The Baroque and the Composers of the Twentieth Century


  • Halsey Stevens



Free borrowing and use of transformed elements of the music of past periods when forming contemporary music enables musical art, while incorporating the new, to maintain the continuity of its development; otherwise music risks losing contact with the world around. Many characteristics of baroque composition have found application in a number of 20tn century works: rhythm, polyphonic texture, the additive principle of formal construction, the use of idiomatic idiosyncrasies of individual instruments and the interchange of these idioms, the harmonic polarity between bass and superius, called by Hindemith the »two-voice framework«, etc. There can be no doubt that out of the whole of Baroque music it is the Concerto Grosso which has had the greatest influence on the music of today. Thus the contours and structure of Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto have much in common with corresponding parts in a number of the Brandenburg Concertos. We can also trace Baroque characteristics in some of Stravinsky's other works – in Concerto in D, Concerto for Two Solo Pianos and in the Symphony of Psalms. The Divertimento of Béla Bartók also seeks inspiration in the concerto grosso, in dividing the performers into concertino and ripieno and in baroque rhythms, which appear even in such a work as Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire. Antiphonality is intensified in Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta serving him as a departure for the achievement of sonorous contrasts. Hindemith owes much to the Baroque. His treatment of the fugue is typical of the characteristic »Hindemith style« which has essentially remained unchanged but seems to have consolidated from youth to maturity. A revived interest in the fugue may be considered a sign of interest in the baroque, as is also interest in other features of baroque polyphony – canon, inversion, augmentation, diminution and retrogression, etc., which have all been incorporated in contemporary compositional practice. If the use of such features as these becomes an aim in itself so that music loses its point, we come to that abyss between composer and listener which distinguishes contemporary musical life. The baroque composer wrote as a matter of course in an idiom which was »modern« and comprehensible at the time. He wrote for the day but as elaborately and »artificially« as he could. The audience had sufficient technical knowledge to keep abreast with the musical innovations of the time. Today, for whatever reason, a »progressive« composer no longer has the close contact with his audience that was usual in the Baroque age. If it were once more possible it might be more beneficial to the composer than any number of laudatory reviews or the approbation of a small group of friends. In such a case, at least, he could hardly remain aloof from the potential consumers of his music and scatter indigestible tidbits from a height, in the hope that they would ultimately be found palatable.


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How to Cite

Stevens, H. (1966). The Baroque and the Composers of the Twentieth Century. Musicological Annual, 2(1), 101–115.