by Simon Critchlow
The baroque period is generally considered as being from around 1650-1750 and the classical period from around 1750-1830. To illustrate the changes in style between these two periods, I’ve chosen two pieces by the titans of each era: J.S. Bach in the Baroque corner and Mozart in the Classical corner.
The two pieces have numerous similarities: they are both arias (songs) for solo soprano with orchestral accompaniment, both have the same words from the Catholic Mass (Laudamus Te), both have the same basic ternary structure (ABA) and both form parts of monumental works admired as the pinnacles of church music: Bach’s Mass in B minor and Mozart’s (sadly unfinished) Mass in C minor.
Bach chooses to accompany his soprano with a solo violin. This is a classic feature of his style and the interest comes from the dialogue between the violin, the voice, and the orchestra. Bach’s melodies sound irregular compared to Mozart’s but they are designed to be fragmented, transformed, re-combined and reworked, sometimes with dizzying speed and ingenuity. This feature of multiple melodies occurring simultaneously is a hallmark of the baroque period.
Mozart’s melody, on the other hand, is the King of the piece. It has much more regular phrase length, immediate appeal and is clearly delineated from the accompaniment: absolute hallmarks of the classical style. The solo voice has a “call and response” relationship with the orchestra rather than a continuous dialogue.
Mozart was a master of ironing out imperfections in his music – the harmonies are sophisticated but it’s hard to tell as everything sounds so natural. His material is designed to be linked-up in terms of shape and structure to give a seamless whole. While Bach goes out of his way to avoid seams – his music in more like a fabulously detailed piece of embroidery with so much going on it’s sometimes daunting to take it all in.
The vocal parts for both are fiendishly difficult to sing although Mozart’s is more obviously showy and operatic whereas the virtuosity in Bach’s piece is more restrained but complicated by the need for the soprano to balance with the solo violin.
It’s also worth noting the baselines, both of which serve their purpose brilliantly: Mozart’s is there to robustly support the harmony whereas Bach’s takes part in the dialogue and he even includes a section where the bass is effectively duetting with the solo voice.
So which is best? Well, it’s a bit like asking what’s best between steak and lobster, both are so tasty a comparison is beside the point. Just sit back and enjoy two incredible composers at the top of their game.