Renaissance Music

Renaissance music is music written in Europe during the Renaissance. Consensus among music historians–with notable dissent–has been to start the era around 1400, with the end of the medieval era, and to close it around 1600, with the beginning of the baroque period, therefore commencing the musical Renaissance about a hundred years after the beginning of the Renaissance as understood in other disciplines. 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 Rome; increased innovation and discovery; the growth of commercial enterprise; 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.

Concert in the Egg, painting by Hieronymus Bosch
Concert in the Egg, Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1561

The Increasing Demand for Music

The invention of the Gutenberg press made distribution of music and musical theory possible on a wide scale. Demand for music as entertainment and as an 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 Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria and William Byrd. 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 hundreds of singers and composers. These musicians were highly sought throughout Europe, particularly in Italy, where churches and aristocratic courts hired them as composers and teachers. By the end of the sixteenth century, Italy had absorbed the northern influences, with Venice, Rome, and other cities being centers of musical activity, reversing the situation from a hundred years earlier. Opera arose at this time in Florence as a deliberate attempt to resurrect the music of ancient Greece.

Illuminated chansonnier by Heinrich Isaac, showing the beginning of his four-voice motet Palle, palle
Chansonnier by Heinrich Isaac, 1484

Features of Renaissance Music

From the Renaissance era both secular and sacred music survives in quantity, and both vocal and instrumental. An enormous diversity of musical styles and genres flourished during the Renaissance, and can be heard on commercial recordings in the twenty-first century, including masses, motets, madrigals, chansons, accompanied songs, instrumental dances, and many others. Numerous early music ensembles specializing in music of the period give concert tours and make recordings, using a wide range of interpretive styles.

Manuscript of motets of Cyprien de Rore illustrated by Hans Mielich
Motets of Cyprien de Rore illustrated by Hans Mielich

One of the most pronounced features of early Renaissance European music was the increasing reliance on the interval of the third (in the Middle Ages, thirds had been considered dissonances). Polyphony became increasingly elaborate throughout the fourteenth century, with highly independent voices: the beginning of the fifteenth century showed simplification, with the voices often striving for smoothness. 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.

The modal (as opposed to tonal) characteristics of Renaissance music began to break down towards the end of the period with the increased use of root motions of fifths. This later developed into one of the defining characteristics of tonality.

The main characteristics of Renaissance music are music based on modes, richer texture in four or more parts, blending rather than contrasting strands in the musical texture, and harmony with a greater concern with the flow and progression of chords.

Polyphony is one of the notable changes that mark the Renaissance from the Middle Ages musically. Its use encouraged the use of larger ensembles and demanded sets of instruments that would blend together across the whole vocal range.

Principal liturgical forms which endured throughout the entire Renaissance period were masses and motets, with some other developments towards the end, especially as composers of sacred music began to adopt secular forms (such as the madrigal) for their own designs.

During the period, secular 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 irretrievably 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.

Adapted from “Renaissance Music” by Lumen Learning, which is licensed under CC BY 4.0