Music of the renaissance: a whistle-stop tour

RenaissancePeriodThe renaissance marked a turning point for European culture. Beginning in Italy in the 14th century, its influence spread across Europe, affecting all aspects of culture, including music. But it was in England that the sound of the renaissance first developed, spreading out to Burgundy, Italy, and then back to England in new forms. The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy profoundly affected music-making, with musicians in households now able to write down music, use the new printed songbooks of composers such as John Dowland, and sing from broadside ballad sheets sold in the street. The spread of printing and literacy also affects our own knowledge of the period, with surviving instructions for dances and a wealth of music. Includes 14 active links to videos of musical examples, illustrating the text.

The meaning of renaissance

The renaissance – meaning rebirth – was the 14th century Italian idea that they were reviving old forgotten wisdom in Latin texts by Roman philosophers and historians of the first century B.C., notably Cicero, Livy and Seneca. Excited by this new old learning, they then turned their attention to the revival of ancient Greek literature, its history, oratory and theology, including the New Testament in its original Greek. They had the idea that the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in A.D. 312 was the beginning of a period of cultural darkness that led to the fall of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476, and prevailed for a millennium until they themselves came to the rescue.

Renaissance ideas spread through Italy in the second half of the 14th century and then across Europe in the 15th century, which is why we can’t say exactly when the renaissance began, but a nominal latest date of c. 1450–1470 is often given as a rule of thumb.

The School of Athens, a fresco in the Vatican painted 1509–1511 by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), a vivid illustration of the idea of renaissance.
The School of Athens, a fresco in the Vatican painted 1509–1511 by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), a vivid illustration of the idea of the Italian renaissance.

As a consequence, the middle ages got its name: they are only ‘middle’ because renaissance writers thought of it as the gap between them and the classical antiquity they were restoring. As another consequence, 15th century Italian writers, artists and architects began to describe their own work with phrases like alle romana et alla antica (in the manner of the Romans and the ancients) and modi antichi (in the antique manner). As a third consequence, in other renaissance countries anything Italian was seen as The Best Thing Since Ancient Rome: Italian musical styles were avidly copied, Italian polyphony flourished and spread across Europe in the guise of the madrigal, and one English renaissance lutenist, John Cooper, Italianised his name to … Giovanni Coprario!

A musical revolution

John Dunstaple, Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, three founders of the new musical style of the renaissance.
John Dunstaple of England, Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois of Burgundy, three founders of the new musical style of the renaissance.

While the impetus for the renaissance necessarily came from Italy, there were no classical Roman or Greek models to follow in music. So, though the cultural influence was Italian, the origins of musical inspiration had to come from elsewhere. This new renaissance sound was la contenance angloise, the English countenance, as defined by French poet Martin le Franc in his Le Champion des Dames (The Champion of Women), written 1440–1442. He was referring to the new musical practices of English composer John Dunstaple (or Dunstable) which were to influence the whole of renaissance music: spreading the pitch of different singing voices wide apart, rather than the medieval practice of similarly pitched polyphony; harmonising in complete triads; and much greater use of harmonising thirds and sixths. Flemish composer and musicologist Johannes Tinctoris described this sound in 1476 as the “wellspring and origin” of the “new art”; influencing, according to Martin le Franc, such early renaissance Burgundian musical masters as Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois.

From the last quarter of the 15th century, lute players started using bare fingers instead of quills and the lute became the most esteemed of all instruments: now one solo player was capable of playing polyphony (several independent musical lines being sung or played at the same time). The royal courts of Europe appointed lutenists just to play for them.

Can she excuse my wrongs from John Dowland’s First Booke of Songs, 1597, showing his inventive table layout, such that four singers and a lutenist can position themselves around the same double page of the book and perform together.
Can she excuse my wrongs from John Dowland’s First Booke of Songs, 1597, showing his inventive table layout, such that four singers and a lutenist can position themselves around the same double page of the book and perform together.

The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy had profound and lasting effects. Musical notation was now more uniform and widely understood than in the medieval period due to a more literate population, and tablature became the most popular way of writing music for plucked and sometimes bowed string instruments, such as the lute and viola da gamba. Tablature lines represent the strings of the instrument, with letters or numbers to show where the fingers should be placed and note values placed above. Individual musicians could write out their own tablature in household books or buy printed books of the lute songs of John Dowland, Thomas Campion, etc., to play and sing together at home.

Music for the masses became popular in the form of broadside ballads, song sheets with the lyrics and “to the tune of” printed after the title. Broadside ballad buyers would either know the tune already, or learn it from the ballad-mongers, who would sing their wares in the street. This was the pop music of the day.

Consorts and broken consorts became popular. A consort was a range of sizes and therefore pitches of the same instrument playing their parts together, for example the viol consort, crumhorn consort or lute consort. The broken consort, also called the English consort, was a mix of different instruments playing individual parts, typically the plucked lute, cittern and bandora, the bowed treble viol or violin and bass viol, and the blown recorder or flute.

A detail from the anonymous painting, The Life of Sir Henry Unton, c. 1597, showing the broken or English consort. Clockwise from the top: lute, cittern, bass viol, bandora, violin, flute.
A detail from the anonymous painting, The Life of Sir Henry Unton, c. 1597, showing the broken or English consort. Clockwise from the top: lute, cittern, bass viol, bandora, violin, flute.

Musical inventiveness

The inventiveness of renaissance musicians was highly prized, including the skill of extempore improvisation on a given musical theme.

The fantasia or fancy became popular on the lute, a musical free-hand with no specific form which gave rise to 4 minute mini-epic-masterpieces.

Both solo and consort musicians were expected to be able create divisions, whereby a musician takes the tune and adds in extra subdivided notes to create a double or quadruple speed variation (rather like an early form of improvised jazz).

And, in the days well before copyright, musicians were eager to show their skill by taking a tune originally intended for the voice or another instrument and making a completely different and original arrangement for another. John Dowland, John Johnson and many others composed virtuoso variations of broadside ballad tunes for the lute, for example, and Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd and others did the same for the virginal (a renaissance keyboard).

Renaissance dance

Dancing and dance music, ever a popular pastime for rich and poor alike, is something we know much more about in the renaissance compared to the middle ages. We not only have a great many examples of dance music for pavans, galliards, voltas, branles, almains, and corantos, all clearly written out for specific instruments, particularly the lute, but we also have the dance steps, too, thanks to the publication of dance instruction books in France and Italy.

Two aspects of renaissance dance. Left: Süddeutscher Meister’s painting, Augsburger Geschlechtertanz im Tanzhaus am Weinmarkt (Augsburg citizens in the dance house on the wine market), Germany, 1500. They appear to be dancing a stately pavan. Right: A rural wedding dance by Dutch painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566.
Two aspects of renaissance dance. Left: Süddeutscher Meister’s painting, Augsburger Geschlechtertanz im Tanzhaus am Weinmarkt (Augsburg citizens in the dance house on the wine market), Germany, 1500. They appear to be dancing a stately pavan. Right: A rural wedding dance by Dutch painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566.

The end of the renaissance

The beginning of the renaissance was self-defined; but the previous period, the middle ages, was defined by the originators of the renaissance. Like the middle ages, the baroque period which followed the renaissance was defined much later, not until the late 19th and early 20th century. This European cultural shift happened gradually, therefore precise and definitive dates are impossible, but nominally 1600 to 1750 marks the development of an audibly different range of musical styles, often ornate and extravagant, which is the subject of the final article of three on periods of early music.

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