Middle Ages


Short Essays

1. Development of Western polophony

2. 14th Century France, Italy, and England

3. Du Fay and Josquin des Prez comparison

4. Renaissance style, genres, and development

1. How did Western polophony develop during its earliest stages of evolution, and what were the characteristics of the most important polyphonic genres of the ninth through thirteenth centuries? (top)

Western polyphony finds its roots in two early compositional styles: organum and conductus. These two genres began through a process of expanding on existing compositions. This process of adding to existing chants was labeled as troping. As this "troping" continued composers embellished chant melodies by adding text, mellismas and eventually by adding additional voices and parts.

In the early examples of organum purum the lower voice, or tenor, holds long sustained notes against a more florid moving upper voice. When two voices sang constant intervals note against note, this was called the discant style. The highest amount of organum compositions came from the Cathedral of Paris, Notre Dame. Leonin compiled a large cycle of organum called the Magnus liber organi (The Great Book of Organum) In the conductus two or more voices sing the same text in essentially the same rhythm. The most striking characteristic of the conductus was that the tenor was newly composed and not based on a chant melody. The main technical advancements of these years were the defining of the modal rhythmic system and teh invention of a new kind of notation for measured rhythm, which allowed composers more control over performance practice. This early form of polyphonic composition contiuned well into the late 13th Cent. and developed into what became known as the motet.

2. In an essay of three short paragraphs, discuss what was "new" about music in 14th century France (Ars Nova) and Italy (Trecento), and early 15th century England. (top)

Many changes in musical composition took place during the fourteenth-century and into the early fifteenth-century. Many of the changes were brought about because of a new interest in secular music as well as sacred. Contrasting to the music of thirteenth-century, where music was more stable, structured, and unified, the fourteenth-century brought much change, ingenuity and musical invention. The growth of cities and political structures throughout Europe brought increased power to the middle class and the decline of aristocracy. With the political changes that were occurring the arts were also becoming more prevalent and widely popular. Literature, education, and the arts moved away from confining religious structure to a more humanistic world view. This was a gradual change that occurred over many years, but it unmistakably helped to shape the musical discoveries of the entire fourteenth-century.

Composers of the fourteenth-century experienced a great deal of rhythmic freedom with the acceptance of duple rhythmic patters developed by Philippe de Vitry. Harmonic structure was also undergoing change as passages of thirds and sixths began to emerge. Previously, most intervals were perfect fourths, fifths and octaves The Pythagorean intervals. Musica ficta helped to make cadential points more interesting and melodic lines were more flexible and expansive. The vocal range of compositions also began to move upward. In France, the motet was the primary compositional genre and developed into a less liturgical and more secular idiom. Some of the new genres to emerge during this era were the caccia, madrigal, rondeau, and ballata.. Isorhythm and songs with refrains also gained popularity through compositional practice. The music of Italy was labeled as Trecento polyphony. French music of the first half of the fourteenth century was labeled as Ars Nova.

By the early fifteenth-century Italy and France had begun to develop distinct musical styles. As we move into the fifteenth-century we continue to move towards an international style of musical development. The primary collection of early fifteenth-century English compositions is in the Old Hall manuscript. John Dunstable was the most important English composer during the early part of this new century. He is also is responsible for bringing the English style of composition to France. Most important of Dunstable’s compositions are his three part sacred songs. These were setting of antiphons, hymns, and other liturgical biblical texts. The carol, originally a monophonic dance song developed in England into two and three part setting of a religious poems in a popular style. The carol consisted of many verses all sung to the same music. The carols generally consisted of angular melodies in a lively triple rhythmic pattern and were distinctly English in nature. England continued to pivotal role in the continued development of western polyphony as move into the age of the Renaissance.

3. How is the musical style of Du Fay different from that of Josquin? (top)

The late fifteenth and sixteenth century saw the rise of a new musical style, one in which harmonies began to center on full triads and the setting of the text became an important concern to composers. Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474) and Josquin des Prez (1440-1521) are two of the most important figures in the development of Western polyphony during this exciting time period.

Dufay is commonly associated with the Burgundian court and during this period four principal types of compositions were prominent: Masses, Magnificats, motets, and the secular chansons with French texts. At the beginning of the Burgundian period there was no distinctive sacred style of musical composition, both the mass and the motet were composed in the chanson style. On the contrary during Josquin’s period a firm and more consistent sacred style was developing. In the motet and mass, Dufay used a freely composed melodic treble voice, supported by a tenor and contratenor in a three-voice texture. The treble might be newly composed, but often it was an embellishment version of chant. The chant melody was always recognizable. Similar rules applied to Dufay’s hymns. The treble contained the chant melody and in the fauxbourdon tradition, the two outer voices were written down while the middle voice improvised to fill out the harmony. This was not a practice of des Prez. The even numbered stanzas were sung polyphonically and the others were performed as plainchant. On occasion Dufay would write isorhythmic motets for solemn public ceremonies.

For Josquin des Prez the motet became an exciting new genre for musical exploration and experimentation. Because the Ordinary of the Mass was structured and the liturgy was formal with unvarying texts it allowed little room for such experimentation. One of the most striking differences in the music of Dufay and Josquin is that instead of basing the Mass on a single voice of chanson or one single melody, Josquin subjects all its voices to composition, fantasy, and expressiveness. Although thematically there were some similarities in the five different movements of the Mass, Dufay's form had not yet developed into the cyclical, cantus firmus mass, where a single chant melody appears in all movements.

It was also of growing importance to Josquin that the meaning of the texts was clear. This was not a vital characteristic in the music of Dufay. Josquin was also beginning to use motive and fugal imitation, in which each phrase of text is assigned a musical subject that is then taken up by each of the voices. This was not a known practice during the three- part writing period of Dufay. Again, for Dufay, all parts were not equal. The chant melody always prominent in the vocal texture.

In his motets, Josquin often included sections of homophonic four-part writing in which root-triads harmonize recitation psalm tones, Magnificats, and Lamentations. This technique came to be known as falsobordone. By contrast to the fauxbourdon technique used by Dufay that is usually applied to hymns in, in which the chant was accompanied by sixths and thirds expanding to octaves and fifths at cadences. Josquin’s technique allowed the text to be more audible and comprehensible. This became one of the most important qualities of the music of Josquin as he moved later into his career. He would use every possible resource to bring clear meaning to the message of the text. Naturally, this also had an effect on the contemporaries of Josquin.

Another striking quality of the music of these two important composers was the use of consonance and dissonance. Dufay tended to be rather conservative in his use of dissonance, always resolving tension quickly and between beats. Josquin on the other hand was not afraid from using dissonance on strong beats and in places where it was more obvious to the listener.

Clearly there are many differences in the music of these two important composers, but what is important to see is the evolutionary development of music and its many

forms. Dufay, in many respects, paved the way for future composers to use greater imagination and ingenuity in musical composition.

4. Trace the transmission of the new Renaissance style from its beginnings in England early in the 15th century to its return to that country at the end of the 16th century. Discuss important composers, genres, stylistic features, and theorists, giving representative titles to illustrate your general points. (top)

The term Renaissance, describing the period of European history from the early 15th to the late 16th century, is derived from the French word for rebirth, and originally referred to the revival of the values and artistic styles of classical antiquity during that period, especially in Italy. The renaissance was characterized by the rise of secular and humanist values.

Renaissance music was differentiated from the late medieval style by greater melodic and rhythmic integration, enlarged range and texture, and harmonic structure. After 1500 this style developed distinct vocal and instrumental idioms, and vocal music, under the influence of humanism, became increasingly devoted to the expression of texts and their meaning. This was brought about by such Franco- Flemish composers as Clemens, Senfl, and Willaert who all paid special attention to the meaning of text. Bembo (1470-1547), a well respected poet and critic, was largely responsible for the increased interest in the emphasis of text and how it related to the music. Bembo discover the distinct qualities and sounds of certain vowels and consonants, particularly in the poetry of Petrarch (1304-1374). He labeled these qualities as piace volleza or sweetness and gravita or severity referring to the distinct sounds of words. This became particularly important and useful in madrigals where composers began to use word painting as a means of expressing text. With the increased compositional activity during the Renaissance came the need for musicians to have sheet music from which to play and sing. The first collection of polyphonic music printed entirely from movable type was brought out in 1501 by Ottaviano Petrucci in Venice.

The early Renaissance was led by Josquin des Prez. His influence was vitally important to the development of western music. He was hailed by contemporaries of his time as "the best composer of our time and "master of the notes". During his lifetime Josquin composed approximately eighteen Masses, 100 motets, and seventy chansons. His masses were more conservative — most are cantus firmi, but the parody mass on Ockeghem's chanson Malheur me bat is important. Parody mass was the dominant form by 1540. Other important composers of this early period are Ockeghem, Obrecht, and Isaac .

The most important early Renaissance genres were cyclical Mass and the motet. However, other secular genres were developing and instrumental music was liberated from the forms and styles of the vocal music from the period. The chanson, breaking away from form fixes, was cast in new shapes expanded by imitation. New structural devises were also being developed, principally that of overlapping fugal or imitative sections, relieved occasionally by areas of homophony. Also composers began to use the intervals of 3rds and 6ths more frequently. Creating triads was more common and tonality was moving towards major and minor and away from modality. These new compositional trends would allow future composers greater flexibility, freedom to explore, and more opportunity to communicate to their audiences on a human level.

As we move into the middle and later years of the Renaissance many new and interesting musical styles continued to influence the music of international composers. Franco-Flemish composers were settling all over western Europe and at the same time each country was developing there own unique styles. In Italy we see the development of such genres as the frottola, the lauda, and the important Italian madrigal lead by such composers as Cara, Verdelot, Bembo, Willaert, Vicentino, and Gesualdo. In France we have the development of the Parisian Chanson by Sermisy, Janequin, and Lasso. And in England we have a wealth of important madrigals being composed by Moorly, Weelkes, and Wilbye. English lute songs, solo songs for voice and lute, were being composed by John Dowland and Thomas Campion. Because of the availability of printed and an increased interest in both secular and sacred music, the spread of musical ideas was quickly becoming intercontinental. Composers from different regions and countries would share their musical ideas and had a great deal of influence each other.

The final flowering of Renaissance music occurred during a brief golden age of English music from about 1570 to 1640. The English composers and performers of this period were famous throughout Europe. After the reformation that was led my Martin Luther in Germany, a revival of sacred musical composition occurred. The leading composers in England during this time were Tallis, Taverner and the great William Byrd. Byrd helped to develop one of the finest aspects of the Anglican church in his Great Service. He also was primary in the development of the English Anthem, which was equivalent to the Latin motet. Byrd did remain Catholic, however, and managed to continue writing a great deal of music for the Catholic church despite political opposition. In terms of compositional style in both England and in other countries there are a few other important things to note. First, writing for contrapuntal voice parts where all the parts share equal importance was a general rule and it is this texture that, more than any other feature, characterizes the music of the Renaissance. Secondly, was the careful use of consonance, dissonance and the increased use of triads and tonal harmony. Finally, the careful selection and setting of text. It was of utmost importance that the text be understood and that the meaning of the text be conveyed through the music.


Middle Ages


Essays written by Jason R. Ogan, 2001