Introduction to the Renaissance (c. 1450-1600)
“Renaissance” is the French word for “Rebirth”
And rebirth it was. A new age of discovery and the exploration of what it meant to be human (humanism). A period of innovation and invention with greats like Leonardo da Vinci,Michelangelo, and Shakespeare. The spirit of humanism led to intellectual pursuits and study of the classics of Greek andRoman times. There was an explosion of talent in literature, the sciences, music, and fine arts.
The idea of the “Renaissance Man” or the “Universal Man” led to an education that was well-rounded in the sciences, philosophy, literature, art, and music. Music was an integral part of the Renaissance. William Shakespeare referred to music in his works well over three hundred times.
Quote from the Merchant of Venice:
“The Man that hath no music in himself
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds
Is fit for Treasons, Strategem, and Spoils”
Classicism was the study of Greek and Roman literature/philosophy. Written music was not available from Greek/Roman times. A return to the roots of Western Classical music did not occur until much later in the Classical Era (1750-1830).
Some famous artists of the Renaissance: Michelangelo, Cellini, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci. You can check out some amazing videos of the Renaissance artists at Art of the Renaissance, History of Painters, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Art of Leonardo da Vinci .
The Renaissance brought new authors to light, as well: Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Thomas More. Shakespeare and other dramatists created real life and blood characters for their plays (unlike the “symbolic” characters of the Devil and such in earlier dramas. For example, Hildegard von Bingen’s morality play).
The most influential invention of this time was printing with moveable metal type around 1450. Instead of having to rely on handwritten copies of plays, music, sacred text, and political texts, now the words could go out to the masses relatively quickly and at a lower cost. By the turn of the century (1500) music publishing had become a profitable business for composers. Furthermore, now music could travel beyond the city walls and out to the world (or at least as far as the known world).
Renaissance composers wrote both sacred and secular texts. The Protestant Reformation (1517) brought about a conflict for many composers, who often had to write music for a patron that did not share the same religious faith. For example, Renaissance composer William Byrd, who was Catholic, had to write music that would please his Protestant patron, Queen Elizabeth I.
Catholic sacred texts continued to be written in Latin. The Protestant Churches, however, had music in various languages. Composers found that they could make a living creating music for the new Protestant church. During the Counter-Reformation, Catholic composers returned to writing music in Latin.
The Renaissance was an age of prosperity. Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World also helped the entire European continent. Goods and gold flowed everywhere. And where there is prosperity, there are lavish parties and celebrations. Composers alive during the Renaissance enjoyed high salaries and increased demand.
Key Characteristics of Renaissance Music:
Four to six voices
Polyphony (several voices of equal importance)
Secular music included instruments
Sacred music now sung in languages other than Latin (Protestant Reformation)
Counterpoint (Literally “note against note”)
Dance Styles (pavane, gigue, sarabande, etc.)
Flowing rhythm (due to counterpoint and independent lines)
Josquin de Prez (“The Cricket, secular song”)
De Prez had great success during his lifetime. The new music publishing enterprise printed many of his works. He was in high demand and demanded a high salary. While little is known about him, he apparently was the best composer money could buy, and he knew it. Word painting was used. The text and music are meant to represent the cricket. This work is in ternary form.
Tielman Susato (“Bergerette”, secular dance)
Secular dance styles at this time, just like the Middle Ages, were often instrumental works based on popular dance styles. Some popular dances during the Renaissance included the sarabande, allemande, gigues, and pavan. Many of these dance styles remained popular into the Baroque Period and beyond.
Thomas Weelkes (“Since Robin Hood”, madrigal)
The Renaissance madrigal was a very popular secular vocal work, sung without instruments. The madrigal used counterpoint and imitation. Usually it was written for four to six voices. Madrigals are still popular today and are often an important part of vocal training and the repertoire of any university choir. The Madrigal started in popularity in Italy and then spread throughout Europe to England. The text and music were closely interlinked through the use of word painting.
Weelkes was and English composer during the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. He was an educated man, with a degree from Oxford. However, his career suffered badly because of his disorderly conduct. Like other composers of his time, Weelkes used the great literature of the time when composing his works.
William Byrd (“Sing Joyfully”, sacred song)
The Renaissance motet was an important part of vocal music in during the Renaissance. Like the madrigal, the motet incorporated word painting and several voices singing in counterpoint. These were sung a cappella (no instruments) often with up to six voices.
“Sing Joyfully” has imitative counterpoint. It is polyphonic, with six separate parts. While this video shows women singing the higher parts, traditionally, the choir was an all-men choir, often with young boys singing the higher parts. This work would have been sung in church, where women were not permitted to perform.
Roger Kamien, “Music: An Appreciation”. McGraw-Hill Publishing.
Evan Bonds. “Listen to this”. Pierson Publishing.
K. Marie Stoble. “Development of Western Music”. McGraw-Hill Publishing.
William Shakespeare. “The Merchant of Venice”. MIT.