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1400 - 1600

Renaissance Music


The beginning of the Renaissance in music is not as clearly marked as the beginning of the Renaissance in the other arts, and unlike in the other arts, it did not begin in Italy, but in northern Europe, specifically in the area currently comprising central and northern France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The style of the Burgundian composers, as the first generation of the Franco-Flemish school is known, was at first a reaction against the excessive complexity and mannered style of the late 14th century ars subtilior, and contained clear, singable melody and balanced polyphony in all voices. The most famous composers of the Burgundian school in the mid-15th century are Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, and Antoine Busnois.

Humanism and the Renaissance

In Italy, where the musical centre of the time was Florence, the poet Petrarch was developing his Humanist ideals. These he based on an enthusiasm for the classical civilization of ancient Rome, which he considered the high point of human creativity. It was Petrarch who first suggested that the entire thousand-year period preceding his own was an age of darkness. His own time, he believed, was barbarous; a revival ot classical learning was essential to produce any improvement in society. His views corresponded with a tremendous surge of energy in the creative arts. The Humanist convictions, together with the rise of a new style of painting and sculpture, marked the start of the powerful Renaissance movement that predominated in Italy. This movement exerted a dramatic influence across Europe in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries and beyond. Renaissance art looked back to the classical age for its inspiration, embracing both secular and religious themes. It celebrated individual human potential, and used innovative techniques like perspective in painting. Many of the great Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, were also skilled scientists, architects, engineers, and poets.

From 1384 to 1477 the state of Burgundy was dominated by four powerful and politically astute dukes, and became the most prosperous area of northern Europe, assuming a position of great prominence. It is generally accepted that the Renaissance in music began here. The Burgundian dynasty was the focus of northern Europe’s intellectual, artistic, and musical activity throughout the first half of the fifteenth century. The court provided patronage for the cream of Europe’s creative talent, including artists like Jan van Eyck, and composers such as Guillaume Dufay, who, though French, had strong links to Italy. John Dunstable and others brought new musical techniques from England that strongly influenced the Burgundian style. The Mass became increasingly important as a sacred musical form in its own right. Meanwhile secular music saw the evolution of CHANSONS (three-part songs) and freer forms than had been usual in Ars Nova. These songs — typically secular but also religious - were often accompanied by instruments such as the medieval harp, the lute, the flute, and the organ.

Influences from the court of Burgundy extended much wider afield in the second half of the fifteenth century. Musical emphasis became concentrated on what is known as the Franco-Flemish school. The name reflects the dominance of musicians from the affluent and relatively stable Low Countries, rather than the geographical position of the school, which was not tied to one location. These musicians travelled through Europe, both absorbing and spreading stylistic innovations, and were greatly in demand at aristocratic courts. Three composers stand out particularly: Ockeghem, Obrecht, and Josquin Desprez. They and their peers developed the techniques that formed the basis for much sixteenth-century music and continued to influence later developments. The Franco-Flemish were not restricted by the three-voice writing common in Burgundian music: they wrote for four voices (what we would now call soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), allowing for more variety of rhythm and a wide range of expression.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432.
Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent

Religious dissent and the Reformation

The new musical techniques spread swiftly as a result not only of the peripatetic nature of the Netherlands musicians, but also of the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century. It is almost impossible now to conceive of the power of this invention; its impact must have been akin to the sudden advent of television in the twentieth century. The first printing press appeared in the German town of Mainz in 1450, and printing proliferated rapidly across Europe; in 1501 publication of printed music commenced. For the first time, information could be easily, cheaply, and widely dispersed among a public increasingly hungry for knowledge.

The newfound power to inform catered well to the upper classes, as they absorbed themselves in the classical concepts of the Renaissance. It also fed the rising discontent within the Catholic Church, and ultimately influenced the start of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 the German Augustinian monk and theologian, Martin Luther, published his dissatisfaction with many of the Church’s ways. This dramatic move led three years later to his excommunication, after which he rejected the authority of the Pope altogether. Luther’s protest was spread by preachers and also, significantly, by the newly powerful printed word. In a similar movement in Geneva,
John Calvin succeeded in his attempts at reforming both the Church and the government. Calvinists went on to lead the reform movement later in the sixteenth century (although being against the Catholic Church did not necessarily mean being in sympathy with other reformers).

In 1534, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome, thus heralding the start of the English Reformation. In 1558, following the brief reigns of Edward and Mary, Elizabeth I came to the throne, and a year later she formally established the Church of England, with the monarch at its head. Under her reign the arts flourished. Many European artists and musicians were attracted to the English court by its religious tolerance and independence from Rome. In this way important cultural influences arrived from the continent, adding to the glories of the Elizabethan golden age.

Ialy: the High Renaissance

The Renaissance was now at its peak. Italy, the preeminent cultural centre of Europe at this time, consisted of separate city-states. Of these, Mantua and Ferrara maintained independent, flourishing princely courts; Naples and Milan fell into invaders’ hands. Venice flourished spectacularly, and developed a reputation for the splendour of its ceremonies. Florence was held in the grip of the powerful Medici family, who exerted considerable influence in Italy and were patrons of such extraordinary talents as Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. Feast days and celebrations were great events, often based on classical myth, with music incorporated to complement the visual presentations and pageants.

Italy was especially important in musical terms during the sixteenth century. Music was an indispensable social art, and composers relished the freedom of the secular forms in which they could experiment. New techniques developed with almost astonishing swiftness, aided by the ease (via printing) with which they could now be dispersed, as well as by the general mood of excitement and adventure across all the arts. A new harmonic system began to evolve in secular music, which would supplant the system used until then. The madrigal (a refined expression of poetry set to music) flowered in this period, especially at the end of the century, when the form grew more complex with five or six voice parts. It was enthusiastically embraced in Elizabethan England, which also saw the emergence of the ayre, a solo-voice song with an instrumental (often lute) accompaniment. Madrigals caught on less in France: in their place emerged the polyphonic chanson, a form in which the music was essentially fitted to the rhythm of the poetic text. Religious music experienced fewer radical developments, but was nonetheless affected by the changes taking place in secular music. The Mass and the motet remained the principal forms of sacred vocal music, but variants evolved with the influence.of the new secular techniques. Sacred polyphony reached its height with the great composers Palestrina and Lassus. The Reformation also had an effect on church music, leading to new forms of music for Protestant worship, including the anthem in England and psalm tunes in Calvinist areas.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432. Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent

The Counter-Reformation

As the Reformation gained influence over religious thought, the Catholic Church reacted by convening the Council of Trent with the intention of reforming from within. The Council met in three sessions between 1541 and 1563; but the results merely further polarized the factions and enshrined the differences between Catholic and Protestant doctrines. An era of artistic repression ensued, when the Council condemned what it saw as creeping corruption within the arts, music included. It banned the depiction of sensuality and anything that could be considered blasphemous. Under its decree, music was expected to be pious and to celebrate religion: the purity of works such as those by Palestrina was encouraged.


Discoveries and changes

Sixteenth-century Europe had seen kings establishing themselves firmly as absolute sovereigns over their lands, commanding vast armies and resources. Nations embarked on ambitious expeditions, fuelled by a lust for conquest that was epitomized by the Spanish discovery of the New World and the riches that poured from it. King Charles I of Spain ruled over an immense empire, but much of the wealth he gained from the Americas was lost in continual wars against France, Germany, the Turks, and Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. Despite the various wars, this was a century of unprecedented growth in Europe, as populations increased and cities flourished. Maritime expansion had encouraged trade, and new methods of production were starting to transform agriculture. Access to printing accelerated cultural and political changes, and fostered the great rise in strength of social groups other than the traditionally powerful hereditary aristocracy - the middle classes.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the divisions within organized religion were accentuated by a combination of the strong secular movement linked to Humanism and the Renaissance, and the rapid social changes that were taking place across Europe and beyond. Through the efforts of its Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church was recovering some of the power and impetus that had been drained away by the spread of Protestantism; yet several forms of Protestant religion had by now firmly established themselves, particularly the Calvinists, Lutherans, and the Church of England. In common with all aspects of cultural life, music continued to evolve. The preceding centuries had seen the dramatic developments of the Ars Nova movement and the almost incredibly rapid evolution of new musical techniques. The turn of the century would prove to be another remarkable turning point in the history of music.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432. 
Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432. 
Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent

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