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  Main characteristics of Renaissance Music
Polyphonic Music
Choral Music
Gregorian Chant
Modes and Chant
Characteristics of Renaissance Music
Form
Melody
Rhythm
Harmony
Texture
Timbre

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  The Renaissance Period (1450-1600)

Main characteristics of Renaissance Music

painting of a lute player

The Lute Player
Michelangelo Merissi da Caravaggio

(1563-1610)

The beginning of the musical Renaissance is a matter of debate. Some historians place it at about 1400 with the generation of Gilles Binchois, also known as Gilles de Binche or Gilles de Bins (c.1400-1460) and Guillaume Dufay (c.1398-1474). Others set the beginning with the rise of imitative counterpoint at about 1450, while still others place it around 1500 when humanism created a strong link between music and poetry. It is, nonetheless, commonly accepted that the flourishing of secular music associated with the Renaissance period occurred in the early 15th century, mainly in the Court of Burgundy. Some of the salient characteristics of the period—fascination with classical antiquity, erosion of the authority of the church, burgeoning humanism, emergence of affluent urban centers, and the creation of important universities—were manifest in the northwestern area of present-day France.

Guillaume Dufay and Binchois

Guillaume Dufay and Binchois

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Polyphonic Music

During the Renaissance, the polyphonic experiments of the Middle Ages reached fruition. During no other time in history has polyphonic music been produced more abundantly and beautifully.

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Choral Music

For several reasons, the Renaissance is considered the Golden Age of Choral Music. First, more choral music—mainly for small ensembles—was written in this period than at any other time in music history. Most of these compositions were performed a cappella, meaning without accompaniment. Second, all of the important forms of the age (motet, mass, anthem, chanson, and madrigal) were choral music forms. Third, across Europe, instruments were still in the process of becoming standardized. It would take another 150 years for the modern orchestra to start taking shape.

Click to Listen Choral Music Click to Listen Chanson
Click to Listen Motet Click to Listen Madrigal
Click to Listen Anthem Click to Listen A cappella
Click to Listen Mass  

 

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Gregorian Chant

Gregorian chant was still used as the basis of many polyphonic church compositions. The chant evolved into the tenor part. During the Renaissance, composers of sacred music continued the practice of keeping the original chant as the basis for the main melody; they called this chant the cantus firmus. The cantus firmus did not necessarily have to occupy the tenor part, although that was still the most common place for it.

Click to Listen Gregorian chant
Click to Listen Polyphonic church composition
Click to Listen Cantus Firmus

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Modes and Harmony

Although Renaissance composers, particularly sacred music composers, continued to use church modes, they slowly started adopting modes that are equivalent to our present major and minor scales. Probably the most important development in Renaissance music, due in part to the work of Dunstable and other English composers, was giving harmony a much more important role within the composition.

Click to Listen Modes equivalent to present major
Click to Listen Modes equivalent to present minor
Click to Listen Harmony

 

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Characteristics of Renaissance Music

Below are some of the basic characteristics of the music.

Form

  • Mostly polyphonic, with the cantus firmus (chant melody) in the lowest voice.
  • All sorts of imitation between the voices, some of it very complicated, is an important to organizing element.
  • Composers often use pre-existing music and often include the entire piece within a larger composition.
  • Compositions have a number of sections. Often, each section is the setting of only one line of a text, with rarely any repetition of music from one section to another.
  • Repetition and contrast are used in dance forms.

Melody

  • Melody is the most important factor in Renaissance music. Harmony and/or rhythm cannot be easily separated from the melody.
  • Melodies, even those for instruments, are very vocal in style. The range is rarely more than one octave.

Rhythm

  • Rhythm is free from strict meters, and the rhythmic phrases are generally long and overlap between the voices.
  • Rhythms are often very complicated.

Harmony

  • Harmony is a result of the various lines sounding together, but not as a purposeful chord.

Texture

  • Texture is mostly polyphonic, until the 16th century, when some sections are homophonic for contrast and variety.

Timbre

  • For much of the Renaissance, the human voice was the chosen timbre. Instruments may double the voices in both sacred and secular music.
  • Instruments started to be used without voices in the 16th century, particularly the organ and harpsichord.
  • Toward the end of the 16th century, ensembles of string or wind instruments were popular with composers and audiences.
  • The lute was the most popular stringed instrument. The vihuela—considered by many to be the precursor of the modern classical guitar—evolved in the mid 1400s in Spain.
Click to Listen Tiento I by Luys Milan (1500-1560)

 

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Ave Maria Gratia Plena
Josquin Desprez
Rodrigo Martinez
Anonymous
As Vestas Was
Thomas Weelkes