History of Western Art Music

history of western art music

This article is meant to accompany my classical music playlist on Spotify which is organized in chronological order to facilitate the study of the evolution of Western art music from the Middle Ages to the present though by shuffling the playlist it may used as a way to explore classical music or just for general listening pleasure. I have also created separate playlists for each era of classical music, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, etc. The text is mostly taken from various Wikipedia articles which may be accessed by clicking on the various headings and names of composers. The numbers that appear before names of compositions refer to track numbers in the playlist. I suggest listening to the tracks that appear in the text below after reading the material that precedes them for a deeper comprehension of what you’ve just read and the music itself.

Western art music or classical music generally refers to the art music of the Western world, considered to be distinct from Western folk music or popular music traditions. It is sometimes distinguished as Western classical music, as the term “classical music” also applies to non-Western art music. Classical music is often characterized by formality and complexity in its musical form and harmonic organization, particularly with the use of polyphony. Since at least the ninth century it has been primarily a written tradition, spawning a sophisticated notational system, as well as accompanying literature in analytical, critical, historiographical, musicological and philosophical practices. A foundational component of Western culture, classical music is frequently seen from the perspective of individual or groups of composers, whose compositions, personalities and beliefs have fundamentally shaped its history. 

Medieval Music (500-1400)

Spotify Playlist of Medieval Music (4 hours, 16 minutes)

Medieval music encompasses the sacred and secular music of Western Europe during the Middle Ages, from approximately the 6th to 15th centuries. It is the first and longest major era of Western classical music and followed by Renaissance music; the two eras comprise what musicologists generally refer to as early music, preceding the common-practice period. Following the traditional division of the Middle Ages, medieval music can be divided into Early (500–1150), High (1000–1300), and Late (1300–1400) medieval music.

Medieval music includes vocal music, such as Gregorian chant (sung by monks during Catholic Mass), and choral music (music for a group of singers), instrumental music and music that uses both voices and instruments (typically with the instruments accompanying the voices). Rooted in the patronage of churches and royal courts in Western Europe, surviving early medieval music is chiefly religious, monophonic and vocal, with the music of ancient Greece and Rome influencing its thought and theory.

During the medieval period the foundation was laid for the music notation and music theory practices that would shape Western music into the norms that developed during the common-practice period of shared music writing practices which encompassed the Baroque era (1600–1750), Classical era (1750–1820) and Romantic era (1800–1910). The most significant of these is the development of a comprehensive music notational system which enabled composers to write out their song melodies and instrumental pieces on parchment or paper. Prior to the development of musical notation, songs and pieces had to be learned “by ear”, from one person who knew a song to another person. This greatly limited how many people could be taught new music and how far music could spread to other regions or countries. The development of music notation made it easier to disseminate songs and musical pieces to a larger number of people and to a wider geographic area. However the theoretical advances, particularly in regard to rhythm—the timing of notes—and polyphony—using multiple, interweaving melodies at the same time—are equally important to the development of Western music.

Early Medieval Music (500-1150) 

Chant (or plainsong) is a monophonic sacred form which represents the earliest known music of the Christian church. Chant developed separately in several European centers. Although the most important were Rome, Hispania, Gaul, Milan, and Ireland, there were others as well. These styles were all developed to support the regional liturgies used when celebrating the Mass. Each area developed its own chant and rules for celebration.

Around the end of the 9th century, singers in monasteries such as St. Gall in Switzerland began experimenting with adding another part to the chant, generally a voice in parallel motion, singing mostly in perfect fourths or fifths above the original tune. This development is called organum and represents the beginnings of counterpoint and, ultimately, harmony. Over the next several centuries, organum developed in several ways.

Another musical tradition of Europe originating during the early Middle Ages was the liturgical drama (forms of dramatic performance that use stories from the Bible and other Christian literature), which developed, possibly in the 10th century, from the tropes—poetic embellishments of the liturgical texts. 

Composers of the Early Medieval Ages

Notker in an 11th century manuscript, probably from Saint Gall.

Notker the Stammerer (c. 840 – 6 April 912), Notker Balbulus, or simply Notker, was a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Saint Gall in modern-day Switzerland. Described as “a significant figure in the Western Church”, Notker made substantial contributions to both the music and literature of his time. The anonymous pieces included in the playlist originate from the St. Gall manuscripts held in the Abbey library of Saint Gall and were composed around the same time as Notker’s.

1. Natus ante saecula
2. Ex numero frequentium – Quasi quid incredibile – Qui vobis terrigenis
3. Occidentana

4. Dies Sanctificatus
5. Romana
6. Mater

Fulbert de Chartres (952–970–10 April 1028) French or Italian, Bishop of Chartres in France from 1006 to 1028 and a teacher at the Cathedral school there.

7.    De luscinia

8.    O lylium convallium (Italy – 10th Century)
9.    In omnem terram (St. Gall c. 922-926)
10. Alleluja,v Cantabant sancti (France – 2nd half of 11th century)

Peter Abelard (c. 1079 – 21 April 1142) was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, leading logician, theologian, poet, composer and musician.

11. O quanta qualia (composed after 1130)

Hildegard von Bingen (c. 1098 – 17 September 1179) was a German Benedictine abbess active as a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, and medical writer and practitioner during the High Middle Ages. She is one of the best-known composers of sacred monophony, as well as the most recorded in modern history. 

Attention in recent decades to women of the medieval Catholic Church has led to a great deal of popular interest in Hildegard’s music. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, sixty-nine musical compositions, each with its own original poetic text, survive, and at least four other texts are known, though their musical notation has been lost. This is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers.

One of her better-known works, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is a morality play. It is uncertain when some of Hildegard’s compositions were composed, though the Ordo Virtutum is thought to have been composed as early as 1151. It is an independent Latin morality play with music (82 songs); it does not supplement or pay homage to the Mass or the Office of a certain feast. It is, in fact, the earliest known surviving musical drama that is not attached to a liturgy.

In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, Hildegard composed many liturgical songs that were collected into a cycle called the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. The songs from the Symphonia are set to Hildegard’s own text and range from antiphons, hymns, and sequences, to responsories. Her music is monophonic and its style has been said to be characterized by soaring melodies that can push the boundaries of traditional Gregorian chant and to stand outside the normal practices of monophonic monastic chant. Another feature of Hildegard’s music that both reflects the twelfth-century evolution of chant, and pushes that evolution further, is that it is highly melismatic, often with recurrent melodic units.

12. Ordo Virtutum: Prologue
13. Ordo Virtutum: Epilogue
14. Laus Trinitati
15. Ave generosa
16. O quam magnum miraculum est
17. O Frondens Virga
18. O ignis Spiritus Paraclitus
19. Sequentia O, Jerusalem, aurea civitas
20. Antiphona O, tu illistrata
21. Antiphon O, quam mirabilis est
22. Antiphona, O coruscan lux 68 (IV). Psalmus 10: In Domino confido
23. Conductus flos in monte cernitu


High Medieval Music (1000–1300)

The flowering of the Notre Dame school of polyphony from around 1150 to 1250 corresponded to the equally impressive achievements in Gothic architecture: indeed the centre of activity was at the cathedral of Notre Dame itself. Sometimes the music of this period is called the Parisian school, or Parisian organum, and represents the beginning of what is conventionally known as Ars antiqua. This was the period in which rhythmic notation first appeared in western music, mainly a context-based method of rhythmic notation known as the rhythmic modes.

This was also the period in which concepts of formal structure developed which were attentive to proportion, texture, and architectural effect. Composers of the period alternated florid and discant organum (more note-against-note, as opposed to the succession of many-note melismas against long-held notes found in the florid type), and created several new musical forms: clausulae, which were melismatic sections of organa extracted and fitted with new words and further musical elaboration; conductus, which were songs for one or more voices to be sung rhythmically, most likely in a procession of some sort; and tropes, which were additions of new words and sometimes new music to sections of older chant. All of these genres save one were based upon chant; that is, one of the voices, (usually three, though sometimes four) nearly always the lowest (the tenor at this point) sang a chant melody, though with freely composed note-lengths, over which the other voices sang organum. The exception to this method was the conductus, a two-voice composition that was freely composed in its entirety. The motet, one of the most important musical forms of the high Middle Ages and Renaissance, developed initially during the Notre Dame period out of the clausula, especially the form using multiple voices as elaborated by Pérotin.

Composers of the High Medieval Ages

Pérotin  (fl.c. 1200) was a composer associated with the Notre Dame school of polyphony in Paris and the broader ars antiqua musical style of high medieval music. He is credited with developing the polyphonic practices of his predecessor Léonin, with the introduction of three and four-part harmonies.

24. Mors a primi patris/Mors, que stimulo/Mors morsu nata/Mors
25. Feast of St. Stephen: Sederunt principes – Adiuva me, Domine (à 4) (Gradual)
26. Chose Tassin (Tassinus – 13th century – France – arr. Doron D. Sherwin)

27. Nobilis humilis Magne martir (12th century – Orkney)
28. En mort d’En Joan de Cucanh (1272 – Italy)
29. Aucuns vont/ Amor qui cor/Kyrie (13th century – France)
30. Edi beo thu, hevene quene (13th century – England)
31. Iam nubes dissolvitur/Iam novum sydus oritur/Solem (13th century – France)
32. Porta preminentie/Porta penitentie/Portas (13th century – France)
33. Procurans odium (13th century – France)
34. Rosa fragrans (13th century – England)
35. S’on me regarde/Prenés i garde/Hé mi enfant (13th century – France)
36. Ysaias cecinit/Tytire tu patule (13th century – France)
37. Laude novella sia cantata (late 13th century – Italy)
38. Plange, Castella (late 13th century – Spain – found in Las Huelgas Codex)
39. O monialis (late 13th century – Spain – found in Las Huelgas Codex)
40. Quis dabit (late 13th century – Spain – found in Las Huelgas Codex)
41. Rex obiit (late 13th century – Spain – found in Las Huelgas Codex)

Late Medieval Music (1300–1400)

The beginning of the Ars nova is one of the few clear chronological divisions in medieval music, since it corresponds to the publication of the Roman de Fauvel, a huge compilation of poetry and music, in 1310 and 1314. The Roman de Fauvel is a satire on abuses in the medieval church, and is filled with medieval motets, laisrondeaux and other new secular forms. While most of the music is anonymous, it contains several pieces by Philippe de Vitry, one of the first composers of the isorhythmic motet, a development which distinguishes the fourteenth century. The isorhythmic motet was perfected by Guillaume de Machaut, the finest composer of the time.

During the Ars nova era, secular music acquired a polyphonic sophistication formerly found only in sacred music, a development not surprising considering the secular character of the early Renaissance (while this music is typically considered “medieval”, the social forces that produced it were responsible for the beginning of the literary and artistic Renaissance in Italy—the distinction between Middle Ages and Renaissance is a blurry one, especially considering arts as different as music and painting). The term “Ars nova” (new art, or new technique) was coined by Philippe de Vitry in his treatise of that name (probably written in 1322), in order to distinguish the practice from the music of the immediately preceding age.

The dominant secular genre of the Ars Nova was the chanson, as it would continue to be in France for another two centuries. These chansons were composed in musical forms corresponding to the poetry they set, which were in the so-called formes fixes of rondeau, ballade, and virelai. These forms significantly affected the development of musical structure in ways that are felt even today; for example, the ouvert-clos rhyme-scheme shared by all three demanded a musical realization which contributed directly to the modern notion of antecedent and consequent phrases. It was in this period, too, in which began the long tradition of setting the Ordinary of the Mass. This tradition started around mid-century with isolated or paired settings of Kyries, Glorias, etc., but Machaut composed what is thought to be the first complete mass conceived as one composition. The sound world of Ars Nova music is very much one of linear primacy and rhythmic complexity. “Resting” intervals are the fifth and octave, with thirds and sixths considered dissonances. Leaps of more than a sixth in individual voices are not uncommon, leading to speculation of instrumental participation at least in secular performance.

Composers of the Late Medieval Ages

Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 – April 1377) was a French composer and poet who was the central figure of the ars nova style in late medieval music. His dominance of the genre is such that modern musicologists use his death to separate the ars nova from the subsequent ars subtilior movement. Regarded as the most significant French composer and poet of the 14th century, he is often seen as the century’s leading European composer.

Machaut, one of the earliest European composers on whom considerable biographical information is available, has an unprecedented amount of surviving music, in part due to his own involvement in his manuscripts’ creation and preservation. Machaut embodies the culmination of the poet-composer tradition stretching back to the traditions of troubadour and trouvère. Machaut composed in a wide range of styles and forms and was crucial in developing the motet and secular song forms (particularly the lai and the formes fixes: rondeau, virelai and ballade). Among his only surviving sacred works, Messe de Nostre Dame, is the earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer. 

42. Plourez, dames, plourez vostre servant (Ballade from “Le Voir dit”)
43. Puisqu’en oubli suis de vous, dous amis (Three-voice rondeau)
44. Motet no. 16: Por coi me bait 
45. Motet no. 5: Fias volontas tua
46. Motet no. 7: Ego moriar pro te
47. De Fortune me doi pleindre et loer (Three-voice ballade)

Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340 – c. 1386) was an Italian composer of the Trecento, the period sometimes known as the Italian ars nova. He was one of the first composers of this group, making him a contemporary of Gherardello da Firenze and Giovanni da Cascia. He concentrated mainly on madrigals, including both canonic (caccia-madrigal) and non-canonic types, but also composed a single example each of a caccia, laudaballata, and motet. Jacopo’s ideal was “suave dolce melodia” (sweet, gentle melody). His style is marked by fully texted voice parts that never cross. The untexted passages which connect the textual lines in many of his madrigals are also noteworthy.

48. Lux purpurata radiis; Diligite iustitiam (Three-voice motet)
49. Nel bel giardino che l’Adige (Madrigal)

50. Lamento di Tristano, Rotta (14th century – Italy)

Giovanni da Cascia (fl. mid 14th century). His madrigals are of importance in the development of the style of the 14th-century madrigal. He tends to use extended melismas on the first and penultimate syllables of a poetic line, and sometimes introduces hockets at these points. The middles of the lines are generally syllabic. Many of his works are very similar in style to the anonymous works preserved in the Rossi Codex. Several of his works survive in quite different versions; this is evidence that improvisation was still an important aspect of musical performance up to this time. Giovanni’s works tend not to be tonally unified; they begin and end on different notes, and in some cases, such as Nascoso el viso, each poetic line begins and ends on different notes. Occasional imitation is found in his work.

51. O tu chara sciença

Lorenzo da Firenze (died December 1372 or January 1373), was another Italian composer and music teacher of the Trecento and was one of the composers of the period known as the Italian ars nova. His style is progressive, sometimes experimental, but curiously conservative in other ways. While he used imitation, a relatively new musical technique, and heterophonic texture, one of the rarest textures in European music, he also still used parallel perfect intervals. Voice crossings are common, when he wrote for more than one voice (most of his music is monophonic). In addition he used chromaticism to a degree rare in the 14th century, at least prior to the activity of the composers of the ars subtilior.

52. A poste messe (Three-voice canon)
53. Alma polis religio/Axe poli cum artica (Egidius de Aurelia/Johannes de Porta [?] – late 14th century – France)

54. Patrie pacis/Patria gaudentium (late 14th century – England)

John Forest (c. 1365 – 25 March 1446), was an English composer. There are two motets of Forest’s in the Old Hall Manuscript, but much more survives in Continental sources such as the Trent Codices. His music contrasts declamatory and melismatic passages; the conflict of rhythms between the various voices gives his music a restless quality.

55. Qualis est dilectus tuus

Transitioning to the Renaissance

Demarcating the end of the medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance era, with regard to the composition of music, is difficult. While the music of the fourteenth century is fairly obviously medieval in conception, the music of the early fifteenth century is often conceived as belonging to a transitional period, not only retaining some of the ideals of the end of the Middle Ages (such as a type of polyphonic writing in which the parts differ widely from each other in character, as each has its specific textural function), but also showing some of the characteristic traits of the Renaissance (such as the increasingly international style developing through the diffusion of Franco-Flemish musicians throughout Europe, and in terms of texture an increasing equality of parts). Music historians do not agree on when the Renaissance era began, but most historians agree that England was still a medieval society in the early fifteenth century. While there is no consensus, 1400 is a useful marker, because it was around that time that the Renaissance came into full swing in Italy.

The increasing reliance on the interval of the third as a consonance is one of the most pronounced features of transition into the Renaissance. Polyphony, in use since the 12th century, became increasingly elaborate with highly independent voices throughout the 14th century. With John Dunstaple and other English composers, partly through the local technique of faburden (an improvisatory process in which a chant melody and a written part predominantly in parallel sixths above it are ornamented by one sung in perfect fourths below the latter, and which later took hold on the continent as “fauxbordon”), the interval of the third emerges as an important musical development; because of this Contenance Angloise English composers’ music is often regarded as the first to sound less truly bizarre to 2000s-era audiences who are not trained in music history.

English stylistic tendencies in this regard had come to fruition and began to influence continental composers as early as the 1420s, as can be seen in works of the young Guillaume Dufay, among others. While the Hundred Years’ War continued, English nobles, armies, their chapels and retinues, and therefore some of their composers, travelled in France and performed their music there; it must also of course be remembered that the English controlled portions of northern France at this time. 

Composers of the Transitional Period

Pycard, also spelt Picard and Picart (late 14th century – early 15th century) was an English or French Medieval and Renaissance transitional composer. The name “Picard” suggests a French origin, but his music is regarded as being in an English tradition. He is one of the most prolific composers represented in the Old Hall Manuscript with nine works from it attributed to him. His music is in the ars nova style, and is unusual in its virtuosity.

56. Gloria II

Leonel Power (1370 to 1385 – 5 June 1445) was an English composer of the late Medieval and early Renaissance music. Along with John Dunstaple, he was a dominant figure of 15th century English music. Primarily a composer of sacred music, Power is the best represented contributor in the Old Hall Manuscript. Power was one of the first composers to set separate movements of the Ordinary of the Mass which were thematically unified and intended for contiguous performance.

57. Beata progenies
58. Ave regina celorum

Oswald von Wolkenstein (c. 1376 – 2 August, 1445) is one of the most important German composers of the Middle Ages. There are three main topics of his work: travel, God and sex.

59. Ich spür ain tier

John Dunstaple (or Dunstable; c. 1390 – 24 December 1453) was an English composer whose music helped inaugurate the transition from the medieval to the Renaissance periods. The central proponent of the Contenance angloise style, Dunstaple was the leading English composer of his time, and is often coupled with William Byrd and Henry Purcell as England’s most important early music composers. His style would have an immense influence on the subsequent music of continental Europe, inspiring composers such as Du Fay, Binchois, Ockeghem and Busnois.

60. Sanctus, JD 6
61. Sanctus (Da gaudiorum premia), JD 18

62. Eya martyr Stephane (Mid 15th century – England)

Renaissance Music (1400-1600)

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.

63. Urbs beata lerusalem
64. Missa “Ave regina celorum”: V. Agnus Dei
65. Par droit je puis bien complainre et gemir
66. Aposto glorioso – Cum tua doctrina -Andreas, Christi famulus (isorhythmic motets)
67. Par droit je puis bien complaindre et gemir
68. Juvenis qui puellam
69. 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.

70. Missa Fors seulement: I. Kyrie
71. Permanent vierge, plus digne que nesune
72. Missa cuisvis toni: Gloria
73. Missa L’homme armé: Agnus Dei”
74. Messe in D: I. Kyrie
75. Messe in D: II. Gloria
76. Messe in D: III. Credo
77. Intemerata Dei Mater
78. 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).

79. Missa Flos Regalis: Gloria
80. Missa Flos Regalis: Credo
81. Salve Virgo

Composers of the Middle Period (1470–1530)

Heinrich Isaac (ca. 1450 – 26 March 1517) was a Renaissance composer of south Netherlandish origin. He wrote masses, motets, songs (in French, German and Italian), and instrumental music. A significant contemporary of Josquin des Prez, Isaac influenced the development of music in Germany. Isaac was one of the most prolific composers of the time, producing an extraordinarily diverse output, including almost all the forms and styles current at the time; only Lassus, at the end of the 16th century, had a wider overall range. His best known work may be the song “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen“, of which he made at least two versions. It is possible, however, that the melody itself is not by Isaac, and only the setting is original. The same melody was later used as the theme for the Lutheran hymn “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen“, which was the basis of works by Johann Sebastian Bach, including his St Matthew Passion and Johannes Brahms.

Of his settings of the ordinary of the mass, 36 survive; others are believed to have been lost. Numerous individual movements of masses survive as well. But it is composition of music for the Proper of the Mass – the portion of the liturgy which changed on different days, unlike the ordinary, which remained constant – which gave him his greatest fame. The huge cycle of motets which he wrote for the mass Proper, the Choralis Constantinus, and which he left incomplete at his death, would have supplied music for 100 separate days of the year.

Isaac is held in high regard for his Choralis Constantinus. It is a huge anthology of over 450 chant-based polyphonic motets for the Proper of the Mass. It had its origins in a commission that Isaac received from the Cathedral in Konstanz, Germany in April 1508 to set many of the Propers unique to the local liturgy. Isaac was in Konstanz because Maximilian had called a meeting of the Reichstag (German Parliament of nobles) there and Isaac was on hand to provide music for the Imperial court chapel choir. After the deaths of both Maximilian and Isaac, Ludwig Senfl, who had been Isaac’s pupil as a member of the Imperial court choir, gathered all the Isaac settings of the Proper and placed them into liturgical order for the church year. But the anthology was not published until 1555, after Senfl’s death, by which time the reforms of the Council of Trent had made many of the texts obsolete. The motets remain some of the finest examples of chant-based Renaissance polyphony in existence.

Isaac composed a 6-voice motet Angeli Archangeli for the Feast of All Saint’s Day, honoring angels, archangels, and all other saints. Another famous motet by Isaac is Optime pastor (Optime divino), written for the accession to the papacy of Medici pope Leo X. This motet compares the Pope to a shepherd capable of soothing all of his flock and binding them together. 

The influence of Isaac was especially pronounced in Germany, due to the connection he maintained with the Habsburg court. He was the first significant master of the Franco-Flemish polyphonic style who both lived in German-speaking areas, and whose music was widely distributed there. It was through him that the polyphonic style of the Netherlands became widely accepted in Germany, making possible the further development of contrapuntal music there. 

82. Motet: Optime Divion date munere pastor ovili à 6 v. 
83. Lied: O Welt, ich muß dich lassen
84. Virgo prudentissima: Prima pars

Josquin Lebloitte dit des Prez (c. 1450–1455 – 27 August 1521) was a composer of High Renaissance music, who is variously described as French or Franco-Flemish. Considered one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance, he was a central figure of the Franco-Flemish School and had a profound influence on the music of 16th-century Europe. Building on the work of his predecessors Guillaume Du Fay and Johannes Ockeghem, he developed a complex style of expressive—and often imitative—movement between independent voices (polyphony) which informs much of his work. He further emphasized the relationship between text and music, and departed from the early Renaissance tendency towards lengthy melismatic lines on a single syllable, preferring to use shorter, repeated motifs between voices. Josquin was a singer, and his compositions are mainly vocal. They include masses, motets and secular chansons. Influential both during and after his lifetime, Josquin has been described as the first Western composer to retain posthumous fame. His music was widely performed and imitated in 16th-century Europe. Josquin was a professional singer throughout his life, and his compositions are almost exclusively vocal. He wrote in primarily three genres: the mass, motet, and chanson (with French text).

85. Fortuna desperata: Agnus Dei
86. Missa l’homme armé sexti toni: V. Agnus Dei
87. Missa Mater Patris, NJE 10.1: IV. Sanctus
88. Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae: VII. Inviolata, integra, et casta es Maria
89. Inviolata, integra et casta es

Jacob ObrechtJacob Obrecht (1457/8 – late July 1505) was a Flemish composer of masses, motets and songs. He was the most famous composer of masses in Europe of the late 15th century and was only eclipsed after his death by Josquin des Prez. Combining modern and archaic elements, Obrecht’s style is multi-dimensional. Perhaps more than those of the mature Josquin, the masses of Obrecht display a profound debt to the music of Johannes Ockeghem in the wide-arching melodies and long musical phrases that typify the latter’s music. Obrecht’s style is an example of the contrapuntal extravagance of the late 15th century. He often used a cantus firmus technique for his masses: sometimes he divided his source material up into short phrases; at other times he used retrograde versions of complete melodies or melodic fragments. He once even extracted the component notes and ordered them by note value, long to short, constructing new melodic material from the reordered sequences of notes. Clearly to Obrecht there could not be too much variety, particularly during the musically exploratory period of his early twenties. He began to break free from conformity to formes fixes, especially in his chansons. Of the formes fixes, the rondeau retained its popularity longest. However, he much preferred composing Masses, where he found greater freedom. Furthermore, his motets reveal a wide variety of moods and techniques.

Despite working at the same period, Obrecht and Ockeghem (Obrecht’s senior by some 30 years) differ significantly in musical style. Obrecht does not share Ockeghem’s fanciful treatment of the cantus firmus but chooses to quote it verbatim. Whereas the phrases in Ockeghem’s music are ambiguously defined, those of Obrecht’s music can easily be distinguished, though both composers favor wide-arching melodic structure. Furthermore, Obrecht splices the cantus firmus melody with the intent of audibly reorganizing the motives; Ockeghem, on the other hand, does this far less.

Obrecht’s procedures contrast sharply with the works of the next generation, who favored an increasing simplicity of approach (prefigured by some works of his contemporary Josquin). Although he was renowned in his time, Obrecht appears to have had little influence on subsequent composers; most probably, he simply went out of fashion along with the other contrapuntal masters of his generation.

90. Missa Pfauenschwanz: Et resurrexit

Antoine Brumel (c. 1460 – 1512 or 1513) was one of the first renowned French members of the Franco-Flemish school of the Renaissance, and, after Josquin des Prez, was one of the most influential composers of his generation. Brumel was at the center of the changes that were taking place in European music around 1500, in which the previous style of highly differentiated voice parts, composed one after another, was giving way to smoothly flowing, equal parts, composed simultaneously. These changes can be seen in his music, with some of his earlier work conforming to the older style, and his later compositions showing the polyphonic fluidity which became the stylistic norm of the Josquin generation. Brumel is best known for his masses, the most famous of which is the twelve-voice Missa Et ecce terræ motus. Techniques of composition varied throughout his life: he sometimes used the cantus firmus technique, already archaic by the end of the 15th century, and also the paraphrase technique, in which the source material appears elaborated, and in other voices than the tenor, often in imitation. He used paired imitation, like Josquin, but often in a freer manner than the more famous composer. A relatively unusual technique he used in an untitled mass was to use different source material for each of the sections (mass titles are taken from the pre-existing composition used as their basis: usually a plainchant, motet or chanson: hence the mass is without title). Brumel wrote a Missa l’homme armé, as did so many other composers of the Renaissance: appropriately, he set it as a cantus firmus mass, with the popular song in long notes in the tenor, to make it easier to hear. All of his masses, with the exception of the highly unusual twelve-voice Missa Et ecce terræ motus, are for four voices.

91. Missa “Et ecce terrai motus” Kyrie Eleison
92. Missa “Et ecce terrai motus” Christe Eleison

Late Period (1530–1600)

In Venice, from about 1530 until around 1600, an impressive polychoral style developed, which gave Europe some of the grandest, most sonorous music composed up until that time, with multiple choirs of singers, brass and strings in different spatial locations in the Basilica San Marco di Venezia (see Venetian School). These multiple revolutions spread over Europe in the next several decades, beginning in Germany and then moving to Spain, France, and England somewhat later, demarcating the beginning of what we now know as the Baroque musical era.

The Roman School was a group of composers of predominantly church music in Rome, spanning the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Many of the composers had a direct connection to the Vatican and the papal chapel, though they worked at several churches; stylistically they are often contrasted with the Venetian School of composers, a concurrent movement which was much more progressive. By far the most famous composer of the Roman School is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. While best known as a prolific composer of masses and motets, he was also an important madrigalist. His ability to bring together the functional needs of the Catholic Church with the prevailing musical styles during the Counter-Reformation period gave him his enduring fame.

The brief but intense flowering of the musical madrigal in England, mostly from 1588 to 1627, along with the composers who produced them, is known as the English Madrigal School. The English madrigals were a cappella, predominantly light in style, and generally began as either copies or direct translations of Italian models. Most were for three to six voices.

Musica reservata is either a style or a performance practice in a cappella vocal music of the latter half of the 16th century, mainly in Italy and southern Germany, involving refinement, exclusivity, and intense emotional expression of sung text.

In addition, writers since 1932 have observed what they call a seconda prattica (an innovative practice involving monodic style and freedom in treatment of dissonance, both justified by the expressive setting of texts) during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

93. Quand je bois du vin clairet (Tourdion) (Anon. First published in 1530 – France)

Composers of the Late Renaissance

Clément Janequin (c. 1485 – 1558) was a French composer and one of the most famous composers of popular chansons of the entire Renaissance, who along with Claudin de Sermisy, was hugely influential in the development of the Parisian chanson, especially the programmatic type. The wide spread of his fame was made possible by the concurrent development of music printing. His career was highly unusual for his time, in that he never had a regular position with a cathedral or an aristocratic court. Instead he held a series of minor positions, often with important patronage. Few composers of the Renaissance were more popular in their lifetimes than Janequin. His chansons were well-loved and widely sung. The Paris printer Pierre Attaingnant printed five volumes with his chansons. La bataille, which vividly depicts the sounds and activity of a battle, is a perennial favorite of a cappella singing groups even in the present day.

94. D’un seul soleil

Claudin de Sermisy (c. 1490 – 13 October 1562) along with Clément Janequin he was one of the most renowned composers of French chansons in the early 16th century; in addition he was a significant composer of sacred music. His music was both influential on, and influenced by, contemporary Italian styles. 

Sermisy wrote both sacred music and secular music, and all of it is for voices. Of his sacred music, 12 complete masses have survived, including a Requiem mass, as well as approximately 100 motets, some magnificats and a set of Lamentations. His interest in the sacred genres increased steadily throughout his life, corresponding to a decline in interest in secular forms, using the publication dates as a guide (actual dates of compositions are extremely difficult to establish for composers of this period, unless a work happened to be composed for a specific occasion). Since the prevailing style of polyphony among contemporary composers during his late career was dense, seamless, with pervasive imitation, as typified in the music of Jean Mouton and Nicolas Gombert, it is significant that he tended to avoid this style, preferring clearer textures and short phrases: a style more akin to the chansons he wrote earlier in his career. In addition he varied the texture in his composition by alternating polyphonic passages with homorhythmic, chordal ones, much like the texture found in his secular music.

Sermisy wrote two of the few polyphonic settings of the Passion found in French music of the period; the musical setting is simple, compared to his masses and motets, and he strove to make the words clearly understandable. The gospels chosen were those of St. Matthew and St. John. Sermisy’s settings were published in the 10th volume of Motets published by Pierre Attaignant.

By far Sermisy’s most famous contribution to music literature is his output of chansons, of which there are approximately 175. They are similar to those of Janequin, although less programmatic; his style in these works has also been described as more graceful and polished than that of the rival composer. Typically Sermisy’s chansons are chordal and syllabic, shunning the more ostentatious polyphony of composers from the Netherlands, striving for lightness and grace instead. Sermisy was fond of quick repeated notes, which give the texture an overall lightness and dance-like quality. Another stylistic trait seen in many of Sermisy’s chansons is an initial rhythmic figure consisting of long-short-short (minim-crotchet-crotchet, or half-quarter-quarter), a figure which was to become the defining characteristic of the canzona later in the century. The texts Sermisy chose were usually from contemporary poets, such as Clément Marot (he set more verse by Marot than any other composer). Typical topics were unrequited love, nature, and drinking. Several of his songs are on the topic of an unhappy young woman stuck with an unattractive and unvirile old man, a sentiment not unique to his age. Most of his chansons are for four voices, though he wrote some for three early in his career, before four-voice writing became the norm. Influence from the Italian frottola is evident, and Sermisy’s chansons themselves influenced Italian composers, since his music was reprinted numerous times both in France and in other parts of Europe.

95. Tant que vivray

adrian willeart
Willaert in 1527 portrait

Adrian Willaert (c. 1490 – 7 December 1562) was a Flemish composer mainly active in Italy, and the founder of the Venetian School. He was one of the most representative members of the generation of northern composers who moved to Italy and transplanted the polyphonic Franco-Flemish style there. Willaert was one of the most versatile composers of the Renaissance, writing music in almost every extant style and form. In force of personality, and with his central position as maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s, he became the most influential musician in Europe between the death of Josquin and the time of Palestrina. According to Gioseffo Zarlino writing later in the 16th century, Willaert was the inventor of the antiphonal style from which the polychoral style of the Venetian school evolved. As there were two choir lofts – one to each side of the main altar of St. Mark’s, both provided with an organ —, Willaert divided the choral body into two sections, using them either antiphonally or simultaneously. De Rore, Zarlino, Andrea Gabrieli, Donato, and Croce, Willaert’s successors, all cultivated this style. The tradition of writing that Willaert established during his time at St. Mark’s was continued by other composers working there throughout the 17th century. He then composed and performed psalms and other works for two alternating choirs. This innovation met with instantaneous success and strongly influenced the development of the new method. In Venice, a compositional style, established by Willaert, for multiple choirs dominated. In 1550 he published Salmi spezzati, antiphonal settings of the psalms, the first polychoral work of the Venetian school. Willaert’s work in the religious genre established Flemish techniques firmly as an important part of the Venetian Style. While more recent research has shown that Willaert was not the first to use this antiphonal, or polychoral method — Dominique Phinot had employed it before Willaert, and Johannes Martini even used it in the late 15th century – Willaert’s polychoral settings were the first to become famous and widely imitated. 

With his contemporaries, Willaert developed the canzone (a form of polyphonic secular song) and ricercar, which were forerunners of modern instrumental forms. Willaert was among the first to extensively use chromaticism in the madrigal. Looking forward, we are given an image of early word painting in his madrigal Mentre che’l cor. Willaert, who was fond of the older compositional techniques such as the canon, often placed the melody in the tenor of his compositions, treating it as a cantus firmus. Willaert, with the help of De Rore, standardized a five-voice setting in madrigal composition. Willaert also pioneered a style that continued until the end of the madrigal period of reflecting the emotional qualities of the text and the meanings of important words as sharply and clearly as possible.

Willaert was no less distinguished as a teacher than as a composer. Among his disciples were Cipriano de Rore, his successor at St. Mark’s; Costanzo Porta; the Ferrarese Francesco Viola; Gioseffo Zarlino; and Andrea Gabrieli. Another composer stylistically descended from Willaert was Lassus. These composers, except for Lassus, formed the core of what came to be known as the Venetian school, which was decisively influential on the stylistic change that marked the beginning of the Baroque era. Among Willaert’s pupils in Venice, one of the most prominent was his fellow northerner Cipriano de Rore. The Venetian School flourished for the rest of the 16th century, and into the 17th, led by the Gabrielis and others. Willaert also probably influenced a young Palestrina. Willaert left a large number of compositions – 8 (or possibly 10) masses, over 50 hymns and psalms, over 150 motets, about 60 French chansons, over 70 Italian madrigals and 17 instrumentals (ricercars).

96. Faulte d’argent (chanson for 6 voices)
97. Le vecchie per invidia (canzona for 4 voices)

Cristóbal de Morales
Cristóbal de Morales

Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 – between 4 September and 7 October 1553) was a Spanish composer who is generally considered to be the most influential Spanish composer  before Tomás Luis de Victoria. Morales was the first Spanish composer of international renown. His works were widely distributed in Europe, and many copies made the journey to the New World. Many music writers and theorists in the hundred years after his death considered his music to be among the most perfect of the time. Almost all of his music is sacred, and all of it is vocal, though instruments may have been used in an accompanying role in performance. He wrote many masses, some of spectacular difficulty, most likely written for the expert papal choir; he wrote over 100 motets; and he wrote 18 settings of the Magnificat, and at least five settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah (one of which survives from a single manuscript in Mexico). The Magnificats alone set him apart from other composers of the time, and they are the portion of his work most often performed today. Stylistically, his music has much in common with other middle Renaissance work of the Iberian peninsula, for example a preference for harmony heard as functional by the modern ear (root motions of fourths or fifths being somewhat more common than in, for example, Gombert or Palestrina), and a free use of harmonic cross-relations rather like one hears in English music of the time, for example in Thomas Tallis. Some unique characteristics of his style include the rhythmic freedom, such as his use of occasional three-against-four polyrhythms, and cross-rhythms where a voice sings in a rhythm following the text but ignoring the meter prevailing in other voices. Late in life he wrote in a sober, heavily homophonic style, but all through his life he was a careful craftsman who considered the expression and understandability of the text to be the highest artistic goal. 

98.   Office de laudes: No. 6. Miserere

99.   Prelude (Pierre Attaingnant was a publisher, not a composer)
100. Liber Primus Leviorum Carminum: Galliard d’escosse (Pierre Phalèse was a publisher, not a composer)

thomas tallis
Detail of an 18th-century posthumous engraving by Gerard Vandergucht, after Niccolò Haym.

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 23 November 1585) was an English composer considered one of England’s greatest composers and is honored for his original voice in English musicianship. His  compositions are primarily vocal, and he occupies a primary place in anthologies of English choral music. The earliest surviving works by Tallis are Ave Dei patris filiaMagnificat for four voices, and two devotional antiphons to the Virgin Mary, Salve intemerata virgo and Ave rosa sine spinis, which were sung in the evening after the last service of the day; they were cultivated in England at least until the early 1540s. Henry VIII’s break from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 and the rise of Thomas Cranmer noticeably influenced the style of music being written. Cranmer recommended a syllabic style of music where each syllable is sung to one pitch, as his instructions make clear for the setting of the 1544 English Litany. As a result, the writing of Tallis and his contemporaries became less florid. Tallis’ Mass for Four Voices is marked with a syllabic and chordal style emphasizing chords, and a diminished use of melisma. He provides a rhythmic variety and differentiation of moods depending on the meaning of his texts. Tallis’ early works also suggest the influence of John Taverner and Robert Fayrfax. Taverner in particular is quoted in Salve intemerata virgo, and his later work, Dum transisset sabbatum.

The reformed Anglican liturgy was inaugurated during the short reign of Edward VI (1547–53), and Tallis was one of the first church musicians to write anthems set to English words, although Latin continued to be used alongside the vernacular. Queen Mary set about undoing some of the religious reforms of the preceding decades, following her accession in 1553. She restored the Sarum Rite, and compositional style reverted to the elaborate writing prevalent early in the century. Two of Tallis’s major works were Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater and the Christmas Mass Puer natus est nobis, and both are believed to be from this period. 

Some of Tallis’s works were compiled by Thomas Mulliner in a manuscript copybook called The Mulliner Book before Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and may have been used by the queen herself when she was younger. Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister in 1558, and the Act of Uniformity abolished the Roman Liturgy and firmly established the Book of Common Prayer. Composers resumed writing English anthems, although the practice continued of setting Latin texts among composers employed by Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal. The religious authorities at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, being Protestant, tended to discourage polyphony in church unless the words were clearly audible or, as the 1559 Injunctions stated, “playnelye understanded, as if it were read without singing”. Tallis wrote nine psalm chant tunes for four voices for Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psalter published in 1567. One of the nine tunes was the “Third Mode Melody” which inspired the composition of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910. His setting of Psalm 67 became known as “Tallis’s Canon”, and the setting by Thomas Ravenscroft is an adaptation for the hymn “All praise to thee, my God, this night” (1709) by Thomas Ken, and it has become his best-known composition. The Injunctions, however, also allowed a more elaborate piece of music to be sung in church at certain times of the day, and many of Tallis’s more complex Elizabethan anthems may have been sung in this context, or alternatively by the many families that sang sacred polyphony at home. Tallis’s better-known works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet) for the Holy Week services and the unique motet Spem in alium written for eight five-voice choirs, for which he is most remembered. He also produced compositions for other monarchs, and several of his anthems written in Edward’s reign are judged to be on the same level as his Elizabethan works, such as “If Ye Love Me“. Records are incomplete on his works from previous periods; 11 of his 18 Latin-texted pieces from Elizabeth’s reign were published, “which ensured their survival in a way not available to the earlier material”. Toward the end of his life, Tallis resisted the musical development seen in his younger contemporaries such as Byrd, who embraced compositional complexity and adopted texts of disparate biblical extracts. Tallis was content to draw his texts from the Liturgy and wrote for the worship services in the Chapel Royal. He composed during the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, and his music often displays characteristics of the turmoil.

101. Archbishop Parker’s Psalter – Third Tune: “Why Fum’th in Sight” (published 1567)
102. Thou Wast, O God, and Thou Wast Blest (same as the above tune but set to words by John Mason (1646?–1694).
103. Spem in alium (first performed in 1570 0r 1571)
104. Jesu, Salvatore saeculi
105. Magnificat (Dorian)
106. O sacrum convivium

Jacobus Clemens non Papa (also Jacques Clément) (c. 1510 to 1515 – 1555 or 1556) was a Netherlandish composer based for most of his life in Flanders. He was a prolific composer in many of the current styles, and was especially famous for his polyphonic settings of the psalms in Dutch known as the Souterliedekens. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Clemens seems never to have traveled to Italy, with the result that Italian influence is absent in his music. He represents the northern European dialect of the Franco-Flemish style. Clemens was one of the chief representatives of the generation between Josquin and Palestrina and Orlandus Lassus. He was primarily a composer of sacred music. In fact, his musical output was roughly 80 percent sacred music, either liturgical or for private use. Of his approximately 233 motets, only three contain secular texts, in the form of hymns of praise of music. However, he did compose just above 100 secular works that encompass the whole gamut of poetic genres that were used by composers in his generation. Considering that his career as a composer lasted for barely two decades, Clemens was an extremely prolific composer. 

Of all his works, the Souterliedekens were perhaps the most widely known and influential. The Souterliedekens were published in 1556-1557 by Susato in his Musyck Boexken (“Music Books”), IV-VII and comprised the only Protestant part-music in Dutch during the Renaissance. Based on a preceding volume of Souterliedekens printed by Symon Cock that contained monophonic settings of the psalms in Dutch, Clemens’s Souterliedekens became the first complete polyphonic setting of all 150 psalms in Dutch. Presumably, the original verse translation of the Psalter into the Dutch language was completed by Willem van Nievelt from Wittenberg. Clemens’s part-settings are generally simple, and designed to be sung by people at home. They use the well-known secular tunes that were printed in the Cock edition, including drinking songs, love songs, ballads, and other popular songs of the time, as a cantus firmus. Most of them were set for 3 parts, and there are 26 different combinations of these voices. Some of the Souterliedekens are based on dance-songs and are frankly homophonic and homorhythmic, while others use imitation. It is notable that these pieces of music survived the ban in 1569 when the government under the Duke of Alba censured all books that were deemed heretical.

After Clemens’s death, his works were distributed to Germany, France, Spain, and even among various circles in England. The influence of Clemens was especially prominent in Germany. Franco-Flemish composer Lassus in particular knew his music well and incorporated elements of his style.

107. Je prends en gre & morir m’y fault à 4 (chanson first published in 1539)

Tielman (or Tylman) Susato (c. 1510/15 – after 1570) was a composer, instrumentalist and publisher of music in Antwerp, Belgium. He wrote (and published) several books of masses and motets which are in the typical imitative polyphonic style of the time. He also wrote two books of chansons which were specifically designed to be sung by young, inexperienced singers: they are for only two or three voices. Most important of his publications in terms of distribution and influence were the Souterliedekens of Clemens non Papa, which were metrical psalm settings in Dutch, using the tunes of popular songs. They were hugely popular in the Netherlands in the 16th century. Susato also was a prolific composer of instrumental music, and much of it is still recorded and performed today. He produced one book of dance music in 1551, Het derde musyck boexken … alderhande danserye (La Danserye), composed of pieces in simple but artistic arrangement. Most of these pieces are dance forms (allemandes, galliards, and so forth).

108. La Danserye: Ronde and Salterelie
109. La Danserye: Allemaigne and Recoupe
110. La Danserye: “Mille regretz”
111. La Danserye: Le Pingue (Reprise)
112. La Danserye: La Bataille

Pierre Certon (c. 1510–1520 – 23 February 1572) was a French composer representative of the generation after Josquin and Mouton, and was influential in the late development of the French chanson. Certon wrote eight masses that survive, motets, psalm settings, chansons spirituelle (chansons with religious texts, related to the Italian madrigali spirituali), and numerous secular chansons. His style is relatively typical of mid-century composers, except that he was unusually attentive to large-scale form, for example framing longer masses (such as his Requiem) with very simple movements, with the inner movements showing greater tension and complexity. In addition he was skilled at varying texture between homophonic and polyphonic passages, and often changing the number and register of voices singing at any time. His chanson settings were famous, and influential in assisting the transformation of the chanson from the previous light, dance-like, four-part texture to the late-century style of careful text setting, emotionalism, greater vocal range, and larger number of voices. Cross-influence with the contemporary Italian form of the madrigal was obvious, but chansons such as those by Certon retained a lightness and a rhythmic element characteristic of the French language itself.

113. O Madame, per-je mon tems
114. De Profundis en faux-bourdon, Jean de Moulin

115. Laroque Gaillarde
116. Alemande de Liege

Claude Goudimel (c. 1514 to 1520 – between 28 August and 31 August 1572) was a French composer, music editor and publisher, and music theorist. Goudimel is most famous for his four-part settings of the psalms of the Genevan Psalter, in the French versions of Clément Marot. In one of his four complete editions he puts – unlike other settings at the time – the melody in the topmost voice, the method which has prevailed in hymnody to the present day. In addition he composed masses, motets, and a considerable body of secular chansons, almost all of which date from before his conversion to Protestantism (probably around 1560).

In 1554, he became the editor of a large collection of masses, motets and Magnificat of several composers, a collection printed by Nicolas Duchemin, and in which Goudimel appeared as the author of seven Latin and Catholic works. In the year following, Goudimel, still at Duchemin’s, brought out a book of pieces for four voices of his composition on the Odes of Horace. In 1566, he published his seventh book of psalms in the form of motets. It was, therefore, after his departure from Paris that the celebrities Adrien le Roy and Robert Ballard published his masses in 1558; and it was also during his time in Metz that Goudimel began to concentrate all of his artistic ability in the various musical interpretations of the French translation of the psalms by Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze. He worked on the continuation of his large collection of motet-shaped psalms, and wrote almost simultaneously two different versions of the complete psalter, each containing one hundred and fifty psalms.

Goudimel’s style tends to be homophonic, with an intriguing use of syncopated rhythm and melisma and staggered voice entries to bring out inner parts, especially in the chansons. His Psalm settings, however, are more polyphonic, characteristic of the moderate contrapuntal style exemplified by the chansons of Jacques Arcadelt, an approximate contemporary. His Opera Omnia extends to 14 volumes, though several of his works are fragmentary, missing one or more voices.

117. Estans assis aux rives aquatiques


Cipriano de Rore
Detail of a miniature of Cipriano de Rore by Hans Müelich, probably 1558 or 1559

Cipriano de Rore (1515 or 1516 – between 11 and 20 September 1565) was a Franco-Flemish composer active in Italy. Not only was he a central representative of the generation of  Franco-Flemish composers after Josquin des Prez who went to live and work in Italy, but he was one of the most prominent composers of madrigals in the middle of the 16th century. His experimental, chromatic, and highly expressive style had a decisive influence on the subsequent development of that secular music form. His 1542 book was an extraordinary event, and recognized as such at the time: it established five voices as the norm, rather than four, and it married the polyphonic texture of the Netherlandish motet with the Italian secular form, bringing a seriousness of tone which was to become one of the predominant trends in madrigal composition all the way into the seventeenth century. All of the lines of development in the madrigal in the late century can be traced to ideas first seen in Rore; according to Alfred Einstein, his only true spiritual successor was Claudio Monteverdi, another revolutionary.

While Rore is best known for his Italian madrigals, he was also a prolific composer of sacred music, both masses and motets. Josquin was his point of departure, and he developed many of his techniques from the older composer’s style. Rore’s first three masses are a response to the challenge of his heritage and to the music of his predecessor, Josquin. In addition to five masses, he wrote about 80 motets, many psalms, secular motets, and a setting of the St. John Passion.

It was as a composer of madrigals, however, that Rore achieved enduring fame. With his madrigals published primarily between 1542 and 1565, he was one of the most influential madrigalists at mid-century. His early madrigals reflect the styles of Willaert with the use of clear diction, thick and continuous counterpoint, and pervasive imitation. These works are mostly for four or five voices, with one for six and another for eight. The tone of his writing tends toward the serious, especially as contrasted with the light character of the work of his predecessors, such as Arcadelt and Verdelot. Rore chose not to write madrigals of frivolous nature, preferring to focus on serious subject matter, including the works of Petrarch, and tragedies presented at Ferrara. Rore carefully brought out the varying moods of the texts he set, developing musical devices for this purpose; additionally he often ignored the structure of the line, line division, and rhyme, deeming it unnecessary that the musical and poetic lines correspond.

In addition, Rore experimented with chromaticism, following some of the ideas of his contemporary Nicola Vicentino. He used all the resources of polyphony as they had developed by the middle 16th century in his work, including imitation and canonic techniques, all in the service of careful text setting. Rore also composed secular Latin motets, a relatively unusual “cross-over” form in the mid-16th century. These motets, being a secular variation of a normally sacred form, paralleled the sacred madrigal, the madrigale spirituale, which was a sacred variation on a popular secular form. Stylistically these motets are similar to his madrigals, and he published them throughout his career; occasionally they appeared in collections of madrigals, such as in his posthumous Fifth Book for five voices (1566), and he also included some in a collection of motets for five voices published in 1545.

118. Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Johannem: Judaei ergo quoniam parasceve erat

Adrian Le Roy (c.1520–1598) was an influential French music publisher, lutenist, mandore player, guitarist, composer and music educator. He achieved renown as a composer and arranger of songs and instrumentals, his published work including at least six books of tablature for the lute, five volumes for the guitar and arrangements for the cittern. Le Roy also helped to ensure the success of composer Orlande de Lassus, introducing him to court and publishing his music.

119. Une m’avoit promis
120. Mes pas semez
121. Has tu point veu
122. Passemeze

Thoinot Arbeau is the anagrammatic pen name of French cleric Jehan Tabourot (March 17, 1520 – July 23, 1595). Tabourot is most famous for his Orchésographie, a study of late sixteenth-century French Renaissance social dance. Orchésographie, first published in Langres, 1589, provides information on social ballroom behavior and on the interaction of musicians and dancers. It contains numerous woodcuts of dancers and musicians and includes many dance tabulations in which extensive instructions for the steps are lined up next to the musical notes, a significant innovation in dance notation at that time. The pavane “Belle qui tiens ma vie” was arranged by Leo Delibes for his incidental music for Victor Hugo’s play “Le roi s’amuse”. Other sections were arranged or quoted by Saint-Saens (in the “ballet” from Ascanio) and Peter Warlock (in his Capriol Suite). “Branle de l’Official” provided the tune for the 20th century English Christmas carol “Ding Dong Merrily on High”.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – 2 February 1594) was an Italian composer considered the central representative of the Roman School, with Orlande de Lassus and Tomás Luis de Victoria, Palestrina is considered the leading composer of late 16th-century Europe. Palestrina left hundreds of compositions, including 105 masses, 68 offertories, at least 140 madrigals and more than 300 motets. In addition, there are at least 72 hymns, 35 magnificats, 11 litanies, and four or five sets of lamentations. The Gloria melody from Palestrina’s Magnificat Tertii Toni (1591) is widely used today in the resurrection hymn tune, Victory (The Strife Is O’er).

His attitude toward madrigals was somewhat enigmatic: whereas in the preface to his collection of Canticum canticorum (Song of Songs) motets (1584) he renounced the setting of profane texts, only two years later he was back in print with Book II of his secular madrigals (some of these being among the finest compositions in the medium). He published just two collections of madrigals with profane texts, one in 1555 and another in 1586. The other two collections were spiritual madrigals, a genre beloved by the proponents of the Counter-Reformation.

Palestrina’s masses show how his compositional style developed over time. His Missa sine nomine seems to have been particularly attractive to Johann Sebastian Bach, who studied and performed it while writing the Mass in B minor. Most of Palestrina’s masses appeared in thirteen volumes printed between 1554 and 1601, the last seven published after his death.

Portrait of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, 16th century

One of the hallmarks of Palestrina’s music is that dissonances are typically relegated to the “weak” beats in a measure. This produced a smoother and more consonant type of polyphony which is now considered to be definitive of late Renaissance music, given Palestrina’s position as Europe’s leading composer (along with Orlande de Lassus and Victoria) in the wake of Josquin des Prez. The “Palestrina style” taught in college courses covering Renaissance counterpoint is often based on the codification by the 18th-century composer and theorist Johann Joseph Fux, published as Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus, 1725). Citing Palestrina as his model, Fux divided counterpoint into five species (hence the term “species counterpoint”), designed as exercises for the student, which deployed progressively more elaborate rhythmic combinations of voices while adhering to strict harmonic and melodic requirements. The method was widely adopted and was the main basis of contrapuntal training in the 19th century, but Fux had introduced a number of simplifications to the Palestrina style, notably the obligatory use of a cantus firmus in whole notes, which were corrected by later authors such as Knud Jeppesen and R. O. Morris. Palestrina’s music conforms in many ways to Fux’s rules, particularly in the fifth species but does not fit his pedagogical format. The main insight, that the “pure” style of polyphony achieved by Palestrina followed an invariable set of stylistic and combinational requirements, was justified. Fux’s manual was endorsed by his contemporary J.S. Bach, who himself arranged two of Palestrina’s masses for performance.

According to Fux, Palestrina had established and followed these basic guidelines:

  • The flow of music is dynamic, not rigid or static.
  • Melody should contain few leaps between notes. (Jeppesen: “The line is the starting point of Palestrina’s style”.)
  • If a leap occurs, it must be small and immediately countered by stepwise motion in the opposite direction.
  • Dissonances are to be confined to suspensions, passing notes and weak beats. If one falls on a strong beat (in a suspension) it must be immediately resolved.

Fux omits to mention the manner in which the musical phrasing of Palestrina followed the syntax of the sentences he was setting to music, something not always observed by earlier composers. Also to be noticed in Palestrina is a great deal of tone painting. Elementary examples of this are descending musical motion with Latin words like descendit (descends) or of a static musical or cadential moment with the words de coelis (from heaven).

Palestrina was extremely famous in his day, and if anything, his reputation and influence increased after his death. Felix Mendelssohn placed him in the pantheon of the greatest musicians, writing, “I always get upset when some praise only Beethoven, others only Palestrina and still others only Mozart or Bach. All four of them, I say, or none at all.”. Conservative music of the Roman school continued to be written in Palestrina’s style (which in the 17th century came to be known as the prima pratica) by such students of his as Giovanni Maria Nanino, Ruggiero Giovanelli, Arcangelo Crivelli, Teofilo Gargari, Francesco Soriano, and Gregorio Allegri. As late as the 1750s, Palestrina’s style was still the reference for composers working in the motet form, as can be seen by Francesco Barsanti’s Sei Antifones ‘in the style of Palestrina’ (c. 1750; published by [Peter] Welcker, c. 1762). Much research on Palestrina was done in the 19th century by Giuseppe Baini, who published a monograph in 1828 which made Palestrina famous again and reinforced the already existing legend that he was the “Savior of Church Music” during the reforms of the Council of Trent. 20th and 21st century scholarship by and large retains the view that Palestrina was a strong and refined composer whose music represents a summit of technical perfection. Contemporary analysis highlighted the modern qualities in the compositions of Palestrina such as use of color and sonority, use of sonic grouping in large-scale setting, interest in vertical as well as horizontal organization, studied attention to text setting. These unique characteristics, together with effortless delivery and an indefinable “otherness”, constitute to this day the attraction of Palestrina’s work.

124. Motettorum – Liber Secundus: No. 16 Peccantem me quotidie (1572)
125. Motettorum – Liber Quintus: VI. Parce mihi, Domine (1584)
126. Tribulations civitatum audivimus (1584)
127. Alma Redemptoris Mater, Tu quae genuisti (Motet for 4 voices) [1587]
128. Magnificat quarti toni (1591)

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