Music of The Renaissance

The Renaissance (1400-1600)

The Renaissance was not a sudden rebirth.  Gradual progress had been made through the Middle Ages, but progress became much quicker in the Renaissance.

During the Renaissance, there was a rise of secular society.  There came a new confidence in man’s ability to solve his own problems rationally.  The Renaissance derived its inspiration from ancient Greece, and there was a rise in interest in the writings of the ancients.

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks marked the end of the Holy Roman Empire.   The printing press was invented in 1440.  Petrucci published first book of music in 1501 called the Odhecaton.  Gun powder was invented.  The development of compass made travel easier.

Renaissance artists include Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564).  Rise of important families like the Medici family.

Exploration and colonization of the New World.  Columbus – 1492.  Riches brought back from the New World.  Fabulous wealth.

The plague – 1350-1450 – half of the population of Europe died from this disease.  Cause economic depression.  The end of the plague marked a surge in the economy of Europe.

Corruption in the Vatican – The Catholic church is marked by severe corruption at every level.   The Vatican at times served as little more than a harem for the popes.  Assassination attempts were made regularly and sometimes successfully.  The church was in disarray and was taxing the entire population of Europe.  The Vatican had its own army.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Protestant Reformation.   95 Theses – 1517.  Wittenburg Chuch.  Luther was charged with heresy, but remained hidden for a long period of time so the Germans could become organized against the Pope’s army.  Germany was dissatisfied with the taxation of the Vatican.  Martin Luther was moved from manor to manor to avoid arrest.  The Germans finally prevailed and the Lutheran Church was formed.  The Lutheran church retains the ordinary of the Catholic mass.

Henry VIII – 1534 – Henry asks the pope for an annullment, but he is not granted a divorce.  Henry breaks from the church, dissolves the monasteries, and forms The Church of England.  Henry retains the ordinary of the Catholic mass and many of the customs, even after he’s excommunicated.

Counter-Reformation – The Catholic church reforms many of the practices that caused the Reformation in the first place.

The center of western music is in the Low Countries – Franco-Flemish School, Burgundy – the center of musical knowledge and teaching is located in Belgium, The Netherlands, and Burgundy.  The significant composers from this period studied and worked first in the Low Countries, and then migrated all over Europe.

Riu, Riu

Riu Riu is a Sanish Christmas Carol.  We will listen to two versions and discuss.  There are several stylistic elements of the Renaissance featured in this song:

There are many thirds in this song.  However, the third is always missing at cadential points.

In the song, the singers change some b’s to b-flats, and some c’s to c-sharps.  This underscores the push from modal scales to major/minor.  However, the two performances differ in the number and place of these changes.

In one version, instruments accompany the singers; in the other, they don’t.  Instrumentalists also improvised accompaniments in the Renaissance style.

Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521)

Josquin was the Beethoven of the Renaissance.  He worked in the Papal chapel and in the court of Louis XII, and had several other positions in Europe.  In 1503, he moved from Ferrara to avoid the plague.  His successor, Obrecht, did die of the plague in 1505. Josquin’s career spanned 50 years. He was the favorite composer of early printers.  The printing press helped Josquin spread his fame throughout Europe.  Many of his works appeared in Petrucci’s Odhecaton

“Absolon fili mi” – motet written in memory of Giovanni Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI.  Giovanni disappeared and his body was found in the Tiber River.  It is believed by some that he was implicated in an assassination attempt on his father.  The prime suspect in the murder was Giovanni’s brother.  The Borgia popes were notoriously corrupt.  The song uses the Biblical story of Absolom, who was the son of King David.  Absolom had declared himself king and had raised an army against his father, but while he was riding a mule, his head got caught in a tree.  Members of David’s army executed Absolom with their spears.

El Grillo

This satirical frottola by Josquin is believed to be a gentle reminder to his patron Galeazzo Sforza that his musicians need paying.  Josquin may be punning on the name of a fellow penniless musician (Frillo) by calling him a cricket (Grillo).

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

Palestrina was born near Rome, where he spent most of his career.

Palestrina composed in the style of the Franco-Flemish composers, and was influenced by Josquin. Italy had yet to produce a composer of the highest caliber.

The decade of the 1570s was difficult for Palestrina.  He lost his brother, two of his sons, and his wife in three separate outbreaks of the plague. He seems to have considered becoming a priest at this time, but instead he remarried, this time to a wealthy widow. He died in Rome of pleuresy in 1594.

Palestrina was famous in his own day, and his reputation increased after his death. Conservative music of the Roman school continued to be written in his style after his death.

Palestrina lived during the period of the Counter-Reformation.  The Council of Trent met to remedy many of the problems that Martin Luther had confronted in the 95 Theses, most notably the sale of indulgences.  Palestrina’s music reflects this Conservatism with Biblical that conformed to the essence of the mass.

The Madrigal

The madrigal was the most important form of popular music during the Renaissance.  It is believed to have evolved from the frottola, which was a three or four part song in chordal style.  The Flemish composers were intrigued by this form and developed the madrigal.  Every significant composer in this time period composed in this form.

The Renaissance madrigal was required to have several characteristics:

1.  The madrigal must through-composed song, not strophic.

2.  There is no use of nonsense syllables (fa-la-la).

3.  The text must be good poetry and the music must reflect the text.  Word painting was often found in madrigals.

4.  The madrigal must be capable of being performed by amateurs.

5.  The individual parts must be equally interesting.

Groups of madrigals utilizing a common theme were sometimes composed in cycles.  These madrigal cycles eventually were sung with costumes and sets, and in the Baroque period these cycles became opera.

The Motet

The earliest motets arose from the discant organum exemplified by Leonin and Perotin. The added voices were given text.  Generally, the motet took the rhythm from the words of the verse.  The practice of discant over a cantus firmus marked the beginnings of counterpoint in Western music.

From these first motets arose a tradition of secular motets. These were two or three part compositions in which several different texts, sometimes in different vernacular languages, were sung simultaneously over a Latin cantus firmus that once again was usually adapted from a passage of Gregorian chant. It is suspected that the cantus firmus was performed on instruments. In the 14th and 15th centuries, motets tended to be isorhythmic, with repeated rhythmic patterns in all voices.

The Renaissance motet is a polyphonic musical setting of a Latin text, usually sacred, but not specifically connected to the liturgy of a given day, and therefore suitable for use in any service. In essence, these motets were sacred madrigals.  The relationship between the two forms is most obvious in the composers who concentrated on sacred music.  However, secular motets continued to be composed.


During the Renaissance, there was a rise in instrumental music.   This was as a result of the increased emphasis on secular music and popular dance.

Renaissance Quiz:

1.  Discuss the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. (4)

2. Discuss the Odhecaton. (4)

3. Discuss Josquin. (4)

4.  Discuss Absolon fili mi. (4)\

5.  List the characteristics of the madrigal.

6.  Discuss how discant organum evolved into the motet.