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Renaissance Music

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Renaissance Music is obviously music written in The Renaissance. The time-frame for this music, or the definition of it, varies, but the definition usually covers music written between the late 1300s and the early 1600s, with shady borderlines in each direction.

Getting started: The Burgundian style

Ars Nova followed by Ars Subtilior was the high fashion of the fourteenth century. France was the cultural centre for this music, and the style had already skipped a number of musical borders. But then, the hundred-years war came along, reducing France to a cultural wasteland for some time. The new cultural impulses were heavily influenced by the English - and, the dukes of Burgundy, whose power and prowess grew immensely from 1340 and onwards. Burgundy became the hub of European trade, between Italy in the south and Flanders in the north, and prospered at the cost of France. The court of the Burgundian kings became a hot spot for new music, and this alternative style developed with an earlier English style as a premise. Thus, Englishmen like John Dunstaple and Leonel Power provided new harmonics to a style developed by the Flemish musicians, who were invited to the courts of Italy, where newly minted Italian princes wished to hire them. Thus, the Flemish style entered Italy, soon to change the sound of music there for centuries.


The style in question was polyphonic, and preferred a type of harmony called the "fauxbourdon", usually a "turned chord" set with the third at the bottom. Melodies happened to be sung by the middle voice. From the offset, this style was used by the religious composers, but soon the more secular songs were written after the same fashion.

Composers of the Burgundian School

  • Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1400-1477).
  • Gilles Binchois, contemporary of Dufay, also pictured beside him.
  • Johannes Ockeghem, said to have been inspired by, if not outright taught by Dufay.
  • Antoine Busnoys, a composer mostly known for his chansons, and his Hair-Trigger Temper.
  • Jacob Obrecht, a pupil of Ockeghem. Obrecht was of the "middle generation" and began to transform the polyphonic rules.
  • Josquin des Prez, another possible pupil of Ockeghem, said to have been one of the best of his time (c.1500). Martin Luther was a fanboy. Josquin wrote a motet to commemorate Ockeghem.
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  • Nicolas Gombert - labeled the most elaborate polyphonic of the era, or maybe ever since.

Enter the Italian styles

The Flemish composers, wave after wave of them, worked at the chapels of Italian princes. Outside of church, traditional Italian dances and folk songs lived their life, but many of those tunes and melodies were used by the same princes for secular purposes, like the carnivals, feasts and so on. Among them was the ballata and the frottola, small secular songs and witty erotic ditties. When the elaborate style of the north met with the Italian lighter secular tradition, something had to happen. The frottola tradition merged with the northern style to form the madrigal, a secular style that spread from Italy during the sixteenth century, finding fertile ground all over western Europe, and those songs are still in use.


Every country developed a distinct secular tradition, using their own languages. French composers (Sermisy, Verdelot, Janequin), called the songs chansons, the Germans (Senfl, Hassler, Peuerl), called them lieder, the Spanish (Flecha, Pisador), called them canzonas, while the English (Wilbye, Byrd, Dowland) called them ayres. The styles could vary from the almost vulgar to high romance.

Madrigalists of some significance

  • Jacob Arcadelt
  • Jaques de Wert
  • Phillipe de Verdelot
  • Claudin de Sermisy
  • Orlando de Lasso
  • John Wilbye
  • William Byrd
  • Thomas Morley
  • Luca Marenzio
  • Alessandro Striggio
  • Ludwig Senfl
  • Paul Peuerl
  • Hans Leo Hassler

Even Palestrina wrote madrigals, although he is mostly known for his church music. Many composers from the era wrote both in religious and secular style.

A note on the printing business: Printing became an important asset for the developing music industry in the early 1500s. Thus, many of the madrigalists made a relative success from the spreading of printed editions, and for instance Arcadelt became quite famous for his compositions.


While the renaissance music often is associated with vocal forms, like the church music and the madrigal, renaissance music also saw the birth of the coupled dance, from the saltarello to the paduana, from the galliard to the lavolta and similar dances. Many of those developed in Italy, and were spread from there to France, England and other countries.

The dances were often played and performed in pairs: One slow, and one fast. The slow was in 2/4-time, often based on a solemn parade or entrata, followed by a quicker 3/4-dance, often a Galliard or a Volta. Differences varied from place to place. As the sixteenth century passed, composers took to arranging of those dances for ensemble purposes, and thus the suite was born. The form of the suite would, in due time, pave way for the four-movement symphonic forms and the sonata form.

Church music after 1550

The religious music in the late renaissance developed after two lines: One in Rome, and one in Venice. Composers like Orlando de Lasso was all over the place, travelling from court to court in northern Italy. But the Trope Codifier for music of the era was a roman, although he was born in the town of Praeneste. His name was Giovanni Perluigi, best known by the latinized name of his home town: Palestrina. The reason why he ended up a codifier for the Renaissance style is because he worked directly under The Pope, who had commissioned him to "restore" church music. This gave him a lot of good publicity. This also happened because of the council of Trent, put together when the Catholics understood Reformation had put up shop and planned to stay. The "Palestrina style" became so codified that every composer studying polyphony had to read his scores. It is still mandatory, although a lot of composers at the same time couldn't care less about him. The hub of Renaissance culture and music was still in the north of Italy.

Venice was by far the most powerful city in northern Italy, and while Palestrina polished his style in Rome, other composers developed new ideas in Venice. Among them was the Dutchman Adrian Willaert, himself an offspring of the Burgundian school, and employed in the church of saint Mark in Venice. His pupils developed his style further, and created what would be known as the "Venetian school". Because the church was designed with huge galleries on either side, Andrea Gabrieli (said pupil) and his nephew Giovanni began to juxtapose choirs for the sheer stereo effect it produced. The result was amazing. The Gabrieli style had influence far into the next century, beginning with German Heinrich Schütz, and (believe it or not) Antonio Vivaldi. For the record, The Gabrielis also "invented" the Sinfonia (literally meaning "coordinated sound"). For the time being, this meant a musical piece set for brass instruments and/or strings, made after the fashion of vocal polyphony. "Sinfonias" in this fashion (one movement) was in use all the way up through the Baroque period. The sonata was also developed in this period of the Renaissance.

A small note on English cathedral music of the 1500s: Thomas Tallis should be mentioned, because he managed to put together no less than eight five-part voices, making the most elaborate piece of choir music for centuries to come.


As the sixteenth century dragged on, many composer, especially the Italian ones, became more and more elaborate, and the sense of artistry became prominent until the style of mannerism developed. Harmonies became increasingly difficult, and melodies likewise. This got so far that some composers began to use instruments for practical reasons, leaving one single voice for the actual melody. When the "camerata" club in Venice decided that a number of madrigals could be chained together to form a greater musical work, or even to tell a story, a new musical form came to life: The "musical work", or aptly called "opera in musica" - or to be fair: The opera. When this happened, Baroque Music was emerging. Claudio Monteverdi was the central figure of this particular development.

Composers from this late period

  • Claudio Monteverdi, said to have kickstarted the Baroque era with his sixth book of madrigals in 1607. Also known for having written the earliest opera to still be commonly performed today, L'Orfeo.
  • Don Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, a Mad Artist, as far as harmonies go - his inventiveness was not matched until the end of the nineteenth century. He was a virtuoso player on the theorbe (a lute with extended neck and bass strings), and also for having killed off his wife, her lover and his little son. An early example of True Art Is Angsty.

Not Quite Dead

But the Renaissance style did not die out over night because of the opera. It survived far longer, in the harmonic style, and also in the way church music was written. The style of Gabrieli, a born Venetian, came to inspire Antonio Vivaldi, nonetheless. The very end of the renaissance music may as well be the beginning of absolutism under Louis XIV in France, when Italy no longer was the centre of cultural innovation in Europe.

Stock musical phrases associated with the period:

  • Many film makers have used the music printed by Dutch printer Tylman Susato as "stock music" when indicating the period.
  • Greensleeves.
  • The French pavane "Belle qui tens ma vie" used to prop up pretty often. The ball scene in the Romeo and Juliet movie featuring Laurence Olivier used it prominently. The 1968 Zefirelli movie averted this by writing new music, although the dancing was pretty authentic in style.
  • The movie version of Julius Caesar, featuring Marlon Brando, uses a snippet of John Dowland`s frog galliard ("Now oh now I needs must part..."), a Shout-Out to the time frame in which the play was written. The music of Dowland tends to be used a lot in movies set in England from this period.

Tropes associated with the Renaissance style

  • Early Installment Weirdness: Most of the Flemish composers before Josquin, from the early 1400s and onwards. The style becomes gradually more and more recognizable as time marches on.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: The melodies from the medieval plainchant became the framework for the cantus firmus mass which prospered in the fifteenth century and well into the sixteenth. All masses were based on a single cantus (obviously from the standard repertoire), framed by countering voices on all sides. In time, this cantus was imitated and ornamented in all voices (like, for instance in the works of Josquin).
    • Motets and hymns were written over the same patterns.
    • Of course, All religious music was written in Latin, at least until the Reformation set in.
  • Older Than They Think:
    • Stereo, made possible by placing different choirs around a church room, making them sing towards one another in perfect harmony.
    • Also the thought of "hits" - the madrigals are actually reckoned to be the very first example of commercial music, and would have made a veritable hit parade if anyone had thought of it. Thus, the Madrigal "Il Bianco e dolce Cigno" from 1540 might be said to have been at the top of the hit ratings that year.
  • Progressive Instrumentation: It's extremely common, especially in vocal music, to have "points of imitation" where the voices or instruments enter one at a time, each taking up the melody in turn.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: Subverted by history itself, because all music was linear in form, and the individual voices made intricate patterns which, after complicated rules, happened to form harmonies. Only in 1560, Gioseffo Zarlino indicated that a full chord actually had emerged from the linear vocal patterns.
  • Trope Codifier: Because of Pop-Cultural Osmosis, most people reckon Palestrina to be the man, but the true codifier of the polyphonic style is Josquin des Prez, setting the codification at the end of the fifteenth century.