Renaissance Music

The Ninety-Five Theses of German monk Martin L...Image via Wikipedia(Text in LARGE print for classroom projection)

The Renaissance was an age of human discovery in the sciences, literature, arts, and music.

Renaissance composers wrote both sacred and secular texts. The Protestant Reformation (1517) brought about a conflict for many composers, who often had to write music for a patron that did not share the same religious faith. For example, Renaissance composer William Byrd, who was Catholic, had to write music that would please his Protestant patron, Queen Elizabeth I.

Catholic sacred texts continued to be written in Latin. The Protestant Churches, however, had music in various languages. Composers found that they could make a living creating music for the new Protestant church. During the Counter-Reformation, Catholic composers returned to writing music in Latin.

The Renaissance was an age of prosperity. Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World also helped the entire European continent. Goods and gold flowed everywhere. And where there is prosperity, there are lavish parties and celebrations. Composers alive during the Renaissance enjoyed high salaries and increased demand.

Key Characteristics of Renaissance Music:

  • Four to six voices
  • Polyphony (several voices of equal importance)
  • Secular music included instruments
  • Sacred music now sung in languages other than Latin (Protestant Reformation)
  • Counterpoint (Literally "note against note")
  • Word Painting
  • Dance Styles (pavane, gigue, sarabande, etc.)
  • More instruments
  • Modal
  • Syncopation
  • Flowing rhythm (due to counterpoint and independent lines)
Renaissance Composers:

Josquin de Prez ("The Cricket, secular song")

De Prez had great success during his lifetime. The new music publishing enterprise printed many of his works. He was in high demand and demanded a high salary. While little is known about him, he apparently was the best composer money could buy, and he knew it.

Word painting was used. The text and music are meant to represent the cricket. This work is in ternary form.

Tielman Susato ("Bergerette", secular dance)

Secular dance styles at this time, just like the Middle Ages, were often instrumental works based on popular dance styles. Some popular dances during the Renaissance included the sarabande, allemande, gigues, and pavan. Many of these dance styles remained popular into the Baroque Period and beyond.

Thomas Weelkes ("Since Robin Hood", madrigal)

The Renaissance madrigal was a very popular secular vocal work, sung without instruments. The madrigal used counterpoint and imitation. Usually it was written for four to six voices. Madrigals are still popular today and are often an important part of vocal training and the repertoire of any university choir. The Madrigal started in popularity in Italy and then spread throughout Europe to England. The text and music were closely interlinked through the use of word painting.

Weelkes was and English composer during the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. He was an educated man, with a degree from Oxford. However, his career suffered badly because of his disorderly conduct. Like other composers of his time, Weelkes used the great literature of the time when composing his works.

William Byrd ("Sing Joyfully", sacred song)

The Renaissance motet was an important part of vocal music in during the Renaissance. Like the madrigal, the motet incorporated word painting and several voices singing in counterpoint. These were sung a cappella (no instruments) often with up to six voices.

"Sing Joyfully" has imitative counterpoint. It is polyphonic, with six separate parts. While this video shows women singing the higher parts, traditionally, the choir was an all-men choir, often with young boys singing the higher parts. This work would have been sung in church, where women were not permitted to perform.

More Composers:

Thomas Tallis (England)

"If Ye Love Me"
Sacred text

Martin Luther (Germany)

Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses starting the Reformation.

"A Mighty Fortress is Our God"
(Became the main anthem of the Protestant Reformation) (modern arrangement)

Johann Walter (Germany)

Palestrina (Italy)

Jesu, rex admirabilis

Te Deum laudamus

Tomas Luis de Victoria (Spain)

Ave Maria


Thomas Morley (England)

"April is in my Mistress's Face"

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