Sacred Music in the Renaissance (1450-1600)
Palestrina presents a manuscript  to the Pope
Palestrina presents a music manuscript to the Pope.
John Dunstable
Guillaume Dufay
Gilles Binchois
Ottaviano Petrucci
Clement Janequin
John Taverner
Adrian Willaert
Andrea Gabrielli
Ottaviano Petrucci
Maddelena Casulana
Thomas Morley
Josquin Desprez
Josquin Desprez

On This Page
The Golden Age of Choral Music | Musical Genres in Scared Music | Desprez Church music | The Influence of the Reformation | Palestrina's Style

The Golden Age of Choral Music

For the most part, we will separate the discussions of sacred and secular music in the Renaissance. This division is necessary because some of the later developments in secular music provided the impetus for new Baroque ideas. Remember that most composers of sacred music also wrote a great deal of secular music, and those who wrote secular music also composed sacred works. Only a few musicians, such as the greatest of all Renaissance Spanish composers, Tomás Luis de Victoria, devoted their entire career to one type of music, in his case, Latin sacred music.

One misconception to avoid is the belief that choral music in the Renaissance was always sacred. As in the Middle Ages, secular songs constituted a significant portion of the music of this period. It is also important to keep in mind that, while instrumental music was becoming more pervasive, the Renaissance is clearly the "Golden Age of Choral Music."

One misconception to avoid is the belief that choral music in the Renaissance was always sacred...

Musical Genres in Renaissance Sacred Music

The two principal types of music in the Catholic Church, the mass and the motet, are both legacies from the Middle Ages. The Renaissance mass is a setting of the ordinary texts: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The practice of using a cantus firmus as the basis for the mass continued, although a popular tune might be used instead of a chant melody. Often the mass became known for the particular occasion for which it was composed (like Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass, written for the Pope's premature death) or for the use of its cantus firmus in a popular song, such as Ockeghem's Missa L'Homme armé (The Armed Man). Caravaggio's Virgin and Child with Saints
Virgin and Child with Saints
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Josquin Desprez's Church music

As mentioned in the overview, the Catholic Church underwent a major transformation during the Renaissance. The popularity of the motet towards the end of the 15th century led an increasing number of composers to experiment with church music forms, extending the boundaries of what was acceptable, and altering the original chant to the point that it was almost unrecognizable.

The career of Josquin Desprez (c.1440-1521) demonstrates the dominance of composers from Northern France and the Netherlands in the Renaissance. He was employed at Milan, at the Papal chapel in Rome, by King Louis XII of France, at the court of the d'Estes in Ferrara, and finally in his native Condé, where he died in 1521.

Josquin wrote a large number of motets. Many consider that, in this particular form, he represents the epitome of Renaissance music achievement.

Ave Maria Gratia Plena (motet) Hail Mary Full of Grace
Josquin Desprez

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum, Virgo serena,
Avecuius conceptiosolemni plena gaudio,
caelestia, terrestria,
nova replet laetitia,
Ave cuius nativitas.
nostra fuit solemnitas,
ut lucifer lux oriens,
verum solem praeveniens.
Ave pia humilitas,
sine vero fecunditas.
cuius annunciatio,
nostra fuit salvatio.
Ave vera virginitas,
immaculata castitas,
cuius purificatio,
nostra fuit purgatorio.
Ave praeclara omnibus
angelicis virtutibus,
cuius fuit assumptio,
nostra glorificatio.
O mater Dei,
memento mei. Amen.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with you, Virgin serene,
Hail whose conception,
full of solemn joy,
heaven and earth
newly fills with happiness.
Hail whose birth
was our solemnity,
so that like a torch, the rising light
the true sun might herald.
Hail blessed humility,
without a man made fruitful,
whose annunciation
has been our salvation.
Hail true virginity,
spotless chastity,
whose purification
has been our cleansing.
Hail foremost among all
angelic virtues,
whose assumption has been
our glorification.
O mother of God, remember me. Amen.

In addition, many composers, including Dufay and Josquin introduced popular secular melodies as cantus firmi for their masses. The Kyrie from the Mass "The Armed Man" by Dufay is based on a secular tune.

Play Kyrie from "Missa l'homme Armé" (The Armed Man)
  Guillaume Dufay

The influence of the Reformation

By 1555, most Northern European countries had severed their ties to the Roman Catholic Church. Launched in 1517 by Martin Luther (1483-1546), and carried out largely by John Calvin (1509-1564), the Protestant Reformation sought to purge the Christian faith from the abuses of the Catholic Church. The goal was to establish stricter, more comprehensible religious practices for the common people.
Although different from its medieval counterpart, during the Renaissance, the motet remained the other primary form of Catholic religious music. The Renaissance motet combines a single movement polyphonic composition with a single Latin text. Settings of the Salve Regina and Ave Maria appear quite often. The motets of the Renaissance are often more experimental or free than the masses. The anthem is the Anglican Church's equivalent of the motet. Virgin and Child by Durer

Protestants criticized the way music was used in the Catholic Mass. They felt that, since a large portion of the lyrics used in the mass had secular connotations, and most of the music had too much polyphony, music in the service had become either dangerously profane, or incomprehensible to the congregants. These complaints were presented to the Council of Trent, a meeting of Catholic church officials called by Pope Paul III from 1545 to 1563 to discuss the Reformation and try to make peace with the Protestants. In fact, the Council of Trent almost resulted in banning all polyphonic music completely from the church, with some religious officials pushing for a return to chant instead. These efforts are often referred to as the Counter-Reformation. The Council decreed that:

"All things should, indeed, be so ordered, that the Masses, whether they be celebrated with or without singing, may reach tranquilly into the ears and hearts of those who hear them, when everything is executed clearly and at the right speed. In the case of those Masses which are celebrated with singing and with organ, let nothing profane be intermingled, only hymns and divine praises. The whole plan of singing in musical mode should be constituted not to give empty pleasure to the ear, but in such a way that the words be clearly understood by all, and thus, the hearts of listeners be drawn to desires of heavenly harmonies, in the contemplation of joys of the blessed... They shall also banish from church all music that contains, whether in singing or in the organ playing, things that are lascivious or impure."

From A. Theiner, Acta Concilii tridentini,2 (1874):122, trans. in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance, p.449

It is clear from the Council's orders that, although its was customary to base masses on anything from motets to bawdy chansons, the reformers were intent on banishing all elements from church music that even hinted at secular associations.

Giovanni da Palestrina's style

Play Credo from Pope Marcellus mass
  Giovanni da Palestrina

It is said that Pope Marcellus Mass by Giovanni da Palestrina (1525-1594) saved polyphony from banishement from the Catholic service. The Credo from the mass, showcases the hallmarks of the style of Giovanni da Palestrina, which became the model for future generations of composers.

Palestrina presents a manuscript to the Pope
Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina presenting a manuscript to the Pope
Characteristics of Palestrina's style
  • Individual parts have a very melodic, plainsong-like quality to them.
  • Smooth sounding polyphony and homophony. The melodic movement often suggests the shape of an arch.
  • Music phrases are long and elegant.
  • Texture is extremely clear.
  • Controlled expressiveness.

Palestrina's 104 masses and 177 motets make him the most prolific and consistent composer of the Counter-Reformation. It can be said that his style embodies the archaic, dogmatic completeness of Counter-Reformation Catholicism, making him the supreme musical theologian.