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Renaissance Music (1450-1600)

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Renaissance means rebirth. They were interested in Ancient Greece and Rome. There were many voyages of discovery, and scientific advances.


Composers of the Period

Composer Nationality Composer Nationality
Josquin Netherlands Downland* English
Lassus Netherlands Welkes English
Tallis* English Gibbons English
Byrd* English Palestrina* Italy
Morley* English G. Gabriela* Italy
Bull English Monterverde* Italy

The composers marked with asterisks are the most important to know.


Church Music
The style of renaissance church music is described as choral polyphony (polyphonic, counterpoint, contrapuntal), meaning more than one part. Homophonic means moving in chords. Monophonic means one melody line. Choral polyphony was intended to be sung a cappella (without instruments). The main forms were the mass and the motet. They had four parts, based on modes, but composers gradually added more accidentals.

One of the most noticeable differences between Medieval and Renaissance styles, is that of musical texture. Whereas a Medieval composer tended to contrast the separate strands of his music, a Renaissance composer aimed to blend them together. Instead of building up the texture layer by layer, he worked gradually through the piece, attending to all parts shnultaneously. The key device used to weave this kind of texture is called irritation. Composers were becoming more interested and aware of harmony (how notes fit against each other).


German Chorales
German Chorales are Protestant hymns.


Secular Music
This was music independent of churches (i.e. none religious). The main type was the song, lied (German), frottola (Italian), chanson (French), madrigal (Italian) and villancico (Spanish).


Elizabethan Madrigals
In 1588 a collection of Italian Madrigals with English words was published in England, and it sparked off an interest in English Madrigal writing. They were performed in rich people's homes. There are three kinds of madrigal:

  1. The Madrigal Proper - This kind was 'through-composed' (The music is different all the thne.) There is a lot of word-painting music that illustrates words. E.g. Thomas Weelkes 'As Vesta was from Latmos Hill descending.
  2. The Ballett - It was sometimes danced as well as sung. The texture is mainly chordal. Whereas a madrigal proper is through-composed, a ballett is strophic (two or more verses set to the same music. The most noticeable feature of a ballett is the 'fa-la-la' refrain.
  3. The Ayre - An Ayre could be performed in a variety of ways: By solo voice with lute accompaniment; by a solo voice with other accompaniment (e.g. viols); all the parts sung by voices (with or without instruments).

16th Century Venice
Lots of polychoral (more than one choir) music.


Instrumental Music
Until 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 - but here they only doubled the voices. During the 16th Century, however, composers took greater interest in writing music for instrument. A lot of these instruments were intended for outside. Some examples:


English Consorts
A consort is a group of instruments playing together. A whole consort consist of instruments all from the same family, but a broken consort has instruments from more than one family.


Variations and the Ground Bass
A ground is a tune repeated over and over in the bass, with musical material changing above. Variations are alterations in the tune. You can of course do variations on the bass.


Elizabethan Keyboard Music
A popular instrument was the virginal, and a famous collection was the 'Fitzwilliam Virginal Book', which contained over 300 pieces for the virginal. A lot of the music was programmatic (It tells a story, is descriptive), e.g. 'The King's Hunt', by John Bull.


The Main Characteristics of Renaissance Music

  1. Music still based on modes, but gradually more accidentals creep in.
  2. Richer texture in four or more parts. Bass part is added below the tenor.
  3. Blending rather than contrasting strands in the musical texture.
  4. Harmony. Greater concern with the flow and progression of chords.
  5. Church music. Some pieces were intended for 'a cappella' performance. Mainly contrapuntal. Lots of imitation. Some church music was accompanied by instruments - for example polychoral pieces in antiphonal style (Antiphonal - Questions and Answers, Stereo Effect).
  6. Secular music (none-religious music. Sacred music is to do with the church) There was lots of vocal pieces and dances, and lots of instrumental pieces (However a lot of the instrumentals were in a vocal style, but sonic were suited to instruments. Vocal music was by far the more important.)
  7. The characteristic timbres of Renaissance musical instruments - many forming families.

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