Western Music History/Renaissance Music

The Renaissance Period spans from circa 1400 A.D. to 1600 A.D. The word 'Renaissance' is of French origin and means "a rebirth of interests", especially in the arts of ancient Greece and Rome (i.e. : antiquity). This renewed interests stems from the fact that a large amount of art work from antiquity was discovered during the Renaissance period. The Renaissance was predominantly a period of exploration, for example, the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama occurred during this period.

The Renaissance was also an age of individualism and curiosity, the predominate example is seen in the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Education in the Renaissance was encyclopedic in nature. The people of the time believed in educating themselves in a vast number of fields, from art to science to history to architecture.

The Catholic Church was less powerful than it was in the Middle Ages, and no longer had the monopoly on learning.

The ‘Reformation’ movement challenged the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church, and was inaugurated by people such as John Calvin and Martin Luther. The Catholic Church answered with the ‘Counter-Reformation’ from 1562 A.D. to 1563 A.D. A committee of Cardinals met over a period of 20 years to discuss corruption that has crept in to the church (e.g., Secular songs during church services). This committee of Cardinals was started by the Council of Trent. They complained about the complex polyphony prevalent in sacred music as it made the text too hard to hear over the overlapping voices. There were also complaints about the secular elements in sacred music as some masses were based upon popular melodies of the time.

Aristocrats and upper middle class considered education a status symbol and hired scholars to teach their children.

Music in the Renaissance EraEdit

Around 1450 A.D. the printing press was invented. This widened the circulation of music. This helped music to play an increasingly important role in daily life. Musicians worked for the church, courts and towns. Church choirs grew in size, and the church remained an important patron of music. However, musical activity shifted to the courts. Kings and princes competed for the finest composers.

Many leading important composers came from Holland, Belgium and Northern France, called the ‘Franco-Flemish’ composers. They held important positions throughout Europe, especially in Italy. Other countries with vibrant musical lives include Germany, England and Spain.

Characteristics of Renaissance MusicEdit


Renaissance vocal music was more important than instrumental music. Nevertheless, many songs were accompanied by instruments. These instruments were commonly members of the lute, organ, recorder, or viol families.

There was a close relationship between the words and the music. Composers wanted to enhance the meaning and emotion of the text, and did so by means of ‘word painting’ - trying to project poetic imagery through link between music and words. As vocal music was more important, most music was sung a cappella.


Two basic textures existed. Firstly HOMOPHONIC, where parts move in step with one another (like a hymn) – rhythms are the same. Secondly POLYPHONIC, where each voice is of equal importance and contrapuntal imitation was an important procedure. The bass register was now used for the first time, producing richer harmonies, and extending the range of the voices. There was a change from successive to simultaneous writing in music. That is, from linear, voice-by-voice to ‘cyclical’, considering all voices at once whilst writing.

NOTE : contrapuntal imitation

  • adjective of counterpoint.
  • the ability to say two things at once comprehensibly. In essence, counterpoint is the same as polyphony.

Rhythm and Melody

In Renaissance music, there is a gentle flow, moving away from sharply defined beats. Melodies are easy to sing as they move along a scale with few leaps. This is called conjunct motion. However, Melodies were still modal.

The "Contenance Angloise"

Humanists thought that consonance and dissonance should be determined by the human ear, not by mathematics as many older thinkers, such as Pythagoras, believed. In the Middle Ages, intervals of seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths were thought to be dissonant, as per mathematics. Fourths, fifths, and octaves were considered consonant. With humanism gaining influence during the Renaissance, musicians began using their intuition to determine consonance and dissonance. Fourths became considered dissonant, while thirds and sixths became considered consonant. Composers of the Renaissance began exhibiting this new classification of intervals in their works. This new style was first popular with English composers, particularly John Dunstable. From there it moved to continental Europe. The French poet Martin le Franc dubbed this new style the "Contenance Angloise" meaning "English Guise."

Sacred MusicEdit

Two main forms of sacred music existed. Firstly, the motet; a short, polyphonic, choral work set to a sacred Latin text. The motet was performed as a short religious ritual such as the communion. Secondly the Mass; a longer work, comprised of all five movements of the Ordinary.

The Early RenaissanceEdit


The musical Renaissance began in northern Italy around 1400. One of the prominent groups that was very influential in shaping the early Renaissance was the Florentine School in Florence, Italy. The quattrocento, which might have begun slightly earlier than 1400, overlaps the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods. Nevertheless, it is generally considered to be part of the early Renaissance. Notable composers include the following:

  • Zacara da Teramo (c. 1350-c. 1413)
  • Paolo da Firenze (c. 1355-c. 1436)
  • Giovanni Mazzuoli (1360–1426)
  • Bartolomeo da Bologna (fl. 1405-1427)
  • Antonio da Cividale (fl. 1392-1421)
  • Antonius Romanus (fl. 1400-1432)
  • Cristoforo de Monte (1383-?)
  • Nicolaus Zacharie (c. 1400 – 1466)
  • Johannes de Quadris (c. 1410 – c. 1457)
  • Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (c. 1420 – 1484).

John Dunstable (c. 1390 - 1453)Edit

Dunstable was an English composer, renowned during his lifetime and influential throughout Europe. A contemporary of Leonel Power (an English composer probably born slightly before Dunstable), his music bridges the late Medieval and early Renaissance styles. He also helped develop the style of the early Renaissance Burgundian School.

Guillaume Dufay (1397 - 1474)Edit

Dufay was a Franco-Flemish composer and the central figure of the Burgundian School. He was ordained a priest but composed both sacred and secular music. He learned his craft from cathedral authorities, and he spent a chunk of his life in Italy, where he stayed intermittently and met the composers Hugo and Arnold de Lantins. One of his most famous compositions is the motet Nuper rosarum flores (1436), which incorporates both the old isorhythmic style and the new contrapuntal style.

Gilles Binchois (1400 - 1460)Edit

Binchois was another Franco-Flemish composer who was influential in the Burgundian School. He is often compared to Dufay, and there is even a contemporary portrait of them together. Like Dufay, he is one of the earliest members of the Burgundian School. Although often ranked behind Dufay and Dunstable by musicologists and other scholars, Binchois is debated by others as being more influential than the other two. His melodies are easy to be sung and are familiar to those interested in early Renaissance music.

Josquin Desprez (1450 - 1521)Edit

Josquin was an important composer of Renaissance music. He was a contemporary of Christopher Columbus and Leonardo da Vinci, and considered a master of Renaissance music. He had an international career, being born in Belgium and spending most of his life in Italy, serving Dukes and Popes. Later he worked for King Louis XII of France.

His output includes masses, motets and secular vocal pieces, and he strongly influenced other composers. He has many published volumes of music devoted exclusively to him. This was testimony to his skills as a composer as only a select few were chosen to have their works published.

Ave Maria (by Josquin Desprez)Edit

This piece was a Latin prayer to the Virgin Mary, written as a four voiced motet. It opens with strict, contrapuntal / polyphonic imitation. It is an example of true polyphonic writing, as each phrase has a different melody. There is overlapping, which creates a continuous flow. However this makes it difficult to understand text, but creates continuity in the music. There is varied texture, as he uses imitation for three and four voices, then paired imitation for two voices. This variation of texture was introduced by Josquin. Two voices sing together, then they are imitated by another two voices. In bar 31 of this piece we see a move to homophony, where the voices are singing in step with one another. There is then a change in meter from duple to triple, with the use of thirds.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 – 1594)Edit

Palestrina was a very prolific composer of the Late Renaissance period who was born in the town of Palestrina, near Rome. Though he also wrote secular madrigals, he is most famous for his masses and sacred motets. His works are known for their beauty and the relative ease for a listener to understand the texts compared to those in other polyphonic works.

Missa: “Papae Marcelli” (by Palestrina)Edit

Palestrina's most famous work was Missa Papae Marcelli, which he dedicated to Pope Marcellus II. Palestrina was concerned with a clear projection of the text, as the church was becoming concerned about the infiltration of complex polyphony, which was obscuring the text. It was written for Soprano, Alto, two Tenors, and two Basses, which makes it sounds fuller due to the six voices. For many years there was a legend that this mass was so beautiful that it convinced the Council of Trent not to ban polyphonic music from the church altogether. This story, however, is not true. Palestrina was born just outside of Rome. He was devoted to Catholic Church music, with his career based in Rome. He spent most of his life as director of three of the most celebrated Roman Catholic churches: St. Peter’s; St. John Lateran; and Santa Maria Maggiore. His output consisted of 104 masses, and over 450 sacred works. He was influenced greatly by the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent.

Secular MusicEdit

During the Renaissance, secular vocal music became increasingly popular. Music was set to poems in various languages, including Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Dutch and English. The invention of the printing press helped to spread popular music. Thousands of song collections became available. This led to a rise in more national genres. These included the Parisian Chanson, the Italian Frottola, the Italian Madrigal, the English Madrigal, and the English Lute Song.

Music became important for leisure purposes, with every educated person being expected to play an instrument. Music was generally written for solo voices with instrumental accompaniment. However, with the rise of printing, instrumental music was becoming more important, with wide variety of instruments being used. These included recorders, viols, keyboard instruments and woodwinds.

The Venetian SchoolEdit

As the name suggests, this school of music was based in Venice. It was the center of instrumental and vocal music. It was also a thriving commercial center, responsible for much trade between Venice and the East. The Venetian School operated out of St. Marks’ Cathedral, with Willaert and Gabrielli as its music directors. Willaert and Gabrielli directed the orchestra and choir for the church. Venetian composers wrote polychoral music (for many choirs), with the choir always accompanied by instruments. Their music tended to be more homophonic in texture.

William Byrd (c. 1540 - 1623)Edit

Byrd is one of the most famous English composers of the Renaissance. Although he never made the transition to the new Baroque style, his keyboard music is said to have marked the beginning of the Baroque organ and harpsichord style. Little is known about his early life. However, he is known to have composed many masses, motets, psalms, sonnets, and songs, in addition to his keyboard works. Contemporary English composers include Thomas Tallis, John Bull, John Dowland, Thomas Weelkes, and Orlando Gibbons.