Ask anyone to name a single Baroque composer, and it’ll probably be the prolific Johann Sebastian Bach: he of “Brandenburg Concertos,” cello suites, sonatas, partitas, “Goldberg Variations,” and Lutheran cantatas for days. As the legend goes, he honed and perfected the various musical developments that had taken root across Europe since roughly 1600.
Obviously, it’s never as neat and tidy as that, and let no one say I don’t love Bach, but I’ve always felt the fixation on the so-called perfection of Bach left all the other 17th- and 18th-century composers in the cold. After all, the term “baroque” itself was originally applied to music as an insult, as 18th- and 19th-century critics compared the heavily ornamented and often improvised music to lumpy and misshapen pearls — but even that has an unintended layer of meaning. If you spend all your time looking for something flawless, you’ll miss out on something uniquely beautiful.
Like this playlist and want to hear more? You’re in luck. The Boston area is home to not one but two long-running summer festivals that feature boatloads of Baroque music: Boston Early Music Festival (June 4-11) and Aston Magna (Thursdays June 22-July 20).
Handel: ‘Proverai di che fiere saette,’ from ‘Almira’
After George Frideric Handel died in London in 1759, his instrumental music and English-language oratorios received the lion’s share of attention. Only a few selections from his 40-plus Italian operas were regularly performed until the 20th century, when a revival of interest slowly flowered. So if your knowledge of the composer begins and ends with “Messiah,” prepare for fireworks, and not the “Music for the Royal” kind. This furiously virtuosic woman-scorned aria is from Handel’s first opera, which he wrote at age 19, and if a singer wants to pull it off, they’ll have to be ready to whip out high B-flats by the dozen. All in a day’s work for Amanda Forsythe.
Vivaldi: Concerto in G Major for Two Mandolins
Centuries before the mandolin was the instrument of choice for fleet-fingered bluegrass pickers, it led a whole other life in Italy, where several composers of the Baroque era incorporated it into sonatas, cantatas, operas, and brilliant concertos like this one, which calls for two solo players. Unlike concertos of the later Classical and Romantic eras, Baroque concertos are typically short and snappy, and this one by Antonio Vivaldi (1648-1741) of “The Four Seasons” fame is no exception. Even at an unhurried pace that lets the music dance, it’s done in 10 minutes.
Rameau: ‘Forêts paisibles,’ from ‘Les Indes galantes’
With “Les Indes galantes,” or “The Indies in Love,” Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) created a shining example of the French Baroque-era theatrical genre known as “opéra-ballet,” which married singing, dancing, and spectacle. It also includes probably the cringiest colonial fantasy I’ve ever seen in an operatic libretto, with four acts fantasizing about love between Europeans and natives in the Ottoman Empire, Peru, Persia, and French and Spanish colonies in the present-day United States. This would make it hard to recommend if not for the Paris Opera’s 2019 production, which reset the visual spectacle in modern city environments and juxtaposed the singers with choreography by French hip-hop pioneer Bintou Dembélé.
Biber: ‘Mystery’ Sonatas
The concept album wouldn’t be invented for a few centuries after Bohemian-Austrian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) wrote his “Mystery” Sonatas for solo violin and continuo, so consider this an extremely early contribution to the tradition. Each “Mystery” sonata corresponds to one of the traditional 15 Mysteries of the Catholic Rosary, and every sonata but the first sonata and the final passacaglia calls for a different alternative tuning of the strings, which radically changes the sound of the instrument. In the 11th sonata, which meditates on the resurrection of Jesus, the central strings are even crossed. Performing the complete cycle takes around two hours, and doing it live probably qualifies as the Mount Olympus of the baroque violin.
Jacquet de la Guerre: Violin Sonata No. 5
Most surviving music by women from the Baroque period can be divided into two distinct groups: music by nuns who wrote sacred pieces to be sung in their cloisters, and music by women who were favored by royals. Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) was the second kind. Born in Paris to a family of musicians and instrument makers, she was hailed as a child prodigy at the keyboard and joined the court of Louis XIV as a teenager. After marrying an organist, she started publishing her own sonatas, suites, songs, and cantatas; but several other pieces, including a choral “Te Deum” and a ballet, were lost. When I listen to her sparkling Violin Sonata No. 5, I can’t help but wonder what else she, and all her sisters in music from this period, may have composed that we might never know about.
Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata in D Minor, K. 213
When it comes to doing one thing and doing it well, the musical world may have no better example than Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). In his 71 years, he wrote an astounding 555 (not a typo) documented sonatas, most of them single movements for solo keyboard. During and immediately after his lifetime, circulation of his music was spotty, and none of his original manuscripts survive. However, his work attracted several prominent admirers throughout the centuries (examples: Frederic Chopin, Clara Schumann, and Francis Poulenc), and in 1953, harpsichordist and musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick published a biography of the composer that includes a comprehensive chronology of all those untitled sonatas, which is where the “K.” numbering system comes from. For a first listen, I’d recommend the mysterious and melancholy K. 213: Whether you’re listening to it on piano, harpsichord, or mandolin (thanks, Chris Thile), it’s gorgeous. For something a little more avant-garde, try K. 30, a fugue built on a motif that Scarlatti allegedly heard when his cat strolled across his keyboard. Believe it or not, as you wish.