Renaissance music is traditionally understood to cover European music of the 15th and 16th centuries, later than the Renaissance era as it is understood in other disciplines. Rather than starting from the early 14th-century ars nova, the Trecento music was treated by musicology as a coda to Medieval music and the new era dated from the rise of triadic harmony and the spread of the contenance angloise style from Britain to the Burgundian School. A convenient watershed for its end is the adoption of basso continuo at the beginning of the Baroque period.

The period may be roughly subdivided, with an early period corresponding to the career of Guillaume Du Fay (c. 1397–1474) and the cultivation of cantilena style, a middle dominated by Franco-Flemish School and the four-part textures favored by Johannes Ockeghem (1410s or ’20s–1497) and Josquin des Prez (late 1450s–1521), and culminating during the Counter-Reformation in the florid counterpoint of Palestrina (c. 1525–1594) and the Roman School.

Music was increasingly freed from medieval constraints, and more variety was permitted in range, rhythm, harmony, form, and notation. On the other hand, rules of counterpoint became more constrained, particularly with regard to treatment of dissonances. In the Renaissance, music became a vehicle for personal expression. Composers found ways to make vocal music more expressive of the texts they were setting. Secular music absorbed techniques from sacred music, and vice versa. Popular secular forms such as the chanson and madrigal spread throughout Europe. Courts employed virtuoso performers, both singers and instrumentalists. Music also became more self-sufficient with its availability in printed form, existing for its own sake.

Precursor versions of many familiar modern instruments (including the violin, guitar, lute and keyboard instruments) developed into new forms during the Renaissance. These instruments were modified to respond to the evolution of musical ideas, and they presented new possibilities for composers and musicians to explore. Early forms of modern woodwind and brass instruments like the bassoon and trombone also appeared, extending the range of sonic color and increasing the sound of instrumental ensembles. During the 15th century, the sound of full triads became common, and towards the end of the 16th century the system of church modes began to break down entirely, giving way to functional tonality (the system in which songs and pieces are based on musical “keys”), which would dominate Western art music for the next three centuries.

From the Renaissance era, notated secular and sacred music survives in quantity, including vocal and instrumental works and mixed vocal/instrumental works. A wide range of musical styles and genres flourished during the Renaissance, including masses, motets, madrigals, chansons, accompanied songs, instrumental dances, and many others. Beginning in the late 20th century, numerous early music ensembles were formed. Ensembles specializing in music of the Renaissance era give concert tours and make recordings, using modern reproductions of historical instruments and using singing and performing styles which musicologists believe were used during the era.

One of the most pronounced features of early Renaissance European art music was the increasing reliance on the interval of the third and its inversion, the sixth (in the Middle Ages, thirds and sixths had been considered dissonances, and only perfect intervals were treated as consonances: the perfect fourth, the perfect fifth, the octave, and the unison). Polyphony – the use of multiple, independent melodic lines, performed simultaneously – became increasingly elaborate throughout the 14th century, with highly independent voices (both in vocal music and in instrumental music). The beginning of the 15th century showed simplification, with the composers often striving for smoothness in the melodic parts. This was possible because of a greatly increased vocal range in music – in the Middle Ages, the narrow range made necessary frequent crossing of parts, thus requiring a greater contrast between them to distinguish the different parts.

The main characteristics of Renaissance music are:

  • Music based on modes.
  • Richer texture, with four or more independent melodic parts being performed simultaneously. These interweaving melodic lines, a style called polyphony, is one of the defining features of Renaissance music.
  • Blending, rather than contrasting, melodic lines in the musical texture.
  • Harmony that placed a greater concern on the smooth flow of the music and its progression of chords.

As in the other arts, the music of the period was significantly influenced by the developments which define the Early Modern period: the rise of humanistic thought; the recovery of the literary and artistic heritage of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome; increased innovation and discovery; the growth of commercial enterprises; the rise of a bourgeois class; and the Protestant Reformation. From this changing society emerged a common, unifying musical language, in particular, the polyphonic style of the Franco-Flemish school.

The invention of the printing press in 1439 made it cheaper and easier to distribute music and music theory texts on a wider geographic scale and to more people. Prior to the invention of printing, written music and music theory texts had to be hand-copied, a time-consuming and expensive process. Demand for music as entertainment and as a leisure activity for educated amateurs increased with the emergence of a bourgeois class. Dissemination of chansons, motets, and masses throughout Europe coincided with the unification of polyphonic practice into the fluid style which culminated in the second half of the sixteenth century in the work of composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Orlande de Lassus, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Tomás Luis de Victoria. Relative political stability and prosperity in the Low Countries, along with a flourishing system of music education in the area’s many churches and cathedrals allowed the training of large numbers of singers, instrumentalists, and composers. These musicians were highly sought throughout Europe, particularly in Italy, where churches and aristocratic courts hired them as composers, performers, and teachers. Since the printing press made it easier to disseminate printed music, by the end of the 16th century, Italy had absorbed the northern musical influences with Venice, Rome, and other cities becoming centers of musical activity. This reversed the situation from a hundred years earlier. Opera, a dramatic staged genre in which singers are accompanied by instruments, arose at this time in Florence. Opera was developed as a deliberate attempt to resurrect the music of ancient Greece.

Principal liturgical (church-based) musical forms, which remained in use throughout the Renaissance period, were masses and motets, with some other developments towards the end of the era, especially as composers of sacred music began to adopt secular (non-religious) musical forms (such as the madrigal) for religious use. The 15th and 16th century masses had two kinds of sources that were used: monophonic (a single melody line) and polyphonic (multiple, independent melodic lines), with two main forms of elaboration, based on cantus firmus practice or, beginning some time around 1500, the new style of “pervasive imitation”, in which composers would write music in which the different voices or parts would imitate the melodic and/or rhythmic motifs performed by other voices or parts.

During the period, secular (non-religious) music had an increasing distribution, with a wide variety of forms, but one must be cautious about assuming an explosion in variety: since printing made music more widely available, much more has survived from this era than from the preceding Medieval era, and probably a rich store of popular music of the late Middle Ages is lost. Secular music was music that was independent of churches. The main types were the German Lied, Italian frottola, the French chanson, the Italian madrigal, and the Spanish villancico. Other secular vocal genres included the caccia, rondeau, virelai, bergerette, ballade, musique mesurée, canzonetta, villanella, villotta, and the lute song. Mixed forms such as the motet-chanson and the secular motet also appeared.

Purely instrumental music included consort music for recorders or viols and other instruments, and dances for various ensembles. Common instrumental genres were the toccata, prelude, ricercar, and canzona. Dances played by instrumental ensembles (or sometimes sung) included the basse danse (It. bassadanza), tourdion, saltarello, pavane, galliard, allemande, courante, bransle, canarie, piva, and lavolta. Music of many genres could be arranged for a solo instrument such as the lute, vihuela, harp, or keyboard. Such arrangements were called intabulations (It. intavolatura, Ger. Intabulierung).

Composers of the Early Renaissance (1400-1470)

Guillaume Du Fay (5 August 1397(?) – 27 November 1474) was a composer and music theorist of early Renaissance music, who is variously described as French or Franco-Flemish. Considered the leading European composer of his time, his music was widely performed and reproduced. Du Fay was well-associated with composers of the Burgundian School, particularly his colleague Gilles Binchois, but was never a regular member of the Burgundian chapel himself.

Du Fay has been described as leading the first generation of European musicians who were primarily considered ‘composers’ by occupation. His erratic career took him throughout Western Europe, forming a ‘cosmopolitan style’ and an extensive oeuvre which included representatives of virtually every polyphonic genre of his time. Du Fay was deeply influenced by the contenance angloise style of John Dunstaple, and synthesized it with a wide variety of other styles, including that of the famous Missa Caput, and the techniques of his younger contemporaries, Ockeghem and Busnois.

Du Fay composed in most of the common forms of the day, including masses, motets, Magnificats, hymns, simple chant settings in fauxbourdon, and antiphons within the area of sacred music, and rondeauxballadesvirelais and a few other chanson types within the realm of secular music. None of his surviving music is specifically instrumental, although instruments were certainly used for some of his secular music, especially for the lower parts; all of his sacred music is vocal. Instruments may have been used to reinforce the voices in actual performance for almost any of his works.

1. Urbs beata lerusalem
2. Missa “Ave regina celorum”: V. Agnus Dei
3. Par droit je puis bien complainre et gemir
4. Aposto glorioso – Cum tua doctrina -Andreas, Christi famulus (isorhythmic motets)
5. Par droit je puis bien complaindre et gemir
6. Juvenis qui puellam
7. Nuper rosarum flores

Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410 – 6 February 1497) was a Franco-Flemish composer and singer of early Renaissance music. Ockeghem was the most influential European composer in the period between Guillaume Du Fay and Josquin des Prez, and he was—with his colleague Antoine Busnois—the leading European composer in the second half of the 15th century. He was an important proponent of the early Franco-Flemish School.

Dating Ockeghem’s works is difficult, as there are almost no external points of reference, except of course the death of Binchois (1460) for which Ockeghem composed a motet-chanson. The Missa Caput is almost certainly an early work, since it follows on an anonymous English mass of the same title dated to the 1440s, and his late masses may include the Missa Ma maistresse and Missa Fors seulement, in view of both his innovative treatment of the cantus firmus and his increasingly homogeneous textures later in his life.

Ockeghem used the cantus firmus technique in about half of his masses; the earliest of these masses use head-motifs at the start of the individual movements, a common practice around 1440 but one that had already become archaic by around 1450. Three of his masses, Missa Ma maistresseMissa Fors seulement, and Missa Mi-mi are based on chansons he wrote himself, and use more than one voice of the chanson, foreshadowing the parody mass techniques of the 16th century. In his remaining masses, including the Missa cuiusvis toni and Missa prolationum, no borrowed material has been found, and the works seem to have been freely composed.

Ockeghem would sometimes place borrowed material in the lowest voice, such as in the Missa Caput, one of three masses written in the mid-15th century based on that fragment of chant from the English Sarum Rite. Other characteristics of Ockeghem’s compositional technique include variation in voices’ rhythmic character so as to maintain their independence.

A strong influence on Josquin des Prez and the subsequent generation of Netherlanders, Ockeghem was famous throughout Europe for his expressive music, though he was equally renowned for his technical prowess. Two of the most famous contrapuntal achievements of the 15th century include his Missa prolationum, which consists entirely of mensuration canons, and the Missa cuiusvis toni, designed to be performed in any of the different modes, but even these technique-oriented pieces demonstrate his uniquely expressive use of vocal ranges and tonal language. Ockeghem’s use of wide-ranging and rhythmically active bass lines sets him apart from many of the other composers in the Netherlandish Schools, and may be because this was his voice range.

8. Missa Fors seulement: I. Kyrie
9. Permanent vierge, plus digne que nesune
10. Missa cuisvis toni: Gloria
11. Missa L’homme armé: Agnus Dei”
12. Messe in D: I. Kyrie
13. Messe in D: II. Gloria
14. Messe in D: III. Credo
15. Intemerata Dei Mater
16. Missa Mi-Mi: IV. Sanctus

Walter Frye (died 1474?). Nothing certain is known about the life of this English composer. Frye wrote masses, motets and songs, including ballades and a single rondeau. All of his surviving music is vocal, and his best-known composition is an Ave Regina, a motet which occurs, unusually, in three contemporary paintings, even including notation. Some of his shorter pieces acquired an extraordinary fame in far-away areas, such as Italy, southern Germany, Bohemia and present-day Austria, including the rondeau Tout a par moy and the ballade So ys emprentid. These songs were often copied, rearranged and plagiarized, and appear in numerous collections in varied forms. Frye’s masses, however, were his most historically significant contribution, for they influenced the music of Jacob Obrecht and Antoine Busnois. Frye’s style in his masses was typical of English music of the period, the Contenance Angloise, using full triadic sonorities, and sometimes isorhythmic techniques; he contrasted full-voiced textures with passages for only two voices, which became a characteristic sound of the polyphony of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Three masses have survived more or less complete: the Missa Flos Regalis (for four voices), Missa Nobilis et Pulchra (three voices), and the Missa Summe Trinitati (also for three voices).

17. Missa Flos Regalis: Gloria
18. Missa Flos Regalis: Credo
19. Salve Virgo

Next Chapter: The High Renaissance

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