The Renaissance Period

Early Music And Renaissance: A Guide

The Renaissance era

The Renaissance followed on from the Middle Ages and was for musicians an era of discovery, innovation and exploration - the name means ‘rebirth’. It covers the music from 1400 to 1600.

  • In the Middle Ages, music was dominated by the Church. Most composition was for sacred use and based on the plain chant that had been part of worship since the earliest years of Christianity.
  • Although most music remained religious during the Renaissance, the relaxation of the Church’s political control over society meant that composers were allowed greater freedom to be influenced by art, classical mythology and even astronomy and mathematics.
  • The invention of the printing press meant that music could be published and distributed for the first time. 
  • The Latin Mass is perhaps the most important type of music from the Renaissance, particularly that of Josquin des Prez.
  • Most music written during this period is intended to be sung, either as large choral pieces in church or as songs or madrigals. But non-vocal music flourished too, as technology enabled musical instruments to be more expressive and agile. Pieces could now be written specifically for instruments such as the sackbut and lute.
  • In the early Renaissance, most composers came from Northern France or the Low Countries, where the support provided by the courts was particularly strong. Later on, focus went beyond the Alps as the heyday of the Italian city-state system took hold, and many northern composers came south to find their fortunes. 
  • Italian composers started appearing too. At the basilica of St Mark’s, Venice, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli produced magnificent pieces for huge choirs and groups of instruments. In Rome, Allegri and Palestrina were the last great Renaissance composers, writing huge, flowing choral works that still enthrall the ears.

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