Earlier this month, we released Baroque for Baby: a kid-friendly playlist, featuring baroque repertoire that has particular appeal for younger listeners.
In this article, hear more from the playlist's curator—Tafelmusik violinist (and mother of two) Cristina Zacharias—about the choices she made, and how this album's music is especially suited to young ears.
There is nothing more magical than watching a baby or young child respond to music — the immediate natural and instinctive response to melody and rhythm is a reminder of just how fundamental music is in our lives. There are countless studies and reports that show the impact of music on the developing mind — improvements are evident in self-regulation, spatial awareness, memory, language development, self-expression, motor skills, just to name a few. Music and learning are interwoven in our brains in a powerful way. As a musician and a parent, the importance of music for babies is no surprise to me!
In selecting the program for this playlist, my guiding principle was not particularly scientific: music is fun! Tafelmusik’s core baroque repertoire lends itself particularly well to younger listeners — catchy dance music with great rhythms, beautiful singable melodies, plenty of repetition, and lots of opportunity to showcase the textures and sounds of our various wind, string, and plucked instruments. Music for babies is often geared towards quieter pieces, such as lullabies or relaxing music for bedtime, but lively music is just as engaging for the ears and minds of babies and toddlers, often inspiring them to move and dance, and this playlist offers a mix of both calming and enlivening music.
It may seem strange to begin with a piece called Conclusion (track 1), but I love how the opening starts with just a couple of instruments and quickly swells to include the whole ensemble — in this case the exact forces that make up the Tafelmusik orchestra: strings, oboes, bassoon, and harpsichord. Actually, we took our orchestra’s name from the title of the wonderful collection of orchestral and chamber works in which the Conclusion is found: the name Musique de table or Tafelmusik literally means “Music for the table,” a reference to music written to entertain at a banquet or feast.
Tracks 2–7 are short instrumental pieces taken from an opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully, the most prominent composer from the French court of Louis XIV. French baroque opera offers many short and dynamic movements meant to express a piece of the operatic action. They would usually have been accompanied by dance, and I think that the repeated passages, dancing rhythms, and short format make them perfect for children. Unlike the famous Four Seasons by Vivaldi, this set of dances based on the seasons doesn’t attempt to describe specific seasonal events, such as thunderstorms, rain, or crunching snow; rather, Lully creates and develops one mood or atmosphere that is linked with each season. The change in mood from one short piece to the next is part of what I think appeals to young listeners here: each dance has its own character. Track 7, the Chaconne, is a longer dance written over a simple repeating bass line. French baroque composers liked to include at least one chaconne in their operas, often near the end when the tension in the drama has resolved, and thus a favourite moment of audiences and performers alike.
Tracks 8–10 continue with the idea of the repeating bass line. The Ritornello from Monteverdi’s Orfeo alternates between a short orchestral “chorus” and an improvised “verse” played by my colleague Christopher Verrette on violin. I love the unusual rhythm of this short dance. In this very early baroque music, the link to folk music is really direct. The next two Ciacconas are just so much fun, I simply had to include both of them. The Monteverdi Ciaccona is an arrangement of a song for two tenors. In our version, the two tenors are replaced by two cellos. In the Merula Ciaccona, the dialogue is between two violins. These two pieces really showcase how instruments can “talk” to each other, and I love to imagine what each voice is saying to the other as they trade short phrases back and forth.
Track 11 is a movement of a bassoon concerto by Vivaldi. Vivaldi loved the bassoon — he wrote many concertos for this instrument at a time when it was rarely featured in a solo role. This movement has a very angular line in the string parts, but Tafelmusik bassoonist Dominic Teresi has lots of opportunity to showcase lyrical and soulful playing in the solos.
Tracks 12–14 come from the opera Alcina by Handel. I chose these tracks for their gorgeous contrasting textures. The Entrée des songes agréables features the violins and violas in a very special musical texture. The Gavotte features the oboes, and the Tamburino is one of my favourite dances. I notice that whenever a drum is added to a dance it becomes very hard to just sit still and listen! In fact, when performing for schools we often use this dance as an opportunity to get the students up out of their seats!
The next selection of tracks (15–19) is meant to showcase some of the instruments that make up our orchestra. Track 15 is a solo harpsichord piece. While the harpsichord plays in almost every other track, it is usually as part of our continuo team: the harpsichord and lute play the bass line with the cello, bassoon and double bass, on top of which they improvise a chordal accompaniment. In this captivating solo piece, we get to hear the harpsichord on its own. There’s a magical quality to hearing the plucked strings of both the harpsichord, and later of the lute (track 19), that always brings a hush across a live audience. In between these tracks, we hear a solo instrument that is more familiar: the violin (tracks 16–18). Tafelmusik’s Music Director Elisa Citterio is stunning in this warm and gorgeous concerto by Vivaldi titled “L’Amoroso” (The loving one). The three movements each offer a slightly different mood and style of playing, from the lilting first movement to the bubbly final movement.
Tracks 20–22 and 25 from the opera Alcyone by Marais are very strongly characterized by either dance rhythms or gorgeous melody. The Ritournelle (track 21) is one of my favourite moments in the middle of the story, where time seems to stop. The Tambourins here provide a showcase for the oboes and bassoons. This is a favourite dance movement of ours: we frequently play it in our school shows and as an encore.
Tracks 23 and 24 are from Telemann’s incredible Concerto for 4 violins. The opening of the Largo is a truly special moment, with all four violins all resonating together in the same range. [omitted description of Vivace to avoid technical terms -- and I don’t think it’s needed]
Track 27 showcases Tafelmusik’s wind players in a trio sonata by Handel. This movement has a virtuoso bass line, played by bassoon and harpsichord.
Tracks 30–33 all explore musical forms which use repeating structures. In the case of tracks 31 and 33, they follow a “rondo” form, meaning that the musicians return to the opening section several times, with interludes in between. The Monteverdi Moresca simply repeats the same basic phrase in different keys. The Purcell Fantasia is another example of a simple repeating bass line, played by the cello and harpsichord. This Fantasia has a great arc to it. It starts in a slow and gentle mood but gradually becomes more busy and dancelike. There are some surprising moments too, where Purcell writes notes that don’t strictly fit in the harmony.
The final piece in the playlist (tracks 34–35) is from Tafelmusik’s most recent recording, Vivaldi con amore. The second movement showcases the difference between major and minor keys. It begins in the minor mode — a sad and serious atmosphere — then repeats the same music but in the major mode. I think listeners will really respond to the difference between the sad and happy versions of this tune.
I hope that you and your children will enjoy this varied and fun playlist of classical music for babies. Some listeners may like to focus on a few tracks at a time, and others might be more captivated by the contrast between the selections. These musical choices are taken from recordings that represent a ten-year period in my career with Tafelmusik, and it has been wonderful to revisit the music and the memories that go with it, and to share them with my own young children.
Listen to Baroque for Baby at the links below, or wherever you stream your music.