Chapter 6
Renaissance-1450 AD-1600 AD

Introduction to Renaissance

The word Renaissance means “rebirth.”  Rebirth of what?  Answer: The past glories of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.  What were these past glories? Answer:  creativity and intellectual pursuits such as the arts, mathematics, science, and architecture

Intellectuals of the Renaissance looked at the Middle Ages as a dark period in history, they were more interested in the civilizations of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Renaissance ideas and events

Important ideals and events of the Renaissance: creativity, discovery and exploration, interest in ancient Greek and Roman civilization and humanism, rise of a middle class, Protestant Reformation, movable type, literacy and education

The following explore each one of these ideas or events in more detail

Discovery and exploration of American continents

Scientific discoveries

Humanism means people and their life on earth, along with their creativity and accomplishments, becomes the primary focus rather than God, the afterlife, and salvation as in the Middle Ages; humanism is also related to the interest in ancient Greek and Roman civilizations-their arts, literature, and languages

Rise of a middle class of merchants and bankers who were now freed from blind allegiance to the Church by the new spirit of humanism, and freed from dependence on the rulers because they had their own wealth

Questioning of Catholic Church authority and practices lead to the Protestant Reformation which was quite successful in northern Europe

The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther, a German monk, criticized the Catholic Church with a series of 95 written complaints
Luther was a devout Catholic and did not realize he was starting a religious revolution, he only wanted to reform the Catholic Church; however the time was ripe for such a revolt against Church authority

The Catholic Church’s authority was weakened because of the Protestant Reformation

Movable type invented in about 1450 AD

This meant that books could be easily printed rather than monks in monasteries copying them one at a time; this helped the spread of books and literacy; the first printed music was in 1501

Catholic clergy no longer held a monopoly on literacy and learning; literacy and education became a status symbol, literacy spread to the nobility and rising middle classes

Sometimes one is referred to as a “Renaissance man.”  This refers to someone who is well-educated in all areas: science, mathematics, the arts, literature, philosophy, etc.  During the Renaissance, a well-educated person was expected to be educated in all areas.

A good example of this type of person was Leonardo da Vinci who was a painter, sculpture, architect, engineer, scientist, and accomplished musician

Renaissance music

During the Renaissance, the Church remained an important supporter of the arts, but nobles whose center of power was called the “court” also became an important supporter since it was considered a status symbol to have good artists, musicians, etc.

Two famous Renaissance composers were  Josquin des Prez (1440-1521) and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

Most music of the Renaissance was written for voices (either choirs or small groups of singers), and it is still frequently performed today by choirs


Melody-tended to move by steps with some use of leaps, very singable since it was written with voices in mind; still used the Medieval church modes, but major and minor scales begin to develop

Rhythm-the music has a beat, but it is not strong, meters of two or three are used, sometimes changing from one to the other in a piece

Texture-imitative polyphony using four (SATB) to six voice parts was common, homophony was sometimes used, as well as thinning of voices (leaving some voice parts out for periods of time)

Ex. 1  The first 16 measures of "Ave Maria" by Josquin Des Prez.  It is a good, clear example of the use of imitative polyphony.

Click on music to play

Harmony-composers began paying attention to the total harmonic effect of the voice parts, triads are used and dissonance carefully resolved to consonance

Timbre-a cappella choirs of men and boys in sacred music, small groups of men and women in secular; however, sometimes instruments played along to keep the singers on track

Text and music-composers sometimes tried to represent the words literally through the music in a technique called “text painting.”  They would write high notes on the word “heaven,” for instance, rapid notes for the word “running,” or write dissonant tone combinations for the word “grief.”

All in all the music tends to be very calm and “laid-back” sounding, especially sacred music, which was supposed to sound reverent and dignified

Renaissance sacred music

Two main types-masses and motets

Masses-a setting the words of the ordinary of a Catholic Mass to music

Motets-any other sacred words set to music, mainly Latin

Catholic church services

The most important type of worship service of the Roman Catholic Church is the Mass

The Mass contained predetermined texts that fell into two categories called the Proper and the Ordinary

The text of the Ordinary ordinarily stayed the same from week to week, the texts of the Proper were proper to the season

The structure of a Catholic Mass

Proper                                                                     Ordinary

                                                                                Sanctus and Benedictus
                                                                                Agnus Dei
Post Communion
                                                                                Ite, missa est

What do the Mass Ordinary titles mean?

Kyrie-Lord (have mercy)
Gloria-Glory (to God in the highest)
Credo -I believe (in one God)
Sanctus-Holy, (holy, holy)
Benedictus-Blessed (is he who comes in the name of the Lord)
Agnus Dei-Lamb of God (who takes away the sins of the world)
Ite, missa est-Go, you are dismissed

Why is the Ordinary of the Catholic Mass so important in the history of music?

The words of the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass were set to music by many composers over the centuries, including Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bernstein

What will we hear as examples?

Musical Example: Josquin, Pange lingua Mass, Kyrie

Musical Example: Josquin, Ave Maria, motet

Musical Example: Palestrina, Pope Marcellus Mass, Agnus dei I

Renaissance secular music

Often love songs, women could sing them as well since they were not sung in church, but instead at court and in private homes for entertainment

Italian madrigals-sung in Italian by small groups of women and men

English madrigals-sung in English by small groups of women and men

French chansons-sung in French by small groups of women and men

Italian madrigals originated in Italy about 1520 during a time of creative explosion of Italian poetry.

After 1588 the idea of madrigals spread to England at a time when England was becoming the world’s superpower.  This was the time of England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), and William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and was considered a golden age for music and literature in England.

What will we hear as an example?

Musical Example: Weelkes, "As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Decending"  An English madrigal with much word painting

Instrumental music-mainly secular, and often used for dancing, but could be meant for church performance as well; Renaissance instruments were often built in families (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) called consorts