Renaissance Europe 1300-1600: Music

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 4. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Music and the Renaissance

Problems of Definition

In art, architecture, and literature, long-standing definitions of Renaissance style have stressed the importance of the recovery of ancient models and their impact upon the artists and writers of the period. To speak of a “musical Renaissance,” however, is more problematic. In the three centuries following 1000 C.E., European composers and musicians had developed distinctive national styles and musical forms that continued to shape the achievements of the Renaissance long after the recovery of Antiquity had begun in other arts during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. While knowledge of ancient styles proved often to be crucial for the creation of “Renaissance” paintings, sculptures, and architecture, the application of such knowledge to music presented a special problem to the scholars, composers, and musicians of the time. The improvisational, performance-based music of Antiquity yielded very few documents or records that could be studied by later generations; as a consequence, Renaissance scholars did not focus on ancient musical theory or performance practices until comparatively late in the period—not until the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The absence of scholarship concerning Antique music prevented most attempts by Renaissance musicians to imitate ancient practices; as a result, the ancient world had a comparatively lesser impact on the great changes that occurred in music during much of the Renaissance than it did in the other arts. For these and other reasons, historians of music, in contrast to those of art, architecture, and literature, have long dated the emergence of a distinctive Renaissance style in music only after 1450, roughly a century and a half later than in other media.

Music As a Science

During both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance a clear line existed between music’s role as a branch of the sciences on the one hand and musical composition and performance on the other. What modern scholars consider music theory was in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance known as “speculative” or “scientific” music (in Latin musica speculativaor musica scientia). From the early Middle Ages philosophers had included music within the “mathematical” sciences, four distinctive branches of the seven liberal arts. These disciplines together were known as the Quadrivium, and anyone who hoped to gain entrance into a university needed to acquire knowledge of the mathematical relationships that existed in musical pitches, intervals, and harmonies. In this way the academic study of music developed as the “science of sound” and a great deal of theory was written during the Middle Ages that treated the physical properties of music. Philosophers speculated upon music’s abilities to produce changes in the characters of its listeners as well as to generate alterations in the external world. This body of theory grew immensely during the Renaissance, too, largely as a result of the contact of intellectuals with the works of ancient writers that treated music as an important aid to philosophy. At the same time, the great philosophers of the ancient world, although they had prized music for its ability to speak to the human soul, had had little definite to say about musical practices per se. Thus the discussions of music as a science that continued during the Renaissance were not an abrupt break with medieval tradition. One figure whose work continued to be widely read and discussed was Boethius (480-524), a late antique figure who had transmitted the musical knowledge of his day and of the ancient world to the Renaissance. While important as a transmitter of knowledge, Boethius was also a major figure in the history of musical theory and science in his own right. He treated music as one of the four branches of mathematics, a view that continued to be shared in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Yet he also insisted that music had a special role among these sciences because it might breed both ethical virtue and reason.

Musical Performance

Performers, by contrast, were largely unaffected by these rarefied discussions of music as the “science of sound,” or of music’s role as one of the mathematical sciences. In fact, the evidence suggests that while many musicians may have been able to read music, they were not able to read the written word. They learned their skills by being taught in the home, or from someone nearby who could already sing or play an instrument, or by serving for a time as a choirboy in a local church or cathedral. Musical performance was a practical art, and most accomplished musicians were by and large unaware of the complexities of musical theory or of the scientific and philosophical discussions about music. The performance of music was instead governed by long-standing traditions, by the role that music played in the church, and by the secular songs and ballads that were performed in medieval society. While the music of the church often bore a resemblance across regions, secular music differed greatly from place to place, with the popular or “folk” music of France making use of traditions, sounds, and instruments that were often very different from those of Italy or Germany. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a wealth of these native kinds of music existed everywhere in Europe, although most music was still performed from memory or through improvisation of a well-known tune. Far less music was “composed”—that is written down—than was to be the case in later centuries. Even many cathedral choirs improvised their harmonies according to generally accepted conventions, rather than reading the parts from a score. During the Renaissance quickening changes in musical tastes helped to popularize the practice of writing down a greater range of music than previously. As composers gained reputations in places far from their homeland, a fashion for “new music” emerged, and written scores were more necessary than ever before to satisfy the demands of audiences for the admired works of the age.

Role of the Church

During the fifteenth century, the writing of sacred vocal music for the rituals of the church continued to be the most important outlet for those who composed music. While a current of innovation is discernible by the 1300s, the music of the church had long been defined by the primary importance of plainsong, a form of unison or chant-style singing. Since early Christian times plainsong had been the dominant form of music performed in the European church. Modern listeners popularly refer to plainsong as Gregorian chant, a term that is technically a misnomer, since it associates one form of early medieval chant sanctioned by Pope Gregory I (540-604) with the rich variety of plainsong that flourished in medieval Europe. Plainsong involved the singing of texts, prayers, and biblical readings that were used in the church’s rituals, thus elevating their performance above mere spoken recitation. The simplest forms of plainsong used only a single tone, sometimes with a falling pitch on the last note of a phrase. But several thousand plainsong melodies survive from the Middle Ages, showing a considerable diversity and complexity in the form’s development. Medieval plainsong did not have “keys” like most Western music has had since the seventeenth century. Instead plainsong was based around a system of eight scales known as modes; these modes governed the progression of tones and semi-tones used in a piece’s scale. While some of the medieval modes sounded remarkably similar to the modern system of major and minor keys, music written in some other modes has a very different character than that written in the modern system of tonality. Plainsong developed during the Middle Ages in close connection with monasteries and cathedrals, and their performance occurred during a series of daily religious prayers known as the Offices and in tandem with the celebration of the Mass. The Offices began with Matins, a service that occurred in the middle of the night, and they continued with Lauds at sunrise. Thereafter they followed at intervals of about every three hours during the day and concluded with Vespers and Compline at sundown. At these services, monks and clerics chanted prayers, hymns, Psalms, and lessons from the Scriptures with matins, lauds, and vespers generating the most complex musical forms. The Office of Vespers was particularly important, since it was the only ritual that initially allowed monks and clerics to perform music that was polyphonic, that is, in which multiple melody lines or harmonies were sung simultaneously. As such, musical innovations tended to develop around the Office of Vespers.

The Mass

The rituals of the Offices occurred in cathedrals and monasteries throughout Europe and were performed only by the monks and priests who resided in these institutions. By contrast, the Mass was a universal religious rite, separate from the Offices, in which all medieval Christians participated. Priests celebrated the ritual, although lay people attended it and played a role in its celebration. While the Offices were relatively short religious observances, the Mass was the church’s most important, and therefore, elaborate religious rite. Sacred music accompanied the Mass very early in the history of the church. The Mass was celebrated in Latin and although there were variations in the ritual throughout Western Europe, it proceeded with a text that was largely fixed according to custom. Often the celebration of the Mass was a relatively humble affair, with priests merely chanting the text of the ritual before those who were in attendance. Yet “high” masses accompanied by choirs, music, and instruments were also celebrated in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and were especially common in Europe’s most important churches on particularly solemn occasions.

Civic Music, Sacred Forms

By the end of the Middle Ages, Europe’s cathedrals were vital centers of musical production, a trend that was to persist in the Renaissance and beyond. The quality of music performed in a town’s cathedral or major churches was already an important element of civic pride by this time. Town governments helped to fund the establishment of choral schools, choirs, and instrumental groups to accompany the singing that occurred within their churches. In Italy, where great commercial wealth came to be amassed during the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, choirs were a major preoccupation of town governments and not just church officials. At first, the great Italian cities—places like Florence, Siena, and Milan—imported many of their singers from northern Europe, particularly from Paris and throughout northern France, the great centers of musical composition and performance in the later Middle Ages. Over time, though, these towns nurtured their own home-grown talent, so that by the fourteenth century, a city like Siena or Florence already had its own widely admired musical establishment. At the same time not all music that was performed in Europe’s cities was liturgical in nature. Civic music—music that was intended to accompany the rituals of government such as the reading of public announcements and proclamations—the processions of city officials and of visiting dignitaries, and important feast days were all major occasions for musical performances.

Renaissance Innovation

The Late Medieval International Style

Like late Gothic sculpture and painting throughout much of Europe, the surviving musical texts of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries display the prominence of an “international style” that flourished over large expanses of Europe, particularly in France, Italy, and the Netherlands. This style was already making use of a number of innovations in musical composition, rhythm, and harmony that had been pioneered in fourteenth-century France, particularly in Paris at mid-century, and somewhat later in Avignon, the capital of the papacy at the time. With the eventual return of the capital of the church to Rome in the early fifteenth century, Avignon faded as a center of musical innovation, and instead new centers of experimentation began to emerge in other places. For inspiration, composers began to turn to the music of England, an island that had been relatively isolated from many continental musical traditions during the Middle Ages. This isolation had caused English composers to follow a slightly different course from the courtly, chivalric styles and rigid plainsong melodies that had flourished in France or those favored by the civic musicians of Italy. The Mass in use in much of later medieval England—known as the Sarum Rite after its origins in Salisbury Cathedral—made use of melodies and scales in its chants that differed from those favored in continental Europe. Generally, English musicians used major keys rather than the varied and often minor-sounding modal scales that were employed on the Continent. The polyphony that developed from such a tradition, too, was different from the French and French-influenced sacred music popular in much of Europe during the fourteenth century. In most of continental Europe, for example, intervals of the fourth, the fifth, and the octave had long been favored as the most perfect harmonies. The third and the sixth—while they had begun to make inroads throughout the Continent at this time—were sometimes controversial. Much medieval musical theory taught that the harmonic relationship between these two intervals was too close and consequently dissonant. To modern Western ears, however, both the third and the sixth have long been heard as the most perfect or consonant of intervals, the very basis upon which much harmony rests. It is sometimes difficult for modern listeners to imagine a time when these intervals were heard as dissonances, but they were only gradually accepted in the fifteenth century, prompted largely by English examples. It is for this reason that scholars have often identified the reception of these harmonies as “consonant” as one of the first markers of the birth of a true Renaissance style.


One of the key figures in popularizing the new harmonies and in pioneering new settings of the Mass and sacred music generally was John Dunstaple (1390-1453), the greatest fifteenth-century English composer. Dunstaple was a member of the household of the Duke of Bedford, a powerful commander in the English army of the time. England’s engagement in the Hundred Years’ War against France resulted in military victories that gave Bedford practical control over a large portion of French territory in the 1420s. Dunstaple may have spent the years between 1422 and 1435 living in France in Bedford’s household, although the evidence for this French residency is slight. His works, however, must have had many admirers on the Continent since they exist in many manuscript collections throughout Europe. Seventy of his compositions survive, demonstrating his taste for the full sound and major tonalities favored by English composers of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In addition, he made frequent use of thirds and sixths in his work, helping to popularize their use by later composers in France and Burgundy especially. Like the French medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377) before him, Dunstaple also set the Mass in choral music. These settings were, like Machaut’s earlier French example, artistically unified, but in a new, bold way. Dunstaple constructed many of the individual parts of his masses on pre-existing church melodies, but he granted to these settings a new lyricism as well as the harmonies of English music of the time. Dunstaple also wrote numerous carols, a type of song structure that was distinctly English, yet similar to the French songs known as rondeaux and the Italian form of the rondeau, the ballate. The carol had its origins, like these continental forms, as accompaniments for dances and made use of contrasting stanzas set against choral refrains. By Dunstaple’s time, however, composers increasingly used the genre to set religious poems to music. In writing carols, English composers like Dunstaple gave primacy to their texts, which they set from poems written in Latin, English, or sometimes in a lively mix of the two languages. Most carols had two-or three-part harmonies with colorful texts, and while these songs were not truly “folk music,” they did have a popular and distinctively English flavor.


No other place in fifteenth-century Europe surpassed the musical achievements and innovations of Burgundy. Although the heartland of this powerful duchy lay within France and was officially subject to the French king, the dukes of Burgundy had by 1400 surpassed him in the wealth and splendor of their court, particularly as France became mired in the Hundred Years’ War. To their homelands in eastern France, the dukes had added through skillful marital alliances the rich Low Countries of Europe (that is modern Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg), a large portion of northeastern France, as well as the province of Lorraine. In the early fifteenth century they maintained their capital at Dijon, but Burgundy’s dukes began to spend more time in their northern possessions, particularly in Flanders or modern Belgium, than in the original seat of their power. The Burgundian territories that they ruled were diverse in language and culture, and so each year the court spent a great deal of its time traveling through these various lands. This annual progress bred sophistication in Burgundian standards of musical performance, as accomplished musicians flocked to this court from throughout the dukes’ possessions to receive patronage. Through their travels, too, the dukes learned of musical forms and innovations in the far corners of their vast lands. Thus the rise of Burgundian power was a force that aided further developments in an International Style in music throughout the Continent, as rulers elsewhere imitated the tastes of the rich Burgundian court. Rising to prominence around 1400, the Burgundian court became an important center of art, culture, and music under Duke Philip the Good (1419-1467). Philip, an enthusiastic supporter of church music, retained a large choir and the most elaborate armory of musical resources in Europe. Beyond his ranks of singers, Philip also employed trumpeters, bagpipers, drummers, organists, and a vast array of other instrumentalists. The attention he showered on music was surpassed by his successor Charles the Bold, whose rule began in 1467. He was to be the last of the Burgundian dukes, however, as the duchy of Burgundy reverted to France and the northern possessions in the Low Countries came under the control of the Habsburg dynasty upon his death in 1477.


During Burgundy’s heyday, a number of composers of distinction flourished. Generally, those favored at the Burgundian court made use of the new inspirations from the composer John Dunstaple and other English figures to enliven their musical traditions. Among the most accomplished of these figures was Guillaume Dufay, a figure of the first importance in fashioning a distinctively new musical style. Dufay was born near Brussels around 1397, and became a choirboy at the Cathedral of Cambrai, an important bishopric within the Burgundian lands. As he reached maturity, he traveled to Italy, where he found employment at first in the household of the powerful Malatesta family before serving for a time in the papal choir at Rome. In 1432 Dufay left Rome to serve the duke of Savoy on the northwestern frontier of Italy. Thereafter, he lived in his native Cambrai until his death in 1474, except for a brief four-year return to Savoy in the 1450s. Dufay is often associated with the Burgundian style and its innovations in music, but he was truly an international figure, as at home in the world of Italy and Savoy as he was in his native Cambrai. He was also highly educated, an unusual status for a musician by the standards of the time. He had received a degree in canon law from the prestigious University of Bologna, and his education allowed him to acquire a number of offices in the church. The works that Dufay composed while in Cambrai proved to be particularly fruitful in inspiring other composers, including Gilles Binchois (1400-1460), the second great Burgundian composer at the time. Dufay’s output included a number of masses, motets, and secular songs or chansons, while Binchois was notable, in particular, for the quality of his chansons.

The Mass

Although the duchy of Burgundy disappeared as a political force following the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, its musical styles survived into the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries throughout much of Europe. The Burgundian chanson (song) style developed by Binchois and Dufay relied on free flowing melodies, frequent use of triple meter, and a gentle, sometimes melancholic sound. These features of the style survived to be deployed in many of the masses which composers in the former Burgundian lands and elsewhere in Europe wrote at the time. Before the early fifteenth century there had been relatively few attempts to craft a single unified musical service around the ordinary parts of the Mass, that is, those sections of the Mass that were unchanging and occurred in every celebration of the ritual. In the fifteenth century, though, such attempts soon grew common. To give their works artistic unity, composers often relied on older plainsong melodies, sometimes using a different plainsong in each of the separate movements they wrote, a practice that has sometimes been called “plainsong mass.” The custom also developed of choosing a musical motif from one plainsong and building it into each of the five movements of the Mass, a development that has often been referred to as the motto mass. Another fifteenth-century development was the appearance of the cantus firmus Mass, in which a single melody, often adapted from a secular song, appeared at the beginning of each movement in the tenor voice. Cantus firmus masses had first been written in England in the early fifteenth century, but after 1450, they became the customary way to set the Mass to music. Among the most beautifully integrated masses of this time were those of Dufay, who drew upon his own musical ballads to craft artistically integrated and aesthetically pleasing sacred music for the service. In the sixteenth century the fashion for cantus firmus masses soon evolved into the Imitation Mass. In this form even popular songs were inserted into the various movements of a Mass, and the polyphony imitated the source of inspiration, often in a highly original way. Such ingenuous works fascinated many sixteenth-century composers, and the form, in fact, soon became dominant throughout Europe at mid-century. Yet the fondness that imitation masses expressed for secular music was criticized by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the church council that met to consider ways of reforming Catholicism in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.


Another standout among the many competent composers of the fifteenth century was Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420-1497). Ockeghem was born in the French-speaking province of Hainaut, at the time part of the duchy of Burgundy. He began his career apparently as a member of the Cathedral choir at Antwerp, but soon entered into service in the household of Charles I, duke of Bourbon in France. In 1452, he became a member of the royal chapel of the king of France, and during the remainder of his long life he served three French kings. By the time of his death he was celebrated in verse and song as one of the founders of a new musical style, and he has long been revered, together with Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez, as an important developer of a distinctive Renaissance style. Unlike Dufay and des Prez, however, his surviving body of works is somewhat small, consisting of ten motets, thirteen settings of the Mass, and twenty chansons. In contrast to Dufay, who preferred to set his chansons using two and three voices, Ockeghem most frequently used four separate vocal parts. The lines of his works are longer and are often complex. One of the most distinctive features of his style is his use of an expressive bass voice, a departure from previous compositions in which comparatively little importance had been granted to this part of the harmonic range. Ockeghem also extended the range of the bass voice downward four or five tones lower than had been common previously. The result was a harmonic texture with more gravity, but with a broader range of sound, and his emphasis on the lower sonorities opened up new possibilities for later composers. In his settings of the Mass, Ockeghem sometimes relied on a familiar, pre-established melody to serve as a cantus firmus throughout his setting. At other times he avoided the use of a cantus firmus and instead developed the individual movements of the Mass as a canon, a contrapuntal form in which successive vocal parts imitated the line that had been set out by the first voice. Ockeghem was a master of the canon, a style of composing that took its name from the Latin word for “rule” or “law.” Up to this time composers had not usually written out all the various parts of their canons. Instead they often wrote down the first voice and then set out a set of rules or canons by which the other voices in the choir should follow or imitate the first voice. The voices were usually to proceed through principles of strict imitation. Ockeghem vastly extended these possibilities by writing canons in which the voices moved at different speeds while reproducing essentially the same vocal line. He also created double canons in which several vocal parts proceeded in canonical form, while several more wove independent lines around their harmonies. These innovations established Ockeghem as an early master of the art of counterpoint, making his compositions vital to later sixteenth-century students and masters who mined their intricacies for inspiration. At the same time the very complexities of his creations tended to make later composers assess his works as mere products of technical finesse. Recently, his compositions have been more adequately studied, however, and Ockeghem has been restored to his position as a master of expressive vocal lines as well as contrapuntal invention.


As the life of Johannes Ockeghem illustrates, the musical innovations occurring within the duchy of Burgundy in the fifteenth century soon spread farther afield through the migrations of composers and musicians. Jacob Obrecht (1452-1505) was one important figure who developed compositions using the broader ranges of harmonies and new musical forms on the rise in Flanders and France. His surviving opus includes thirty masses and about an equal number of chansons. He also composed songs in Dutch and instrumental music, although comparatively little of this music has survived. Unlike Ockeghem, Obrecht usually relied on cantus firmus melodies to grant structure to most of his masses, adopting popular, well-known secular songs as well as Gregorian plainsong melodies to serve in this role. He opened up new imaginative vistas, though, in the use of cantus firmus. In some compositions, for instance, he repeated the borrowed theme at the outset of each movement of the Mass, as was customary at the time; at other times he relied on the first phrase of the melody in the mass’s first movement, while using the second phrase in the next, the third in the following, and so on. Or in still other compositions he based his masses around two or three cantus firmus melodies simultaneously. Obrecht also wrote various movements of his mass settings in canon style, although his use of the form was not exact, with the various voices sometimes subtly altering the original melody that had been set out by the first voice. Obrecht’s modulations and violations of received forms thus presented followers with new ways of envisioning vocal music. In his travels to Italy, moreover, he brought to that country a knowledge of the new styles and forms emerging in Northern Europe at the time.

Josquin Des Prez

Josquin des Prez, a composer born sometime around 1450 in northern France or within the Flemish province of Hainaut, ranks as the greatest musical genius of the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He gained recognition as a genius in his lifetime, and his reputation as the “father of musicians” survived long after his death. Even in the late sixteenth century commentators continued to compare his achievements to those of Michelangelo in the visual arts. As with the creations of Michelangelo, contemporaries found des Prez’s compositions remarkably expressive, noting his ability to forge a complete union between music and the chosen text. Further comparisons between the two men include their ability to solve complex aesthetic problems in a way that seemed effortless, and their willful individuality coupled with occasional bouts of moodiness.

Des Prez’s Music

Josquin des Prez’s surviving compositions include some eighteen masses, fifty motets, and about seventy chansons. His masses are masterful creations, although they are not ranked among his most innovative works. In these, Josquin des Prez usually relied on a cantus firmus melody to grant structure to his works, often choosing these themes from popular secular songs of the day. Sometimes he paraphrased these tunes, and in his most skillful creations he relied on all the voices that had appeared in the original chanson to create a free-flowing expansion of the original’s themes. In this way his masses extended the boundaries of the cantus firmus mass, and were the origins for the imitation or parody masses that flourished in the later sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Catholic Church. In these parody or imitation masses, composers sometimes used the initial theme quite explicitly and at other times they played with it extensively, constructing variations that disguised the theme’s origins through elaboration and ornamentation. In this way Josquin des Prez helped to solve a central problem that revolved around setting the Mass to music: how to keep an audience captivated over a long period of time by using music to outline the various distinct parts of the Mass’s ritual. While Josquin’s masses are artistically notable, his motets are even more accomplished demonstrations of his skills as a composer. The Mass may have still been a major vehicle for demonstrating an artist’s inventiveness at the time of his life. But his skill in the motet, and his far greater output in this genre, shows the increasing importance that nonliturgical music—music that was not to be performed within the Mass per se—was to have in the sixteenth century. The unchanging nature of the Mass’s text gave a composer relatively little freedom to explore the relationship between words and music, since church tradition narrowly prescribed the acceptable text. In a motet, by contrast, a composer could set poems and other texts of greater variety to music since the motet was performed outside the regular structure of the Mass and thus did not have to conform to the ritual’s restrictions. Des Prez’s work in the humanist-influenced courts of Italy caused him to focus on the imaginative possibilities that music offered for conveying literary meaning. To do this, he abandoned the involved, complex lines of the type of French and Flemish music exemplified by Ockeghem and his followers, and instead he tried to forge a union between the chosen words and notes so that the lines of the poems and other texts he set to music could be consumed as thoughts. The example that he left behind in his motets inspired several subsequent sixteenth-century composers of vocal music who relied on rhythm, harmony, pitch, and tonalities to suggest the meanings of their texts.

Importance of Early Renaissance Innovations

During the course of the fifteenth century an international style of musical composition flourished throughout much of continental Europe. This style was at first enlivened by the examples of harmony and rhythm of English composition and later inspired by the complex lines and intricate counterpoint harmonies of the Burgundian composers. Harmonies of thirds and sixths in many musical compositions were relative innovations, and writers of masses and motets borrowed melodies for their works from the church’s plainsong and the secular chansons. Through the influence of Johannes Ockeghem and others the harmonic possibilities of fifteenth-century music expanded to include a wider range of pitches and in many cases to subject the construction of harmony to the bass, rather than the tenor voice. In this process the once-dominant tenor voice began to fade in favor of a more equal construction of harmony between all the voices. In Ockeghem’s work, in particular, the bass became the entire foundation upon which the upper harmonic relationships were created. In this way a more resonant sound began to flourish. While the Mass remained the primary vehicle through which composers demonstrated their imaginative finesse, the motet became increasingly important as a vehicle for expressing the complex meanings of texts. As the century drew to a close the genius of Josquin des Prez opened up a new flexibility for forging relationships between texts and the musical forms in which they were conveyed. During the sixteenth century composers were to build upon this new sophistication to create a distinctive Renaissance mixture of polyphony, harmony, and melodic exploitation.

Sixteenth Century Achievements in Secular Music


As the dawn of the sixteenth century approached, humanism’s influence on music grew increasingly important. Humanism was a complex literary movement that had its origins in the works of fourteenth-century intellectuals like Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio. The term itself is a nineteenth-century creation crafted to describe those in the Renaissance who practiced the studia humanitatis (“humane studies”). Thus humanism, the source for modern notions of the humanities, was not a philosophy, but a curriculum. As such, it differed greatly from the scholastically influenced studies that were dominant in most European universities at the time. The university system based its curriculum on logic, Aristotelian natural philosophy, and theology. By contrast, the humanists championed training in rhetoric (graceful speaking and writing), history, moral philosophy, and the languages. These disciplines, they argued, were better suited to creating virtuous human beings than were the logic and reasoned argumentation favored by the scholastics in medieval universities. The works of the humanists who followed Petrarch and Boccaccio persistently recommended the cultivation of the language arts and the study of Antiquity, and humanism sponsored a revival of ancient culture and learning that has long been synonymous in many people’s minds with the very idea of the Renaissance itself. Throughout most of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the primarily literary concerns of the humanists had little impact on music, but in the final decades of the fifteenth century the links between humanism and composition became more important. As the humanists studied a broader range of ancient texts throughout the fifteenth century, they learned of the importance that ancient philosophers had attached to music. The importation of many ancient Greek treatises on music into Italy from the ailing Byzantine Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as forays into Western European monastic libraries aided their studies. By the end of the century most of the vast and variegated musical theory of Antiquity had been recovered and translated into Latin. Somewhat later, many of these texts were also to be translated into Italian. From this vantage point, ancient theoretical and aesthetic works that treated music could be read and studied by a broader range of educated men, and even by a small minority of cultivated women. From their reading, both humanists and educated composers like Josquin des Prez came to learn that the ancients had prized music for its power to ennoble the human spirit, inspire poetry, and change the soul. In a more general sense, humanist culture’s emphasis on rhetoric and language expressed a fondness for good poetry; thus its influence came to be felt upon music in a deepening attention to the texts that composers set to music. These trends can be seen in the works of Josquin des Prez, the figure that has long been attributed with developing a distinctively Renaissance musical idiom.

Princely Patronage

In the fifteenth century most humanists were only able to realize the ideal of the detached study of literature, history, and ancient philosophy through finding employment in Italy’s burgeoning governments or through attracting the patronage of powerful princes and wealthy merchants. Similarly, as the taste for Antiquity flourished among elites, Italy’s humanist-educated princes and wealthiest merchant, banking, and patrician families sought out the best composers and musicians to create works that expressed their love of the ancients and of the humanist creed of literary study. It was in Florence that a musical culture first began to flourish that made use of the philosophical insights drawn from the works of the ancients. During the 1470s and 1480s the city’s wealthy merchants joined the backdoor manipulator of Florence’s political life, Lorenzo de’ Medici, in seeking out the best Flemish musicians of the day. Lorenzo was an avid supporter of the philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), one of the most important scholars of the day who was actively engaged in the translation and study of Plato’s entire body of work. Ficino himself was a musician and physician, and his studies of Plato frequently recommended music’s power to influence the cosmos. From Ficino, humanists and musicians alike began to adopt Plato’s notion of poetic inspiration to defend musical composition. This idea—that poets were seized with divine inspiration when they wrote—could also be applied to musicians and composers, even as it came to be used in the High Renaissance by painters and sculptors in a similar fashion to defend their arts. Modern scholars have sometimes credited Ficino with founding the discipline of musical therapy, an interest that derived from his interests as a musician and physician. The practice of musical therapy was often undertaken in the hospitals of the later Renaissance and was recommended in the philosopher’s works. Among the many other accomplished musicians that Lorenzo de’ Medici invited to his court were Heinrich Isaac, Alexander Agricola, and Johannes Ghiselin. Medici patronage of the art was important, but almost every major court in late fifteenth-century Italy awarded employment to a sizable contingent of musicians and composers. At Ferrara, for example, the d’Este dukes patronized Jacob Obrecht, Antoine Brumel, and Adrian Willaert, among many others. In Rome, the papal household, as well as the many courts of the church’s cardinals, maintained sizable contingents of musicians and composers. And in despotic Milan, the Sforza dukes stocked their chapel with 22 singers and their palace chamber choir with another eighteen. The composers among these ranks experimented with achieving the new Renaissance ideal of a music that stirred the emotions and purified the soul. Until 1550, those active in the great households and courts of Italy were predominantly from Northern Europe, and the taste for Franco-Flemish musical practices was strong. Still, Italians made inroads in these years, although the international character of the peninsula’s musical life was constantly enriched and strengthened by the migrations of Europeans from beyond the Alps.


The emergence of a new, distinctly Italian genre of popular song in the second half of the fifteenth century points to this vitality. In the Renaissance the Italian term “frottola” had both a narrow and a broad meaning. In its broadest sense it came to be applied to any of a number of secular song types that were popular throughout the peninsula in the years between 1470 and 1530. This genre included a number of more specific song types, including odes, sonnets, capitoli, strambotti, and canzoni. In a narrow sense, the frottola also referred to a song that was written for four vocal parts with its melody usually placed in the uppermost voice. Underneath this melody, the other voices often provided an accompaniment of chords. Usually, frottola were written in 3/4 or 4/4 time. The origins of this form, which came to set much ancient and Renaissance lyric poetry to music, lay in the traditions of the early Italian Renaissance, when poetry had often been recited against a musical accompaniment. Over time, a tradition of extemporized singing of lyrics emerged, and became a popular form of entertainment, notably in the Medici household in Florence, but in a number of other courts throughout Italy as well. Lorenzo de’ Medici greatly admired an artist’s ability to extemporize vocally ad lyram (“on the lyre”), and many of Florence’s humanists developed this skill. Among those that were particularly noted for the ability to perform such frottola were Raffaele Brandolini (1465-1517), a native Florentine who spent much of his life as a scholar in Rome, and who wrote an important treatise entitled On Music and Poetry. Two other performers of merit were Baccio Ugolini and Serafino dall’Aquila, but the custom for extemporizing songs was so popular that even Lorenzo de’ Medici himself sometimes performed this way. By 1500, Mantua had become the most brilliant center of frottola performance; the city’s duchess, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) supported this popular song form by seeking out the best poetry from Italian authors, and then turning it over to musicians to be set to music. These departures from the genre’s extemporaneous roots have provided music historians with manuscripts and printed editions of the works her composers wrote, an invaluable source for reconstructing the popular song trends of the age. In contrast to the many musical genres of the period that were heavily influenced by Franco-Flemish styles, the frottola style was a native art form, with its poetry and music written by Italians. Nurtured by Isabella d’Este and in a number of Italian cities, the form was a significant source of inspiration for Italian musical creativity in the sixteenth century.

Improvisational versus Written Music

The vigorous musical culture that flourished at the time created an almost insatiable demand for compositions that might be presented at the many ceremonial occasions, festivities, and court entertainments at which music was demanded. Most musicians were schooled in the techniques of musical improvisation, although the degree to which they relied on these skills depended upon the type of music that was being performed. Italian song traditions, in particular, had long had a vigorously creative and sophisticated set of improvisational and extemporizing techniques, while other kinds of music—polyphonic motets and settings of the Mass—were often more thoroughly composed or written down. In Italy, entire evenings of entertainment were sometimes constructed from extemporaneous song. But the most complex polyphonic music of the period, performed in church on solemn occasions or as part of civic festivities, required more disciplined performance practices and written music, since these compositions made use of many different and contrasting lines of counterpoint. They could not, in other words, be executed unless performers paid strict attention to written music. In addition, the increasing numbers of musical manuscripts that survive from the period reveal an emerging demand for music that might be readily replayed or sung time and again. The circulation of these manuscripts beyond the point at which they had first been written down and their extensive recopying in subsequent editions reveals as well the emergence of a sophisticated culture of musical consumption.


With the invention of the printing press, new technology afforded musicians and composers a process that might make the hand copying of music less laborious. The first printed musical edition appeared in Venice in 1501, when Ottaviano Petrucci released a collection of 96 chansons, mostly written in French. While printed editions of music were cheaper than those compiled and copied by scribes in handwritten manuscripts, they were still enormously expensive by sixteenth-century standards and only available to the wealthy, cultivated few. To print his early musical editions, Petrucci had to process each page three separate times. First he had to print the staff lines on the page, then he printed the words that flowed under the lines, and the notes were added in the final impression. In 1520, Pierre Attaignant simplified the process when he developed a way to print music through a single impression in Paris; the new process quickly spread to Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. By mid-century, Europe’s primary centers of music publication included Rome, Venice, Antwerp, Paris, and Nuremberg. The rise of these centers greatly increased the flow of knowledge about recent musical developments. By the late sixteenth century, for example, printed music traveled from Rome or Venice to the farthest corners of the European continent in a matter of months, and printing became a way for composers to establish their reputations on a European-wide scale. Figures like Orlando di Lasso and Giovanni da Palestrina enjoyed widespread renown throughout the continent by virtue of the printed editions of their works. Printed music, too, allowed new compositions to be played in many places quickly. Thus the press could play a role in establishing musical tastes. Orlando di Lasso, for example, was among the first composers whose printed music helped to establish certain common tastes throughout Europe rather quickly. At the same time the importance of printed editions of music should not be overemphasized. They were still an expensive rarity when compared to the vast amount of music that circulated in hand-copied editions. Much Renaissance music, moreover, continued to be improvised from pre-existing melodies, chansons, and other musical forms, or as in the tradition of the frottola, it was often by its very nature designed to be an extemporaneous exercise. Although many songs of this sort were not written down, such singing was often governed and judged according to complex conventions and rules.

National Styles

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries French and Netherlandish composers and musicians practiced in many of the most important courts and religious institutions of Europe. By 1500, their dominance in Italy was particularly great. At the same time, all European regions had long had their own native musical cultures and idioms distinct from those of the Franco-Flemish composers who held the continent’s most important musical posts. These national styles gained a higher profile in the sixteenth century, in part due to the increase of published manuscript editions. Not long after he released his first edition of mostly French chansons, for instance, the Venetian printer Petrucci devoted his attention to printing eleven vast collections of frottole. His editions helped in spreading the popularity of this style of performance, particularly at court, where the frottole could be played and sung by performers with vast differences in ability levels. Both hired players and amateurs could join in their performance. Their simplicity, too, meant that they were open to free extemporizing on the one hand, or that they might be accompanied only by a lute on the other. The growth of musical styles like the frottola gradually undermined the dominance of French and Flemish composers and musicians in Italy, as did the training of Italians at the hands of northerners like Adrian Willaert, the organist and music director of the Cathedral of St. Mark’s in Venice, the most important musical post in Italy. In turn, the printing of these native songs and dances and their circulation throughout Europe eventually expanded the musical language of all countries as well.


The most important genre of secular music to flourish in Italy during the sixteenth century was the madrigal, a form that eventually became popular in many countries throughout Europe and which established Italy as the undisputed musical center of the later sixteenth century. The Renaissance madrigal was a musical setting of a short poem that bore little resemblance to the earlier madrigals that had flourished in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy. In the earlier period madrigals had been performed with verses that alternated with refrains. In keeping with the new influence that humanism exerted on sixteenth-century Italian taste, however, the later madrigal gave primacy to the text. It was a thoroughly composed form of music, with none of the connections to the popular and folk forms that had originally inspired the medieval style. Writers of madrigals chose to set poems that were written by the foremost poets of the age, and they expressed a preference above all for the fourteenth-century sonnets of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374). During the time that the madrigal appeared, disputes were common among poets and literary critics concerning the direction literary Italian should take. The preference for Petrarch evidenced in the early madrigal writers, in particular, fit neatly with the aims of Pietro Bembo, one of Italy’s most important arbiters of aesthetic taste and an important author. He argued that Petrarch’s Italian was particularly musical in nature. Among the qualities that Bembo identified in Petrarch were rhythm, melody, dignity, sweetness, and magnificence, and he recommended the author’s poetry to composers as particularly fitting for music. From the earliest development of the madrigal, then, Petrarch’s creations played a central role in the musical genre, inspiring Adrian Willaert and other early writers in the genre to adapt styles in their compositions that mirrored the music of Petrarch and other major Italians’ verse. In their remarkable settings these composers labored to fit their music to the moods and sounds of the poetry, crafting musical imagery that was harsh and grave or light and sweet as the text demanded. Besides Petrarch, some of the poets whose works were most frequently set in madrigals were Lodovico Ariosto, Pietro Bembo, Jacopo Sannazaro, and Torquato Tasso. While comic and satirical madrigals certainly appeared during the great Italian outpouring of madrigal writing that occurred between 1530 and 1600, most madrigals dealt with serious themes of love and eroticism. Many drew upon the popularity of pastoral poetry as well. The enormous fondness of the Italian elite for madrigals at the time cannot be disputed. More than 2,000 printed editions of these works survive from the sixteenth century alone, and the form remained one of the most popular in secular music well into the seventeenth century. Originally written for four voices, most madrigals after 1550 had five voices, and somewhat later, works written for six or more voices appeared. Composers intended each written part to be sung by only one voice, and thus the madrigal played a role in cultivated Italian circles as an early form of chamber music. The genre’s appearance and rapid development thus point to a sophisticated, although mostly amateur, culture of musical consumption. Madrigals, in other words, were performed within Italian court circles by courtiers who were relatively well educated in reading and executing musical scores.

Gesualdo and Monteverdi

The two greatest composers of madrigals were Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1561-1613) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Gesualdo was an Italian nobleman, notorious for having murdered his wife and her lover in 1586 after he caught them in the act of adultery. He outlasted the scandal, however, and in 1593 married the prominent Leonora d’Este, niece of the powerful ruler of the duchy of Ferrara. Like other composers of the later sixteenth century in Italy, Gesualdo employed chromatic scales and harmonies in his work, a fashion at the time that was prompted through the study of Greek musical treatises.

While the fad for chromaticism was considerable in Italy at the time, Gesualdo relied on it as more than a mere imitation of ancient style. In his beautiful madrigal settings, he employed chromatic melodies together with root chords that were a third apart. The result produced music that was frequently a touching response to his emotion-laden texts. By contrast, the late Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi was a master not only of madrigal composition but a pioneer in the writing of opera and a composer of sacred works as well. Born in Cremona, he served the Duke of Mantua, eventually attaining the rank of music master in his chapel. In the last thirty years of his life he gained prominence as the choirmaster at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. In 1587, Monteverdi began to publish his madrigals, and by 1605 he had produced five printed collections. His settings mixed contrapuntal and homophonic sections, and he freely employed the chromatic scales and dissonant harmonies that had grown popular in response to Greek theory. His settings were lively and sensitive responses to the texts he chose. In addition, his works were innovative and point to some of the trends that developed as important features of seventeenth-century Baroque music. Monteverdi, for instance, relied on the recitative style in many of his madrigals, allowing the voices to declaim certain important parts of the poetic text. The composer also wrote embellishments into his scores rather than allow performers to improvise these freely as was the sixteenth-century custom. Through their wide circulation in printed editions Monteverdi’s madrigals had an enormous influence on the development of musical tastes and fashions, not only in Italy, but throughout Europe.


The madrigal, a courtly and elite form of musical entertainment, was prized by the musically sophisticated circles that had sprouted in Italy during the sixteenth century. Elsewhere in Europe, native styles of song and choral music underwent a similar development. In France the chanson, a native medieval genre, had become one element of the international European musical landscape by 1500. During the first half of the sixteenth century the chanson reacquired many native French elements, and in the vicinity of Paris, in particular, a style of chanson composition, frequently referred to as “Parisian chanson,” emerged. The new form made use of distinctive French poetry, and was encouraged by the chivalric tone of Francis I’s court. Another spur to the popularity of the Parisian chanson lay in the publication efforts of Pierre Attaingnant, who published some fifty books of chansons in the years between 1528 and 1552. Attaingnant was an innovator who perfected the process of single-impression musical printing, thus greatly reducing the cost and effort needed to print music. His chanson collections included more than 1,500 musical creations, and other French printers soon imitated their success. The earliest printed chansons were similar in many respects to the frottole popular in Italy around the same time. They were light confections that moved quickly and rhythmically, scored for four voices with the highest voice most often carrying the melody. Somewhat later, hundreds of the most popular of these songs were transcribed for the lute or for the voice with lute accompaniment. Among the most popular compositions Attaingnant published were the songs of Clément Janequin (c. 1585-c. 1560). Janequin’s chansons made use of sounds that imitated the birds, calls to the hunt, battle cries, and street noises, and they had a dominant melodic line. Outside Paris, printers in sixteenth-century Lyons and Antwerp continued to publish chansons that were true to the genre’s original polyphonic origins. And after 1550, French fascination with the polyphonic madrigal exerted an influence on the traditional chansons. At this time some composers experimented with inserting madrigal elements into the production of their chansons, including the madrigals’ polyphonic and contrapuntal texture. As the seventeenth century approached, though, the homophonic Parisian style of chanson tended to dominate throughout France.

Musique Mesurée À L’antique

Another sign of the creative ferment that the alliance between Renaissance and humanism was producing throughout Europe lies in the development of the musique mesurée à l’antique. This French form developed in the second half of the sixteenth century in a series of experiments undertaken by members of the Pléiade, a group of poets concerned with applying the metrical lines of ancient Greek and Latin poetry to the writing of sixteenth-century French verse. Underlying the concerns of the members of the Pléiade—most notably Jean-Antoine de Baïf—was the notion that music and poetry should be reunited, as he and others believed they had been in the ancient world. De Baïf soon enlisted a number of musical colleagues to achieve this reunification of the two arts. The composers that participated in this effort to set French texts, based on classical metrical models, to music included Thibault de Courville, Guillaume Costeley, and, perhaps most importantly, Claude Le Jeune. Just as in the spoken performance of these poems, musique mesurée à l’antique proceeded through a combination of long and short sounds, intended to heighten the difference between the accented and unaccented syllables that were fundamental to the endeavor of creating French lyrics based on classical models. The result produced an austere, somewhat severe style of music, but one that fascinated French humanist intellectuals and many educated musicians and composers during the 1570s. In developing musique mesurée à l’antique, de Baïf worked in tandem with Thibault de Courville to set out a theory for the new music, and in 1570 enough interest in the project had developed to found the Académie de Poésie et de Musique, an institution that soon received a royal charter. Like many humanist-inspired experiments in music, the Académie de Poésie et de Musique had a philosophical agenda: to revive the power of music to achieve ethical virtua, a power that humanists believed had existed in Antiquity, but had long since been corrupted. Through concerts, de Baïf and other members of the Académie hoped to spread their new art form among a small cadre of intellectuals and members of Paris’ political elites, who might then work for the reform of all music in France along the lines advocated by the Académie. Thus membership in the organization included both professional musicians and a second category of listeners, who were learned and often wealthy musical fans. This second group of members were expected to support the institution financially, in large part by paying expensive yearly fees for admission to its concerts. Despite such grand intentions the Académie was not a success, but points rather to the perennial appeal that the revival of classical musical forms had on the musical figures of the later Renaissance.


The Lied, a distinctively German song form, experienced a development similar to the madrigal in Italy and the chanson in France. The earliest collections of Lieder survive from the mid-fifteenth century, and show that these songs were performed either as simple monophonic melodies or they were set in three voices with the tenor singing the melody. Like the madrigal and chansons, the singing of Lieder flourished and developed in tandem with courtly musical life. One of the most accomplished sixteenth-century composers of these songs was Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537), who served as organist to the Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1489-1519). Hofhaimer relied on traditional German melodies that he set in harmony according to the contrapuntal techniques popularized by the French and Flemish composers of the day. Through the efforts of composers like Ludwig Senfl, too, the Lied became a highly artful genre that was similar in many ways to the complex choral motets sung throughout Northern Europe at the time. At the same time Senfl and others composed shorter Lieder that imitated folk melodies and which often had a bawdy quality. With the rise of music printing in the first half of the sixteenth century, the wealthy city of Nuremberg became Germany’s primary center of Lieder publication, and many collections of the songs issued from the city. Later in the century, however, Lieder publication fell off in Germany as the taste for the more complex Italian madrigal grew. The melodies that had been popularized in the earlier printed Lieder collections, however, formed the basis upon which many late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century composers constructed Protestant chorales, hymns that were sung in Germany’s newly reformed Lutheran churches.

Madrigals and Songs in England

The printing and performance of secular songs written in parts developed in England somewhat later than in the rest of Europe, and was intricately connected to the Italian madrigal’s rising popularity in the late sixteenth century. Nicholas Yonge’s 1588 Transalpine Music (Musica transalpina) represents the first collection of madrigals published in England. Yonge merely translated and adapted these works from Italian models, and in his preface he explained that he had been meeting regularly with a group of gentlemen to perform these works. His anthology became popular, and by the 1590s it inspired a number of composers to produce their own madrigals. Among the most prolific of these English madrigal composers were Thomas Morley (1557-1602) and John Wilbye (1574-1638). Great variety characterized the many English madrigals that were written between the 1590s and the 1630s. Generally, though, their musical phrases were longer than those that originated in Italy at the same time. And while Italian composers granted primacy to the setting of the texts, English composers tended to pay greater attention to the overall musical and aesthetic structures of their works. As the sixteenth century drew to a close in England, collections of lute songs became popular, too. In these solo songs with lute accompaniment composers set to music some of the best English poetry of the period, and the literary quality of these works is usually consistently better than the texts used at about the same time for madrigals. The two most prominent composers of lute songs were John Dowland (1562-1626) and Thomas Campion (1567-1620). Dowland’s “Flow, my tears” was among the most successful and well known of the lute songs. Published in 1600, it inspired a number of variations and arrangements.

Instrumental Music

Music intended to be played only by instruments had long existed in Europe as accompaniment to dances, or as incidental pieces at courtly banquets and other entertainments. Because most of this music was improvised or played from memory, very little instrumental music had ever been written down before the later fifteenth century; the surviving manuscripts and sixteenth-century printed editions we possess record only a small portion of Renaissance instrumental music. These written works, too, are rarely reliable guides to the actual performance of the pieces since, until very late, written music did not stipulate the embellishments that performers should include. Performers made these enhancements to the written text according to certain commonly accepted conventions, and at the same time they often freely improvised on the text’s theme. The increasing number of musical instructional books common in Renaissance Europe points to the growing importance Europeans attached to the proper performance of instrumental music. Many of these books taught their readers how to embellish a musical line as well as how to tune their instruments. The first of such works, Sebastian Virdung’s A Summary of the Musical Sciences in German, appeared in 1511. Many similar books followed that were of a practical nature and addressed both the professional and amateur musician. Consequently, they were written in the national languages rather than in the Latin preferred by writers of musical theory. The ensemble instruments preferred by the composers of sixteenth-century instrumental music were the viol, the harp, the flute, the shawm (an early double-reeded form of the oboe), the cornet, trumpet, and sackbut (an early version of the trombone). The keyboard instruments of the day consisted of the portable organ or organetto, the pipe organ (which by the sixteenth century had acquired the massive size and fixed position in churches similar to the modern instrument), the clavichord, and the harp-sichord. The most popular domestic instrument in use throughout Europe was the lute, an instrument that by the sixteenth century already had more than five centuries of history. In Spain the lute resembled the modern guitar, while elsewhere it was shaped more like a pear.

Performance Practice

Despite the growth in forms of instrumental music, vocal music continued to be dominant in the written music of sixteenth-century Europe, and its importance influenced many instrumental performance practices. In accompanying the Mass or in the performance of other choral pieces, instruments typically served to double or substitute for voices in the choir. Instrumental and organ interludes were played between the various sections of the Mass or they were used as intermezzi within one of its sections. In addition, a number of musical forms developed that were based around vocal compositional models. In Italy, for instance, composers wrote pieces for ensembles and instruments that were termed Canzone da sonar (“songs to be played”). At first, these pieces imitated the fast-moving chanson vocal style, with its strong rhythms and straightforward counterpoint based around a central theme. Over time, however, composers broke these works into sections and often employed different themes in each of the work’s movements. The sixteenth century, too, saw a great elaboration in instrumental dance music, much of it written for the lute, the keyboard, or small ensembles. Most dance music at the time still tended to be improvised, but printers also released collections of dances. Written and printed forms of dance music grew more complex, and while many pieces retained the rhythms originally associated with a dance, they were not intended to accompany dancers, but to serve as diversions in well-heeled or aristocratic households. Over time, too, composers tended to group these stylized, diversionary dances into suites comprised of several different types of pieces in contrasting meters. In the dance suites slow movements usually alternated with faster ones. Fashions for dances changed greatly over time. Around 1550, the most popular dance throughout Europe was the allemande, a dance in double meter that continued to be included in the dance suites written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries long after its popularity had waned. Pavanes and galliards, too, while popular in the sixteenth century, survived as musical forms long after their popularity had faded in the ballroom. In the Baroque era, for example, the widespread popularity of dance suites extended the life of many Renaissance dances. Although many forms like the pavane or the galliard came to be danced less and less over time, their rhythms and styles of musical composition lived on in instrumental music of that later period.


By the Renaissance, improvisation already had a long history throughout Western Europe. Improvised variations on tunes, for instance, had a venerable tradition as the accompaniment to social dancing. With the advent of printing, some variations began to be written down. In 1508, Joan Ambrosio Dalza published a series of Italian tunes for which he included variations suitable for accompanying dances on the lute. The custom of crafting variations continued to flourish in the sixteenth century, particularly in Spain, where composers for the lute and keyboard developed the genre of variation to a high level. Of all the sixteenth-century variations that survive, however, the most technically brilliant were those created by a group of English composers known as the Virginalists, who composed variations for the keyboard. The leading figure among the Virginalists was William Byrd (1543-1623), who composed a series of keyboard variations notable for their brilliant song-like character. Other Virginalists included John Bull (c. 1562-1628) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). The art of variation that flourished in England at the time did not always place great emphasis on displaying the technical brilliance of the player, but instead composers tried to play ingenuously with the themes they selected from the lute songs and other melodies popular in England at the time.


Sixteenth-century achievements in music began with the great masses and sacred motets of Josquin des Prez, and the legacy of achievement continued unbroken throughout the century. In these developments, though, secular music played an increasingly important role. Humanism’s influence on music could be felt in the revival of Greek and Roman theory concerning the art, and in a new attention to song texts. Chromatic and harmonic inventiveness were also another direct result of the revival of knowledge of antique music. In Italy, the great courts, cathedrals, and wealthy merchant families expanded their patronage of musicians and composers, attracting many French and Flemish immigrants during the first half of the century. Eventually Italians trained by the greatest of these figures established Italy as the undisputed center of European musical life, a position that it retained over the next two centuries. Italian forms, like the madrigals, frottole, and balleti, became popular throughout Europe, competing against native musical styles that were also being enriched and creatively reassessed at the same time. Instrumental music, too, became increasingly important during the later Renaissance, as exemplified by the many musical handbooks and written instrumental pieces that survive from the period. The tendency to commit more music to written and printed scores placed a higher emphasis on the technical virtuosity of performers, since a written text could now be compared against the actual performance. In turn, this new tendency to “fix” later Renaissance music in printed and written scores gave birth to many manuals that treated proper performance techniques and the arts of ornamentation and elaboration. The rising fashion for instrumental music at the time inspired the development of new instruments that often shared the traits of increased volume and tonal range. The innovations of Renaissance instrumental and vocal music, largely centered in Italy, spread quickly to all corners of the continent through travel and the printed page.

Religious Music in the Later Renaissance


If the sixteenth century represented a great age of secular musical achievement and innovation, religious music was to be equally transformed by the enormous religious changes that occurred at the time. The Reformation began with Martin Luther’s attack on the sale of indulgences in 1517, and, over the decade that followed, a number of groups with teachings focused on reforming the Catholic Church appeared throughout Northern Europe. While some Reformation figures—notably Ulrich Zwingli in Zürich—aimed to purify the church of music altogether, most retained some place for it in the new Protestant services. The developing Lutheran Church was the most accepting of medieval musical practices. Throughout Germany many of the territorial churches reformed along the lines of Luther’s model kept a great deal of the musical tradition of the medieval church alive. Often new German texts conformed to the old melodies of the Middle Ages, but innovations occurred as well. Luther himself had been a singer, and he composed many vivid new hymns for the Reformation movement that stirred the imagination, deepened the piety, and inspired musical creativity for centuries. A great age in the writing of hymns, or “chorales” in the German Lutheran tradition, resulted from the relatively accepting and fluid attitude of the Lutheran Church toward music. Elsewhere the situation was not so tolerant. The reformed churches that followed the religious ideas of John Calvin and other more extreme reformers permitted music in church life, but often in a new, severe way. The leaders of Reformed congregations usually insisted on a spare and unadorned style in musical performance, and they resisted great musical embellishments and elaboration in performance. The chief musical achievements of this tradition lay in the Psalters, collections of tunes that set to music the poetic texts of the Old Testament Psalms. With the penetration of reformed ideas into late sixteenth-century England and the growth of Puritanism, the music of the new Anglican Church grew more restrained as well. In Anglicanism, a musical tradition developed that placed a greater emphasis on music that did not obscure the sacred texts, but which made their meanings obvious to worshipers. Similarly, a new stress on making religious lyrics intelligible to the laity dominated the music of the Roman Catholic Church over the course of the sixteenth century. Composers in the Counter-Reformation Church downplayed the intricate simultaneous vocal lines and complex polyphony that had flourished in the later Middle Ages. This new sensibility, which favored the primacy of the text in the composition of vocal music, was one of the hallmarks of the age for both Catholics and Protestants.

Lutheran Chorales

The Lutheran Church’s most distinctive musical contribution to sacred music was the chorale, a verse hymn set to a tune. The first Lutheran hymnals appeared in 1524 in Luther’s hometown of Wittenberg and also at Nuremberg and Erfurt. Luther himself wrote many of the texts for these early collections, and he and a close composer friend Johann Walther set them to music. The first chorales were to be sung without accompaniment and in unison. Luther’s own hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” illustrates some of the musical properties that developed early on in this tradition. Most of the words of the hymn are set to music using a single tone for each syllable, although melisma—the singing of a word or syllable on more than one tone—added emphasis to words like “fortress,” “sword,” and “bulwark” that convey the poem’s central ideas. Luther, unlike more severe Protestant Reformers, also approved of polyphony in church music, calling it a “heavenly dance.” In the collections upon which he and Walther collaborated, they included a number of Latin motets written in five-part harmony. Although the chorale texts originally written in Lutheran hymnals had a simple unison tune, by the late sixteenth century harmony had become an essential part of the chorale tradition. In the numerous hymnals published at the time, four-part settings with the melody carried in the highest voice dominated. It is difficult to overestimate the popularity of hymns in the Lutheran Church. Throughout the sixteenth century Lutheran pastors, musicians, and composers combed through the medieval tradition in search of tunes in sacred and secular music that were appropriate for the new chorales. They adopted texts and music from traditional plainsong, composed new texts that they set to the music of popular secular songs, and wrote many hymns from scratch. Luther himself termed these spiritual songs “sermons in sound,” and he believed they possessed the power to purge the soul of evil thoughts and to prepare it to commune with God. The force of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was so widely revered throughout the Lutheran confession that it was sometimes even used to exorcize those who were believed to be demonically possessed. In Reformation Germany, a distinctly vibrant culture of chorale singing was one of the results of Luther’s and other early Protestant reformers’ admiration for the power of music. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Lutheran tradition’s major musical figures, from Heinrich Schütz to Johann Sebastian Bach, elaborated and embellished the Reformation chorale tradition, elevating it to the level of high art.

The Psalters

The tradition of church music that developed in Switzerland, France, and other regions of Europe where Reformed Protestantism took hold differed greatly from the harmonic complexity and embellished elaboration of the Lutheran tradition. Reformed Christianity, a second wing of the Protestant Reformation, began to emerge first in Switzerland and along the Rhine River in southwestern Germany around the same time as Luther attacked the traditional church. A key figure in defining this tradition was Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), who banned all music from the churches of Zürich in spite of his background as a humanist, musician, and lover of the arts. Sacred music did not return to the city until the very last years of the sixteenth century. Elsewhere, Reformed Christians did not oppose music so completely, although they limited its use and development far more than Lutherans did. At Geneva in French-speaking Switzerland, John Calvin (1509-1564) helped to codify the Reformed tradition’s teachings during his more than twenty years’ tenure in the city as its chief minister. He opposed many of the elaborate ceremonial elements of the traditional church, and sought to restrict the use of music by insisting that all texts sung in church have biblical foundations. Thus throughout most of the Reformed churches in Europe, the greatest achievements in sacred music consisted largely of the Psalters, collections of translations from the Old Testament Book of Psalms that were set to music with melodies drawn from medieval plainsong, from popular secular songs, and from some newly written tunes. Although some harmonized versions of the Psalters were published for private use in Reformed homes, these hymns were originally sung in unison in church. Eventually some simple four-part harmonies did make their way into Reformed practice. The first of the many Psalters that appeared in sixteenth-century Reformed Christianity was the Geneva Psalter of 1542, which was followed by several later editions in the city. This first Geneva Psalter made use of fifty of Clément Marot’s translations of the Psalms, which had been rendered in an elegant metrical French verse. Marot’s translations, although condemned by the theological faculty of the University of Paris, were wildly popular in France at the time. More than 500 editions of his Psalm translations were published in French during the sixteenth century, and their inclusion as the texts in the first Geneva Psalter helps to explain part of the book’s popularity and its constant republication. The book also spread to other non-French speaking regions of Europe, including the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Germany. In some of these places, the popularity of the Geneva Psalter, with its sophisticated metrical renderings, encouraged the replacement of previously existing Psalters. In other places, like England, Scotland, and the New England colonies, the Geneva Psalter inspired new native versions of the Psalms. While the Reformed Psalms never rivaled the Lutheran chorales for musical inventiveness, they were a devotional music that was prized for generations in their own tradition.


England’s long, sometimes torturous Reformation greatly affected religious music. Although England’s music had inspired the innovations of the Flemish composers of the early fifteenth century, the country was largely a musical backwater by the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. At this time musical currents on the island were relatively isolated from the innovations in Renaissance style that were occurring on the continent. This situation began to change slowly under Henry VII (r. 1485-1509), and during the reign of his son Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) English music began to flower. Both Henry VII and Henry VIII were music lovers, and during their reigns, the religious music of the English court acquired greater sophistication. By the mid-sixteenth century a number of native composers were at work in service to the court and the country’s major religious institutions. The most important of these was Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585), whose long and varied career illustrates some of the implications that England’s “long Reformation” had for the musical scene. Tallis entered into royal service under Henry VIII, the monarch who severed ties to Rome to achieve his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Henry, however, remained a religious conservative, and the pieces that Tallis wrote for the English church at the time were largely traditional in nature. During the reign of Henry’s minor son, Edward VI, Protestant forces at court achieved ascendancy over religious practices, and in the king’s short reign, they attempted to introduce the severe style of Reformed worship in the English church. As part of this goal, they required Tallis to write service music to be used in tandem with the Book of Common Prayer, and he wrote a number of austere, yet beautiful anthems on biblical texts in English translation. In 1553, the premature death of Edward, however, resulted in the re-introduction of Catholic practices throughout the land at the instigation of Queen Mary I. In response, Tallis returned to writing Latin hymns, motets, and masses. The Catholic Restoration proved equally short-lived, with the ascendancy of Elizabeth I in 1558, who soon re-introduced the Book of Common Prayer and Protestant reforms throughout the Church of England. Tallis now returned to writing works in English, although under the generally tolerant attitude of Elizabeth, he continued to compose works in Latin. Among the greatest achievements of his maturity in Elizabethan times were two settings of the Old Testament Lamentations of Jeremiah. Another of his greatest works was the motet Spem in alium, a work that was scored for a remarkable forty voices, each carrying a different melodic line. Both the Lamentations and Spem in alium are noteworthy for their intricate interplay of vocal lines. They are dramatic tour de forces of Renaissance polyphony, yet at the same time, the composer always managed to find a pleasing balance in his work between the texts that he set to music and the use of counterpoint and harmony. Despite their complexity, they beautifully portray the spirit of the lyrics they convey.

Music in Anglicanism

As the life of Tallis suggests, the Reformation in England had major implications for composers of sacred music. A chief aim of Edward VI’s introduction of the Book of Common Prayer was to introduce the celebration of the liturgy in the native language, and he and his Protestant officialdom desired to eliminate the elaborate traditional music of the Roman Church. In its place, these figures wanted to sponsor a new kind of religious music notable for its textual clarity and simplicity. Catholic restoration brought yet another series of short-lived changes to the sacred music favored in England, although Elizabeth I’s ascendancy to the throne in 1558 signaled a new “middle path.” During her long reign she took a generally accepting attitude toward the traditional Latin motets and masses of the medieval past, allowing these services to be celebrated in some of the island’s venerable religious institutions. At the same time the composers favored at court—figures like William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, and Orlando Gibbons—created new forms of Anglican service music that survived over the following centuries. Chief among the services of the English Book of Common Prayer were the Offices of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Holy Communion, reformed celebrations of two of the medieval Offices and the Mass. Since Holy Communion was celebrated less frequently than it had been in the medieval church, the composition of masses played a less important role in Anglicanism than it did in Roman Catholicism. Choral evensongs and anthems composed for the celebration of Morning Prayer tended to replace the once dominant choral mass. At the same time the custom of composing Great and Short Services developed. In a Great Service, composers like William Byrd created elaborate choral responses that relied on counterpoint and all the devices common to the musical life of Renaissance Europe at the time. The more common Short Service, though, made use of far simpler unison responses, which could be sung to simple chordal music, chanted, or merely spoken. In the most elaborate Anglican ceremonies the anthem played a role similar to that of the Catholic motet in the Roman Church as a musical interlude within the service, or as part of a solemn occasion external to the church’s ritual. And as with the Catholic motet, the anthem became one of the most important avenues for composers to demonstrate their technical finesse during the sixteenth century.

Council of Trent

Protestants were not alone in making major reforms in church music during the sixteenth century. The criticisms of the elaborate, overly ornate worship of the fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century church struck a chord within the Catholic Church, too. Between 1545 and 1563 the Council of Trent met in several sessions to answer the charges that Protestants had made against the church and to refine church discipline, theology, and religious practices. The church fathers who met in Trent, a city on the northern Italian border with Austria, did not consider religious music in much depth or detail. Instead they insisted that churches should be houses of God in which nothing “impure or lascivious” occurred, and that they wanted to rid the church of worldly music, including the longstanding practice of composing imitation masses that were based on popular songs. The Council also insisted that the texts of sacred music should be readily intelligible, since the liturgical text was the focus of worship. Beyond these prescriptions, however, the Council gave composers little concrete guidance, although a new more severe style of religious music soon began to flourish in Italy, prompted in part by the spirit of the age and also by the peninsula’s bishops and major religious institutions who favored greater clarity and less ornamentation in music. Eventually, this style influenced Catholic music throughout Europe. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) was the chief exponent of this new, more serious style. He had been born in Palestrina, a small town near Rome, and received his musical education in the church’s capital. He began to compose early, publishing his first masses when he was only nineteen. His musical idiom fit the developing contours of the Counter-Reformation in the city, and he held a number of important posts in Rome as choirmaster. As part of Palestrina’s duties, he was also responsible for revising the church’s official chants, a task that he did not complete during his lifetime because of its enormous complexity. According to the directives given to him by Pope Gregory XIII, he was expected to purge the church’s chants of “barbarisms” and “superfluities” so that the teachings of the Mass and of the other Christian rituals might stand out in greater relief. The composer also wrote more than 100 masses and almost 250 motets. A master of the developing madrigal style, he composed about 50 of these works based on religious themes. Palestrina’s music brilliantly fit with the serious tone of Catholic reform, and although he relied on polyphony, his compositions gave greater primacy to the text. To achieve this union between music and sacred message, Palestrina generally reduced the number of voice parts, usually only writing for four voices, rather than the five, six, or even more parts that filled the works of his contemporaries. To this economy of harmony, Palestrina also brought gentle rhythmic lines that enhanced the music’s message.


While Palestrina’s most masterful achievements were in his settings of the Mass, Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594), a composer in the Franco-Flemish tradition, brought his considerable talents to bear on the perfecting of the motet to fit within the changed circumstances of Counter-Reformation taste. Though the composer spent his youth publishing books of madrigals, chansons, and motets, he eventually concentrated in his later years solely on the production of sacred motets, leaving behind 500 of these works at his death. Like Palestrina, his later works (published by his sons a decade after his death), reveal a dynamic association between textual rhetoric and musical interpretation. Yet Lasso’s temperamental and tempestuous nature is reflected in his music, which varies freely, includes rich harmonies and intricate vocal lines, and is governed by sudden changes in tempo, rhythm, and harmony. Only rarely did Lasso make use of the contemporary fashion for chromatic scales, but when he did, he always wedded its use to the piece’s words. Lasso was one of the first composers to establish his reputation largely through musical printing, gaining a reputation during his years in Italy in the 1540s and 1550s for his numerous published musical pieces. From 1556 onward, he lived in the relative isolation of Munich, the capital of the Duchy of Bavaria. Here he had access to the considerable musical establishment and resources amassed by the Bavarian dukes over previous decades. Even in this relative backwater, Lasso continued to publish his pieces, which were enthusiastically studied by composers throughout Europe and performed by ensembles soon after they came into print. From this vantage point, they had an enormous influence on sacred musical conventions, not only in Catholic Europe but in some Protestant centers as well.


The dynamic events of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations left their imprint on the sacred music of sixteenth-century Europe. The most radical centers of Protestantism removed music altogether from the church. Other branches of Protestantism—particularly the Genevan Reformed tradition—allowed music to flourish only within rigid confines. In Lutheranism and Anglicanism, a greater tolerance, even approval, for sacred music inspired new forms like the chorale and the anthem. A key feature shared by both Protestant and counter-reforming Catholic composers, however, was a new emphasis on the importance of texts and on fashioning a musical vocabulary to convey religious meaning in a way that was forceful and clearly intelligible to listeners.

Music Theory in the Renaissance


For most of the Renaissance, music was also considered a branch of the sciences. From the early medieval period onward music had been designated as one of the four mathematical branches of the quadrivium, the curriculum used by secondary schools as a prerequisite for entrance into the university. The issues that had been identified by the early medieval philosopher Boethius in his treatise, Fundamentals of Music, continued in the early Renaissance to dominate questions concerning music as a science. In the Fundamentals, written around 500 C.E., Boethius concentrated on the pitches and musical intervals, and he treated knowledge of the mathematical proportions in music as a way to attain virtue. His work transmitted some ancient musical theory to the Middle Ages, and it did so relying, in particular, on the ideas of Pythagoras. Pythagoras had treated the proportions of musical scales as revealing the entire order that underlay the human soul as well as the physical universe. Thus the study of music, as championed by Boethius’s treatise, laid great stress on identifying the underlying rationale behind Creation. In 1500 Boethius’ treatise was still the essential starting point for any student hoping to undertake the study of music as a part of the quadrivium, although the body of theoretical texts written from the vantage point of music as a science had grown enormously during the fifteenth century.

Revival of Antiquity

This great flowering of theory had its inspiration in the efforts of humanists working mostly in Italy, who scoured European monastic libraries in search of ancient musical texts and imported many of these works from the Byzantine Empire, the descendant of ancient Rome in the Eastern Mediterranean that fell to the Turks in 1453. Some of the many musical texts that came to be known in new Latin translations were those of Ptolemy, Euclid, Aristides Quintilianus, Aristotle, and Plato. While many theorists in the fifteenth century tried to remain faithful to the Pythagorean tradition, the sheer variety of ideas about music that circulated at the time prompted reassessment. The chief debates among musical theorists continued to revolve around issues of pitch and tuning, harmony, and how these related to the human mind, the body, and the physical universe. But ancient philosophers like Plato had also taught that the musical forms, particularly the various modes, produced moral effects in their listeners. Renaissance musical theoreticians, then, became fascinated with stories from ancient literature that warned about and celebrated music’s effects on the individual. They frequently quoted a legend about Pythagoras, who had allegedly calmed a violent youth by changing a piper’s tune, or Alexander the Great who had been stirred to battle by a song written in the Phrygian mode. In trying to understand the power of ancient music, Renaissance theorists soon realized that an insufficient understanding of the pitches and tuning systems of ancient music hampered their efforts. They recognized that medieval musical theory had merely associated the eight modes that had flourished in medieval plainsong—the Dorian, Phrygian, and so forth—with the similarly named modes of the ancient world. Johannes Gallicus (1415-1473), who worked in tandem with humanists in the city of Mantua, was the first to discover that a vast difference separated the Greek systems of music from medieval plainsong. His work inspired a number of subsequent musical theorists to try to recover a firmer understanding of the various scales, modes, and tuning systems that underlay ancient music.

Musical Aesthetics

Until 1550 much of the musical theory that flourished as a result of these questions was highly technical and mathematical in nature. The scholarly interest in rediscovering the precise pitch relationships or intervals that had existed in ancient music had little impact on musical practice. Most of these figures pursued the theory that the mathematical study of pitch provided a way to illuminate the universal harmonies they believed inspired music’s beauty as well as its power to stir the senses and perfect the soul. But while frequently arid and theoretical, the ferment this scholarship produced can be seen in the debate that occurred between two of the most distinguished theoreticians of the mid-sixteenth century: Gioseffe Zarlino (1517-1590) and Vincenzo Galilei (1530-1590).

Zarlino Controversy

Zarlino had been trained by the most distinguished musician in early sixteenth-century Italy: the Flemish composer Adrian Willaert, who was at the time choirmaster of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Zarlino himself succeeded his teacher in that position. In his work, The Art of Counterpoint (1558), Zarlino credited Willaert with reintroducing a sophisticated style of musical composition inspired by the ancients, and he rejected the music of the Middle Ages as barbaric. Like those who had come before him, Zarlino associated the relationship of pitches with numerical ratios, and he accepted as a given that the ancients had understood the underlying mathematical nature of music. Although his Art of Counterpoint survived as a practical manual on the techniques of counterpoint that composers used well into the seventeenth century, his theoretical perspectives on ancient music were soon to be challenged by one of his most prominent students, Vincenzo Galilei. A patrician, Galilei had studied with Zarlino in Venice during the 1560s, and he continued to nourish his interest in ancient music throughout the rest of his life. Galilei’s correspondence with another scholar, Girolamo Mei, undermined his faith in Zarlino’s conclusions about ancient music. Mei showed Galilei that Greek music had been single-toned or monophonic rather than polyphonic, and thus it could not serve as a ready guide for modern harmony or counterpoint, the original aim of Zarlino’s The Art of Counterpoint. As he combed through the historical record, Mei found no evidence that polyphony and counterpoint had existed in European music before the early fifteenth century. The Greeks, Mei showed, had actively rejected polyphonic music because they believed it diluted the emotional effects of a piece to allow several different melodies and pitches to play at the same time. In 1581, Galilei published his Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music, a work in which he publicized many of Mei’s historical insights and thus threw into question the suitability of ancient theory in the practice of contemporary music. Galilei also examined the ways in which the instruments of his time were tuned, and he showed that none of the tuning systems then in use followed the numerical relationships advocated in the works of the Greeks. The specific tuning of any instruments, he argued, was subjected not to an underlying set of natural and mathematical laws but to the ear itself, which became used to hearing tones in a certain way. According to Galilei, scales, polyphony, the modes, and tuning systems were all mediated by culture and thus had no relationship to universal or cosmic harmonies. His work thus opened up the possibility of viewing the final arbiter of “good” and “bad” music according to mere considerations of taste, a strikingly relativistic notion among the musical theorists of the day. At the same time Galilei did not question that moderns might learn from the ancients, for he included a plea in his work for music that was monodic, that is, which consisted of a single melodic line accompanied by a simple orchestration.


While the debate raged between supporters of Zarlino and Galilei, Galilei played an important role in attempts to revive an historically accurate style of Greek performance. Since the early 1570s, the theorist had been involved in a circle of music connoisseurs and scholars that met in the home of his patron, Vincenzo Bardi in Florence. This group, which later became known as the camerata (“circle”), examined many topics in literature, science, and the arts. Out of this coterie developed the first attempts to fashion recitative. At its origins, recitative was intended to be a naturally expressive vocal line with changes in pitch, rhythm, and tempo that mirrored the text being recited. Galilei himself experimented with recitative, setting to monodic lines selections from Dante’s Divine Comedy. His example inspired the poet Ottavio Rinuccini and the composer Jacopo Peri, who wrote the earliest forms of opera in the final years of the sixteenth century.


Growing out of the tradition of the quadrivium, the musical science of the Renaissance encompassed the study of the harmonies, intervals, and proportions of music as a branch of the mathematical sciences. Little change was evident in the musical theory produced in Europe until the later fifteenth century, when humanist-trained scholars began to realize that many previously accepted ideas about ancient music were inaccurate. At this time they ransacked libraries in search of ancient musical texts and imported Greek works from Byzantium, translating these works into Latin, and somewhat later into Italian. From this vantage point, they were now more widely read and studied. Questions continued, though, about the precise harmonic intervals and pitches that had governed ancient music, as many Renaissance theorists believed that these might provide some clues to the relationships that underpinned all Creation and which governed music’s relationships to the human body, mind, and spirit. At the same time a definite shift in emphasis is evident in many of the works of musical theory published in the later sixteenth century. In the debate between Gioseffe Zarlino and Vincenzo Galilei, aesthetic questions, rather than mathematical issues, dominated the discussion. In these disputes Galilei promoted the notion that ancient music’s power had resided in simple melodic lines, lines that emphasized the text and that possessed the power to move people’s hearts and emotions, rather than in mathematical harmonies. He and other thinkers promoted a new art, the recitative, that gave greater weight to words than to harmony, and they attacked many of the polyphonic forms like the madrigal that were then in use. Galilei’s own work, however, had set up the human ear as the final arbiter of taste in music, and thus supporters of the madrigal and other polyphonic forms popular at the time were able to counter that these genres were capable of stirring the emotions and of ennobling their listeners. Polyphony did not die out as a result of the innovations of later Renaissance theorists like Galilei and Mei, but recitative and other monodic forms were to be integrated into the early Baroque opera and other musical forms and consequently to enrich the musical choices available to later European composers.