What were the historical periods of music history? And how did they shape music as we know it today?

In this series, we’re diving into the music of the past, from Ancient to Modern times.

This post explores the music of the Renaissance period.

The Renaissance Period

The Renaissance period began roughly around 1450 (the exact date is hard to nail down). A renewed appreciation for the arts, science, and philosophy began in Italy and soon swept over all the rest of Europe.

This renewed artistic and academic vigor brought an end to the Medieval period and ushered in what we now know as the Renaissance.

Another significant development during this time period was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which began in Germany in 1517 and spread throughout Christendom like wildfire.

Both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation had a significant impact on the musical world, as we’ll see below.

Renaissance Composers

There were many influential composers during the Renaissance period. They are not all mentioned here (that would be a very long blog post!) but I’ll try to cover the main ones.

Jean de Ockeghem was a gifted Franco-Flemish composer of both secular and scared music. He was particularly skilled at writing choral harmonies.

Dutch composer Jacob Obrecht was well-known for his masses. He wrote dozens of them.

Heinrich Isaac was also a force to be reckoned with in the world of Renaissance music. He had a significant influence on the development of German musical styles.

Josquin des Prez, the French Renaissance master of vocal music, is arguably the most significant composer from this period. He was also a favorite composer of Martin Luther.

Margaret of Austria, a woman with remarkable artistic and political aptitude, was the daughter of Emperor Maximillian I and Mary of Burgundy. She is believed to be the composer of the motet-chanson Se je souspire/Ecce iterum.

Italian singer and composer Luca Marenzio was famous for his madrigals, and Orlande de Lassus was influential in the development of Franco-Flemish polyphony.

Martin Luther, best known for sparking the Reformation by nailing his 95 theses on the door of Wittenburg Castle church, was also a gifted musician. He wrote many congregational chorales, the most famous of which became the beloved hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

Protestant French composer Claude Goudimel set many Psalms to music.

Thomas Tallis made a name for himself as one of the leading composers of sacred music in England. He and his friend William Byrd, another sacred composer, were given an exclusive music publishing patent by Queen Elizabeth I.

On the Counter-Reformation side of things, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina sought to simplify the music of the Roman Catholic Mass.

There was musical creativity in the English royal court as well: the lute song O Deathe, rock me asleepe is thought to have been composed by Queen Anne Boleyn as she awaited her execution in the Tower of London.

Maddalena Casulana and Vittoria Aleotti both published several collections of madrigals and other songs in Venice in the latter part of the sixteenth century. This was remarkable in a time when the compositions of women were hardly ever published.

Renaissance Innovations

The practice of music notation was widespread during the Renaissance period. This gave composers more freedom and creative inspiration than ever before, and led to the various styles and types of music that originated from Renaissance musicians.

Just as revolutionary was the new invention of the printing press, which allowed music to be distributed at significantly faster rates than previous generations of musicians would have dreamed of.

As a result, composers had a new avenue to distribute their works, and music became more accessible to the middle class.

Many composer-musicians found employment in the Church, while others had royal and/or noble patrons. The traveling lifestyle of the Medieval troubadours had largely fallen out of fashion in favor of these more stable employment opportunities.

Music guilds, a sort of cross between conservatories and trade unions, provided musicians with more training and financial stability than had previously been available.

The Reformation produced many innovations in music, from the revival of congregational singing to a renewed interest in psalm settings to the simplification of music for the Mass.

Also significant during the Renaissance period was a renewed interest in ancient music theory, especially the mathematically-based theories of Ancient Greece. This, combined with the ability to notate music, gave composers the chance to do and create what had never been done or created in music ever before.

Renaissance Instruments

By the opening of the Renaissance, organ music was commonplace in churches.

The harpsichord had been invented by this time, but it did not reach the height of its popularity until the Baroque era.

Wind instruments like the recorder, flute, shawm, and dulcian were commonly played, as they had been for centuries.

The viol (ancestor of the violin, viola, cello, and double bass) was being crafted in Italy, and would only increase in popularity as time went on.

Renaissance Musical Styles

Polyphony, or the singing of multiple independent lines of music at once, remained the most common style of vocal music during the Renaissance.

A significant style was the Italian madrigal which relied heavily on text-painting, or the use of musical imagery to bring out the meaning of the text.

In Lutheran Germany, congregational chorales changed the landscape of sacred music. Before the Reformation, only choirs had sung in the Mass. Luther made a point of bringing singing back to the congregation, often accompanied by organ music.

John Calvin, by contrast, believed that church music should be simple and unaccompanied by instruments. Congregations in Calvinist churches sang settings of the psalms.

Catholic music was influenced by the Counter-Reformation, which sought to reign in some of the excess that had been found in the Church. Masses became simpler and more conservative.

For the first time, instrumental music grew into a genre of its own (it had previously been only an accompaniment to vocal music). Many festivals, dances, and other secular celebrations featured talented instrumentalists who provided entertainment.

What do you think of the Renaissance period of music? Leave a comment below.

Other Periods of Music History Featured in This Series:

The Ancient Period, The Medieval Period, The Baroque Period, The Classical Period, The Romantic Period, The Modern Period

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