Tips for the Listening Exam

In this exam, I would like you to ask yourself when you are listening to a piece: “What am I hearing?” Specifically listen for the musical characteristics that would enable you to recognize the genre (concerto, fugue, etc.) or individual movement (aria from an opera). One of the easiest ways to distinguish pieces on this listening exam is to identify whether the music is vocal or instrumental, so that’s where we’ll start. Remember the all important question: “What am I hearing?”

I Hear Singing

This immediately rules out several genres: Trio Sonata, Solo Concerto, Concerto Grosso, Fugue, and Suite. Those are instrumental genres. It must be an Opera, Cantata, or Oratorio. Unlike the instrumental pieces, knowing the genre won’t necessarily give you the piece. After all, an aria from an opera sounds the same as an aria from a cantata or oratorio. So in these paragraphs we’ll talk about how to pick out specific pieces by once again asking the question: “What am I hearing?”

I Hear One Singer with Continuo

There are two pieces that feature a singer with sparse accompaniment: “Tu se’ morta” and “Possente spirto” from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. The two vocal movements from L’Orfeo can be distinguished from each other by the fact that one movement is an arioso (“Tu se’ morta”) while the other is an aria (“Possente spirto”). You might be surprised an aria falls under the category “I hear one singer with continuo,” but in the early days of the Baroque, the concept of an orchestra was quite different from the large ensemble that we think of. Even the orchestras of Bach and Handel in the late Baroque, though small by modern standards, were much larger than those used in the earliest operas. The orchestra in L’Orfeo is composed of less than a dozen instruments and it punctuates the singer’s melody rather than accompanies it.

Speaking of the tiny orchestra, it provides an easy means of recognizing the aria: if you hear violins or trumpets interspersed with Orpheus singing you know you’re hearing “Possente spirto.” Also remember that because “Possente spirto” is an aria it’s going to show off the singer’s ability. That means you’re going to have ornamented melodies. The tune will be much more active and nimble than in “Tu se’ morta.” Also there is a particular vocal ornament that early Baroque audiences really liked but that we tend to think sounds a little silly – a kind of stuttering sound on a sustained pitch. However funny it may sound to our ears, it’s really hard to do (try it and see) so it was a sign to the audience that this was a very talented singer. If you hear any ornamentation (the singer showing off his voice), especially what I call “the stutter,” you’re hearing “Possente spirto.” The arioso “Tu se’ morta” is tuneful but not nearly as ornamented as the aria. It also, because of the subject matter, is more somber and forlorn in its expression. It is only accompanied by continuo so you won’t hear any violins or trumpets playing as Orpheus makes his decision to descend into Hades in search of his beloved Euridice.

I Hear One Singer with an Orchestra

It must be an middle or late Baroque aria. You have two arias on this test that are accompanied by an orchestra: “When I am laid in earth” (Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, an opera) and “Rejoice Greatly” (Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio). Arias’ main purpose is to express emotion, and the emotions of these to arias make them easy to distinguish. “Rejoice Greatly” expresses joy and happiness (at least during the first and last sections of the da capo aria) while “When I am laid in earth” expresses sorrow. Both arias are in English so the emotion being expressed in each piece will be easier to pick up on as you can rely on the words as well as the character of the music. That may be enough to tell these two apart, but in addition you can listen for the bass line. In “When I am laid in earth” there is a ground bass. As a result the bass line is a short, descending melodic idea that repeats over and over without change for the entire aria. “He shall feed His flock” does not have this feature, so the bass line will also help you tell these two similar pieces apart.

I mentioned earlier that “Rejoice Greatly” is a da capo aria. While it’s important to understand that musical characteristic (da capo arias are essentially in ABA form with the singer expected to ornament the melodic line in the second A section), it may not be evident in a one-minute excerpt. That said, I promise that I won’t throw you a trick question by playing only the B section from this particular aria since it’s the A section that expresses the emotion of the piece. You’ll hear either the A section (the part that actually says “rejoice greatly”) alone or portions of both sections.

I Hear a Choir with an Orchestra

There are three choruses on this test and they’re all from the same cantata by J. S. Bach. We have movements I, VI, and VII (that’s one, four, and seven) from Bach’s church cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. While at first it might seem like these would be hard to tell apart, these three movements are actually quite different from each other. One of the best things to listen for is how Bach treats the texture. While all three movements are polyphonic, Bach handles the polyphony quite differently each time. I’ll just go through them each in order.

Movement I features the most active and independent polyphony of the three. By that I mean that each voice part in the choir and each instrument in the orchestra has it’s own independent line that is woven together with the rest to create a glorious but very dense and complex musical fabric. For example, the sopranos sing a stately melody (the chorale tune) in long notes. Underneath them the altos, tenors, and basses race around with more active lines. All the while the violins, woodwinds, and low strings add their own lines to the elaborate mix. This is also the fastest of the three movements.

Movement IV has independent polyphonic lines too, but a lot fewer of them than movement I. There are only 3 lines woven together: the walking bass line played by the low strings, a beautiful countermelody played by the violins, and the main melody (the chorale tune) sung by the tenors. You’ll still be able to hear that this is a choir as there are a lot of tenors singing, but they all sing the same part. It’s basically a song for choir.

Movement VII is distinguished by a homorhythmic texture. That means that while there are four lines (polyphony) of music being worked together, they move more or less in lockstep with each other. The rhythm for each part (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) is largely the same, hence the term homorhythm. This means that they all sing the words at pretty much the same time so even if you don’t speak German you can hear the words (unlike movement I where each part is singing different words at the same time). You’ll also notice that unlike the other two movements, the orchestra does not have independent lines. It plays the same notes as the singers. This is called “doubling.” Finally, movement VII is the slowest of the three.

I Hear Instruments Only—No Singing

If no voices are present in the piece you can immediately rule out Opera, Oratorio, and Cantata. Those are vocal genres. It must be one of the instrumental genres such as Trio Sonata, Concerto, or Suite. Because our Baroque pieces consist of one example from each genre, determining the genre will give you the correct answer. Often the kinds of instruments featured in the piece and how they are used will provide major clues as to the genre. As always, ask yourself “What am I hearing?”

I Hear Solo Organ

This has to be the Organ Fugue in G minor by Bach. This is another piece where the title also provides the genre: fugue. Now I suppose it is naive of me to think that anyone would listen for anything besides the solo organ instrumentation on the exam. Basically if you hear an organ by itself, it’s this piece. However, I do want to point out a major characteristic of a fugue so that if you were to come across one in the last 6 questions of a listening exam you’d be able to recognize it. A fugue is a complex style of polyphony based on the imitation of a single melodic idea: the fugue subject. This is what makes a fugue different from the imitative writing we heard in the Renaissance. The points of imitation we heard from Josquin and Palestrina were a series of different melodic ideas, each of which would be imitated once by every voice, or voice part (soprano, alto, tenor, etc.), in the choir. In a fugue there is only one central idea, the subject, that is imitated in all voices many times throughout the piece. That provides a real sense of unity and repetition in an otherwise highly complex and elaborate piece of music. That is in itself is something that you can recognize, but there is one more thing to be aware of. Because this subject is so important to the piece, a fugue always begins with the first voice presenting the subject all by itself. Notice how our organ fugue by Bach starts out with a single melodic line (the subject). Almost every fugue will do the same thing. So if you hear a melodic line presented all by itself (especially if it’s instrumental) which is then joined imitatively by successive voices or lines of music, you are probably hearing a fugue.

I Hear Solo Cello

If you hear a cello playing all by itself it can only be the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major. Once again, instrumentation will be the giveaway for this piece. Only one piece on this exam features the cello as the solo instrument so this should be a fairly easy piece to recognize. That said, I hope you will pay attention to the fact that this piece consists primarily of arpeggios—notes of a chord played in succession, one after the other, instead of all at once. Preludes were often written as a kind of warmup for more challenging pieces to follow. Often you’ll find composers pairing a prelude with a fugue, the prelude serving to help prepare the performer’s fingers and the audience’s ears for the more complex and challenging fugue to come. In this case the prelude paves the way for the subsequent dance movements of the suite. It is a testament to Bach’s talent that an introductory piece sounds so beautiful all by itself.

I Hear Solo Violin and Harpsichord

Correlli’s Sonata in B flat Major, Opus 5 No. 2: II Allegro is our only piece of chamber music on the exam. The solo violin should really stand out. Don’t get this confused with the solo violin concerto by Vivaldi. That piece features the contrast between a full orchestra and a solo violin. This is a sonata in which the only thing playing along with the violin is the continuo. And in this particular performance, the continuo is played by harpsichord alone rather than the usual cello/harpsichord pair. Remember that sonatas are a form of chamber music. Chamber music is intended for performance in a smaller space for smaller audiences. It is easy to imagine a group of aristocrats gathered in an elegantly appointed room in a palace listening to the performance of the violinist. A concerto features a much larger ensemble and would need to be performed in a larger space such as a concert hall.

I Hear Orchestra and Solo Violin

This has to be the 1st movement of Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons. This work is a solo concerto and as such features a contrast between a full orchestra and a soloist. They also are designed to show of the virtuosity of the soloist so you can expect to hear some really flashy playing from the soloist. Vivaldi doesn’t disappoint in that regard. He was a virtuoso violinist as well as a composer so he was writing music that would show off his abilities as a performer. If you hear orchestral music with virtuosic solo violin passages, it has to be Spring.

I Hear Orchestra with Concertino (Contrasting Small Group of Instruments)

This has to be Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, 1st movement. This piece is a concerto grosso. Like a solo concerto it is based on the principle of contrasting groups of instruments. Instead of the orchestra vs. soloist contrast that you expect from a solo concerto, however, you have orchestra vs. concertino. The concertino could be made up of any instruments, generally 2 to 4, drawn from the larger orchestra. In the first movement of this piece you have a concertino of flute, violin, and harpsichord. Sometimes all the instruments of the concertino play together and at other times they alternate. This makes the concerto grosso a bit more flexible in its sound. One unusual characteristic of this particular piece is Bach’s emphasis on the harpsichord. Normally the harpsichord is in the background but Bach puts it center stage with some extremely virtuosic passages for the keyboard. In fact there are times when the harpsichord plays all by itself in this piece, almost as though it were a solo harpsichord concerto. Listen for the small group/large group contrast and the fiery harpsichord playing.

I Hear an Orchestra all by Itself, No Contrasting Soloist or Concertino

There is only one piece on your exam for full orchestra without any soloist or concertino: “Alla Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music. Remember what Handel was writing his Water Music for. It is a series of suites to be played in the presence of the King of England while on a royal barge trip (a parade really) on the River Thames. By the way, I know when I say barge you think of a big flat thing hauling coal or logs on the Mississippi, but these were really fancy boats. Anyway, this music was for an outdoor performance on a busy commercial waterway with only as many musicians as you could fit on the barge (not many). So it’s no surprise that Handel gave some really prominent passages to the loudest instruments: the horns, trumpets, and drums. If you hear a big orchestral sound with standout moments for the brass, you’re hearing Water Music. I should mention that in this movement you have an ABA form, with the prominent use of brass instruments found only in the A section. The B section is comparatively shorter, features active lines for the strings and woodwinds without brass or percussion, and is in a minor key to contrast the major key of the A section. As with other pieces that features a similar ternary form, I feel it would be misleading if your listening excerpt was taken solely from the B section. On the listening exam, if you hear a portion of this piece it will either come from the A section alone or will have both B and A sections represented.

Titles, Composers, & Genres for the Baroque Music Exam

Here is a list of all the titles, composers, and genres that you could encounter on the Baroque Music Listening Exam. They are listed just as they will be on the exam. Good luck!

Title Composer Genre
Vocal Music
Tu se’ morta, L‘Orfeo Claudio Monteverdi Opera
Possente spirto, L’Orfeo Claudio Monteverdi Opera
When I am laid in earth, Dido and Aeneas Henry Purcell Opera
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, I Johann Sebastian Bach Cantata
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, IV Johann Sebastian Bach Cantata
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, VII Johann Sebastian Bach Cantata
Rejoice Greatly, Messiah George Frideric Handel Oratorio
Instrumental Music
Sonata in B flat Major, Opus 5 No. 2: II Allegro Arcangelo Corelli Sonata
Spring, The Four Seasons  Antonio Vivaldi Solo Concerto
 Prelude, Cello Suite No. 1 in G major Johann Sebastian Bach Suite
 Organ Fugue in G minor Johann Sebastian Bach Fugue
 Brandenburg Concerto 5, 1st mvmt. Johann Sebastian Bach Concerto Grosso
 Alla Hornpipe, Water Music George Frideric Handel Suite