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RenaissancePictureRenaissance Music History Review

General Background on the Renaissance

The Renaissance (c1450-1600) was a revitalization of learning, commerce, exploration (Columbus, Drake, Magellan, Balboa), scientific discovery (Galileo, da Vinci, Copernicus), and spectacular artistic achievement (da Vinci, Erasmus, Cervantes, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Ronsard). Although Renaissance artists and philosophers were no less religious than those of the Medieval Era, they did seek to reconcile theological practice with the new spirit of scientific inquiry (a philosophy called Humanism that pervaded this era).

The Protestant Reformation (initiated in 1517 by Martin Luther's inquiries against the teachings of the Catholic church, and the resultant founding of the Lutheran denomination) also had a tremendous impact on Renaissance music.  This religious rebellion was further solidified in 1534 when King Henry VIII of England established his own church (Anglican) because the Pope refused to allow Henry to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon (who could not bear him a son/future heir to the English throne).  In the process of reform, new churches gave rise to new types of sacred music, and with so much turmoil in the church scene, secular music began to rival its sacred counterpart.

Some Musical Considerations in the Renaissance

Some Musical Considerations in the Renaissance

The Renaissance was reflected musically through increased expression and more individual compositional styles.  As a result, Renaissance music sounds sweeter and fuller than Medieval music. Renaissance works usually have at least five independent vocal parts, with expanded ranges (higher soprano parts, lower bass parts). Renaissance composers began to write in a new way called simultaneous composition, in which all the voice parts were constructed together phrase-by-phrase (as opposed to the Medieval manner of successive composition, in which the chant line was pre-determined, an upper melody was constructed next, and the inner voices were filled in last).

Phrase-by-phrase writing allowed for the development of polyphonic imitation (conversational echoing of music from voice to voice), word-painting (writing music to illustrate the meaning of each phrase of text), and the implementation of musical cadences (conclusive phrase/section endings analogous to punctuation/inflection in written/spoken language). 

By the end of the Renaissance, the ancient-sounding modal sound of the Middle Ages was starting to be superceded by tonality [key-centered music]. Musical sections gradually became longer, primarily because of pervasive imitation.  During this era, secular music came to rival sacred music as composers opted for greater expressive freedom, and as religious turmoil made it increasingly dangerous to be associated with particular denominations.

The Interactive Timeline on Renaissance Music

You may begin your chronological review of Renaissance music by clicking the "Interactive Timeline" link on the left index.