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5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Baroque Music

In the past, we’ve asked some of our favorite artists to choose the five minutes or so they would play to make their friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers and the violin.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the spirited, sublime music of the Baroque period, which lasted about 1600 to 1750. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.

This aria is set to a timeless and soothing melody, and its lyrics speak to us in these unsettling times. “Lascia la spina” recalls Horace’s “carpe diem” and helps us not lose hope. It tells us to make the best of this situation of forced intimacy — to reconnect with our families, to slow down, to pay attention to our feelings. At the same time, it reminds us to challenge our creativity and develop new ideas.

The keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti inhabit their own musical universe. Although he was an exact contemporary of Bach and Handel, Scarlatti took a different path. His music seems devoted neither to the glorification of God nor the entertainment of courtiers, though he served Spanish and Portuguese monarchs, but rather to a private curiosity. Works like this shyly playful sonata exude an introverted kind of intelligence married to a quiet warmth. It offers solace on a first listen, but leaves you itching to revisit the music, to puzzle out the harmonic constellations that create emotional worlds with such extreme economy.

After a fairly lofty boyhood singing soprano at the St. Thomas Choir School, my high school life was that of a new wave rocker pounding my eardrums with the Smiths, the Cure and Depeche Mode. A gift from my stepfather of John Eliot Gardiner’s energy-packed 1985 recording of Bach’s B-minor Mass hurled me back into classical music, and the Sanctus in particular was on constant repeat on my new portable CD player, knocking Duran Duran off their pedestal. It combines the brilliant polychoral school of Monteverdi and Schütz with Bach’s wild and stunning harmonies. It’s hard to find a more vivid depiction of the company of heaven singing their glories.

This music is fascinating in the way C.P.E. Bach puts it together — every note and every articulation. I’m always attracted to people who carve their own way, and he had an enormous cloud over his head with his father, Johann Sebastian. And I’m attracted to the element of improvisation: Back then, if you played a piece and there was a repeat, you were expected to embellish it the second time you played it. I take that lesson through my writing, and move it forward in that way. Improvisation is not a new thing, and I hold in high regard people who were able to do it in a strong, confident way.

I have always thought that my profession was that of a nurse who spreads ointment on wounds, soothes people, makes them forget the passing of time. Royer’s “L’Aimable,” a piece from the distant era of Versailles, is like a caress, of an infinite tenderness. Listen to “L’Aimable,” and you will be consoled. Listen to “L’Aimable,” and you will feel deeply serene; your anger will give way to a feeling of fullness. In four minutes, Royer achieved this miracle, delivering so much love with disarming simplicity, with a warm and welcoming melody.

While Royer’s tender pieces prove a reliable balm, his catalog contains teeming multitudes. This composer’s range also includes states of abandon that can flirt with sounding unhinged. His 1746 collection of keyboard studies — much of it ravishing and decked out with improvisatory-sounding surprises — concludes with the catchy and ferocious “La Marche des Scythes.” Sometimes delicate and aggressive at once, the piece has a way of getting the best out of virtuosos; consider playing one of Christophe Rousset’s refined, punchy harpsichord takes for the metalhead in your life.

The Baroque offers us the spirit of the dance and the pain of the soul, but I turn to it for awe — to Bach, at least. This prelude on “Aus tiefer Not,” a hymn of pleading and penitence, is the central panel of a monumental cycle of chorales often called the German Organ Mass, best thought of as Bach’s altarpiece for his own instrument. Cast in six parts — four for the hands and two for the feet — and glancing back to the polyphony of the Renaissance, it’s intimidating, impersonal, immense, pushing you to your knees in prayer before brightening only at the end, as your ears draw you heavenward in hope.

Many great arias have to fight against the banality of their lyrics. In Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” Cleopatra learns that Julius Caesar has not been killed in battle, as she was told. So she lets it rip with joy, comparing her heart to a ship — risking shipwreck, storm-battered — that finally arrives safe in port and finds comfort. I’m torn between two stunning performances: this one by Beverly Sills — from the 1960s, when Baroque operas were still rarely performed — and Joyce DiDonato, a few years ago. Both are sublime; I’m an addict.

To me this is one of the most touching pieces by Bach — of incredible tenderness and simplicity, yet profound and utterly intimate. The purity of a cappella expresses perfectly the fragility of the human soul. Here Bach is writing funeral music using the words “gute Nacht” (“good night”) to create a magical nocturnal, lullaby atmosphere. Bach’s motets are my personal consolation. This is music as perfect as it gets: heavenly, angelic, lifting us to another level, a glimpse of another world.

Purcell’s song “Music for a While” was written as stage music for “Oedipus Rex.” He uses his favorite compositional technique, the “ground” — a bass that constantly repeats itself — to evoke in the audience the trance-like image of a shadow rising from the underworld. The text evokes Alecto, the fury that drives Oedipus to madness. Alecto’s hair is full of snakes, and the word “drop” is repeated, interspersed with pauses, so you hear with each note the fall of the snakes to the ground. The power of music is in its ability to calm passions and even madness.

During the pandemic, I’ve kept turning to Bach. Particularly his solo works, which are sublime in their complexity and construction, yet intimate and sometimes startlingly human. Like the 13th Variation from the “Goldberg” Variations. It contains the hallmarks of so much Baroque music: form based on dance, in this case a sarabande; rhythmic architecture finely hewed with 32nd notes and ornamental flourishes; multiple voices that land, inevitably, in satisfying balance. Yet you don’t need to know anything of its structural ingenuity to be moved by the melody’s tension of tranquillity and longing — resonant in this moment, perhaps, and comforting.

Henry Purcell was seven when the bubonic plague swept London, killing a quarter of the population, followed by the Great Fire that destroyed a third of the city. In our age of plague, with five of the six largest fires in our history continuing to burn in California; in searing temperatures announcing climate emergency; and in the face of the call that Black lives matter, it is healing and humbling to encounter a 20-year-old composer’s cleareyed encounter with the Hebrew tradition of personal responsibility, repentance and atonement. This performance is by the extraordinary musicAeterna chorus, conducted by Teodor Currentzis.

It is ancient times, and a cult is chanting for the arrival of the deity it worships. Their words — “come, queen of the gods, come” — repeat almost to hypnosis; the energy builds. But since this tale is being told in the late 17th century — in an opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully that was one of Louis XIV’s favorites — that energy is focused through the elegance of the French Baroque, the exacting splendor of the court at Versailles. The passionate focus of religious ritual is refined, and magnified by that refinement.

This second movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto touches me again and again through its simplicity and sweetness. It is like an intimate dialogue between two lovers. They are not contradictory but complement each other artfully. They float serenely above the fragrance of the accompanying orchestra in a dancelike, swaying siciliano character. There is nothing heavy about it that one might expect from a Largo. It is the work that I played very often in my childhood with my brother, Rainer, who is now concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, and it reminds me of our common beginnings.

Jean-Philippe Rameau is one of my favorite Baroque composers. The dance music in his opera-ballets has arresting sarabandes, soul-searching airs (such as his “Air tendre pour les Muses”) and tambourins which will have you dancing in the streets. But it is his chaconnes that are always profound in their harmonic beauty and which, propelled by the ground bass, delight the audience with variations both sublime and brilliant, often breaking out into a sung chorus.

In 1937, the French conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger made one of the most influential recordings ever: a selection of madrigals by Monteverdi. Working with an ensemble of nine performers she had trained, she brought attention to forgotten masterpieces, including this intensely beautiful account of “Lasciatemi morire,” a madrigal arrangement of a lament from the lost opera “L’Arianna.”

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