Music – The Aria, The Suite, The Opera, And The Oratorio ; The Orchestra.

THE Fugue then, choral or instrumental, is a development from early Church Song. Another development from early song, but this time from the Folk Song, not the Church Song, was the extended Vocal Solo, as introduced into Opera and Oratorio. The determination to write for the singing voice in a manner imitating the inflection of the speaking voice had by now weakened. The object of that kind of song was dramatic expression, and quickly it had been realized that the other object of melodic beauty was not, after all, to be despised. So songs that were dramatically expressive and songs that were melodiously beautiful came to exist side by side, and the convention grew up (a rather sensible one, on the whole, and one that had enough touch with the vital requirements of art to give it a life of at least two-hundred-and-fifty years) of joining the two kinds of song. In this way we got the Recitative and Aria—the half-spoken dramatic song, conveying to the audience a clear idea of the situation of the moment, and the melodic song, immediately following, supplying a lyrical reflection upon it.

Take a well-known example of this, a Recitative and Air’ from Handel’s fudas Maccabaeus

RECITATIVE—Israelitish Woman.

To Heav’n's Almighty King we kneel, For blessings on this exemplary zeal. Bless him, Jehovah, bless him, and once more To Thy own Israel liberty restore.

(All this is spoken tersely, without elaboration or repetition.)

AIR—(the same Israelitish Woman). O Liberty, thou choicest treasure, Seat of virtue, source of pleasure ; Life without thee knows no blessing, No endearment worth caressing.

(This is expanded, by repetition of the words, into a longish Aria.)

Aria Form

Gradually the Aria took on a general (but not quite invariable) form. It became usual to cast it into three sections the first and last of these were identical, and to them the middle one gave musical relief. This is a very stereotyped and formal procedure, in strong contrast with the free utterance of the Recitative. When we speak of ` Aria Form ‘, or Ternary Form, that simple three-part plan is what we mean.

I have called this period ` The Century of Perfection’. Fugue, as has been seen, had been brought to a stage which we may call perfect, and the Aria, too, reached such a stage. Dull Fugues and Arias were, at this period, written by the thousand, but the forms had been perfected (which, of course, was just the circumstance that made it easy for inferior composers to turn out such music wholesale).

What ` Perfection’ means

Thus by ` The Century of Perfection’ I do not mean a period when ` everything in the garden was lovely’, but a period when, the rough digging and manuring having been done and well done by others, the horticultural genius had everything prepared for the production of perfect plants and flowers.

The work of three outstanding composers is especially in mind. Purcell (born 1658) arrived in the garden before it was quite ready, but grew some wonderful blooms notwithstanding.

Handel and Bach, arriving a little later (both born 1685) and both being skilful gardeners, soon produced a wonderful show of blooms. A good deal depends on a wise choice of birth date. Bach, if born in 1658, would probably have done much -what Purcell did. Purcell born in 1685 would probably have done much what Bach did : Purcell, Handel, and Bach, born in 1585, would have been Peris and Caccinis and Monteverdes, turning over the soil and making the hitherto almost virgin harmonic wilderness fruitful for the harmonic-contrapuntal gardeners who were to follow a century later.

Keyboard Music

Now for the Instrumental Music, and especially the Keyboard Music. The keyboard instruments of Purcell, Bach, and Handel were the same as those of their sixteenth-century predecessors, but improved. Purcell and Handel wrote for the Harpsichord. Bach wrote both for the Harpsichord and the Clavichord, the latter a gentler keyboard instrument with its sound-production apparatus devised according to a rather different principle. (See Appendix V for a brief description of these instruments.)

Dance Influence again

So far this chapter has been concerned with what grew out of Song. We now turn to what grew out of Dance. Glance back at Chapter IV, and recall the early influence of the Dance on Instrumental Music. Once a form had become stereotyped as a Dance Form it was natural that it should aspire to rank as a pure instrumental form.

If you were a wandering fiddler, playing dances on village greens, some of your tunes being traditional and some made by yourself upon the traditional forms, you would not be likely to confine your playing of them to occasions when the company was prepared to dance. Those tunes would constitute a great part of your professional repertory, and when called on for a little music you would dip into the repertory and perhaps bring up as an instrumental piece something originally designed as a dancing measure. And so, too, with the Harpsichordist. From that it is a small step to providing pieces in these dance forms meant for performance as pieces of music, rather than for performance as dance accompaniments. And freed from the, restrictions of the dance, the music would tend to develop into complications a little beyond what would be suitable for the purposes of dancing.

Thus, by Queen Elizabeth’s day composers were producing contrasted pairs of pieces in dance form, but already departing from full dance style, such as a (slower) Pavane, followed by a (quicker) Galliard, and were sometimes preceding this pair by a Prelude, i. e. a short piece not in any dance style at all, but serving as a suitable introduction.

The Variety of Dance

Other dance forms used at this period in England were Allemandes, Courantes, Espagnolettes (or Spagnolettas), Jigs, Toyes, Voltes, Rounds, Marches, and Morrises. The varying national origin of these various dances is plainly indicated by their names : the Allemande was of German origin, the Espagnolette of Spanish and the Morris of Moorish, the Courante of French, the Toye of English. These things spread from their country of birth all over Europe, in the same way as Tangos and Fox Trots have spread in our days from the American continent. And having become accepted as dance forms they passed into the resources of the purely instrumental composer, who used most of them for separate and independent little pieces but connected others in the way we have just seen Byrd doing.

Purcell’s ` Lessons’

By the time of Purcell we find the idea of connecting into sets extended, and so we see him writing Suites of pieces (which he calls Lessons) such as this :


Prelude Almand Corant Minuet


Prelude Almand Corant Saraband

Purcell’s Modern Feeling for ‘ Key’

All Purcell’s pieces are comparatively short, and are simple both to play and to listen to. And they are in modern tonality. Those short extracts of Byrd’s strike one to-day as a little confused in tonality. Byrd at the time he wrote these was between two periods. The old Modes were going out and the new Major and Minor Scales had not fully come in. But a piece of Purcell’s is quite clearly and definitely in some particular major or minor key, with its definite modulations into related keys, as for instance this little Minuet, from Suite I, which begins in Key G, modulates at the half-way cadence to Key D, then passes momentarily into Key B minor, and ends in the key in which it began.

How Bach did it

With Bach, too, and with the other composers of Bach’s period, we find this modern system of keys and key relation-ships fully established. But Bach, being a little later, and being gifted with a supreme musical instinct, was able to arrange his musical material with much more skill, and consequently to write much longer pieces, and to put more of them into a Suite, without losing the listener’s attention.

For instance, the first of what he calls his English Suites consists of the following pieces :


Allemande. Courante I. Courante II.

(with two ` Doubles’ or Variations). Sarabande.

Bourrée I. Bourrée II. Gigue.

Altogether this makes ten pieces (counting the `Doubles’), and some of the pieces are in themselves of considerable length.

An Agreeable Long-windedness

And here occurs an interesting thought—looked at in one way all the efforts of composers through the centuries have been directed to learning how to write longer and longer pieces without losing the attention of the audience. In Queen Elizabeth’s day the longest keyboard piece lasted perhaps five minutes, in Charles the Second’s the longest piece lasted perhaps ten minutes. By the time of Bach there were pieces lasting, say, twenty to twenty-five minutes. Or, reckoning by single pieces (or ` movements ‘), the Elizabethan wrote pieces that lasted, at the most, perhaps, three minutes, and Purcell wrote pieces that lasted a still shorter time, because he was restricted by the determination to get the newly understood key relationships perfectly clear and to secure a perfect balance of parts. Bach, however, stepped into the inheritance left by the men of Purcell’s period (we will not say of Purcell, for Bach probably knew nothing of Purcell’s music, but of Purcell’s contemporaries, the Italian violin composers and the French harpsichordists), and so he was able to write single movements that lasted as long as five or six minutes, and yet flagged nowhere, e. g. the Preludes of some of the ` English Suites’, which are the longest of his Suite movements.

Bach’s ` Binary’ Form

The form of almost all Bach’s Suite movements was that which has been exemplified in the Purcell Minuet (page 81). Setting out from a main key he moved at his half-way point to a nearly related key (almost always the key of the Dominant, i. e. the fifth above—e. g. beginning in C he would modulate to G ; but if the main and opening key of the piece were a minor key, the half-way modulation would often be the relative major, e. g. A minor to C major).

Generally he would there draw a double bar and mark the whole section to be repeated, as Purcell does in the little Minuet just quoted. Then, in the second half of the piece, he would modulate back to his first key (or ` Tonic’). And usually he would mark this second half to be repeated also. This we call Binary Form, and it should be clearly grasped, for it had been growing up and settling itself for a long while and was to be the basis of the next great development in the forms of instrumental music.

The Economies of a Composer

Now if interest is to be maintained in any piece of music the composer must use a. comparatively small amount of material. The reason for this is the very human one that the brain cannot be always taking in something new without getting tired.

Look at the Purcell Minuet again, and you will see that the tune of the thing is almost all grown out of this little seed

Sometimes this figure occurs as just given and sometimes it is so changed as to descend instead of to ascend. And when the figure itself is not going on, whatever is going on will generally be seen, on a little examination, to have been evolved from either the first half or the second half of it. Then if the bass be examined it will be found to be largely made out of the three-note descending scale figure first heard in the second bar. So there is extreme economy here and this little piece is made out of a quite tiny amount of material.

Counterpoint ex Harmony

Having investigated the harmony of the passage, now `look into the counterpoint. The Purcell Minuet was in three parts (or voices) : this Bach Minuet is in but two. Yet you do not feel it to be thin, because there is something going on all the time in one or other of the parts.

Generally the parts stand out well from one another (which is the essence of good counterpoint), and this is achieved by giving walking notes to the bottom part when the top part has running notes, and vice versa.

Note, too, a certain amount of imitation ; e. g. at the outset, at the second bar, the left hand imitates the right hand of the preceding bar, and the right hand imitates the left hand (walking down, however, instead of up).

Many of the Bach Suite movements are even more contrapuntal than this, and the Gigues which end these Suites are especially so.

Here, as you notice, the left hand imitates the right pretty exactly for a stretch of four bars, and the whole piece is constructed upon the same principle. Many of the Gigues in this way almost step over the line into the domain of Fugue ; they probably come as near to actual Fugue as any piece in dance rhythm and dance style could do.


A few words must now be said about some other forms of music popular at the period. Opera has been alluded to. After but a century’s development it had almost left behind its original aim of being very dramatic and free, and was tending rather to musical beauty and to formality. Consequently practically no opera of the period is to be heard to-day, out of the hundreds that were written (Handel alone wrote fifty) ; Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas may still be heard in semiprivate performance, and at the time this book is written there is some attempt to revive one or two of Handel’s operas in Germany (see pages 94-5), but that is all. (The whole big subject of the growth of Opera will receive a brief generalized treatment in the succeeding volume of this work.)


Oratorio had reached its first great development, and was very popular. The Oratorios of Handel retained popularity for over a century and a half, but are at present (except Messiah) under a cloud. Bach’s settings of the Passion were enveloped in such a cloud immediately after his death, but are now revived, and enormously valued by all music-lovers. They employ an ` Evangelist ‘, who carries on the narrative in Recitative, and the various characters of the story step into the dialogue whenever their actual words are given in the sacred text. There are reflective Arias, somewhat like that of Handel described on page 76, and both reflective and dramatic choruses. The traditional Lutheran Hymn-Tunes, or Chorales, appear at intervals, set to verses of reflective comment, generally in the way of applying the lessons of the story to the individual, or of expressing collective feelings of prayer or praise.

The Mass

The Mass was now often developed into a form of Oratorio, especially in the hands of the German (Lutheran) composers. The Palestrina Mass we examined was entirely for unaccompanied Choir, and its various sections were short and involved little repetitions of the words. Bach’s famous B minor Mass includes not only Choruses, but solo Arias and Duets, and not only has it orchestral accompaniment, but there are in it short passages for orchestra alone. It rises to great heights of almost dramatic expression in some places, and to heights of musical splendour in others, whereas Palestrina’s was throughout somewhat quietly devotional.

The Orchestra

The orchestra had emerged out of its early chaotic condition, as a collection of chance instruments, and was on its way to standardization. The Strings were becoming the basis, as they remain to-day, but behind their tone was that of the Harpsichord.. (This is fully explained in Chapter X.)

The various instruments were now being written for pretty intelligently, more or less on the lines dictated by their several individual characters and powers, but no composer had yet a clear idea of his forces as four distinct bodies—Strings, Wood, Brass, and Percussion, to be combined or heard separately, as fancy might suggest. Nor was it yet realized what a chance lay in passing appearances and disappearances of particular instruments, and the tossing from one to another of some little phrase so as to show it in varied tone colours. (This also is made clearer in Chapter X.)

The Violin family had now been brought to perfection, and the efforts of composers (particularly Italian composers) to provide its members with suitable music had great effect in the development of suitable styles and forms. This was soon to react upon instrumental composition in general, as will shortly be seen.