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The musical Renaissance is usually taken to begin with the generation of Gilles Binchois (c.1400-1460) and Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), although most of the 15th century is placed in the medieval period by some historians. Of course, the musical idioms of this century are as distinct from those of the 16th as they are from those of the 14th, just as the same can be said of any century. However, the main change which defines the musical Renaissance from about 1420 is the use of thirds as structural intervals, the accompanying concision of the musical lines, and the resulting path toward modern harmony.
Binchois & Dufay were largely responsible for defining the new style of song-writing. The exquisite secular music of the early 15th century can be heard on the following recordings:
The first two selections present quality programs of songs by the two composers, and feature a fine sonic variety. The final item is mainly vocal, and contains a somewhat broader program including sacred tracks.
This was the era in which liturgical music (the genres of mass and motet) began to get the upper hand in stylistic developments, especially in the music of Dufay. That included the new prominence attached to the cantus firmus mass, and the greater structural sophistication of the emerging large-scale motet.
The first recording includes only music of the Ordinary composed by Dufay, while the latter presents a liturgical service (including Propers).
There is also a unique surviving mass cycle from Spain during this period:
The above includes a nice selection of Spanish secular music from the 15th century, in styles similar to other Continental songs of the period. Spanish secular music was to retain a unique and independent existence well into the Baroque.
After Dufay, the next composer to project a significance beyond the Renaissance was Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497). Ockeghem took the cyclic mass to new levels of complexity, and also pioneered a contrapuntal style in which bass voices were given greater independence. Despite his technical innovations, he is known primarily for his original melodies and counterpoint. Some representative recordings of his sacred music:
Some songs from the later 15th century (representative of a large volume of secular music simply waiting for performance) can be heard here:
The last and most influential of the three composers who are now regarded as dominating the 15th century was Josquin Desprez (c.1455-1521). Josquin was the primary exponent of the new structural technique of pervasive imitation which was to have tremendous impact on western music. His compositions bridge the gap between the elaborate free counterpoint of the 15th century and the simpler syllabic declamation of the 16th.
His motets are generally held to be his most individual and striking compositions. A fine recording:
Josquin's masses are also highly significant. A selection from the many recordings available, the first two featuring several motets as well:
And a disc of his widely-ranging secular music:
Dufay, Ockeghem, and Josquin were all born & trained in the area of the modern France-Belgium border, and so this polyphonic style is termed Franco-Flemish. Other Northern composers of the period, such as Antoine Brumel (c.1460-1515) and Pierre de la Rue (c.1460-1518) are also well-known for their mass cycles:
The era represented the height of this "school" known for its elaborate polyphony, and of course other contemporaries contributed to the mass & motet repertories. The following collection provides a fine overview of late 15th-century motets:
In addition, a general survey (some excerpts) of Franco-Flemish music of the late 15th century can be found on this classic collection:
This brings us into the 16th century, and the age of widespread music publishing. The sources are correspondingly voluminous, and the choices are that much more arbitrary.
The generation after Josquin is still somewhat poorly understood. Nicolas Gombert (c.1500-1557) took the technique of pervasive imitation to the technical limit of complexity. Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562) transplanted the Northern style to Italy, beginning the investigation of sonority in both choral and instrumental music which later gave rise to the Venetian Baroque. Worthwhile introductions to these two composers:
By the middle of the 16th century (and before), musical developments became more divergent and resulted in various national schools. For the time being, the primary strand of history is obscured for us, if indeed we worry about the long-term developments. Along with what was to become the historically central foray of Northern polyphony into Italy, there was continuing interaction with Spain and in fact Gombert spent a good deal of his career there. This fact gives us a fine transition into a survey of musical developments in other parts of Europe.
Spanish sacred polyphony began to take on a strong identity of its own by the 16th century. This especially comes to fruition in the music of Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553). Later, it was Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1549-1611) who further developed this mystical character into an output which represents some of the most important liturgical music of the late Renaissance. A few quality recordings out of many possibilities:
Portuguese musical style largely grew out of that of Spain, with Renaissance-style polyphony remaining popular for another generation. A good introduction to this music:
Alongside the more old-fashioned preoccupations of many of the polyphonists, Spain remained a cultural crossroads throughout this century, and gave rise to many unique musical forms. A prominent example, featuring words in multiple languages, and showing the wide range of influences on the country:
Alongside Spain, England continued to be old-fashioned in its style of polyphony, also working almost exclusively in the sacred domain.
The early 16th century saw the high point of the unique English liturgical style, known for wide sonorities and abstract soaring lines. John Taverner (c.1490-1545) was the most influential composer in that style. A recording:
The file referenced above contains a longer discussion of the relatively many recordings of English music from the early 16th century.
Taverner's younger contemporary Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) was the most influential composer during the period in which English composers were increasingly affected by the technical devices of the Continent, as well as began writing liturgical music in English. A recording of his most famous compositions:
The French style had been dominant through the medieval era, and via the Franco-Flemish, into the beginning of the 16th century. However, the emergence of increasingly strong national idioms elsewhere put an end to that dominance.
Despite the decline in reputation, French songwriting was undergoing a strong burst of creativity. Alongside the sombre style, all manner of evocative & dynamic methods were employed. The first to perfect such styles was Clément Janequin (c.1485-1560). A fine recording:
It can perhaps be argued that literature upstaged music in this period. Indeed, French literature of the period is extremely rich, and this is reflected in the choice of musical settings, ranging from love poems by such writers as Ronsard (1524-1585) to fanciful compositions inspired by the satirical imagination of Rabelais (c.1494-c.1553). Two fine recordings illustrating these themes:
For a variety of reasons, French sacred music was less significant during this era.
French instrumental ensemble music of the period consisted generally of short dances and was usually unattributed. This was mirrored in other collections published around the Continent. Recordings illustrating this developing instrumental dance music:
Alongside this activity in lighter dances, abstract polyphonic music for instruments also began to survive in idiomatic collections.
Meanwhile, published collections for plucked-string instruments, principally the lute, appeared throughout much of Europe. An especially fine survey:
During the 16th century, the Italian madrigal was transformed from a quaint medieval song into one of the central artistic forms of the Renaissance. This was done by a new emphasis on texts by the historical poet Petrarch (1304-1374) as well as new passionate voices such as Tasso (1544-1595). The musical idioms grew increasingly colorful in their desire to follow the texts, making the developing madrigal a quest for both history and modernity. Some recordings illustrating a range of styles from the mid-16th century:
The emergence of the madrigal was also reflected in the sacred domain, where the Italian polyphony centered on Rome replaced the Franco-Flemish idiom as the primary artistic force in liturgical music.
The polyphonic style of the late Renaissance was perfected in the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594), Orlando di Lasso (or Lassus) (1532-1594), and William Byrd (1543-1623). These three form the dominant trio of the later Renaissance, in parallel with Dufay, Ockeghem and Josquin in the early Renaissance. With this generation, the basic Western contrapuntal idiom is fully defined.
An Italian proper, Palestrina was possibly the most influential of the three. His liturgical style has affected composers of subsequent generations, making him the most important composer of the counter-Reformation. In legend, Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli is said to have caused the Pope to retain polyphony in liturgical music. A selection from the many recordings:
The Miserere of Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) is one of the most widely admired compositions from the late Renaissance. The final item illustrates Palestrina's less well-known secular style.
Lassus was the most widely admired composer of his day. He was also well-traveled (from what is now Belgium, working mostly in Munich after a stay in Italy) and cosmopolitan in his outlook, with an immense musical output including virtually every vocal genre. In many ways, he best represents the wide-ranging spirit of the time. A few items from the huge Lassus discography:
Byrd was the greatest English composer of his day, presiding over the high point of musical development in that country. His musical output includes not only the requisite vocal forms, but also highly polished consort and keyboard works. A selection of recordings to illustrate Byrd's output in multiple genres:
And a recording which surveys the English keyboard style which Byrd initiated:
During this period, England aggressively copied the Italian style, yet managed to make it uniquely its own. The Elizabethan period was extremely creative, seeing the development of many short-lived styles which were a unique summation of the various threads on the Continent. Although in some ways, this school was baroque in technique, it was certainly Renaissance in spirit.
When it came to song-writing, John Dowland (c.1563-1626) was the most highly regarded. His unique consort set Lachrimae is also popular today. A couple of recordings:
The madrigal was transplanted to England in this period:
It is in the music of Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) that the English Renaissance style reaches its summation. A recording which illustrates Gibbons output in every major genre:
Elsewhere, baroque forms & practices were already current. Yet, it still remains to note a couple of other examples in which Renaissance ideas reached climaxes.
Building especially on dance music, instrumental compositions attained a greater prominence throughout Western Europe. The German composer and theorist Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) is particularly well-known for his instrumental writing. A classic recording illustrating multiple genres:
The extremes of harmonic daring in Italian Renaissance music were reached with the output of Carlo Gesualdo (c.1561-1613). A couple of recordings:
The epoch-making composer Claudio Monteverdi is covered in the Baroque section.Todd M. McComb