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4.7: Renaissance (ca. 1450–1600)

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  • The designation “Renaissance” dates from the 18th century and reflects the revival of interest in the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome that profoundly influenced the culture and thinking of the century and a half following the Middle Ages. The period is also called the Age of Humanism because of the emphasis on the nature, potential, and accomplishments of man in literature, art and music, science, and philosophy. The medieval approach to understanding the world, which was based on speculative systems of divine order and harmony, was supplanted by theories derived from scientific observation. Learning was highly valued and, through the invention of printing, became available to a wide population. Other important inventions are the telescope and instruments for navigation used by explorers such as Columbus and Magellan.

    The Catholic Church remained an important institution during the Renaissance, but diminished in influence in consequence of the wealth and power of families such as the Medici of Florence and the Estes of Ferrara, whose courts became centers of culture, learning, and military might. The Reformation, which began with Martin Luther’s criticisms of Church abuses, had its greatest impact in Germany. Other breakaway movements followed in France and Switzerland, as well as in England, where Henry VIII defied the authority of the pope and declared himself head of a new Anglican church. Wars between Catholics and Protestants are part of the history of many of the countries that broke with Rome.

    In music and the other arts, patronage by royalty, who competed in maintaining splendid courts as well as chapels, spurred the development of secular forms of artistic expression.

    Whether secular or sacred, Renaissance art, sculpture, and architecture embody the ideals of balance, clarity, and emotional restraint that characterized the classicism of the
    Greeks. In music, where no ancient models survived, that aesthetic found expression in a style that evolved from concepts of consonance and dissonance developed in the Middle Ages but with new emphasis on harmonious sonorities. The predominant texture consisted of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voice parts creating a highly contrapuntal web in which the lines diverge, converge, cross, echo, and imitate each other, sometimes with great rhythmic independence, sometimes moving together in the manner of a hymn. In setting religious texts, composers strove for an atmosphere of serenity and spirituality, in the setting of secular texts, for vivid representation of words and images. Instrumental music continued to be of secondary importance to composers, whose approach to writing for instruments was usually the same as that for voices. For example, published collections of dances required unspecified instruments of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass range—in essence vocal pieces without words. Some composers, however, began to explore shaping musical material in ways that exploited the unique features of the instruments on which it would be performed.

    Historic Context

    End of Hundred Year’s War between England and France, ca. 1450.

    Capture of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern church, by Turks, 1453.

    Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1396–1468) inventor of printing in Europe, prints Bible from movable type, ca, 1454.

    Building of Palazzo Pitti, Florence, 1460.

    Start of the Spanish Inquisition, 1481.

    Tudor dynasty in England, 1485–1603.

    Christopher Columbus first voyage to the New World 1492; last voyage 1501–1504.

    Beginning of printing of the Aldrines, series of Greek classics of Aristotle, Aristophanes, et al., 1495.

    Beginning of postal service, between Vienna and Brussels, 1500.

    Coronation of Henry VIII as King of England, 1509.

    Pineapples imported into Europe, 1514.

    Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses nailed to church door at Wittenberg, 1517; beginning of the Reformation.

    Coffee introduced to Europe 1517.

    License granted to import African slaves to Spanish colonies in New World, 1518.

    Cortes brings horses from Spain to North America, 1518.

    Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521) sets off to circumnavigate the globe, 1519.

    Founding of Royal Library of France at Fontainebleau, 1520.

    Chocolate brought from Mexico to Spain, 1520.

    Martin Luther begins translation of Bible from Latin to German, 1521, completed 1534.

    Manufacture of silk introduced to France, 1521.

    Discovery of New York harbor and Hudson River by Giovanni da Verrazano, 1524.

    Outbreaks of plague in England, 1528.

    Henry VIII breaks with Rome and establishes Anglican Church, 1534.

    Building of St. Basil’s, Moscow, 1534–1561.

    Collected works of Cicero published in Venice, 1537.

    Hernando de Soto discovers Mississippi River, 1541.

    Council of Trent (1545–1563): meeting of church leaders called by Pope Paul III to address abuses in Catholic Church.

    Beginning of building of the Louvre, Paris, 1546.

    Tobacco brought from America to Spain, 1555.

    Coronation of Elizabeth I as Queen of England, 1559.

    Tulips introduced to Europe from Near East, 1561.

    Outbreak of plague in Europe, over 20,000 die in London, 1563.

    Two million Indians die in South America from typhoid fever introduced by Europeans, 1567.

    St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 2,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) in Paris, 1572.

    Outbreak of plague in Italy, 1575.

    Defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English, 1588.

    Outbreak of plague in London kills 15,000, 1592.

    Publication of Mercator’s atlas, 1595.

    Tomatoes introduced in England, 1596.

    Dutch opticians invent the telescope, 1600.

    Milestones in Music

    First printed collection of polyphonic music by Ottaviano Petrucci, Venice, 1501; in 1520s and 1530s music printing houses founded in London, Paris, Venice, Rome, Nuremberg, and Antwerp.

    Publication of tutors on composing music and playing instruments.

    Founding of first conservatories of music in Naples and Venice, 1537.

    Early development of the violin, 1550s.

    Florentine Camerata meets in the home of Giovanni Bardi and speculates about the correct performance of Greek drama leading to the creation of recitative style singing and the invention of opera, 1573 to c. 1590.

    Musical Genres

    Motet: setting of Latin sacred text; principal performance medium a cappella chorus of soprano, alto, tenor bass; texture of imitative counterpoint. Josquin des Prez set the model for the Renaissance motet.

    Mass: setting of texts of the Mass Ordinary; principal performance medium a cappella chorus of soprano, alto, tenor bass; texture of imitative counterpoint. Almost all Renaissance composers wrote masses.

    Madrigal: setting of secular text; principal performance medium a cappella chorus of soprano, alto, tenor bass; texture of imitative counterpoint; main secular genre in Italy and England; use of word painting to illustrate text images.

    Chanson: a cappella setting of secular text; principal performance medium a cappella chorus of soprano, alto, tenor, bass; principal secular genre in France.

    Chorale: setting of German sacred text; introduced by Martin Luther for congregational singing.

    Canzona: instrumental adaptation of the chanson. Giovanni Gabrieli’s canzones were probably composed for religious celebrations at St. Mark’s in Venice.

    Dances: instrumental works to accompany dancing, often paired as a slow dance with gliding movements followed by a faster dance with leaping movements.

    Major Figures in Music

    Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420–1497): composer of sacred and secular music, active in Antwerp; teacher of many early Renaissance composers.

    Josquin des Prez (ca. 1440–1521): Franco-Flemish composer; see Musician Biographies.

    Giovanni Gabrieli: Italian composer; director of music at St. Mark’s in Venice.

    Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594): Italian composer of sacred and secular music; credited with introducing Counterreformation reforms following the Council of Trent; referred to by contemporaries as The Prince of Music.

    William Byrd (1543–1623): English composer of sacred and secular vocal music and works for the keyboard.

    Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548–1611): Spanish composer of sacred music.

    Other Historic Figures

    Donatello (1368–1466): Italian sculptor; works depicting religious subjects for churches and chapels in Florence, Siena, Padua, Venice.

    Filippo Brunelleschi (1372–1446): Italian architect, designer of dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

    Fra Angelico (1387–1455): Italian painter; frescoes of New Testament scenes in Florence and the Vatican.

    Johann Gutenberg (ca. 1396–1468): German printer; first Bible printed using movable type.

    Fra Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406–1469): Italian painter, especially esteemed for his frescoes and altarpieces.

    Hans Memling (1433–1484): Dutch painter active in Bruges; altarpieces, portraits notable for attention to facial detail; Adoration of the Magi, The Last Judgment.

    Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510): Italian painter; Birth of Venus.

    Lorenzo de’ Medici, “The Magnificent” (1449–1492): Florentine aristocrat and important patron of artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.

    Christopher Columbus (1451–1506): Italian explorer; voyages to the “new world” 1492-1504.

    Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519): Italian painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, inventor, philosopher; The Last Supper, Mona Lisa; scientific drawings.

    Erasmus of Rotterdam (1465–1536): humanist, theologian, and writer on free will, superstition, religious orthodoxy; credited with the adage “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.”

    Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527): Italian writer and politician; author of The Prince, an examination of the nature and exercise of political power.

    Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543): Polish astronomer; observations on movement of planets and stars.

    Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564): Italian sculptor, painter, poet, architect; Pietá, ceiling and fresco of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican; chief architect of St. Peter’s, Rome.

    Titian (1477–1576): Italian painter of portraits and landscapes, mythological and religious subjects, active in Venice and Spain.

    Thomas More (1478–1535): English lawyer, statesman, and humanist; executed for his opposition to Henry VIII’s establishing Church of England with himself as its head; author of Utopia which describes an ideal, imaginary nation.

    Martin Luther (1483–1546): German religious reformer, founder of Protestanism; translated The Bible into German.

    Henry VIII (1491–1547): king of England, 1509 to 1547; established Church of England in defiance of Rome’s refusal to grant him a divorce.

    Jean Calvin (1509–1564): founder of Calvinism, form of Protestantism adopted by the Pilgrims.

    Tintoretto (1518–1594): Italian painter; scenes from the life of Christ and of the Virgin Mary in the Scuolo San Rocco in Venice; also painted mythological scenes and portraits.

    Elizabeth I (1533–1603): queen of England 1558 to 1603, referred to as England’s Golden Age; a gifted and well educated monarch, lover of theater, music, and dance.

    El Greco (1541–1614): Spanish-Greek painter; paintings and altarpieces of mystical intensity in Toledo; also portraits; View of Toledo in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

    Torquato Tasso (1544–1595): Italian poet; author of Jerusalem Delivered about the Third Crusade.

    Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616): Spanish writer, author of Don Quixote.

    Francis Bacon (1561–1626): English lawyer, politician, and philosopher at the court of Elizabeth I.

    William Shakespeare (1564–1616): English playwright and poet; author of Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Macbeth, numerous history plays, sonnets.

    Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593): English playwright, author of Tamburlaine and Dr. Faustus.

    Galileo Galilei (1564–1642): Italian scientist, experiments in the study of gravity and astronomy; in 1633 condemned by the Catholic Church to lifelong imprisonment for defending Copernicus’s theory that the earth revolves around the sun.

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