Medieval & Renaissance Music: A Brief Survey

When the Early Music FAQ project began in 1994, we wanted to provide beginning or intermediate listeners with a concise and straightforward listing of recorded materials which would help them to survey the repertory in sound. In retrospect, the availability of CD recordings has become even more haphazard over the years, and maintaining such a list in a fully worthwhile state has become nearly impossible. Although the recording-based selections continue to have their merits, especially given the alternate selections included in the individual links, creating a survey which does not mention recordings seems at least as worthwhile today. The recording-oriented reader is advised to peruse this survey, and then use our CD index to search for suitable recordings, ultimately using our "purchasing information" links (or other means) to determine if they are presently available. Given the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of the recording business, the extra research work seems unavoidable, as unfortunate as that may be. Of course, another possibility is access to a good music library, and this option is heartily recommended wherever feasible. It is certainly the only fiscally prudent means for the reader who wants to consult scores.

Plainchant and Monophonic Sacred Music

Especially upon considering the upcoming discussion, it can be difficult to remember that the majority of liturgical music throughout the medieval era was plainchant. Gregorian chant is often used as a label, but the term "plainchant" is intended to be more inclusive. It indicates a single sacred melody, without accompaniment, sung by a single person or by a choir in which each member sings the same part. In many respects, medieval chant is the same chant which can be heard in monasteries today, and much of the most important chant (or plainsong) was composed by early medieval saints. Another word to describe plainchant is monophony, which - as opposed to polyphony - means a single sound, whether sacred or not. The concept of mode was created to categorize plainchant, and is something which can often apply to polyphony in only strained fashion.

Plainchant manuscripts began to survive in some quantity in Western Europe from about 890. There were some isolated and intriguing examples prior to this period, but they pose many difficulties of interpretation. Generally speaking, as chant evolved from the medieval era into modern times, its rhythm became more regular and less varied. This fact is partly conjectural, as early chant notation did not include rhythm. The medieval era saw the creation of many varieties of plainchant, especially if one includes those of Byzantine provenance. Even restricted to Western Europe, as this survey will be, there were different styles derived from different liturgical rites, such as Ambrosian (Milanese) chant and Mozarabic (Spanish) chant. There were also variants in use within the same rite, namely Roman chant, Sarum (English) chant, and even Cistercian (a monastic order) chant. The type of chant mainly identified with "Gregorian" today is what might be called Frankish or Carolingian chant, the style installed in France under Charlemagne, with the help of advisors from Rome.

Beyond truly liturgical music, i.e. music used during church services, the medieval era saw a wide variety of monophonic non-liturgical music written on sacred themes, usually in Latin. This is generally called para-liturgical music. Today, one very popular composer of such music is Hildegard von Bingen (c.1098-1179), a mystic abbess from Germany. Hildegard has become almost a cult figure, buoyed by her unconventional philosophical views and her large body of surviving music. Although one can easily get the mistaken idea that Hildegard was the only person writing para-liturgical chant in those days, or that she was widely known, there were many other composers writing in related styles. In Paris, the intellectual center of Europe at the time, the most famous composer of para-liturgical music was Peter Abélard (1079-1142), who is also well-known in literary circles for his affair with the noblewoman Heloïse.

Early Polyphony and Notre Dame

Although plainchant forms the largest surviving body of medieval music, by the later twelfth century its technical significance diminished. That is to say, new plainchant remained rather similar to old plainchant, and the most widely noted developments in Western music occurred in the areas of secular poetry and polyphony. Music historians focus on polyphony, because the development of polyphony helps us to understand the origins of Western harmony. Remember, though, that an important part of enjoying early music is enjoying it for its own sake, and not because it points to something else. In that sense, plainchant is relatively neglected by performers & listeners today (although I admit that I feel the same way, and am more interested in polyphony). Although most churches sang only plainchant on most Sundays, polyphonic compositions began to appear for important feasts at rich locales. Music became a vanity item.

Aside from sparse or textbook (such as the famous Musica Enchiriadis, c.900) examples, the earliest surviving polyphony appeared in the eleventh century. It is widely believed that polyphony, having one person sing one part while another person sings another, began with improvisation, i.e. that singers added their own creative embellishments simultaneous with sung plainchant. This was a variation on another creative addition to plainchant, troping, which is the insertion of extra texts and melodies between verses of well-known chants. Important tropes, which are still basically plainchant, survived from the ninth century, and became something of an independent genre. The surviving polyphony of the eleventh century is contained mainly in what are called the Chartres Manuscripts and the Winchester Troper (c.1000), and it was from this point onward that Western music history seems so much more eventful.

The earliest polyphony was called organum, and involved adding a higher, faster-moving melody to an existing plainchant. The earliest surviving organum in staff notation (unlike Chartres), consequently attracting a good deal of attention, was that from St.-Martial de Limoges in Aquitaine. Closely related in style was that of the Codex Calixtinus (c.1170), which was carried to Spain in the pilgrimage for St. James of Compostela. Shortly afterward, organum was fully embraced in Paris, and was composed in volume during and after the construction of the famous Notre Dame cathedral (beginning c.1163). The first major compilation was devoted to a set of two-voice organum for the full liturgical year, Magnus liber organi, apparently supervised by the composer Leonin (fl.c.1150-1201), to whom no works can be attributed with certainty. Leonin was succeeded by Perotin (fl.c.1200), about whose life even less is known, but some of whose music can be identified with confidence. Together with other composers, Perotin added voices and refined some of Leonin's work, forming a broader repertory still identified with the Magnus liber. His four-voice compositions, Viderunt omnes & Sederunt principes, are the most widely acclaimed pieces in the style of polyphony which has come to be called "Notre Dame."

Besides adding more independent voices to what began as a two-part form of organum, yielding three- and even four-part music, composers of the Notre Dame school expanded the field of para-liturgical music by using original melodies as the basis for polyphonic music. This form, which is not indebted to plainchant, is called the conductus. Besides the monophonic conductus, composers such as Perotin created the polyphonic conductus, an essentially free form for harmonic invention. This period also saw the development of mensural notation, by which the lengths of notes were measured. This was the beginning of notated rhythm. The music of Notre Dame was so famous that it was copied far & wide into later songbooks, including the famous Codex Las Huelgas (c.1325) of Spain and the Carmina Burana (c.1230) of Germany. The latter has become widely known in Carl Orff's modern setting, but mainly contains settings of Notre Dame & troubadour (see below) melodies using different lyrics, in what was at that time an old-fashioned form of notation.

Secular Songs

The period during which polyphony rose to prominence in liturgical music, namely the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was also the time from which secular songs began to survive. It is difficult for us to believe today that there were not all manner of songs sung by ordinary people in the vernacular, i.e. their own local language rather than Latin. However, while this was likely true during the early medieval era, it was not a phenomenon considered worthy of note or preservation. It was not until the era of the troubadours, often taken to begin with Guillaume of Poitiers the ninth Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126), that secular music began to take on a life of its own in the surviving literature. The troubadours, together with Western vernacular poetry as a whole, came from southern France and wrote in what is sometimes called the langue d'Oc or the Occitan language. The troubadours were generally aristocrats (their peasant associates were called jongleurs) who took an interest in writing songs about love & war. It was at least partly chivalric concerns which initiated this culture of "courtly love," providing themes which were to prove dominant in Western art song for the next three centuries.

As was plainchant, troubadour songs were monophonic, although today many people believe that they were often accompanied by one or more instruments (generally harp or lute, or maybe fiddle) playing improvised elaborations of the main melody. Unfortunately, not nearly as many melodies survived as do texts, and they sometimes survived separately. This makes troubadour performances rather more dependent on the whims of the performers than some other music of this era, but that may also have been true at the time. The troubadour phenomenon spread quickly to Catalonia and northern Italy, and included a prominent role for female composers, called trobairitz. Prominent troubadours included Bernart de Ventadorn (c.1125-c.1195) and Guiraut Riquier (c.1230-1292), the so-called last of the troubadours. Much of the decline in Occitan culture can be traced to the Crusade against the Cathars (1209-1255), and its resulting destruction. By that time, the artistic lead returned to northern France.

In northern France, or in the French language proper, composers of secular verse were called trouvères, meaning "one who finds or discovers" (as did "trobador" in Occitan). Trouvère songs were generally more regular in meter, and even became polyphonic in the hands of late trouvères Adam de la Halle (d.c.1288) & Jehan de Lescurel (d.1304). We will return to the important development of polyphonic secular song soon.

Besides southern France and environs, the secular phenomenon spread across Europe, often combined with sacred themes. One of the most important collections in all of medieval music was the Cantigas de Santa María, compiled by King Alfonso X of Castille (1221-1284). These songs in the Galician language adopted the Virgin Mary as the "lady" of traditional troubadour love themes, setting Alfonso's poetry to troubadour and troubadour-inspired melodies. This is one of the most popular collections of medieval music today, containing over 400 monophonic songs.

Traveling aristocratic singers were also a phenomenon in Germany, and were known as minnesängers. By the 1500s, their descendants would be known as meistersingers, and later be an inspiration for Richard Wagner. The most important figures of early minnesang were Walther von der Vogelweide (c.1170-c.1230) & Neidhart von Reuental (c.1180-c.1240), and it is they who set the tone for later German lyric. In England, only a handful of vernacular songs survived from the entire medieval era, but they are often intriguing for their uniqueness. One particularly famous example is the polyphonic canon (or "rota") Sumer is icumen in (c.1250).

Finally, and note that we have now traversed the countries of Western Europe, Italian vernacular song in this period was closely intertwined with sacred themes. In laude surviving in a pair of prominent manuscripts (Laudario di Cortona, c.1250 & Laudario di Magliabechiano, c.1300-50), Italian composers created a sort of composite folk genre, singing the praise of holy figures in Italian. Although the laud did not represent a technical development in music history, it persisted as a distinct Italian genre into the 1500s, including examples in Ars Nova (see below) style and even some composed by prominent composers of the Renaissance. Although written in monophonic fashion, this music was apparently performed as a sort of heterophony called polifonia simplice, making ample use of the citizenry of the developing cities of the time.

The Motet and the Ars Nova

The motet is a form which was to have a long history in Western music. It arose from elaborating the cadences of the great polyphonic works of Perotin et al., called clausulas. These were the fastest and most technical parts of organum at the time, and the ingenious composers of the thirteenth century soon had the idea to add voices with different texts (the motetus, from the Latin for "word") to the original. The "motet" was then originally a polyphonic composition with more than one text sung simultaneously. Some had three or four, often in both French & Latin. This music can be quite intriguing, but is also difficult to appreciate on a single hearing.

Unfortunately for our historical curiosity, the development of the motet was mostly anonymous. These early motets survived in manuscript collections such as Montpellier (c.1270-c.1300), La Clayette (c.1260), and Bamberg (c.1260-90). Eventually this style of composition came to be called Ars Antiqua, meeting some of its final elaborations in the work of composers such as Petrus de Cruce (fl.c.1290). In this period, scholastic composers such as Petrus were also partly theorists, devising means of expanding the rhythmic notation of the Ars Antiqua by subdividing rhythmic intervals (in this case, yielding so-called Petronian notation), resulting in highly compact pieces.

Even more radical was the notation of the Ars Nova, usually credited to Philippe de Vitry (c.1291-1361), and outlined in a now-lost treatise of that name. This was a self-conscious development by Parisian scholastics to change the way polyphony was written, both rhythmically and harmonically. It involved creating repeated rhythmic figures called isorhythms, as well as a new approach to consonance and dissonance. Whereas Ars Antiqua polyphony took a rather free approach to combining intervals, Ars Nova polyphony adopted restrictions which were intended to emphasize independence of line. Throughout this period, however, the open fifth was used for fully stable cadences. Motets of the period often contained bitter sarcasm and complicated contemporary allusions, meeting something of a climax in the satirical Roman de Fauvel (1316). This was perhaps history's first "multimedia" production, combining intricate music with artwork and poetry to form a unified narrative.

Secular Polyphony of the Ars Nova

By far, the leading composer of his age was Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377). In his hands, the Ars Nova style lost any semblance of scholastic artificiality, as even his Latin motets became models of eloquence. Building on the style of the late trouvères, Machaut's greatest achievement was in polyphonic secular songwriting. Although Machaut continued to write secular monophony, in the lengthy lai and more compact virelai forms, his work in the polyphonic ballade and rondeau forms was to prove decisive for subsequent generations of songwriters. Machaut was the greatest poet of his age, and it was his own poetry he set to polyphony, providing a unified vision which undoubtedly helped to yield the clarity of texture for which he is known. Machaut's work survived in a series of carefully prepared manuscripts, the compilation of which he himself apparently supervised.

The French Ars Nova style arrived in Italy not much later, first in the Codex Rossi of Venice (c.1340), and then with greater force in Florence, ultimately appearing in such grand compilations as the Squarcialupi Codex (c.1410). There, such composers as the blind organist Francesco Landini (c.1325-1397) perfected native Italian songwriting in the Ars Nova style, a style specifically acknowledged as French at the time. This was the beginning of the madrigal, but it was as yet a form with no real resemblance to the later Italian songs of the same name (see below). A modest quantity of instrumental dances (istanpitta, etc.) survived from this period, forming a major component of the very small amount of surviving medieval instrumental music. One can also perceive the beginnings of modern life in the Italian cities, and perhaps some humanist ideals (see below) in the settings of Landini and others.

Sacred Music of the Ars Nova

In the fourteenth century, for the first time, secular music had the upper hand in artistic developments. However, sacred music was not neglected. The first "mass cycles," thematically related sequences of sections of the Mass Ordinary, a form which was to prove so significant for later generations of composers, were written in this period. The earliest such surviving cycle was the anonymous Messe de Tournai (c.1330). There were a few others compiled in the period: Sorbonne, Toulouse, & Barcelona, as well as the famous Messe de Notre Dame by Machaut. Not only was Machaut's cycle more integrated than the anonymous cycles, whose movements may have been by different composers, but it is perhaps the best-known single work of medieval music today. Although Machaut's innovation in this area was not copied directly, it is a testament to his creative ability as a composer.

While these cycles can seem more intriguing to us today, giving as they do an apparent glimpse of early symphonic thought, various individual mass movements from this period were of intricate and beautiful construction. Many of these mass movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) were attributed to specific composers, although little is known of them aside from their names. Many others were anonymous. This was the period of the "Babylonian Captivity" of the Papacy in Avignon, and prominent manuscripts from that region were Ivrea (c.1370) & Apt (c.1405). Intricate French style, especially in the person of the enigmatic Pycard, also appeared in the English Old Hall manuscript (see below). Finally, a uniquely Spanish example was the Llibre Vermell of Montserrat (1399), an unusual combination of sacred & folk elements into a cycle of pilgrim songs.

The Ars Subtilior

Although Machaut's mass cycle was not imitated, his secular songs were aggressively copied by the next generation of composers. As with their contemporaries who wrote sacred music, and sometimes they were the same men, little is known of these composers beyond their names, and not always that. The style of music does, however, have a colorful title, Ars Subtilior, a term coined in modern times to mean "more subtle art." These composers took songwriting in France & Italy to new levels of sophistication. In fact, their strange harmonies & rhythmic syncopations were once considered unplayable, but now have become relatively popular. These composers revelled in subtlety, combining literary allusion and oblique quotation with a free-wheeling, almost dream-like musical idiom. It has been suggested that a group called the fumeurs may have been involved in drug use, but the idea is probably untenable.

The complications of this style reached intricate heights, including staff notation in the shape of circles or harps, and puzzles to be solved before perceiving the composers' meaning. This was especially true of the famous Chantilly Codex (c.1390), whereas the other prominent Ars Subtilior manuscripts, Modena (c.1410) & Turin (c.1415), extended this style musically. The latter was a unique representative of the musical culture of Cyprus under French rule, preserved only by virtue of coming to Europe as a wedding gift. By the early 1400s, the Ars Subtilior style became less self-involved in the hands of composers such as Johannes Ciconia (c.1370-1412), and soon gave way to a smoother harmonic idiom.

The English Countenance

Native English style did not follow the angular & animated rhythmic ideas of the French Ars Nova, and consequently retained a more subdued & regular harmonic style based on discant. The resulting style made frequent use of the interval of the third, considered a mild dissonance in medieval theory, and consequently its rise to prominence was a major part of the historical transition from medieval to modern sonorities. Together with a few French-style pieces, the Old Hall manuscript (c.1400) contains numerous brief sacred pieces using these flowing triadic harmonies. The sonority arising from such a use of thirds was called the "English Countenance," and became popular in Continental Europe through English influence in Burgundy in the wake of the Hundred Years War. In addition, prominent English composers John Dunstable (c.1390-1453) & Leonel Power (c.1380-1445) decisively took up the cyclic mass, beginning a trend which would establish it as a leading musical genre heading into the 1500s.

Burgundy and the Renaissance

More regular phrasing and prominent use of the interval of the third soon found its way into European music as a whole, and it was composers from the area around present-day Belgium who took the lead in developing contrapuntal technique over the subsequent generations. The first such composer to follow what was to become a fairly typical career path was Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), who also inaugurated the period from which we tend to have documentary details of the lives of prominent composers. As Machaut had before him, Dufay was able to unify some of the stylistic trends of his day, as well as to excel in virtually every form of composition. Perhaps the most telling signs of the increasing prominence of polyphony were the numerous, straightforward chant harmonizations Dufay wrote while working for the Papal Choir. By this time, the older organum style stood on its head, with the chant appearing in the highest voice, rather than the lowest. Dufay is now known to have written plainchant as well.

During the early phase of his career, Dufay wrote the last & largest examples of the isorhythmic motet, an Ars Nova genre. His Nuper rosarum flores in this form is particularly famous, written as it was for the dedication of Brunelleschi's dome in Florence (1436). Other isorhythmic motets were connected to other landmark events of the era, heralding a cosmopolitan mindset which tangibly linked music to Renaissance art & architecture. The musical Renaissance is therefore placed with Dufay in many chronologies, although this is an essentially arbitrary selection. As we shall see, other critical changes which shaped the modern or "High Renaissance" style in music did not occur for decades. In fact, his isorhythmic motets show Dufay working in a medieval idiom. Intonation during this period is also believed to have remained largely the Pythagorean tuning of the medieval era, but some areas do show signs of change. Although thirds were now quite prominent, they did not become standard in closing cadences for nearly a century.

As so many northern composers were to do, after several important posts in Italy, Dufay returned to northern France to end his career. There he wrote his last cantus firmus masses, combining the cyclical ideas of the English with his own gift for melody and French eloquence. In elaborate mass cycles such as Missa l'homme armé, Missa Ecce ancilla Domini, and Missa Ave regina cælorum, Dufay set the tone for what was to become the most important form for the next generation. English composers working in Burgundy, such as Walter Frye (d.1474), also continued to expand upon their native cantus firmus ideas. The most significant example may have been the anonymous Missa Caput (c.1440), once thought to be by Dufay. Cantus firmus technique places an existing melody, which may or may not be plainchant, in a middle voice (the tenor), allowing voices both above and below to create surrounding harmonic texture. Mass cycles were typically unified by using the same cantus firmus melody in each movement. Throughout the fifteenth century, this technique was adopted in increasingly creative fashion.

Dufay was also a prolific composer of chansons (French for songs). There his music showed a concision and boldness of expression which helped to distinguish it most clearly from that of the previous generation. Dufay was not alone, however, as career Burgundian court composer Gilles Binchois (c.1400-1460) was at least as well-known for his own chansons. Binchois' songs were representative of an impressive outflowing of French courtly song in the period. They were basically conservative in poetic form, and featured achingly flowing harmonies in contrary motion. These chanson-writers elaborated on the same themes of love & devotion as did Machaut. The conservative style was developed throughout the fifteenth century, and was codified in large manuscripts such as the Chansonnier Cordiforme (c.1475). It met something of a climax with the intricate chansons of Antoine Busnoys (c.1430-1492), after which it yielded to humanist concerns of text-setting (see below) and more extroverted expression, even as Burgundian composers such as La Rue (see below) worked to extend the old style.

The ubiquitousness of the Burgundian style during this era can easily be perceived in other countries. England, as it had to this date, offered rather little in the way of surviving secular music, with the English examples in Burgundy naturally being of similar construction. In Italy, native composition from the era of Landini gave way to northerners, although Dufay did oblige by writing some songs in Italian. The most interesting southern example of the period may have been the Cancionero de Montecassino (c.1480), compiled under Aragonese rule in Naples, and featuring songs in various languages (together with sacred music, including settings by Dufay) collected over decades.

This was also the era from which instrumental music began to survive in any quantity, especially in the form of instrumental transcriptions of vocal works, such as in the Buxheimer Orgelbuch (c.1450-c.1470). Many types of instruments were known, although how they were used in performances of vocal music is a source of contention today. Besides the organ (of the cathedral and chamber varieties), both the harpsichord & clavichord appeared in the fifteenth century. Instruments of more modest technical construction, often with hazy histories, were grouped into loud & soft ensembles called alta capella & bassa capella. The former consisted of converted folk instruments, often used for outdoor play: shawms, bagpipes, trumpets, and pipes of various sorts, sometimes with percussion. The latter consisted of the traditional aristocratic accompaniment instruments (harp & lute), other plucked strings such as the cittern, the developing recorder, as well as the bowed-string predecessors of the violin (viol, vielle, or fiddle). Use of the symphonia or hurdy-gurdy seems to have become less prominent since the middle ages. Instruments tended to be grouped homogeneously in performance, not for variety of sound, such that 3 lutes might play an adaptation of a 3-part chanson.

Franco-Flemish Polyphony

Perhaps the most imposing legacy of this entire era was the body of large-scale works of vocal polyphony created by northern composers during the decades around 1500. In this, the mass cycle took pride of place with its expanded vocal ranges & clarified functions, as well as its increasingly creative array of unifying techniques. These masses became veritable symphonies. However, it should be remembered that during a real, liturgical performance, the "movements" of the symphony were separated by long periods of religious activity as well as plainchant, the latter perhaps harmonized in some locations. The motet was also a highly significant genre in the fifteenth century, especially because of its variable text and opportunity for personal expression, but was rather different from its original form. By the era of the Franco-Flemish masters, motets tended to have a single text (although they sometimes had more), and were almost entirely sacred in content. The thirteenth century motet had been primarily a secular genre. Motets were composed especially on Marian antiphons (plainchant referring to the Virgin Mary), as well as on more personal texts selected by composers, perhaps extracted from Biblical sources or referring to contemporary events. The mass, by contrast, used a fixed text. Other large-scale genres emerged, such as the Requiem or mass for the dead, with its differing text, as well as settings of the lamentations.

In the generation following Dufay, the most prominent composer was Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497), court composer to three kings of France. Ockeghem was credited with giving the bass voice an independent character in contrapuntal texture, as well as expanding the range of the cyclic mass by unifying it with means other than a cantus firmus or by varying the way the cantus firmus is deployed in different sections. His Requiem is the earliest surviving polyphonic setting, and popular today for its gravity. Ockeghem is also known for a handful of fine motets, as well as for songs following the idiom of his teacher Binchois. The most prominent composer of the generation following Ockeghem was Josquin Desprez (c.1455-1521). Josquin's career paralleled Dufay's, beginning in the north, and leading to prestigious appointments in Italy, including at the Vatican. Josquin also returned to northern France later in life, where he continued to compose some of his most famous music.

Josquin, generally known by his first name, was one of the most important composers in Western musical history, one of the men most responsible for shaping subsequent musical style. Although the canon, or the repetition of a melody in a different voice, had long been used as a contrapuntal device, Josquin pioneered the technique of pervasive imitation, by which the entire contrapuntal structure was formed via repetition of one melody in different times in other voices. This technique was the ancestor of the modern fugue. Josquin was also sensitive to text-setting concerns of the time (see below), adopting elements of word-painting which would become part of the madrigal style (see below), as well as further simplifying the melismatic melodies & sometimes florid counterpoint of the previous generation. These factors contributed to Petrucci's decision to make Josquin the first composer to whom a complete printed collection was devoted (Venice, 1502).

Josquin's most characteristic music is found in his motets, where the freedom to choose the texts provided him with an opportunity to let his musical imagination respond to them. Among numerous works, the motets Ave Maria, Stabat Mater, and Miserere mei are particularly popular. All composers of this era had a predilection for reusing melodies found elsewhere, as a sort of homage, and so e.g. Josquin's Stabat Mater reused the tenor melody of Binchois' chanson Comme femme desconfortée. Prominent among Josquin's mass cycles are Missa de beata Virgine, Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariæ, and Missa Pange lingua. The latter is believed to be his final setting, in harmonies remarkably close to the original plainsong. The Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariæ illustrates the predilection of the era for coded melodies, with a cantus firmus derived from the name of the Duke of Ferrara, site of one of Josquin's most lucrative appointments (1503). Although Josquin is not particularly known for his chanson writing, examples such as Mille regretz were popular models for composers of the succeeding generation. He also wrote the famous motet-chanson Déploration sur la mort de Ockeghem, showing a tangible connection to what has been presumed to be his teacher.

Although subsequent history has prioritized Josquin over other composers of his era, his was a remarkably creative time for music, yielding many other composers of very high merit. Prominent masters of the Franco-Flemish school included Pierre de La Rue (c.1460-1518), Jacob Obrecht (1457/8-1505), Antoine Brumel (c.1460-c.1515), and Heinrich Isaac (c.1450-1517). La Rue mainly remained resident at the Habsburg court in Burgundy, as the dominant native composer of his land, but also outside the increasingly bright spotlight of Italy. Obrecht was a master of large-scale structure, creating some of the most elaborately symphonic masses of the period, and often showing an indifference to text in favor of abstraction. He died of plague in Ferrara. Brumel followed Obrecht & Josquin to Ferrara, and is popular today for his more chordal style, especially in the Missa Et ecce terræ motus in 12 parts. Isaac exhibited the clearcut phrasing & concision of Josquin, following an almost-obligatory Italian service (under the Medicis in Florence) with a decisive move to Germany, where he introduced the Franco-Flemish style. One result was the massive Choralis Constantinus (1509), a set of practical Propers settings for the entire liturgical year. Among contemporaries who composed secular songs in what was then a transitional style, Loyset Compère (c.1445-1518) & Alexander Agricola (1446-1506) were prominent. The latter is particularly well-known for his variations on the song De tous bien playne by Burgundian composer Hayne van Ghizeghem (c.1445-c.1472). Remarkably, every one of these men was born in (what would become) northeast France, Belgium, or the southern Netherlands.

Following the generation of Josquin, it becomes more difficult to write of a "central line" of musical development, as sources became more voluminous and styles spread across Europe. Among Josquin's successors, the most prominent were Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-1557), Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562), and Jacobus Clemens (c.1510-c.1556), likewise all northerners. Gombert relocated with the Habsburg Emperor Charles V to Spain in the wake of the conquest of the New World, and wrote in the densest contrapuntal idiom yet. Willaert moved to Venice, and especially by his teaching, helped set the stage for what was to become the glory days of Venetian music. He also published the first volume of original polyphonic instrumental music, Musica Nova (1540). Clemens remained in the Netherlands, writing mass cycles and motets in a traditional idiom, thus forming something of a conclusion to the Franco-Flemish style. However, he was also involved in the Reformation, setting psalms in Dutch, the Souterliedekens (1540).

Humanism, Text, and the Printing Press

Although one can perceive various aspects of Dufay's music & career which evoke Renaissance ideals, and perhaps even some earlier examples, with the rise of Josquin we can know unequivocally that we are seeing the modern era. Besides more technical musical factors such as the shift to thirds as cadential intervals and the related shift to tuning systems emphasizing thirds, Renaissance ideals involved attitudes toward text and human interaction which can be observed in music. The movement itself can be linked most concretely to Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536), an important philosopher and writer with a keen interest in music (he claims to have sung under the direction of Obrecht, and apparently knew Ockeghem). Humanism was a broad-based movement which would eventually weaken the role of the church.

Whereas medieval music often sought beauty & intricacy as a testament to the glory of God, Renaissance music wanted to become more directly communicative with humanity. The result was more regular phrasing & textures, and a new attention to text. The latter sought to make the words fully audible, a major change from the sometimes three or four simultaneous texts of fourteenth century scholastic motets, and to put music at the service of text, to illuminate it and communicate it better. Happy thoughts would go with rising figures and vice versa; longer or more important words would have longer music, etc. Medieval practices of putting lengthy melismas on meaningless articles were considered "barbaric" by the 1500s, and ideas of word-painting (or what are sometimes called "madrigalisms") were in full force.

Beyond this shift (and whether we regard earlier music as having the shortcomings which composers of the 1500s thought it had is a matter of personal opinion), it was the invention of the printing press and the subsequent mass publication of music which most decisively heralded the modern age. Petrucci's first publication was a collection of instrumental chanson adaptations by various composers, Harmonice Musices Odhecaton A (1501), to which he soon added a collection of masses by Josquin (see above). It was from this point that music was to survive in volume, and it consequently becomes that much more difficult to form a unified historical narrative. For this reason, I will now discuss each major Western country separately, giving a glimpse of the sheer volume of musical activity which can now be documented.

Italy in the 1500s

As described above, music in Italy during the fifteenth century was dominated by foreigners. However, although one can certainly wonder what became of the native compositional schools developed in the Ars Nova period, it is also true that the most significant music came to be written there, with northern composers such as Dufay & Josquin composing some of their best works in Italy. By the early 1500s, native polyphonists such as Costanzo Festa (c.1490-1545) began to appear, and secular songs in Italian began to replace those in French as the leading edge of artistic development. French or Occitan lyrics had been the leading secular tradition from the earliest surviving songs.

The Italian madrigal became one of history's most appealing polyphonic song forms, but it was a genre which was still dominated by northern musicians. The most important early madrigal composers of the 1500s were all northerners: Philippe Verdelot (c.1485-c.1550), Jacobus Arcadelt (c.1505-1568), and Cipriano de Rore (c.1515-1565). Each published multiple books of madrigals. In the next generation, native Italians such as Luca Marenzio (1533-99) joined northerners such as Giaches de Wert (1535-1596) in positions of prominence. The later madrigal featured all manner of word-painting, tortured expressions of romantic longing, and frequently erotic themes. The restraint of the Burgundian chanson was left far behind in the wake of a new emphasis on virtuosity. The madrigal was as strong as ever as the sixteenth century drew to a close with the work of composers such as Sigismondo D'India (c.1582-1629), Carlo Gesualdo (c.1561-1613), and especially Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Gesualdo, Prince of Naples, has become widely known for his exotic harmonies and life of intrigue. Of course, Monteverdi became the greatest pioneer of the Baroque style (see below).

Sacred music was also heavily cultivated, and most of the madrigalists wrote mass cycles and motets. Beyond that, the Sistine Chapel continued to rise in prominence for its music, counting as one of its resident composers one of the most influential in Western music, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594). A conservative composer, Palestrina wrote dozens of mass cycles as well as hundreds of motets formed into various cycles. He was particularly well-known for his clear textures and audible texts, making his music some of the most studied in subsequent centuries. Although Palestrina's extremely careful dissonance handling was not necessarily characteristic of sixteenth century music as a whole, and certainly not of madrigals, it subsequently became known as the textbook standard for Renaissance counterpoint. Palestrina's legend grew to the point that his Missa Papæ Marcelli (c.1555) was said to have salvaged the place of polyphony in the Catholic liturgy in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545-63). Although the story is essentially fanciful, the straightforward homophonic texture of this and other works serves to illustrate the trends in sacred composition during the Counter-Reformation.

Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594) was another hugely prolific composer of high reputation who worked in Italy during this period. Lasso, or Lassus, was a northerner and is sometimes taken to be the main representative of the fifth and concluding generation (beginning with Dufay) of Franco-Flemish polyphonists. Even more than Palestrina, who also left a variety of composite forms, Lasso wrote in every form & style of the day, in quantity: mass cycles (including emerging sonic combinations such as the double choir), motets, lamentations, madrigal cycles, chansons, German lieder, folksy villanellas (including racist & sexist lyrics), etc. Lassus was truly cosmopolitan in outlook, and left Italy for good to take up the leading post in Munich in 1556.

Song forms such as the villanella were representative of the variety of lighter music in Italy during this period, especially including the frottola. The frottola did not possess the complicated polyphonic texture of the higher profile madrigal, but did provide beautiful melodies with an Italian sense of clarity. This simple style of melody & accompaniment was to persist and transform itself into the main form of artistic expression in the 1600s, replacing the truly polyphonic madrigal. Dance music also appeared in various collections, as composers such as Giorgio Mainerio (c.1535-1582) built upon what had been an embryonic Italian art in the 1400s. Elaborate celebratory cycles, such as the famous La Pellegrina for a Medici wedding (1589), were created by juxtaposing pieces in various genres, both vocal and instrumental.

Beyond the widespread use of instruments to accompany dancing or celebrations, original "chamber music" also began to appear, especially in published collections for the lute. The most celebrated lutenist of the period was Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543), but several other composers for lute prospered, as the style developed a high degree of virtuosity. The other important solo instrument remained the keyboard, as an entire school emerged around Willaert in Venice. There, composers such as Claudio Merulo (1533-1604) and Andrea Gabrieli (c.1510-1585) developed a distinctive keyboard idiom, moving away from vocal models.

Spain in the 1500s

In the 1500s, Spain was in the middle of its "golden age" in the wake of the American conquest, and instrumental composition likewise formed a significant part. The blind organist Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566) wrote some of the first abstract music conceived specifically for keyboard. Meanwhile, Diego Ortiz published his Trattado de Glosas (1553), music for solo viol with accompaniment as well as a discussion of performance practice. In Spain, the primary plucked-string instrument was the vihuela, resulting in a literature nearly rivaling that for the lute in Italy. Prominent among the vihuelists was Luys de Narvaez (c.1500-1555).

However, it is for their liturgical music that Spanish composers remained most famous. Spain was conservative in this area throughout the period, such that mass cycles there retained a traditional polyphonic format into the 1600s. Following Gombert's move to Spain with Charles V, other prominent northerners such as Thomas Crecquillon (d.c.1557) took up residence at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. Native composers in a style conditioned by the Franco-Flemish masters also flourished, beginning with Francisco de Peñalosa (c.1470-1528) and Pedro de Escobar (c.1469-c.1535), and moving onward to the great Spanish masters Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553) and Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1549-1611). Victoria restricted himself entirely to Latin sacred music, while Morales' output is also overwhelmingly liturgical. Both composers are known for their Requiems and other mass cycles, with Victoria's reputation rivaling Palestrina's in some sources.

The conservative style was retained even longer in neighboring Portugal, where many composers continued to write original polyphonic liturgical music well into the late 1600s.

Continuing a native Spanish tendency which was already in evidence in such medieval sources as the Cantigas & Llibre Vermell, Spanish composers wrote numerous intriguing pieces in the combined sacred-secular forms ensalada & villancico. Both were based largely on Christmas themes, with the ensalada combining multiple languages, while the villancico was a more straightforward rustic application of sacred ideas in the vernacular. Spanish songbooks also survived from this period, such as the Cancionero de Palacio (c.1515) featuring music of the prominent composer Juan del Enzina (1468-c.1530). Here the themes ranged from traditional courtly love to more theatrical subjects, a style subsequently developed by composers such as Juan Vásquez (1510-1560) & Mateo Romero (1575-1647).

France in the 1500s

France became far more secular in this period, and it was the chanson which was the leading arena for artistic development in the 1500s. Composers such as Clément Janequin (c.1485-1560) and Claudin de Sermisy (c.1490-1562) took the Parisian chanson to new heights of imagination, adopting both rustic & fanciful themes which served to deemphasize the traditional forms of courtly love and inject a new sense of dynamism into songwriting. Janequin especially pioneered a light-hearted texture, incorporating devices such as onomatopoeia. Later, Claude Le Jeune (c.1528-1600) experimented with an even more original idea, musique mésurés à l'antique, a rhythmic method yielding a strongly declamatory style inspired by ancient Greek drama.

Although composers such as Janequin and Le Jeune also wrote sacred music, including mass cycles, liturgical forms were not prominent in France in the 1500s. One factor was the bloody battle over the Reformation there, exemplified by the killing of prominent Huguenot composer Claude Goudimel (1520-1572). Goudimel's settings of psalms in French joined Le Jeune's chanson cycle Le Printans (1603) as some of the most original works of the period.

Instrumental music was also published in France, especially dances. Joining prominent publisher Pierre Attaingnant (c.1494-1551), who published much of Janequin's work, Jacques Moderne (c.1495-1562) published his famous collection of songs and dances in 1550, Musicque de Joye. In nearby Antwerp, Tielman Susato (c.1500-1561/4) published his famous Dansereye in 1551. This remains the most prominent collection of Renaissance dances today. Solo lute music also thrived in France, a tradition which would meet its consummation in the Baroque era.

In the following generation, for the first time in centuries, France aggressively adopted Italian style, rather than vice versa.

England in the 1500s

After its previously unprecedented impact on general European style in the early 1400s, England returned to a state of relative isolation, having no more impact on musical development elsewhere. The next major English source was the Eton Choirbook (c.1500), again featuring mostly sacred music. English style in this era bore little resemblance to that of Josquin et al., but rather took the antiphon style of Dunstable et al. to longer lengths with soaring melismas. Those who elaborated on the style of the Eton Choirbook included Robert Fayrfax (c.1464-1521) and especially John Taverner (c.1490-1545). Both also wrote cyclic masses, and the Benedictus section of Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas went on to form the basic thematic material of the long-lived In Nomine consort genre.

Secular songs finally made a notable appearance in England in this era, with the court of Henry VIII providing a fertile ground for composers such as William Cornysh (c.1465-1523) and even the king himself.

The more text-oriented style of European music began to influence England in the generation of Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585), known especially for his 40-part Spem in alium. However, although Tallis had a predilection for trying unusual compositional techniques, most of his music is for more conventional forces. Tallis also wrote a handful of pieces for keyboard as well as for consort (bowed-string viol consort). The latter were to prove especially representative of England following the output of Christopher Tye (c.1505-1572).

Tallis was awarded a royal monopoly on music printing in England, passing it to his student William Byrd (1543-1623) upon his death. Byrd's tenure as England's greatest composer, coinciding with Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age, is widely regarded as the greatest flowering of music in that country. Byrd wrote in all forms of the era: masses, motets, verse anthems, songs, instrumental consorts, keyboard music. Byrd was caught up in Reformation controversies, and his three masses are of utilitarian nature, whereas his motets or Cantiones Sacræ (1575, 1589, 1591) are often more elaborate. He also wrote an entire series of Propers settings for the liturgical year, Gradualia (1605, 1607). Byrd's songs were of a type called "consort songs" in which an upper melody was supported by contrapuntal instrumental parts, showing a clear connection with his smaller body of viol consort music. Finally, Byrd's keyboard music was also particularly notable, forming one of his main concerns late in life, and providing the impulse for an entire school of Elizabethan keyboard composition. This school was short-lived, but formed the basis for subsequent developments in the Netherlands and northern Germany by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) et al.

Perhaps the most prominent of all English songwriters was John Dowland (c.1563-1626). Although he sometimes included adaptations for multiple voices, Dowland wrote in the "lute song" genre, in which a single voice was accompanied by the lute. Dowland's four books of songs are known for their frequently melancholy character, and are especially popular today. Besides the famous consort cycle Lachrimæ (1604), Dowland the lutenist wrote a large quantity of lute music. This lute-oriented instrumental output was representative of other English composers of the period, notably Anthony Holborne (c.1547-1602).

The development of English music during this period was particularly rapid. Composers of the next generation, such as Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), continued to build upon styles developed by Byrd, and to create new formats. Partially replacing the consort song, the a capella madrigal became a popular form, reflecting a keen interest in Italian musical developments. Likewise, the consort music of Gibbons and others made use of modern Italian ideas on disposition and technique, while retaining a tangibly medieval element to the counterpoint. Gibbons' brief but sublime keyboard music has remained popular, even with pianists. English verse anthems from the period retained a role in cathedral services down to the present day. Finally, it was Thomas Morley (1557/8-1602) who inherited Byrd's printing monopoly in 1596, and it was Morley who helped to establish the madrigal and other Italianate forms, likewise working in all genres.

Germany in the 1500s

We left German music in the medieval era with the minnesingers, and it is indeed development of minnesong into meistersong which formed the history of those intervening years. An important transitional figure was Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376-1445), a nobleman who imitated Italian Ars Nova songs. Meistersong meets its apotheosis with the famous meistersinger Hans Sachs (1494-1576). Various German songbooks survived from this era.

Germany's entry into modern compositional idioms began with Isaac's move to Vienna under the Emperor Maximilian, where Isaac's relative interest (among his Franco-Flemish contemporaries) in instrumental music apparently met a favorable reception. Although they were largely adaptations of Burgundian songs, German sources of instrumental music were already prominent in the 1400s, and typical manuscripts continued to include instrumental pieces alongside vocal polyphony. Following Isaac, Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl (1486-1543) was one of the first native Germans to write original large-scale polyphony in the usual forms. This activity was further consummated with the Reformation, and Martin Luther's interest in music and dedication to Josquin's style. Composers such as Johann Walther (1496-1570) and his successors enthusiastically wrote polyphonic sacred music in German, forming the bulk of the north German repertory.

Lassus' residence in Catholic southern Germany also had a profound effect on that region, and further established a pipeline which would have Italian composers working in Germany and German composers studying in Italy into the Baroque era. Lassus' late settings, such as his madrigal cycle Lagrime di San Pietro (1595), were written in Germany. Analogous to Lassus' work in Munich, fellow Flemish-by-way-of-Italy composer Philippe de Monte (1521-1603) held the court position in nearby Prague, also writing in nearly every genre of the day.

The major composer of German psalms in the last generation of the 1500s was Michael Praetorius (1571-1621). Praetorius, from a large musical family, is also well-known as a theorist and describer of instruments. His Terpsichore (1612) was an especially popular collection of dances in a late-Renaissance idiom.

The Baroque

Although the Baroque era is outside the bounds of the present survey, some concluding thoughts are in order. Unlike the beginning of the Renaissance, which involved various musical changes at different times, and is widely open to interpretation, the musical changes which defined Baroque style happened over a brief span of time. Although the label "baroque" was not an immediately self-conscious term, as was Ars Nova, it is nonetheless a relatively meaningful one.

The development of Baroque style happened in Italy, and is very strongly associated with Monteverdi. Briefly, the elements of that style were: the new monody, basso continuo, and the opera genre. Monody was the name for the style by which a main voice in the upper part was accompanied chordally by lower parts, forging what was to become the primary idiom of Western music, both classical and popular. Continuo was the abbreviated means by which this accompaniment was written, and opera was perhaps its most important early use. It was a desire to return to ancient Greek forms which motivated composers such as Monteverdi to develop monody and opera. Although we do not believe the music of Monteverdi et al. bore any resemblance to that of ancient Greece, by the time these developments occurred, any elements of medieval style remaining in Western music had been radically transformed.

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Todd M. McComb
Written: 28 August 2001
Last updated: 16 August 2004