The Renaissance, which means 'Rebirth', marked the end of the medieval period or the Dark Ages in European history, and heralded the beginning of an extraordinary cultural upheaval in art, science and technology that was influenced by a resurgent interest in the classical works of ancient Greece and Rome. Since the Italian city-states of Florence, Venice, Milan, and Ferrara were the great Maritime trading powers of the time, they had become extremely wealthy and could indulge in cultural pursuits, and it was under them that the Renaissance took root.
In complete contrast to the earlier Church supremacy, artists, musicians and the aristocratic families that nurtured them began gaining in influence, and their socially progressive ideas and inventions filtered down amongst the rest of the society.
Development of Music
The Musical Renaissance, which occurred between 1430 to the late 1620s, began in Flanders mainly, which then comprised modern Belgium, Holland and France, and by the late 16th century had moved base to the richer Italian cities.
Since the classical works were fashionable, the musicians closely followed the Greek philosopher Plato's diktat about words being more important than music, and so mainly composed music for singing rather than just instrumental composition. There were some oddballs, of course, who quite successfully made the songs sound more musical and the music sound more like words. The musical portrayal of the poetic words used was called word-painting, and it made for pleasant listening. The music had both religious and non-religious themes.
While the church was still a musical bastion, musicians and composers were now wooed by the prospects of higher status and pay in the courts of the various merchants, bankers, princes and dukes. The development of musical instruments and various musical genres, the inventions in printing technology that facilitated the publication of music sheets and the wide-spread of public education further boosted the musical phenomenon, and it became a common feature of the civic life. Educated people, apart from being knowledgeable about history, science, and culture of the then known world, were also expected to possess a sound musical training.
The dynamic changes that Europe was then undergoing brought about fresh musical innovations. Amongst the pioneers were the 'Camerata', mainly musicians and poets from the Medici Court in Florence (1580-1590), who tried to revive the Greek drama theater and instead ended up revising musical philosophy. Dismayed that the contemporary compositions did not meet the Greek theories about the 'emotion-stirring' qualities of music that supposedly spurred people to war or calmed violent lunatics, the Camerata decided that the problem was the emphasis placed on the meaning of individual words rather than on the whole thought and they deliberately created a new music style to amend this.
The former Polyphonic compositions (many voices singing the same text at different times) that left the listeners somewhat confused about both the words and their emotional content were replaced by the new, more expressive Monody (music comprising a single vocal part, usually with accompaniment). This was a departure from the accepted Renaissance style, placing more importance on the text than on the music in a vocal work, and led to the development of the Opera and the beginning of the Baroque era in music.
Development of Printing Technology
The Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, who held the monopoly of printing music in Venice, was responsible for revolutionizing printing methods. Using portable fonts instead of the painstakingly and expensively produced woodblock engravings, Petrucci was able to print more quantities of music-sheets at a lesser rate. He published the first book in 1501, a volume of polyphonic music called 'Harmonice musices Odhecaton A', and more soon followed. Other publishers swiftly adopted his techniques and the mass-production of books began.
The Parisian, Pierre Attaignant, upgraded the process with the even more profitable single impression printing of both song texts and musical notations. Now it became easier for popular music to spread and be performed all over Europe.
Musical Movements of the Renaissance
The free exchange of musical ideas that was now possible produced spectacular advances in music composition. Various musical genres evolved, with a distinctive emphasis on vocal polyphony. The harmonious effect created by several voices singing different musical lines like soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and the repetition or 'Imitation' of musical lines to make the composition complex were two main characteristics of the polyphonic technique.
The religious music included Masses and Motets, the secular music had Motets, Madrigals, and Songs. Many of the Instrumental Works like the Canzona, Ricercare, or Fantasia evolved from vocal music, but solo and ensemble music was written for some specific instruments as well.
Sacred music was composed during the Renaissance for performing mainly at the Catholic Church services. Evolving from the Gregorian chant and sung in Latin by a 'A Cappella' choir (without instruments), this extraordinarily spiritual music has a soaring and poignant grandeur. The various kinds of sacred music include hymns, nocturnes, psalms, cantata, and antiphons (verse or song chanted or sung in response to the rituals). Many beautiful compositions were written especially for the holy week (the week before Easter).
These feature the splendid, classical hymn 'Gloria laus et honor' (supposedly the spontaneous composition of the imprisoned the bishop of Orleans in 828 A.D. that so moved his captor that he immediately pardoned and released him), the 'Ante diem festum' gospel, the 'Christus factus', the beautiful 'Miserere' Psalms, the joyous 'Victimae Paschali Laudes', and many others. Some of the composers of this genre were Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), Josquin Desprez (1450-1521), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1526-1594), and William Byrd (1540-1623).
One of the most admired choral styles of the Renaissance, the secular and poetic Madrigal evolved in Italy around 1520 from polyphonic music or 'fugue' as it was also known. But unlike the polyphonic music that was arranged in parts for several voices/ instruments, the vocals were sung together in the Madrigal with instrumental accompaniment and without repetitions in words or music.
Initially influenced by the Greek poetry of Petrarch, Madrigals later adapted works of the contemporary poets. Their sheer popularity inspired thousands of publications in Italy alone and, after 1588, in England as well. Cipriano de Rore (1516-1565), Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594), Luca Marenzio (1560-1599), Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), and Thomas Morley (1557-1602) were some of the famous composers of the Madrigal.
Chanson, the French for "song", came from the Italian 'Canzona' and typified the work of the late Renaissance and early baroque period. It included various secular music forms like Rondeau, Virelai and Ballade.
Musical Instruments of the Renaissance
Instrumental music developed in its own right during the Renaissance, requiring many of the existing instruments of the period to be improved and new ones to be invented. The following wide variety of instruments were very popular -
1. Brass Instruments - Cornett, Sackbut, Trumpet.
2. Woodwind Instruments - Flute, Shawn, Crumhorn, Curtal, Recorder, Racket, Glastonbury Pipe, Bagpipe.
3. Stringed Instruments - Lute, Guitar, Violin, Mandolin, Cittern, Zither, Psaltery, Viola da Gamba, Viele a Roue, Hammered Dulcimer, Harp.
4. Keyboard Instruments - Clavichord, Harpsichord, Organ, Virginal.
Renaissance mirrored the inspiring humanistic beliefs of the period, and it is rather unfortunate that its vast treasury is not as widely known today as the contemporaneous paintings and sculptures.