made up of many kinds of instruments.  With over three hundred years worth of music it might conceivably perform, you’d be correct in assuming that it’s a complex ensemble, one which shifts its size to meet many demands.  But this hasn’t always been the case…

The orchestra of the late baroque period was a much simpler being.  With a core of strings and basso continuo, it could also have winds, brass, and even percussion; many of which developed into the instruments we know today.

So, in order to get acquainted with its individual members, let’s start with the violins and violas.  Antonio Vivaldi’s trio sonata for two violins and basso continuo is performed by Sonnerie on the 1998 release, Trio Sonatas Op.1.  The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, directed by Ton Koopman, performs a Sinfonia from J.S. Bach’s cantata Gleich wie der Regen und Schnee, which prominently features four violas and basso continuo, on the 1995 Erato release, Complete Cantatas, vol. 2.

Now that we’ve heard the upper strings, let’s move on to the winds…

A baroque orchestra will most often be augmented by flutes and oboes; a bit like adding spices to a favorite dish.  Many baroque composers often favored the mellifluous sound of the flute and the reedy oboe, usually incorporating them in pairs.

Flute music of Louis-Antoine Dornel is performed on the 2000 Glossa release, Relfexions, featuring Wilbert Hazelzet, traverso, Brian Berryman, traverso, Jaap ter Linden on viola da gamba and Jacques Ogg on harpsichord.  Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Sonata VI for two oboes, basson, and continuo is performed by the Ensemble Zefiro on the 1993 release from Astrée records, Sonatas for Two Oboes and Bassoon, with Basso Continuo.

We’ve heard the upper strings and winds, now let’s move onto the basso continuo section, which is the name given to the bass instruments that play the lowest musical line.  This section can be made up of anywhere from two to five different types of instruments, including cello, double bass, harpsichord, theorbo and guitar (in particular, harpsichord and cello are one of the most common and simplest of basso continuo groups).

Canadian harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour performs J.C.F. Fischer’s Musical Parnassus on the 1996 recording on the Naxos label, Musical Parnassus, vol. 1.  Gaetano Nasillo performs Francesco Geminiani’s cello sonata on the 2000 recording, Sonates.

We’ve discussed the individual sections; Violins, violas, pairs of flutes, and then oboes.  We even touched on the main members of the basso continuo section performing solos: harpsichord and cello.

Now let’s bring them all together and form an orchestra…

There’s probably no better way to do this than through dance music, the most popular kind of instrumental music a baroque orchestra would have played.  Jean Féry Rebel’s “Characters of the Dance,” a work that shows off the most popular French dances of the late baroque—performed by Les Musiciens du Louvre, directed by Marc Minkowski on the 1993 Erato release, Jean Féry Rebel.

New Release

We’ll stay with the French Baroque in our new release of the week.  English harpsichordist Davitt Moroney performs music of Marchand, Clerambault and Lebegue in the first recording of a series from the Plectra Music label.

Music Heard On This Episode

Louis Marchand: Suite in G minor, 1702
Davitt Moroney, harpsichord — Music of Marchand, Clerambault, and Lebegue: Le Clavecin Francais (Plectra PL20701 [http://www.plectra.org/], 2007)
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Louis Marchand: Suite in G minor, 1702
Davitt Moroney, harpsichord — Music of Marchand, Clerambault, and Lebegue: Le Clavecin Francais (Plectra PL20701 [http://www.plectra.org/], 2007)
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album cover
Antonio Vivaldi: Trio Sonata RV 60 in C major
Sonnerie — Trio Sonatas Op. 1 (CPO , 1998)
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J.S. Bach: Gleich wie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt, BWV 18 (Appendix)
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Ton Koopman, dir.) — Complete Cantatas, vol. 2 (ERATO , 1995)
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album cover
Louis-Antoine Dornel: IIIe Sonate en Si mineur, 1713
Wilbert Hazelzet, traverso; Brian Berryman, traverso; Jaap ter Linden, viola da gamba; and Jacques Ogg, harpsichord — Reflexions (Glossa , 2000)
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Jan Dismas Zelenka: Sonata VI
Ensemble Zefiro — Sonatas for Two Oboes and Bassoon, with Basso Continuo (Astree, 1993)
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J.C.F. Fischer: Thalia (Suite IV)
Luc Beauséjour, harpsichord — Musical Parnassus, vol. 1 (Naxos , 1996)
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Francesco Geminiani: Sonata I
Gaetano Nasillo, cello; Jesper Christensen, harpsichord; Tobias Bonz, cello — Sonates (SY , 2000)
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Jean Féry Rebel: See
Les Musiciens du Louvre (Marc Minkowski, dir.) — Les Caracteres de la Danse (ERATO , 1993)
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Louis-Nicolas Clerambault: Suite in C major (Paris, 1702-3)
Davitt Moroney, harpsichord — Le Clavecin Francais: Music of Marchand, Clerambault, and Lebegue (Plectra [http://www.plectra.org/], 2007)
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album cover
Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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