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 Era edit

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 Music edit


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 Music edit

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.

Christian Music In Northern Germany During the Early Reformations edit

The Reformation led to many changes throughout Europe, including quite a few at the musical level. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and teacher of theology at the University of Wittenberg, was one of the leading actors of the Reformation in Germany and Europe in general, criticizing the Catholic Church and founding the Lutheran Church. Moreover, he also brought many thoughts regarding music in Church in his Weimarer Ausgabe (Luther’s Works); his view of music was very optimistic, as he declared it a gift from God, after theology itself. As for the technical aspects of Christian music, Luther inspires himself according to a passage in the Bible, which is in Colossians 3:16.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” – Col. 3:16

He brings up two topics about music’s proper purpose and usage in Church; Simplicitas and Exultatio. When Luther writes Simplicitas, he refers to the simple form music needs to be; according to him, music should bring up concepts of truth, innocence, and sincerity, as the more straightforward it is, the more truthfulness and authenticity the music upholds. Therefore, he favours most of Josquin Des Prèz’s works, as they strive to be better understood, going hand-in-hand with the “wisdom” concept Martin Luther refers to in his teachings.

The second topic that Luther associates church music with, Exultatio, depicts the “grace” part of the biblical verse above. According to Luther’s writings, he depicts music to show exaltation towards God, which needs to be voluntary, with cheerfulness and full of love. Thus, he promotes Josquin’s works vigorously once again, for he displays virtuosic compositional “freedom”, as Luther describes it, which is approved by Luther’s theology concerning Christian songs. Josquin did not necessarily break musical rules, per se; on the other hand, he would use them more creatively, thus manifesting a more sincere essence and praise to God through his compositions.

With this predetermined ideology of what music should look like in Church, Martin Luther brought a few substantial changes to music during the Reformation. He inaugurates what is now called “Congregational Singing”, which according to Luther, was a way to bring this sense of inclusiveness inside the Church by involving the laypeople in worship through singing. It was primarily based on the older medieval vernacular german song called Leisen, which would be integrated during the Mass service and sung by the congregation itself instead of the professional performers. Luther would also develop Lutheran Chorale (Chorales), song adaptations arranged for congregational singing. They are four-part singing compositions, having the soprano line as the melody line to make it easier for the congregation to sing along during the Mass. There were three main ways to redesign musical works into Lutheran Chorales; First, there are songs adapted from older Gregorian chant songs, either in a direct or free translation. Second, some secular german songs would be converted into Christian Lutheran songs to be sung in Church, and lastly, free innovative compositions written with no previously-made inspiration would end up in the Lutheran hymnals as well, such as Martin Luther’s most famous work, Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott (1529).

Christian Music In Southern Germany During the Early Reformations edit

Leonhard Paminger (1495-1567) and his son, Sophonias, were the main change contributors in the southern part of Germany regarding music in the Church. Leonhard agreed with Martin Luther’s teachings but remained silent throughout his life about his Christian affiliation, maybe to not cause any tension between the Reformed denominations in the region, such as the Calvinists, Puritans and the Anabaptists. Thus, his works were primarily published posthumously, having his son Sophonias Paminger held responsible for releasing his father’s works. Paminger started composing in Latin, then switched to vernacular German and later turned to German liturgical songwriting during the 1540s. As mentioned earlier, Paminger had the same vision towards music as Luther, which can be seen in his works and how in his compositions, like his song Ach Got straff mich nit (Psalm 6), which he not necessarily copied it from the Bible word-for-word, but instead put his praise towards God, thus showing Luther’s ideology in Paminger’s work(s).

As for his song’s publishing, Sophonias uncovered his father’s compositions, as mentioned earlier. Most of Leonhard’s compositions were individual songs; however, one of the most well-known publications that Leonhard Paminger is featured in is the Tricinia, a compilation of 52 songs gathered and released by Johann von Berg and Ulrich Neuber in 1557. Paminger’s contribution is of 12 catechistical songs, of which 11 are in German and one in Latin. With this release, Sophonias wanted to fulfill his father’s wish concerning his Christian music to enlighten the youth on educational and devotional levels and keep them on the righteous path. This publication was also propelling the Lutheran Reformation Ideology as well.

Christian Music In the Italian Nunneries during the Council of Trent edit

With the reformations gaining expansion and popularity in Europe, The Roman Catholic Church decided to re-establish the Catholic doctrine during “The Council of Trent”, which occurred in the city of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563. This meeting was their initiative to counter the Reformation, commonly known as the “Counter-Reformation”. Many religious subjects were discussed, but there was little room concerning music itself. However, one Counter-Reformation decision that involved the music part was the seclusion for all Italian nuns, which was a topic discussed during the 25th session of the Council (Dec. 1563).

After the Council, the nuns were confined inside the Italian nunneries at risk of ex-communication if not obeyed. Throughout Italy, this measure took place to make the nuns break connections with the outside world to remain pure and not be contaminated by worldly temptations. So, through the means of musical performance, the nuns were able to project themselves outside the nunnery walls out into the “outside church”, as it was called, using music as a way to be in contact with the external world. Moreover, most women who had musical skills were already set on the way to becoming nuns not only because of the societal standards during the 16th century but also because it was an essential asset for them to access the outside premises in order to fulfill one of their primary duties as nuns; “pray and feed” the town. This concept, called “spiritual feeding”, was their way of portraying their musical performances’ purpose by serving “audible food” to the laypeople to purify them from sin in this particular way.

Music inside the convents consisted mainly of both Gregorian chant and polyphony. However, polyphony was a controversial topic during the Council of Trent. Some churchmen were against this type of music because it invoked lasciviousness and impurity, according to the Archbishops of Bologna, labelling polyphony along with “sensuality”, making it irreverent for the church masses. However, nuns would continue to perform and even publish liturgical polyphonic songs in Bologna, going against the Church’s mandate. Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590- 1662) is an excellent example of a nun that composed polyphonic pieces and was the only Bolognese nun ever to publish music. Vizzana’s most famous publication, the Componimenti musicali de motetti concertati a una e più voci, is a series of 20 motets released in 1623, showing advanced theoretical techniques, such as heterolepsis, which was not documented and “discovered” before Christoph Bernhard (1628-1692), which he labels is as stylus theatralis in 1628, a common technique used in 17th-century operas and cantatas. Another technique seen in her compositions is the usage of two major thirds piled up together, which was non-existent before the 1620s, even in famous composers’ works such as Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and other Italian sacred songs.

Christian Music In Spain edit

During the 16th century, there was a massive growth of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits. As they gained more popularity, especially in France and Spain, more refining was necessary for certain levels of their doctrines, thus pushing them to develop the “Casuistic literature”. The Jesuits would publish those manuals englobing their moral teachings, more specifically about the true nature of sin and what consists of committing it. They would also talk about music and its effects, which have a particular way of being used in the Church. These guidebooks were written mainly by Spanish Jesuits and a few French ones. One Spanish Jesuit that would write about music in the Church is Martin de Azpilcueta (1491-1586) in his casuistic book called Manual de Confessores y Penitentes. His manual breaks down how music can be used in godly or evil ways into three main topics: First, music must be used as divine worship only. Second, music can lead to its very own worship, repulsing the adoration of God as a consequence, and Third, music can lead to lust and other ungodly urges.

Christian Music In France edit

On the French side, Jesuits came up with a term called Musique Intérieure (Inner Music), which describes music’s purpose as a medium to the soul’s feelings, commonly labelled as “Music for the Soul”. With this description, they also associate music’s harmonic feature along with prayer, which means that music’s purpose, according to them, must be linked with prayer itself, thus emphasizing its true essence. Moreover, This concept would go against the Chansons Parisiennes, a French Madrigal song style, as it utilizes secular lyrics, ruining the religious purpose of music’s usage.

Jean Benedicti, a French theologian during the 16th century, also contributed to the Casuistic literature library with his most well-known work, called Somme des Péchéz. In some parts of this book, like Azpilcueta, he talks about the correlation between music and sin and the human soul’s behaviour when exposed to it. However, this publication was more destined towards the laypeople instead of the clergy in order for them to get more educated. In other words, the primary function of his manual was for ecclesiastical teaching purposes and not for religious ideal debating purposes.

When he surfaces the music’s topic, he wrote about this concept in what Benedicti calls Le Péché de la Langue (The Tongue Sin), which describes how the lyrics of certain songs can lead to sinning and stays particularly neutral concerning the melodic aspect of the music in context. He tends to focus more on criticizing the texts than the instrumental part of the songs. Moreover, Benedicti approaches the relation between music and the human soul by saying that bad music can arouse evil emotions, thus them leading the mind away from godly behaviour. He also deduces that “evil” music affects the human body through the “Black Bile”, as he calls it, or the melancholia feeling, in other words, and then tormenting the body once introduced. This idea also is related to Plato’s philosophy Musica Humana, as mentioned earlier, which is also a notion associated with Boethius, a 6th-century Roman philosopher who wrote a treatise called De institutione musica, approaching several theoretic and philosophical subjects about music.

Christian Music in Denmark edit

Luther’s story made it towards King Christian III (1503-1559) in Denmark, which resulted in what we call now the “Danish-Lutheran Reformation” (1536). It primarily began in 1528, but the King’s decree officialized it with the Kirkeordinansen (Church Ordinance Law), officially instituted in Latin in 1537 and two years later in Danish. Later on, Niels Jesperssøn, under the reign of Christian III’s son, King Frederik II (1559-1588), published a congregational-singing hymnal in Danish called Gradval (Gradual) in 1573. It became the normalized, standard hymn throughout the kingdom in the late 16th century.

Christian Music in Switzerland edit

In actual-day Switzerland, a few reformers had their word about church music, which differed from Luther’s teachings. Some of them were Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-1564), which had a marginal view towards music. In some instances, they considered the absolute removal of it from the church services. According to them, especially Calvin, music is too bound to lead to sin, which was his main reason to avoid music, if possible. This idea parallels Plato’s Musica Humana (Music for the Soul) philosophy, which describes how music can profoundly affect the human spirit, both in good and evil ways. Calvin approaches the Neo-Platonic view of music with the same concept, adding that music should always be in order to pray to God and give Him praise, a notion he calls “Singing as Prayer”. Therefore, he implies that music without words does not belong in the Church and is inappropriate for worship.

The Early Renaissance edit

Italy edit

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 Des Prez (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 Des Prez) 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. 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.

Palestrina was also a critical actor of music’s development during the Counter-Reformation, him being one of the last composers who used the Ars Perfecta style in such late times. However, Palestrina’s compositions were criticized by churchmen during the Council of Trent, describing this post-Josquin style as non-fulfilling to Church’s music’s true purpose. Moreover, the artistic complexity of this genre of music suffocated the understanding of the words, according to those churchmen, having somewhat a connection with Luther’s Simplicitas’s doctrine, ironically. In response to that, Palestrina decided to compose the Missa Papae Marcelli (Mass of Pope Marcellus), a Mass which, according to the Pope, was understandable and intelligible, as it should be, thus becoming Palestrina’s new composition standard. This “style” was not necessarily adopted by Palestrina himself, per se, but it was mainly imposed by the Church, resulting in Palestrina’s newly modified compositional genre after the Council’s debate.

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 Music edit

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 School edit

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

William 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; titles such as My Ladye Nevells Booke and Parthenia were two collections of Renaissance keyboard music Byrd contributed to. Though little is known about Byrd's early life, he is known to have been a composer since his teen years, collaborating with two of his contemporaries, John Sheppard and William Mundy, on a musical setting of Psalms 114 and 115. Byrd was a musician in the employ of Queen Elizabeth I, and together with his contemporary and teacher Thomas Tallis, managed to secure a printing patent for music in England - in short, nobody else in England could legally print sheet music. Following this, he published much music, including a collection of sacred songs with Tallis, and composed well into his old age, with examples such as the Gradualia, a collection of polyphonic music for use in the Catholic Church, and many more motets, songs, sonnets, and psalms.

Byrd lived as a Catholic in a Protestant England, and faced scrutiny for this. Catholics in England were not well-liked; many were implicated in plots against Queen Elizabeth, and the Pope went so far as to excommunicate her, leading to high tensions. Byrd was investigated by fanatical Protestants such as Sir Francis Walsingham, but he was protected through the intervention of Queen Elizabeth. It is likely that Byrd's struggle with the faith affected his composition; much of his Catholic music, written in Latin, has tension, dissonance, and a sense of sadness to it. On the other hand, as a musician employed by the Queen, Byrd worked in the Chapel Royal, a private chapel for the Queen to practice her faith, and music written for the chapel, written in English, was often more energetic and joyful.

Some contemporary English composers include Thomas Tallis - his teacher, Thomas Morley - one of his students, John Bull, John Dowland, Thomas Weelkes, and Orlando Gibbons.