Renaissance music is European classical music written during the Renaissance, approximately 1400 to 1600. Defining the beginning of the era is difficult, given the lack of abrupt shifts in musical thinking during the 15th century. Additionally, the process by which music acquired "Renaissance" characteristics was a gradual one, but 1400 is used here.
Style and trends
The increasing reliance on the interval of the third as a consonance is one of the most pronounced features of early Renaissance European art music (in the Middle Ages, thirds had been considered dissonances: see interval). Polyphony, in use since the 12th century, became increasingly elaborate with highly independent voices throughout the 14th century: the beginning of the 15th century showed simplification, with the voices often striving for smoothness. This was possible because of a greatly increased vocal range in music—in the Middle Ages, the narrow range made necessary frequent crossing of parts, thus requiring a greater contrast between them.
The modal (as opposed to tonal) characteristics of Renaissance music began to break down towards the end of the period with the increased use of root motions of fifths. This has since developed into one of the defining characteristics of tonality.
Principal liturgical forms which endured throughout the entire Renaissance period were masses and motets, with some other developments towards the end, especially as composers of sacred music began to adopt secular forms (such as the madrigal) for their own designs.
Common sacred genres were the mass, the motet, the madrigale spirituale, and the laude.
During the period, secular music had an increasingly wide distribution, with a wide variety of forms, but one must be cautious about assuming an explosion in variety: since printing made music more widely available, much more has survived from this era than from the preceding Medieval era, and probably a rich store of popular music of the late Middle Ages is irretrievably lost. Secular music included songs for one or many voices, forms such as the frottola, chanson and madrigal.
Secular vocal genres included the madrigal, the frottola, the caccia, the chanson in several forms (rondeau, virelai, bergerette, ballade, musique mesurée), the canzonetta, the villancico, the villanella, the villotta, and the lute song.
Purely instrumental music included consort music for recorder or viol and other instruments, and dances for various ensembles. Common genres were the toccata, the prelude, the ricercar, the canzona, and intabulation (intavolatura, intabulierung). Instrumental ensembles for dances might play a basse danse (or bassedanza), a pavane, a galliard, an allemande, or a courante.
Towards the end of the period, the early dramatic precursors of opera such as monody, the madrigal comedy, and the intermedio are seen.
Theory and notation
According to Margaret Bent (1998), "Renaissance notation is under-prescriptive by our standards; when translated into modern form it acquires a prescriptive weight that overspecifies and distorts its original openness."
Renaissance compositions were notated only in individual parts; scores were extremely rare, and barlines were not used. Note values were generally larger than are in use today; the primary unit of beat was the semibreve, or whole note. As had been the case since the Ars Nova (see Medieval music), there could be either two or three of these for each breve (a double-whole note), which may be looked on as equivalent to the modern "measure," though it was itself a note-value and a measure is not. The situation can be considered this way: it is the same as the rule by which in modern music a quarter-note may equal either two eighth-notes or three, which would be written as a "triplet." By the same reckoning, there could be two or three of the next-smallest note, the "minim," (equivalent to the modern "half note") to each semi-breve. These different permutations were called "perfect/imperfect tempus" at the level of the breve-semibreve relationship, "perfect/imperfect prolation" at the level of the semibreve-minim, and existed in all possible combinations with each other. Three-to-one was called "perfect," and two-to-one "imperfect." Rules existed also whereby single notes could be halved or doubled in value ("imperfected" or "altered," respectively} when preceded or followed by other certain notes. Notes with black noteheads (such as quarter notes) occurred less often. This development of white mensural notation may be a result of the increased use of paper (rather than vellum), as the weaker paper was less able to withstand the scratching required to fill in solid noteheads; notation of previous times, written on vellum, had been black. Other colors, and later, filled-in notes, were used routinely as well, mainly to enfore the aforementioned imperfections or alterations and to call for other temporary rhythmical changes.
Accidentals were not always specified, somewhat as in certain fingering notations (tablatures) today. However, Renaissance musicians would have been highly trained in dyadic counterpoint and thus possessed this and other information necessary to read a score, "what modern notation requires [accidentals] would then have been perfectly apparent without notation to a singer versed in counterpoint." See musica ficta. A singer would interpret his or her part by figuring cadential formulas with other parts in mind, and when singing together musicians would avoid parallel octaves and fifths or alter their cadential parts in light of decisions by other musicians (Bent, 1998).
Interestingly, it is through contemporary tablatures for various plucked instruments that we have gained much information about what accidentals were performed by the original practitioners.
Early Renaissance music (1400 - 1467)The Burgundian School of composers, led by Guillaume Dufay, demonstrated characteristics of both the late Medieval era and the early Renaissance (see Medieval music). This group gradually dropped the late Medieval period's complex devices of isorhythm and extreme syncopation, resulting in a more limpid and flowing style. What their music "lost" in rhythmic complexity, however, it gained in rhythmic vitality, as a "drive to the cadence" became a prominent feature around mid-century.
Middle Renaissance music (1467 - 1534)Towards the end of the 15th century, polyphonic sacred music (as exemplified in the masses of Johannes Ockeghem and Jacob Obrecht) had once again become more complex, in a manner that can perhaps be seen as correlating to the stunning detail in the painting at the time. Ockeghem, particularly, was fond of canon, both contrapuntal and mensural. He even composed a mass in which all the parts are derived canonically from one musical line.
It was in the opening decades of the next century that music felt in a tactus (think of the modern time signature) of two semibreves-to-a-breve began to be as common as that with three semibreves-to-a-breve, as had prevailed prior to that time.
In the early 16th century, there is another trend towards simplification, as can be seen to some degree in the work of Josquin des Prez and his comtemporaries in the Franco-Flemish School, then later in that of G. P. Palestrina, who was partially reacting to the strictures of the Council of Trent, which discouraged excessively complex polyphony as inhibiting understanding the text. Early 16th-century Franco-Flemmings moved away from the complex systems of canonic and other mensural play of Ockeghem's generation, tending toward points of imitation and duet or trio sections within an overall texture that grew to five and six voices. They also began, even before the Tridentine reforms, to insert ever-lengthening passages of homophony, to underline important text or points of articulation. Palestrina, on the other hand, came to cultivate a freely flowing style of counterpoint in a thick, rich texture within which consonance followed dissonance on a nearly beat-by-beat basis, and suspensions ruled the day (see counterpoint). By now, tactus was generally two semibreves per breve with three per breve used for special effects and climactic sections; this was a nearly exact reversal of the prevailing technique a century before.
Late Renaissance music (1534 - 1600)In Venice, from about 1534 until around 1600, an impressive polychoral style developed, which gave Europe some of the grandest, most sonorous music composed up until that time, with multiple choirs of singers, brass and strings in different spatial locations in the Basilica San Marco di Venezia (see Venetian School). These multiple revolutions spread over Europe in the next several decades, beginning in Germany and then moving to Spain, France and England somewhat later, demarcating the beginning of what we now know as the Baroque musical era.
The Roman School was a group of composers of predominantly church music, in Rome, spanning the late Renaissance into early Baroque eras. Many of the composers had a direct connection to the Vatican and the papal chapel, though they worked at several churches; stylistically they are often contrasted with the Venetian School of composers, a concurrent movement which was much more progressive. By far the most famous composer of the Roman School is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose name has been associated for four hundred years with smooth, clear, polyphonic perfection.
The brief but intense flowering of the musical madrigal in England, mostly from 1588 to 1627, along with the composers who produced them, is known as the English Madrigal School. The English madrigals were a cappella, predominantly light in style, and generally began as either copies or direct translations of Italian models. Most were for three to six voices.
Musica reservata is a term referring to either a style or a performance practice in a cappella vocal music of the latter, mainly in Italy and southern Germany, involving refinement, exclusivity, and intense emotional expression of sung text.
In addition, many composers observed a division in their own works between a prima pratica (music in the Renaissance polyphonic style) anda seconda pratica (music in the new style) during the first part of the 17th century.
In the late 16th century, as the Renaissance era closes, an extremely manneristic style develops. In secular music, especially in the madrigal, there was a trend towards complexity and even extreme chromaticism (as exemplified in madrigals of Luzzaschi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo). The term "mannerism" derives from art history.
Transition to the BaroqueBeginning in Florence, there was an attempt to revive the dramatic and musical forms of Ancient Greece, through the means of monody, a form of declaimed music over a simple accompaniment; a more extreme contrast with the preceding polyphonic style would be hard to find; this was also, at least at the outset, a secular trend. These musicians were known as the Florentine Camerata.
We have already noted some of the musical developments that helped to usher in the Baroque, but for further explanation of this transition, see polychoral, concertato, monody, madrigal, and opera, as well as the works given under "Sources and further reading."