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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.
The development of printing made distribution of music 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, 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 16th 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.
Music, increasingly freed from medieval constraints, in range, rhythm, harmony, form, and notation, became a vehicle for personal expression. Composers found ways to make music expressive of the texts they were setting. Secular music absorbed techniques from sacred music, and vice versa. Popular secular forms such as the chanson and madrigal spread throughout Europe. Courts employed virtuoso performers, both singers and instrumentalists. Music for the first time became self-sufficient, existing for its own sake. Many familiar modern instruments, including the violin, the guitar, and keyboard instruments, were born during the Renaissance. During the 15th century the sound of full triads became common, and towards the end of the 16th century the system of church modes began to break down entirely, giving way to the functional tonality which was to dominate western art music for the next three centuries.
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 21st 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.
One of the most pronounced features of early Renaissance European art 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 14th century, with highly independent voices: the beginning of the 15th 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:
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 included songs for one or many voices, forms such as the frottola, chanson and madrigal.
Secular music was music that was independent of churches. The main type was the German lied, Italian frottola, the French chanson, the Italian madrigal, and the Spanish villancico. Secular vocal genres included the madrigal, the frottola, the caccia, the chanson in several forms (rondeau, virelai, bergerette, ballade, musique mesurée), the canzonetta, the villancico, the villanella, the villotta, and the lute song. Mixed forms such as the motet-chanson and the secular motet also appeared.
Purely instrumental music included consort music for recorder or viol and other instruments, and dances for various ensembles. Common genres were the toccata, the prelude, the ricercar, the canzona, and intabulation (intavolatura, intabulierung). Instrumental ensembles for dances might play a basse danse (or bassedanza), a pavane, a galliard, an allemande, or a courante.
According to Margaret Bent (1998), "Renaissance notation is under-prescriptive by our standards; when translated into modern form it acquires a prescriptive weight that overspecifies and distorts its original openness."
Renaissance compositions were notated only in individual parts; scores were extremely rare, and barlines were not used. Note values were generally larger than are in use today; the primary unit of beat was the semibreve, or whole note. As had been the case since the Ars Nova (see Medieval music), there could be either two or three of these for each breve (a double-whole note), which may be looked on as equivalent to the modern "measure," though it was itself a note value and a measure is not. The situation can be considered this way: it is the same as the rule by which in modern music a quarter-note may equal either two eighth-notes or three, which would be written as a "triplet." By the same reckoning, there could be two or three of the next smallest note, the "minim," (equivalent to the modern "half note") to each semibreve.
These different permutations were called "perfect/imperfect tempus" at the level of the breve–semibreve relationship, "perfect/imperfect prolation" at the level of the semibreve–minim, and existed in all possible combinations with each other. Three-to-one was called "perfect," and two-to-one "imperfect." Rules existed also whereby single notes could be halved or doubled in value ("imperfected" or "altered," respectively) when preceded or followed by other certain notes. Notes with black noteheads (such as quarter notes) occurred less often. This development of white mensural notation may be a result of the increased use of paper (rather than vellum), as the weaker paper was less able to withstand the scratching required to fill in solid noteheads; notation of previous times, written on vellum, had been black. Other colors, and later, filled-in notes, were used routinely as well, mainly to enforce the aforementioned imperfections or alterations and to call for other temporary rhythmical changes.
Accidentals were not always specified, somewhat as in certain fingering notations (tablatures) today. However, Renaissance musicians would have been highly trained in dyadic counterpoint and thus possessed this and other information necessary to read a score, "what modern notation requires [accidentals] would then have been perfectly apparent without notation to a singer versed in counterpoint." See musica ficta. A singer would interpret his or her part by figuring cadential formulas with other parts in mind, and when singing together musicians would avoid parallel octaves and fifths or alter their cadential parts in light of decisions by other musicians (Bent, 1998).
It is through contemporary tablatures for various plucked instruments that we have gained much information about what accidentals were performed by the original practitioners.
For information on specific theorists, see Johannes Tinctoris, Franchinus Gaffurius, Heinrich Glarean, Pietro Aron, Nicola Vicentino, Tomás de Santa María, Gioseffo Zarlino, Vicente Lusitano, Vincenzo Galilei, Giovanni Artusi, Johannes Nucius, and Pietro Cerone.
This group gradually dropped the late Medieval period's complex devices of isorhythm and extreme syncopation, resulting in a more limpid and flowing style. What their music "lost" in rhythmic complexity, however, it gained in rhythmic vitality, as a "drive to the cadence" became a prominent feature around mid-century.
In the early 1470s, music started to be printed using a printing press. Music printing had a major effect on how music spread for not only did a printed piece of music reach a larger audience than any manuscript ever could, it did it far cheaper as well. Also during this century, a tradition of famous makers began for many instruments. These makers were masters of their craft. An example is Neuschel for his trumpets.
Towards the end of the 15th century, polyphonic sacred music (as exemplified in the masses of Johannes Ockeghem and Jacob Obrecht) had once again become more complex, in a manner that can perhaps be seen as correlating to the stunning detail in the painting at the time. Ockeghem, particularly, was fond of canon, both contrapuntal and mensural. He composed a mass, Missa prolationum, in which all the parts are derived canonically from one musical line.
It was in the opening decades of the next century that music felt in a tactus (think of the modern time signature) of two semibreves-to-a-breve began to be as common as that with three semibreves-to-a-breve, as had prevailed prior to that time.
In the early 16th century, there is another trend towards simplification, as can be seen to some degree in the work of Josquin des Prez and his contemporaries in the Franco-Flemish School, then later in that of G. P. Palestrina, who was partially reacting to the strictures of the Council of Trent, which discouraged excessively complex polyphony as inhibiting understanding the text. Early 16th-century Franco-Flemings moved away from the complex systems of canonic and other mensural play of Ockeghem's generation, tending toward points of imitation and duet or trio sections within an overall texture that grew to five and six voices. They also began, even before the Tridentine reforms, to insert ever-lengthening passages of homophony, to underline important text or points of articulation. Palestrina, on the other hand, came to cultivate a freely flowing style of counterpoint in a thick, rich texture within which consonance followed dissonance on a nearly beat-by-beat basis, and suspensions ruled the day (see counterpoint). By now, tactus was generally two semibreves per breve with three per breve used for special effects and climactic sections; this was a nearly exact reversal of the prevailing technique a century before.
In Venice, from about 1534 until around 1600, an impressive polychoral style developed, which gave Europe some of the grandest, most sonorous music composed up until that time, with multiple choirs of singers, brass and strings in different spatial locations in the Basilica San Marco di Venezia (see Venetian School). These multiple revolutions spread over Europe in the next several decades, beginning in Germany and then moving to Spain, France and England somewhat later, demarcating the beginning of what we now know as the Baroque musical era.
The Roman School was a group of composers of predominantly church music in Rome, spanning the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Many of the composers had a direct connection to the Vatican and the papal chapel, though they worked at several churches; stylistically they are often contrasted with the Venetian School of composers, a concurrent movement which was much more progressive. By far the most famous composer of the Roman School is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. While best known as a prolific composer of masses and motets, he was also an important madrigalist. His ability to bring together the functional needs of the Catholic Church with the prevailing musical styles during the Counter-Reformation period gave him his enduring fame.
The brief but intense flowering of the musical madrigal in England, mostly from 1588 to 1627, along with the composers who produced them, is known as the English Madrigal School. The English madrigals were a cappella, predominantly light in style, and generally began as either copies or direct translations of Italian models. Most were for three to six voices.
Musica reservata is either a style or a performance practice in a cappella vocal music of the latter, mainly in Italy and southern Germany, involving refinement, exclusivity, and intense emotional expression of sung text.
The cultivation of European music in the Americas began in the 16th century soon after the arrival of the Spanish, and the conquest of Mexico. Although fashioned in European style, uniquely Mexican hybrid works based on native Mexican language and European musical practice, appeared very early. Musical practices in New Spain continually coincided with European tendencies throughout the subsequent Baroque and Classical music periods. Among these New World composers were Hernando Franco, Antonio de Salazar, and Manuel de Zumaya.
In addition, many composers observed a division in their own works between a prima pratica (music in the Renaissance polyphonic style) and a seconda pratica (music in the new style) during the first part of the 17th century.
The 15th and 16th century masses had two kinds of sources that were used, monophonic and polyphonic, with two main forms of elaboration, based on cantus firmus practice or, beginning some time around 1500, the new style of pervasive imitation. Four types of masses resulted:
Masses were normally titled by the source from which they borrowed. Cantus firmus mass uses the same monophonic melody, usually drawn from chant and usually in the tenor and most often in longer note values than the other voices.
In the late 16th century, as the Renaissance era closed, an extremely manneristic style developed. In secular music, especially in the madrigal, there was a trend towards complexity and even extreme chromaticism (as exemplified in madrigals of Luzzaschi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo). The term "mannerism" derives from art history.
Beginning in Florence, there was an attempt to revive the dramatic and musical forms of Ancient Greece, through the means of monody, a form of declaimed music over a simple accompaniment; a more extreme contrast with the preceding polyphonic style would be hard to find; this was also, at least at the outset, a secular trend. These musicians were known as the Florentine Camerata.
We have already noted some of the musical developments that helped to usher in the Baroque, but for further explanation of this transition, see antiphon, concertato, monody, madrigal, and opera, as well as the works given under "Sources and further reading."
For a more thorough discussion of the transition to the Baroque specifically pertaining to instrument music, see Transition from Renaissance to Baroque in instrumental music.
Many instruments originated during the Renaissance; others were variations of, or improvements upon, instruments that had existed previously. Some have survived to the present day; others have disappeared, only to be recreated in order to perform music of the period on authentic instruments. As in the modern day, instruments may be classified as brass, strings, percussion, and woodwind.
Medieval instruments in Europe had most commonly been used singly, often self accompanied with a drone, or occasionally in parts. During the 15th century there was a division of instruments into Haut (loud, outdoor instruments) and Bas (quieter, more intimate instruments) Only two groups of instruments could play freely in both types of ensembles: the Cornett and sackbut and the Tabor and tambourine.
In the beginning of the 16th century, instruments were considered to be less important than voices. They were used for dances and to accompany vocal music. Instrumental music remained subordinated to vocal music, and much of its repertory was in varying ways derived from or dependent on vocal models.
Brass instruments in the Renaissance were traditionally played by professionals. Some of the more common brass instruments that were played:
As a family strings were used in many circumstances, both sacred and secular. A few members of this family include:
Some Renaissance percussion instruments include the triangle, the Jew's harp, the tambourine, the bells, the rumble-pot, and various kinds of drums.
The woodwind instruments (aerophones) produce sound by means of a vibrating column of air within the pipe. Holes along the pipe allow the player to control the length of the column of air, and hence the pitch. There are several ways of making the air column vibrate, and these ways define the subcategories of woodwind instruments. A player may blow across a mouth hole, as in a flute; into a mouthpiece with a single reed, as in a modern-day clarinet or saxophone; or a double reed, as in an oboe or bassoon. All three of these methods of tone production can be found in Renaissance instruments.
The 16th century and early 17th century saw the continual improvement of many types of instruments. Woodwind instrument bores were redesigned to extend their range and improve their tone quality. Viols and violins were provided with sound posts to enhance their sound. The compass of keyboard instruments was widened and new tuning systems were developed.
The Renaissance was, as its name implies, a period of renewal, invention, and rejuvenation of both music and instruments.