Renaissance music: the second musical era

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

The Renaissance was a time for artistic and creative expression. It saw beautiful paintings, amazing sculptures, and a huge shift in culture. It was a time when people were moving away from the Catholic church and towards Protestantism, so it was a period of massive change. The Renaissance era expanded from the religious music of that time and separated even more from the church. Early Renaissance music spanned the years A.D. 1400-1600 which was a beautiful opportunity for French and Italian musicians to blossom and refine both secular and sacred music.

Sacred music, specifically the Gregorian Chant, flourished in the Middle Ages. The Gregorian Chant was ceremonial and commonly sung by Roman Catholic monks. It was an oral form of music learned purely through memory, and monophonic by nature. It was not until between A.D. 1025 and 1030 that polyphonic music - music with two or more melodies - was beginning to be explored, and it blossomed in the Renaissance years.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

The Renaissance was a time for artistic and creative expression. It saw beautiful paintings, amazing sculptures, and a huge shift in culture. It was a time when people were moving away from the Catholic church and towards Protestantism, so it was a period of massive change. The Renaissance era expanded from the religious music of that time and separated even more from the church. Early Renaissance music spanned the years A.D. 1400-1600 which was a beautiful opportunity for French and Italian musicians to blossom and refine both secular and sacred music.

Sacred music, specifically the Gregorian Chant, flourished in the Middle Ages. The Gregorian Chant was ceremonial and commonly sung by Roman Catholic monks. It was an oral form of music learned purely through memory, and monophonic by nature. It was not until between A.D. 1025 and 1030 that polyphonic music – music with two or more melodies – was beginning to be explored, and it blossomed in the Renaissance years.

The secular music from the Middle Ages was also an important part of court life in between religious services. There is little record of secular music within the Middle Ages, but it was common for minstrels to sing about love and political satire – very unreligious. Secular music was not as prolific as sacred music, but this could be purely because of the lack of historical records. This translates into the Renaissance where secular music was said to be much more abundant due to the survival of archives.

One of the most important form of music to come out of the Renaissance was the motet. A motet is a polyphonic form of music with a vocal composition of diverse form and style. The introduction of multiple voices and more advanced music composition into the churches helped develop this style of work. Much like the Medieval period, early Renaissance music tended to focus more on the voice than instruments. Sacred music in the Renaissance era was typically polyphonic and ‘a capella’ (sung without instruments), sung by male choir groups; only very occasionally accompanied by an instrument – quite unlike the Middle Ages where music was monophonic and only sung by a single person. It aimed to blend together the singers’ voices to create harmony rather than dissonance.

In the Renaissance, composers seemed to be much more aware of the way music worked as a whole. From the years A.D. 1442-1483, church choir membership dramatically increased because the churches brought in professional composers to create their choral music and let lay singers join their services. These choral groups consisted of laymen who were employed to sing in the choirs and were called lay congregations. This was mainly thought to be because priests could not sing the more advanced parts that composers added into the music (Lowinsky, 1954). The introduction of a composer also saw the addition of four-part harmonies with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass singers.

After the Protestant reformation by Martin Luther in A.D. 1483-1546, music changed with the new religion and congregations started to sing strophic German hymns. Strophic form, otherwise known as verse-repeating form where the same music is repeated throughout the song, was significant in the sense that the repetition made it easy for worshippers to participate in the service. It also had massive influence on how some genres of music are made today. These hymns used syncopation to make the music flow easier for worshippers to sing. They also had four parts and moved back to the homophonic musical texture from the Middle Ages – where music has only one melodic tune. Many of the hymns created at that time are still used in worship (Clark, Heflin, Kluball & Kramer, 2015).

Italian madrigals were the more prolific form of secular music during the Renaissance. Secular music was still used as a form of entertainment for higher societies so were almost entirely separate from the church. This was probably for the better since some of the madrigals could allegedly get pretty raunchy. While madrigals were Italian, they were actually composed by Netherlandish composers who belonged to the royal courts of the time. This being because Italians, and the English and French too, preferred foreign musicians for their entertainment. Elizabethan madrigals started to take off in the later Renaissance period and created three kinds of madrigal: The Madrigal Proper, the Ballett, and the Ayre (Renaissance music (1450-1600), n.d.).

The Madrigal Proper was essentially a poem with music. Though it is usually free verse, it sometimes moves from a 5- to 14-line stanza and sometimes the last two lines form a rhyming couplet. It was also usually ‘through-composed’, which means each part of the music is different without repeats, and the lyrics are descriptive enough to paint a picture of what the person is singing about. Balletts are more for dancing than anything else. The music is light and was usually sung with a group of solo singers.

While the Madrigal Proper is through-composed so every stanza – or verse – is different than the other, the Ballett is strophic and quite often features the ‘fa la la’ refrain. ‘Fa la la’ is usually code for something ‘dirty’ that generally was not polite to say out loud.

The Ayre can be super varied. It can be sung solo, in a group, with or without accompaniment, or a capella. A lot of the instruments we use now are similar to those used in Renaissance music. Violins, harps and flutes are much the same now as they were in that time, but the organ, lute and stringed keyboard have changed immensely. A capella music especially has always been popular, but with movies like Pitch Perfect and musicians like Pentatonix, the ancient form of music has been kept alive. An Ayre would be quite similar to music we have now, though without all the fancy bells and whistles of modern music. In England, an Ayre was typically a solo song with lute accompaniment during the late Renaissance.

The Renaissance is arguably the most important musical era. It really saw the growth of music from plainchant and monophonic to polyphonic and composed choral singers. It had music that developed into extremely buoyant melodies that focussed on expression. Renaissance music developed the use of instruments in secular music, moving into using violins, harps, flutes, and the lute. This was super influential considering how we make and compose music now. The lute was the equivalent to the guitar so the incorporation of the lute into secular music of that time has led to the use of guitars in modern music today.

 

 

Sources: 1. Music in the culture of the Renaissance. Journal of the History of Ideas 2. Renaissance music (1450-1600), Composers of the Period 3. Understanding Music: Past and Present

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