Renaissance Instrumental Polyphony

The middle of the 16th century is the period from which independent polyphonic compositions for instrumental ensembles & keyboards begin to survive in any quantity. This repertory often does not specify instrumentation and was generally closer in conception to the serious vocal genres of the time than it was to dance music. Indeed it emerged fairly seamlessly from the textless compositions of Isaac and other polyphonists, the latter being possibly instrumental in conception. Of course, scoring became clear by the 17th century or around the time that the distinction which had existed between dance and "abstract" instrumental music became completely blurred.

Onward to the focus of this mini-overview.... Probably not coincidentally, the dance publications of Moderne (1550) and Susato (1551) appeared in close proximity to more abstract instrumental publications, which were soon reflected in each major country.

The first prominent polyphonic instrumental publication was Musica Nova (1540), put out by the circle of Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562) in Venice. It was intended to be groundbreaking, and was specified "for organ or other instruments." A superlative recording:

Willaert: Complete Works, Volume 7
Willaert and his circle
Ricercari da Musica Nova (1540)
Lorenzini / Negri / Villani / Azzarelli
Stradivarius Dulcimer 33355

The "new" aspect of this music is that, while it used the textures of polyphonic vocal music, it was not based directly on vocal models as earlier transcriptions had been. It sought a truly instrumental idiom, and was quickly followed by somewhat less abstract organ publications.

Alongside Willaert, who was a giant of the era, other composers appeared who were known primarily for their instrumental music. The earliest such polyphonist of note was the blind Spanish organist Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566), who left the first substantial body of attributed organ music. A fine recording on harpsichord:

Cabezón: Obras de Música para Tecla...
Enrico Baiano
Symphonia 98156

Together with these more thoroughly abstract compositions, lute music of the era also included some similar elements, together with more fanciful and dance-based pieces.

Willaert's earliest ricercari were intended for "organ or other instruments," but more genuinely varied instrumentation also appeared at this time. The most famous publication for solo instrument and bass accompaniment was made by Diego Ortiz in 1553, also in Spain. This tract contains ample discussion of the technique of instrumental ornamentation. An excellent recording:

Ortiz: Recercadas del Trattado de Glosas
Jordi Savall, et al.
Astrée 8717

Instrumental ensemble music was also published in Italy during this period, including Willaert's publication of ricercari in 1559, but the first major opus of non-pedagogical works was that by Vincenzo Ruffo (1508-1587) in 1564. A recording featuring a wide array of instruments:

Ruffo: Capricci a tre voci
Accademia Strumentale Italiana - Alberto Rasi
Stradivarius Dulcimer 33337

Although there were some later Italian ensemble publications in quasi-Renaissance style, it was clearly in the Baroque that Italy would fully shine.

Already in this era, English instrumental ensemble music (although generally unpublished) was reaching a high point of development, especially as expressed through the consort of viols. The first composer to leave a major legacy was Christopher Tye (c.1505-1572), whose forced retirement apparently left him substantial time to refine his technique late in life. A good recording:

Tye: Lawdes Deo
Complete Consort Musicke
Hespèrion XX - Jordi Savall
Astrée 8708

This style went on to a brief but glorious career. Indeed, English composers of the period are given credit for inventing variation form.

Finally, French instrumental music in these more abstract genres generally went unpublished. The only major output is that of Eustache Du Caurroy (1549-1609), published posthumously in 1610. Although the date is late for this survey, the style is similar. A nice recording with good variety:

XXIII Fantasies par Eustache du Caurroy
Hespèrion XX - Jordi Savall
Astrée 7749

By the time of this publication, the style was already out of fashion.

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Todd M. McComb