A guide to Renaissance music
You may know some of the music, but what was the background to the Renaissance period? And what were its main musical developments? Here is our guide to one of the most artistically fruitful eras in history
When was the Renaissance period?
The Renaissance period dates from around 1450-1600.
What is meant by 'Renaissance?'
The word Renaissance means rebirth and is a word used to describe an age of new discoveries, exploration and developments.
What kind of developments?
The growth of commercial enterprises; the ascendancy of the Bourgeois class, the Protestant Reformation, the rise of humanistic thought and the surge of interest in the artistic heritage of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. One strand of this involved scrutinising the close relationship between music and poetry, and the way that music could affect the listener's emotions. Inspired by the ancient Greek world, Renaissance composers started fitting words and music together in an increasingly dramatic way, as seen in the operatic works of Claudio Monteverdi.
How much of this music survives?
Quite a lot. That's because the invention of the printing press in 1439 made it cheaper and easier to distribute music and music theory texts on a wider scale than heretofore, when music scores had to be hand-copied. Plus, with the emergence of the bourgeois class, demand for music as a form of entertainment increased. So there was more of it around.
What were the main musical genres of the period?
The most important music of the early Renaissance was composed for the Catholic church, and therefore mostly consisted of polyphonic masses and motets in Latin. With the rise of humanistic thought, however, and the arrival of the Protestant Reformation, there were more opportunities for writing secular music such as chansons, madrigals and German lied, as well as music for use in Protestant churches, ie not in Latin and not determined by the structure of the Catholic Mass.
What were the main developments of Renaissance music?
1. It was based on modes.
2. It had a richer texture than that of medieval music, often with four or more independent melodic parts performed simultaneously.
3. There was an emphasis on blending, rather than contrasting, the melodic lines in the texture.
4.It had more variety in range, rhythm, harmony, form and notation than medieval music.
5. The rules of counterpoint were more constrictive.
6. There was a greater preoccupation with the seamless flow of music through smooth harmonic progression.
7. There was more emphasis on music as a vehicle for personal expression.
But you can roughly divide the process of evolution into three periods.
1. An early period corresponding to the career of the French composer Guillaume Du Fay and the development of the cantilena style (consisting of a predominant vocal top line supported by less complex lines).
2. A middle period dominated by the Franco-Flemish School, and dense four-part writing, whose main exponents were Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez.
3. The Counter-Reformation, which saw the development of a florid kind of counterpoint favoured by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the main representative of the Roman School (a group of composers who wrote predominantly church music in Rome).
Who were the most important Renaissance composers?
There were so many, but, alongside Palestrina, some of the main names included Orlando de Lassus, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Taverner and Claudio Monterverdi.
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.