Escuela de Lenguas UNLP/Academic Writing/Music/Music in the Renaissance

At the end of the Middle Ages, Western Europe witnessed the emergence of Renaissance humanism, a movement of philosophical, scientific and artistic reform. Artists who adhered to this school of thought longed to exalt beauty, human faculties and worldly life as the ancient Greeks did. Renaissance artists literally shaped their world according to the Classical-era ideals (mainly in literature, architecture, painting and music). Coetaneous historical events, such as the decline of the Byzantine Empire, the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, voyages of discovery and colonization, the Protestant Reformation and the development of nationalisms, encouraged the expansion of Renaissance humanism throughout Europe together with a strong sense of self-determination and individualism.

The Idea of Rebirth in 15th and 16th-Century Music Edit

A Greek song from Seikilos (above) and a Renaissance madrigal composed by Francisco Guerrero (below).

The need to restore the old techniques and to repudiate the achievements conquered during the Middle Ages reinforced the Renaissance ideals of the humanist movement. However, 15th-century musicians were not willing to abandon all musical innovations behind those rebirth ideals. For example, they preferred the polyphonic composition from the late Middle Ages (two or more simultaneous melodies) over the monodic Greek singing (a single melodic line). This issue suggests that the idea of ​​rebirth in music would have responded to an ‘inspiration’ in the classical world rather than its recovery.

Musical Styles of the Renaissance Edit

Guided by this new tendency, 15th and 16th-century composers built a vast vocal and instrumental repertoire that responded to specific sociocultural requirements. According to this criterion, it is possible to distinguish between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ Renaissance pieces. The first ones were conceived for religious purposes, written mostly in Latin and usually performed a cappella or with a harmonic accompaniment (e.g., organ) inside sacred enclosures. Instead, pieces of the second group described worldly situations in vernacular languages, frequently combined several kinds of instruments and resonated in courtly, domestic and public places.

During the Renaissance, several musical forms were created in many languages (Latin, Italian, English, Spanish, etc.), structures (strophic, repetitive, rondo, etc.) and styles of musical composition (fauxbourdon, imitation, variation, etc.). One of the most important sacred forms or the Renaissance was the motet. Its voices were usually developed from a previous liturgic melody and its text was extracted from passages of the Bible. Some famous motet composers were Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, John Dunstaple and Tomás Luis de Victoria. In the field of secular music, on the other hand, the most widespread form was the madrigal, which reached its maximum splendor in the 16th century. This form declaimed amatory, philosophical, moralizing and descriptive themes, and its pieces were usually performed with voices, instruments or both in small spaces that promote an intimate atmosphere. Jacques Arcadelt, William Byrd, Juan Vázquez, Orlando di Lasso and Claudio Monteverdi were recognised as some of the greatest madrigalists of their time.

References Edit

Atlas, A. W. (1998). Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400-1600. New York: Norton.

Haar, J. (2014). European Music, 1520-1640. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Perkins, L.L. (1999). Music in the Age of the Renaissance. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Reese, G. (1959). Music in the Renaissance. New York: Dent.

Suárez Urtubey, P. (2004). Historia de la Música. Buenos Aires: Claridad.

Taruskin, R. (2005). The Oxford History of Western Music: Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century (Vol. 1). Oxford MS: Oxford University Press.