Renaissance period in history was a time of transition
Dating from approximately 1450-1600, the Renaissance period in history was a time of transition in the arts, literature, religion, science, and philosophy. Although looking forward to modern thought, this period also revived the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Meaning “rebirth,” the French term “Renaissance” was described by the historian Jules Michelet as “the discovery of the world and of man” (Kerman 62). Patterned after the ancients, the Renaissance occurred along with the humanist movement. Focusing more on man than on God, the world became more secularized, and an age of reasoning as well as an intellectual awakening developed.
Many prominent historical figures are associated with the Renaissance, in the world of exploration as well as in science and the arts. Among these, Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Ponce de LeÃ³n were the most influential discoverers of the new world. With Italy being the center of the Renaissance period, Italian artists Donatello (ca. 1386-1466), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520), and Michelangelo (1475-1564) are most well known. Painters became interested in perspective, as well as in individual portraits and realism. It was during this era that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Leonardo da Vinci the Mona Lisa. Contributions of the philosopher Erasmus (ca. 1466-1564) and scientist Galileo (1564-1642) also belong to this epoch. In addition, religious activist Martin Luther (1483-1546) founded the Protestant church. In literature, English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) made lasting contributions. One innovative creation directly affecting music was the printing press and movable type by Johannes Gutenberg (1395-1468). Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) of Venice published the first music printed in movable type. Because of printing, music became more accessible and allowed for increased availability to the middle class.
Numerous musical accomplishments came out of the Renaissance period, and many important composers lived in this era. Associated with the church, the most famous European composers included Josquin Desprez of the Netherlands (ca. 1440-1521), Franco-Flemish Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), Englishman William Byrd (1543-1623), and Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). He was particularly noted for creating the “Palestrina style,” or the accepted style of the Renaissance, for the church (Kerman 61). In the 15th century, composers of the Burgundian school, those financially supported by Duke Philip the Good and Duke Philip the Bold, wrote the most prominent works of the Renaissance period. These musicians included Josquin, Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1400-1474), and Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410-1497). Late Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1557-1612) served as church organist at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, and was the first composer to incorporate dynamic shades of loud and soft into his music.
Churches, courts, and towns provided employment for musicians. The focus in music gradually went from the church to the court, and amateur musicians in the towns performed in weddings, religious services, and political events. With a focus on the meaning of the text, vocal music was most important in the Renaissance. A popular music theorist, Zarlino, wrote that “when one of the words expresses weeping, pain, heartbreak, sighs, tears and other similar things, let the harmony be full of sadness” (Kamien 112). Also emphasizing a sense of control in texture, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and melody, the musical beliefs and rules of the Catholic church went along with this focus on text. This balance between words and music dominated the entire Renaissance period. The common texture, or the sound that results from the way in which the voices are combined, was called polyphonic. In polyphony, each voice has its own line and is independent of all other parts. Stylistically, the Renaissance offered smooth vocal melodies and developed a cappella style, or unaccompanied vocal music. Other typical features of the Renaissance include the control of dissonance (the clashing of notes together) and the use of generally consonant, or pleasing and agreeable sounds.
Two specific genres are associated with the great amount of Renaissance church music: the motet, a polyphonic choral work on Latin text; and the Mass, similar to the motet, but longer in length. Polyphonic Mass settings are for the fixed sections of the Mass, or the “Ordinary.” These five parts include the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Secular compositions were geared toward the professional, the amateur, court occasions, the home, and dancing. Those pieces written for one voice with instruments, as well as those unaccompanied for a group of solo voices (a cappella) were placed in this secular music category. Music was set to poems in different languages, such as with the madrigal. Begun in Italy in 1520, and later important in England, the madrigal was originally a light composition with simple melodies and harmonies. Also associated with courtly love poetry is the Burgundian chanson, a vocal French song that is associated with Ockeghem. Combining music with poetry helped lead to the development of opera in the Baroque. An all-encompassing term defining vocal style is “word painting,” which was very much exploited in the Renaissance, gives a description of physical images with the text.
Although vocal music dominated the Renaissance period in music, instrumental music began to evolve, too. Musical instruments had been forbidden by the church in the Western world because they would promote dancing and other secular activities. Music was at one time understood to be only for the church. Slowly, voices and instruments started to mix. The chief job of instrumentalists was to accompany vocal works, and the instruments used were determined by the occasion. Loud instruments were used for outdoor events, like the shawm and sackbut (early oboe and trombone). For indoor use, soft instruments were played, such as the string instruments.
Recorders and viols, as well as the harpsichord, organ, and lute, are the primary instruments associated with the Renaissance.