What is ‘Baroque’?

A Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

The English word baroque comes directly from the French (as the modern standard English-language spelling might suggest). Some scholars state that the French word originated from the Portuguese term barroco (“a flawed pearl”), other sources suggest a Medieval Latin term used in logic, baroco, as the most likely source.*1

In the 16th century, the Medieval Latin word ‘baroco’ moved beyond scholastic logic and came into use to characterise anything that seemed absurdly complex.

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne associated the term baroco with “Bizarre and uselessly complicated.”*2 Other early sources associate baroco with magic, complexity, confusion, and excess.*3

The word baroque was also associated with irregular pearls before the 18th century.

Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française 1694 edition described baroque as “only used for pearls that are imperfectly round.”*4 In 1762 edition recorded that the term could figuratively describe something “irregular, bizarre or unequal”.*5

In the 18th century, the term began to be used to describe music, and not in a flattering way. The première of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733 received satirical review in the Mercure de France, says that the novelty in this opera was “du barocque”, complaining that the music lacked coherent melody, was unsparing with dissonances, constantly changed key and meter, and speedily ran through every compositional device. *6

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was a musician and composer as well as a philosopher, wrote in 1768 in the Encyclopédie: “Baroque music is that in which the harmony is confused, and loaded with modulations and dissonances. The singing is harsh and unnatural, the intonation difficult, and the movement limited. It appears that term comes from the word ‘baroco’ used by logicians.”*7

June, a month of Pearl…And how do you think of ‘baroque’? Isn’t it rather beautiful to be uneven and imperfect?

*1 “Baroque”. Encyclopædia Britannica. (11th ed.). 1911 *2 “BAROQUE : Etymologie de BAROQUE”http://www.cnrtl.fr. Retrieved 4 January 2019 *3 Robert Hudson Vincent, “Baroco: The Logic of English Baroque Poetics”Modern Language Quarterly, Volume 80, Issue 3 (September 2019) *4 “se dit seulement des perles qui sont d’une rondeur fort imparfaite”. Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française (1694) *5″se dit aussi au figuré, pour irrégulier, bizarre, inégale.” Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française (1762 *6 Claude V. Palisca, “Baroque”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001). *7 EncyclopedieLettre sur la Musique Française under the direction of Denis Diderot.

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