We’ve all heard of Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, but what about all the other Baroque composers? In this article, I’m going to give you the names of 10 underrated Baroque composers as well as their brief biographies and keyboard pieces I recommend.
What comes to mind when I say Baroque composer? I’m going to take a guess that you thought of Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, am I right? Let’s be honest. The music of these three composers is sublime. I myself am a huge fan of Bach. But what about all the other composers that existed around that time?
In an attempt to promote lesser-known composers, I’ve put together a list of 10 baroque composers who I think are underrated. To make the list most relevant to you, I’ve chosen composers who have written for the piano (or the harpsichord, to be more exact).
Below is the list of 10 of the most underrated baroque composers, in the order in which they appear in the following video. You can listen to samples of some of the pieces I recommend.
Christoph Graupner (1683 – 1760)
Graupner was a German composer and harpsichordist.
After studying law at the University of Leipzig, Graupner went on to study music with Johann Kuhnau. In 1705, he played the harpsichord in the orchestra of the Hamburg Opera alongside Handel. Four years later, Graupner accepted a post at the court of Hesse-Darmstadt and in 1711 became the court orchestra’s chapel master. He spent the rest of his career at the court where he was responsible for providing music for the court chapel. He wrote music until 1754, when he became blind. He died six years later.
Sadly, after his death, Graupner’s works fell into obscurity for a number of reasons. Following a long legal battle, the Graupner estate was denied the ownership of the music manuscripts which meant that the heirs were unable to sell or publish his works. Another reason was that Graupner had very few pupils to carry on his musical legacy.
Luckily, Graupner’s music has resurfaced thanks to the research of musicologists, performers, and conductors.
Recommendations: I like all of Graupner’s work but I especially like Entrée, Bourrée (see video), Minuet II and Air with Variations which you can find in his Keyboard Works.
Jacques Champion De Chambonnières (around 1601 – 1672)
Chambonnières was a French harpsichordist, ballet dancer and composer.
Born into a musical family, Chambonnières made his career as a court harpsichordist in Paris, providing music for the court, as well as organising paid concerts. He also taught, becoming an important influence on the development of the French harpsichord school.
Later in life, Chambonnières gradually fell out of favour at the court and lost his position.
He died in poverty although he did publish a number of his works. Today, Chambonnières is considered one of the greatest representatives of the early French harpsichord school.
Recommendations: Allemande la Dunquerque (see video) and Allemande from his Pièces de clavessin.
Louis-Claude Daquin (1694 – 1772)
Daquin was a French composer of Jewish ancestry, an organist and a harpsichordist.
Daquin was a musical prodigy, performing for the court of Louis XIV at age six. He was a pupil of Louis Marchand. He became an organist at the Sainte-Chapelle at the age of 12, and from then on, made his career as an organist for several churches including King Louis XV at the Chapelle Royale.
Daquin was popular and was known for his “unfaltering precision and evenness” at both the harpsichord and organ.
He wrote four harpsichord suites, the Nouveau livre de noëls for organ and harpsichord, a cantata, an “air à boire” (drinking song), and manuscripts of two masses.
Recommendations: La Favorite (see video) and Le Coucou (probably his most well-known work) from his Pièces de clavecin.
Johann Kuhnau (1660 – 1722)
Kuhnau was a German polymath, known primarily as a composer today.
Around the age of 10, he went to Dresden to study keyboard playing and music composition with the local court musicians. He continued his musical studies at the Johanneum in Zittau and then went on to study law at the University of Leipzig. Kuhnau was appointed organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig at the age of 24.
In 1688, he started practising law while still working as an organist and composing. Besides law and music, he also translated a number of books into German, wrote several novels and spent the remainder of his time studying mathematics, Hebrew and Greek. In 1701 he took the position of Thomaskantor at the Thomaskirche until his death.
Kuhnau died in Leipzig in 1722 due to poor health.
He wrote four collections of keyboard works as well as many vocal works.
Recommendations: Partie III: Sarabande (see video), Partie IV: Sonatina and Courante, Partie V: Prelude, and Partie VI: Aria from his Complete Keyboard Works.
John Blow (1649 – 1708)
Blow was an English composer and organist.
As a boy, Blow composed several anthems and was selected as a chorister at the Chapel Royal. He was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1668. His pupils included William Croft, Jeremiah Clarke and Henry Purcell. In 1685 he was named a private musician to James II. Two years later, he became choirmaster at St Paul’s Cathedral, where many of his pieces were performed. In 1699, he was appointed as the composer to the Chapel Royal.
Besides harpsichord pieces, Blow wrote services, odes for royal celebrations, vocal works, more than a hundred anthems and his stage composition, Venus and Adonis.
Recommendations: Fugue in C major (see video) from Early Keyboard Music Volume 1.
Johann Pachelbel (1653 – 1706)
Pachelbel was a German composer, organist, and teacher.
In 1669, Pachelbel studied at the University of Altdorf, where he was also appointed organist of St. Lorenz church. Pachelbel was forced to leave the university prematurely due to financial difficulties which meant he had to take a scholarship in order to complete his studies, which he did in 1670 at the Gymnasium Poeticum at Regensburg.
In 1673, Pachelbel became a deputy organist at the Saint Stephen Cathedral in Vienna. In 1677, Pachelbel moved to Eisenach, where he became the court organist under Kapellmeister Daniel Eberlin. From 1690, he was a musician-organist in the Württemberg court at Stuttgart. His next job was in Gotha as the town organist, a post he occupied for two years.
When the St. Sebaldus Church organist Georg Caspar Wecker died in 1695 in Nuremberg, the city authorities were so keen to appoint Pachelbel to the position that they officially invited him to assume it without holding the usual job interviews or inviting applications. Pachelbel accepted the position and lived the remainder of his life in Nuremberg.
Although Pachelbel did not have much influence on the well-known Baroque composers, such as Handel, Scarlatti or Telemann, he did influence Bach indirectly for the young Johann Sebastian was tutored by his older brother Johann Christoph Bach, who studied with Pachelbel.
Besides his famous (and overplayed!) Canon in D, Pachelbel wrote Hexachordum Apollinis (which is a set of 6 airs and variations for harpsichord), choral preludes and church music.
Recommendations: Hexachordum Apollinis, especially Aria 6 (see video).
Louis Marchand (1669 – 1732)
Marchand was a French organist, harpsichordist, and composer.
Born into an organist’s family, Marchand was offered the prestigious position of organist at the Nevers Cathedral at the age of 14.
He worked as organist of numerous churches and, for a few years, as one of the four king’s organists.
While most contemporary accounts mention praise of Marchand’s keyboard talents, they also mention that the composer had an extremely unpredictable personality. Many anecdotes are recounted including this one: after Marchand’s wife had left him, Louis XIV ordered that half of the composer’s salary be withheld and paid to her instead. In response, Marchand broke off in the middle of a mass where he was playing and, when the king asked why he stopped, he replied, “Sire, if my wife gets half my salary, she may play half the service.”!
But the most famous anecdote is probably the account of the competition he was supposed to have with Bach in Dresden in 1717. According to several sources, the two composers were to participate in an organ competition but Marchand withdrew at the last minute, afraid of being defeated.
He wrote keyboard pieces, operas, cantatas, airs and “cantiques spirituels”.
Recommendations: Suite in D minor: Minuet (see video) and Sarabande from his Pièces de clavecin.
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764)
Although Rameau needs no introduction, his music is not played as often as Bach, Vivaldi and Handel so I have included him here.
Rameau was one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the 18th century. He is considered the leading French composer of his time for the harpsichord, alongside François Couperin.
Rameau was self-taught in harmony and counterpoint. He was educated at the Jesuit college at Godrans, but he disrupted classes with his singing and developed his passion for opera at the age 12. He worked as a violinist and then as an organist before moving to Paris.
In 1709, he moved back to Dijon to take over his father’s job as an organist in the main church. He took up similar posts in Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand.
In 1722, he returned to Paris for good where he published his most important work on music theory, Treatise on Harmony (“Traité de l’harmonie”) in which he wrote about the new doctrines of chord inversions and chord progressions. This was followed in 1726 by his “Nouveau système de musique théorique”.
It was only at the age of 50 that he began his career writing operas. Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie premiered at the Académie Royale de Musique in 1733. It was instantly recognised as the most significant opera to appear in France since the death of Lully. This divided the audience, forming two camps called the Lullyistes and the Rameauneurs. Rameau collaborated with several French writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau.
Rameau pursued his activities as a theorist and composer until his death. His last words were, “What the devil do you mean to sing to me, priest? You are out of tune.”!
Rameau wrote harpsichord works, operas, opera-ballets, cantatas, sacred works and chamber music.
Recommendations: L’Enharmonique (see video), Fanfarinette, l’Indifférence, La Poule (famous) and l’Égyptienne from his New Suites of Harpsichord Pieces.
Jean-François Dandrieu (1682 – 1738)
Dandrieu was a French composer, harpsichordist and organist.
Dandrieu was raised in Paris in a family of artists and musicians. He gave his first public harpsichord performances at age 5 for King Louis XIV and his court. These concerts marked the beginning of Dandrieu’s very successful career as a harpsichordist and organist. In 1700, he started playing the organ at the Saint-Merri church in Paris and became its titular organist 5 years later.
In 1721, he was appointed one of the four organists of the Chapelle royale of France. In 1733, he succeeded his uncle, Pierre Dandrieu to become the organist of the church of St Barthélémy, a post he combined with duties at Saint-Merri.
The works published during his lifetime include trio sonatas, sonatas for solo violin, harpsichord collections, instrumental concerts, Les Caractères de la Guerre and organ noëls.
Dandrieu also published a treatise on the principles of accompaniment (“Principes de l’accompagnement”).
Recommendations: L’Empressée (see video), L’Afligée, Les Tourbillons, La Tranquile, Les Papillons, Les Fifres and Les Chalumeaux from his Pièces de clavecin (book 1).
Johann Mattheson (1681 – 1764)
Johann Mattheson was a German composer, singer, writer, lexicographer and diplomat although he is best known as a music theorist, having written on performance practice, theatrical style, and harmony of the German Baroque.
Mattheson took keyboard, violin, composition and singing lessons. By age 9 he was singing and playing the organ in church services and was a member of the choir of the Hamburg opera. He made his solo debut with the Hamburg opera in 1696, conducted rehearsals and composed operas himself. He was cantor at St. Mary’s Cathedral from 1718 until he retired from his post in 1728 due to increasing deafness.
Mattheson’s main occupation was as a diplomat. Having studied English in school, he became the tutor of the son of the English ambassador Sir John Wich and then secretary to the ambassador.
He was a close friend of Handel, although he almost killed him in a fight during a performance of Mattheson’s opera Cleopatra in 1704. Luckily, Handel was saved by a large button which protected him from Mattheson’s sword! Despite this quarrel, the two composers remained in correspondence for life.
Most of his compositional output was vocal, including operas, and numerous oratorios and cantatas but he also wrote a few sonatas and some keyboard music, including pieces designed for keyboard instruction.
Recommendations: His Suites for harpsichord, especially Courante from Suite 3 (see video).
Over to you
Did you know any of these composers? Are there other composers you would’ve liked to see on this list? Let me know in the comments!