10 best Renaissance composers
Who were the finest musical exponents of the Renaissance period? Here is our guide to the 10 best of the bunch
As one of the most artistically fruitful eras in history, the Renaissance produced an abundance of composers. But who were its finest exponents? Here is our guide to the 10 best of the bunch.
1. Orlando de Lassus
The chief Franco-Flemish representative of mature polyphony, Orlando de Lassus (1530/32-94) was one of the most versatile composers of the late Renaissance, highly regarded for his dramatic text painting, his energetic rhythms and florid use of counterpoint. He was a prolific composer of both sacred and secular music, the latter including French chansons, madrigals, German lieder and motets. Probably his best known work, however, is his collection of penitential psalms from 1584: Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales.
2. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Widely regarded as the great master of the polyphonic style, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594) is one of the most worshipped composers in history, studied by everyone from Bach to Bruckner. As one of few reputable composers of Italian birth working in Italy in his time (most others were either Flemish or Spanish), he came to be seen as the primary representative of the conservative Catholic style during the Counter Reformation. Accordingly, he wrote intensely graceful music, treated chromaticism with caution and always prioritised melodic flow over harmony. Most famous amongst his vast list of sacred and secular works is the Missa Papae Marcelli which is still regularly sung in Catholic churches all over the world.
3. John Taverner
Despite being one of the most important English composers of his era, John Taverner remains something of a mystery. He is thought to have been born around 1490 in Lincolnshire and in 1526 accepted an invitation to become choirmaster at Cardinal College (now Christ's Church) Oxford, where he wrote many of his famous, predominantly sacred, vocal works. Beyond that, our knowledge of his biography is patchy. What we do know is that he embraced the elaborate, imitation-heavy kind of polyphony characteristic of the late-medieval/early-Renaissance English style, most impressively displayed in such works as Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, The Western Wynde Mass and Missa Corona Spinea.
4. Thomas Tallis
Born towards the end of Henry VII's reign, Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) lived through a time of intense conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, serving in the courts of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth. So he was one of England's most versatile composers, adapting the style of his compositions to each monarch's demands. Best known amongst his works is his exquisitely simple anthem 'If Ye Love Me', and his breathtakingly complex motet 'Spem in Alium' for eight five-voice choirs - both composed during the Elizabethan era.
5. William Byrd
The pupil of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd (1543-1623) was probably the best known English composer of the late Elizabethan era, writing for every medium available at the time - except the lute. Although he is perhaps best known for the development of the English madrigal, he also did a great deal to develop English keyboard music with the works he wrote for the virginal and organ, wrote progressive music for viol consort, as well as a lot of intense, elaborate Catholic church music. Amongst his most famous works is the highly emotive motet Tristitia et anxietas from his Cantiones Sacrae of 1589 and his colourful keyboard work: Fantasia in A minor.
6. Claudio Monteverdi (pictured)
As someone who lived through the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque era, and contributed a great deal to it, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was one of history's most pioneering composers. Over the course of a long career, during which he served at the Court of Mantua and then as maestro di cappella at the basilica of San Marco in Venice, the Italian composer devised new textures and effects, expanded harmonic vocabulary and found ever new ways of infusing his orchestral and vocal music with emotional nuance.
Probably most significant of all was his impact on the development of opera, an art form that was in its nascent stages when he got his hands on it. His masterpieces L'Orfeo, Il Ritorno d'Ulisse and L'Incoronazione di Poppea remain pillars of the operatic repertoire. Other key works include his Vespers of 1610 and his several books of madrigals.
7. Carlo Gesualdo
He murdered his wife and her lover upon finding them in flagrante, and spent much of his later life attempting to atone for it, allegedly having himself beaten daily by servants. No wonder there's a widespread fascination with the Italian composer-prince Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). As Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker in 2011: 'If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music.' As it is, however, his music is certainly worth paying close attention to, consisting of some of the wildest, most experimental chromatic harmonies ever conceived. Among his most famous works are his intensely expressive madrigals, and his Tenebrae Factae Sunt, which use a harmonic language not heard of again until the late nineteenth century.
8. Orlando Gibbons
Born towards the end of the 16th century, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) is often seen - like Monteverdi - as someone who stood at the crossroads of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. A musician of the Chapel Royal, he cultivated the traditional polyphonic style in the court of King James I and would in all likelihood have secured an even greater legacy had he not died, probably of a brain haemorrhage, at the age of only 41.
For a long time he was mostly remembered as a composer of sacred music, with the 19th musicologist and composer Frederick Ouseley dubbing him the 'English Palestrina'. Since the early music revival, however, more attention has been paid to Gibbons's secular works, in particular his madrigals - a genre that he did much to develop, building upon the foundations laid by his predecessor William Byrd. Most famous among his works is his five-part verse anthem 'This is the Record of John' and his beautifully serene five-voice madrigal 'The Silver Swan'.
9. Johannes Ockeghem
Although only a small number of his scores still exist, Johannes Ockeghem (1400/1430-1497) was one of the most renowned composers of the early Renaissance period, with a profound influence on Josquin des Prez and the other Franco-Flemish composers who followed him. Like many composers in this period, he started his musical career as a chorister and spent most of his career serving the French royal court under Charles VII, Louis XI and Charles VIII. Of his relatively small output, distinguished by its intricate polyphony, careful handling of vocal ranges, and emphasis on complex and expressive bass lines, his most famous works include the Missa Prolationum, the Missa Cuiusvis toni and his chanson 'Prenez sur moi.'
10. Josquin des Prez
The most famous Renaissance composer of the Franco-Flemish school, Josquin des Prez (C.1450-1521) was a master of polyphony. Little is known about his early life. Born in the French-speaking area of Flanders, he may have been an altar boy and was possibly taught by his predecessor Johannes Ockeghem.
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What is more certain is that, even within his own lifetime, he was one of the most admired composers in the world, widely credited with pioneering some of the period's main musical innovations, among them the gradual departure from extensive melismatic lines, the prominent use of imitation, and the focus on text and word-painting. His Miserere remains the most famous setting of Psalm 50. Among his several other well-known works is his influential motet 'Ave Maria… Virgo serena' and three masses: Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales, Missa beata virgine and Missa Pange Lingua.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.