Forms of Baroque orchestral music

Orchestral pieces commonly found during the Baroque period include concertos and suites.


Antonio Lucio Vivaldi
Antonio Lucio Vivaldi

A concerto is a large-scale composition for an orchestra plus a soloist or a group of soloists.

Baroque composers who wrote concertos include Vivaldi, Bach and Handel. Vivaldi wrote over 500, around half of them for violin.

There were two types of Baroque concerto - the concerto grosso and the solo concerto.

Concertos of both types generally have three movements – fast, slow, fast.

The Baroque concerto grosso:

  • is written for a group of solo instruments (the concertino) and a larger ensemble (the ripieno)
  • has well-known examples like Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 is an example of the concerto grosso. When the piece opens there is a solo group of violin and two flutes are prominent. They are then joined by the ripieno strings. The harpsichord is played in the continuo.

The Baroque solo concerto:

  • is written for one solo instrument plus orchestra
  • often has brilliant and technically demanding passages for the soloist to play

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is a well-known example of the Baroque solo violin concerto. In this piece there is a marked contrast between solo violin and ripieno passages. Notice the contrast between solo violin and ripieno passages in this excerpt.

Orchestral suites

The orchestral suite is a collection of dances. Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks are suites. Bach wrote four orchestral suites.

The first movement of each is an overture and this is followed by a number of dances often including:

  • courante - three beats in a bar, moderate speed
  • gavotte - 2/2 or 4/4 time, often with each phrase beginning halfway through the bar
  • minuet - 3/4 time, moderate speed
  • gigue - lively and in compound time (6/8, 9/8 or 12/8)

Most of the dances were in binary form. Binary form has two sections (A and B). The music moves to a new key at the end of the A section and returns to the home key (the tonic) in the B section.

In the gigue from Bach's Orchestral Suite No.3 there is 6/8 time signature and the scoring includes oboes, trumpets and basso continuo.