The Renaissance was a time of rebirth in learning, science, and the arts throughout Europe. The rediscovery of the writings of ancient Greece and Rome led to a renewed interest in learning in general. The invention of the printing press allowed the disbursement of this knowledge in an unprecedented manner. The invention of the compass permitted the navigation of the world's oceans and the subsequent discovery of lands far removed from the European continent. With Copernicus' discovery of the actual position of the earth in the solar system and Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church lost its grip on society and a humanist spirit was born. This spirit manifested itself in the painting and sculpture of Michelangelo, the plays of Shakespeare, and in both the sacred and secular dance and vocal music of the greatest composers of the era.
Dance music of the Renaissance
Throughout the Renaissance instrumental dance music flowered and thrived, and was composed, or more likely improvised, by many people. Musicians whose names have come down to us collected much of this existing music and had it published in various volumes over the years. The Terpsichore of Michael Praetorius (c.1571-1621) and the dance music of Tielman Susato (c.1500-1561) represent some of the outstanding examples of dance music from the late Renaissance. A piece such as La Spagna, (attributed to Josquin des Prez) is an excellent example of the buoyant rhythms and sounds of the Renaissance dance. Many of these dance forms were modified and developed by later composers and found their way into the Baroque dance suite.
One cannot talk about the age of polyphonic development with out mentioning the music of Josquin des Prez. Not much is known about the life of this composer, but it is generally agreed that he studied under the earlier Renaissance master Johannes Ockeghem (c.1420-1495), who was the first great master of the Flemish school of Renaissance composers. There are references to Josquin's having served at several courts in Italy and France, and at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. He died while serving as canon of the collegiate church at Condé. Among his surviving works are more than a dozen masses, a hundred motets, and a good deal of secular music.
The serene and beautiful
choral sound of the Flemish school's style can be heard in the Gloria
from Josquin's Missa Lhomme armé Flemish (sound clip)
Composers of this era often based the cantus firmus on a popular melody of the day, composing new music for the other voices in counterpoint to the tune. The simultaneous interweaving of several melodic lines (usually four: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) in a musical composition is known as polyphony. Polyphonic music of the Renaissance could be very complex and intricate, often obscuring the words and the meaning of the text which had been set.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Born: Palestrina, near Rome, ca. 1525
Died: Rome, February 2, 1594
Palestrina spent much of
his career in Rome, serving as organist and choir master at both the Sistine
Chapel and at St. Peter's. A productive composer, he wrote over a hundred mass
settings and over two hundred motets. Without question he is one of the most
important developers of the polyphonc syle. For the sake of this study, I have
included several short examples of this music of this most important composer.
In keeping with the structures of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to rid the music of the Catholic rite of the "worldly excesses" of the Protestant Reformation, Palestrina composed in a purer, more restrained style. No longer are the vocal lines based on popular melodies. Instead, each voice part resembles a chant melody, each with its own profile and beauty of line. In the opening Kyrie from Palestrina's most famous work, the Pope Marcellus Mass (sound clip) at once hear the classic, pure lines of the text set clearly amidst the various voices of the choir. Palestrina's polyphonic writing is of such quality that many later composers (including Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms) spent their early years studying counterpoint in the "Palestrina style" as set down in a famous textbook by J. J. Fux in 1725.
clip, Sicut Cercus (Palestrina)
Performance by Cantores in Ecclesia Portland, Oregon
Around 1600 in England, composers and poets were collaborating on a body of music known as the English madrigal. The composer and lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626), although concentrating mostly on melancholy arias for solo voice with lute accompaniment, also wrote madrigals. Some of the best known of the English madrigalists include Thomas Morley (1558-1602), Francis Pilkington (ca.1570-1638), William Byrd (1543-1623), Orlando Gibbons(1583-1625), and Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623). Queen Elizabeth I herself was an accomplished lute player, and supposedly delighted in the songs and arias of the madrigalists. Weelkes' madrigal (sound clip) is a prime example of this cheerful and sprightly part-song. The texts of many of these madrigals, however, deal with spurned or unrequited love, and are often sad, but very beautiful.
Audio clip, Vigilate (Byrd)
Performance by Cantores in Ecclesia Portland, Oregon
Cantores in Ecclesia is the choir of St. Patricks Catherdral in Portland, Oregon directed by Dean Applegate. They perform a latin mass every Saturday at 7:30p.m.