Renaissance Music

Renaissance music suddenly expanded in magnitude in the 16th century. Important composers in the main Western countries numbered some hundreds, almost as many as in the 17th Century.

With the advent of musical publications the Renaissance composers exerted a wider influence, and, in contrast with the Middle Ages, their dignity as members of society was much better recognized.

The Renaissance music was still dependent upon the Church and the patronage of local rulers, but the art in its higher forms was coming closer to the people, becoming more democratic.

The evolution of Renaissance music, together with its social role, was greatly influenced by the invention of printing. This led immediately to music publishing, and, as the works of the masters began to circulate and to be studied and used, to music selling.

Renaissance Music playing
Woman Playing the Lute
by Bartolomeo Veneto

Renaissance Church Music

The history of Church music in northern Europe evolved around three centres: Austria, the seat of the Hapsburgs, Bavaria, which was also under their influence, and Saxony, the headquarters of the Protestant Reformation. Lutheran Protestantism took its name from Martin Luther, a highly educated Augustinian monk, with a solid knowledge of music. He reduced some features of the Roman service, considered by him objectionable, and promoted the common song, seen as indispensable.

Renaissance Lutheran Music

The Lutheran hymns were specifically written in metrical form. The melodies were either borrowed from favorite folk songs and partsongs or were new creations in similar style, thus linking them with popular forms. These melodies were later called chorales. At first the musical treatment of chorales was more or less contrapuntal, with the melody in the tenor. Towards 1600, the style advanced to a definitely harmonic form, with a solid progression of chords, the melody in the treble and the lines sharply defined by cadences and controlled by a coherent tonality.

The Renaissance chorale became the main part of Protestant church music, and its wide acceptance popularized the new tendency to base the composition on harmony rather than counterpoint. The chorale style had the same significance for Protestant music, as the plainsong had for Catholic music.

Luther's strong interest in congregational music did not mean he disconsidered the choir music. He loved a wide range of Renaissance mass and motet music, and he advocated the free use of whatever was of good quality, believing that there was no significant distinction between Catholic and Protestant standards. The rich polyphonic accumulation accessible in northern Germany passed into Protestant usage.

Often using the same texts as those of the Roman liturgy but in a German version, many composers in Northern Germany tried to meet the demands of the Renaissance Church music combining contrapuntal learning with popular types.

Church Music in Renaissance France and Spain

The power of Calvinists or Huguenots in France grew continuously, a fact reflected also in the development of music.

The musical influence of the Huguenot movement encouraged the chorales, often finely harmonized. These were adopted into Scottish and English use after 1558. We should note that the base of popular songs from which they drew their inspiration was smaller, and the songs were originating from several countries with varying traditions. This may be a reason why they were not made the source of many compositions by Renaissance organ writers. Despite often being excellent creations, their influence was much more restricted.

In Spain there was still a strong devotion to the Medieval Church and under Charles V and Philip II the interest in Church music was high. The notable Renaissance musicians of the Royal Chapel were Netherlanders, the most famous being Gombert. In Spain and Portugal, the influence of the Medieval troubadours lasted a long time, generating a special taste for cheerful songs and dances, with the musicians using a great variety of instruments. The social interest in poetry and song was also considerable.

Renaissance Music in Netherlands

The Low Countries were initially the leaders in contrapuntal music. In the 16th century the leadership passed to Italy and Germany, however the land of its origin continued to provide teachers for the rest of Europe. Despite the strong Italian influence manifested at the end of the century, the Netherlands remained a fairly independent musical region, with the centre of activity at Antwerp.

Music in England

In the 16th century England led the way in writing music for keyboard instruments. Even earlier, her development of counterpoint was original, and distinct from that of the later Netherlanders. Under the Lutheran influence, she remodeled the styles, resulting in an original combination of polyphony and new Protestant liturgies.

Secular Renaissance Music Genres

The Madrigal and Partsong

The Italian Renaissance masters transformed the music in both France and Italy. The artistic changes they brought to the French  chanson and the Italian frottola resulted in the composition of the madrigal, a genre which eventually evolved into a distinct and brilliant history. The word madrigal came from the troubadours and originally meant a pastoral song, but in later usage it was applied to any lyric poem of artistic value.

Its spirit came from secular poetry, which, especially in Italy, meant to set forth, with delicacy and charm, topics of sentiment, wit or passion in the language of common life. The madrigal raised the Renaissance secular music to honor. Although essentially polyphonic, it prepared the way for other vocal forms, by revealing the expressive possibilities of melody.

The chains of madrigals were used as early attempts at dramatic construction. In the early opera, madrigals were long a usual feature. In both Germany and England the madrigal amalgamated with the partsong, to the latter's great enrichment.

This was a new step towards Renaissance instrumental music, which at the outset was merely the transcription of what was written to be sung, but latter set off lines of its own. The madrigal was the 16th century representative of what is now called chamber music. The English development of the madrigal was characterized by an effort to merge the madrigal proper with the lighter styles of the partsong and dance.

The other representative genre of Renaissance music, the partsong, differed from the madrigal. It was primarily an attempt to arrange a folk-song for three or more voices with little more than note-for-note part-writing. The madrigal was the secular counterpart of the motet, the partsong the companion of the chorale.

The Renaissance composers paid increasing attention to melody which finally resulted in a revolution in music, from polyphony to monophony.

More about Renaissance music:

Renaissance Instruments

Renaissance Lute