Baroque music spread throughout Europe, and the New World, from 1600 to 1750. While one can speak of a baroque idiom, the differences among the various countries were great and many. But, in spite of these differences, composers of this period have enough in common to see them as cousins. While Rameau, Vivaldi, Bach and Purcell all wrote widely different music, there are many common undercurrents that allow them to be grouped together as part of a specific period.
But, even though this period does indeed cover a wide variety of composers and styles, any such boundaries remain artificial. Dowland's lute music, for example, fits more in the Elizabethan period than the baroque, even though all of his compositions were published after 1597, and he died in 1626; Handel's later operas sound more like their future than their past; yet both these composers are included in this Companion. This makes for occasional confusion, but, given its encyclopaedic nature, there is no easy way to set boundaries.
This book attempts to provide an overview of baroque music and its composers, so listeners interested in this period can have a better understanding of who they were and what they wrote. One also discovers the many relationships among these composers, which helps understand just why this period of music is so homogeneous.
The four sections of this book provide a variety of information on these composers and their music. The first section, Places and People, examines each country or region, and begins with an essay providing an overview of the music and composers, before moving on to a dictionary of composers. This dictionary is perhaps the most useful part of the book, yet it is essentially flawed. First, each section covers a country or region. Then, each of these sections is broken down into several sub-sections: for example, Italy is broken down into 10 sections, such as Piedmont, Venice, the Papal States, Naples, etc. This makes it confusing when looking up a composer - you need to know where he was from, and the country alone is not usually enough. Naturally, the index points the reader in the right direction, but its entries are not always clear, and many composers have multiple entries, which means you need to flip back and forth to find the right one. (The principal entries for composers have bold page numbers in the index, but, given the character used, the bold text does not stand out enough.) It would seem more logical to have grouped all the composers in one large dictionary section, to make it easier to find them, but also to avoid the hundreds of entries such as this one, found in the FRANCE 1 - Paris section: Dagincour, François. See FRANCE 2, Provinces.
Not only is one confused by not knowing the origin of the composers, but many composers went to live in different countries, and are not always found where expected. For example, Handel is listed under London, where he lived at the end of his life, even though he was German, and also worked in Italy.
The second section of the book contains three interesting essays on Baroque Forces and Forms, the third part discusses Performance Practice Issues, and the fourth section is a Chronology of composers, compositions and major events.
The main interest of this book is indeed its dictionary of composers; it probably contains more baroque composers than any other book, bar the Grove Music Dictionary. For this alone, in spite of its confusing structure, it is a valuable, even essential book for curious lovers of baroque music. It is a fine tool to help better understand the lives of the many baroque composers, and the relationships among them.