It may be helpful when exploring the title to understand that the word renaissance broadly means re-birth. This is particularly relevant as, during this colourful period of western cultural history, there was a collective feeling of liberation from the Medieval period that proceeded it.
Across Europe, the political map was changing with Reformation and counter-reformation in Protestant and Catholic faiths respectively.
These monumental changes brought with them greater freedom and to an extent secularisation of the Arts that in turn facilitated the creation of some of the most stunning music ever composed.
How Did The Renaissance Change Music
Composers in the Renaissance, and let’s not forget we are discussing a significant period of musical history from roughly 1400 – 1600, sought to struggle free from the restraints of Medieval music.
Stepping deliberately away from monophony towards what became incredibly sophisticated polyphony was one of the key areas of change during the Renaissance.
With the vast number of textural options available to composers working with the new polyphonic ideas, compositions began to evolve in a completely new way.
Harmonies and counterpoint became tools in the composer’s armoury allowing for greater freedom of expression and development of ideas.
There was notable resistance towards the middle period of the Renaissance, to this move away from monophony. The Catholic Council of Trent (Trento in North Italy), was a group of powerful members of the Catholic Church summoned by Pope Julius the Third to issue decrees regarding the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Amongst many concerns raised by The Council, music was one. Whilst direct criticism was largely avoided, what was ruled as acceptable was not the type of music many composers were writing. The Council felt strongly that the words of the Catholic Mass should be ‘celebrated with a plain voice’.
Polyphonic music was perhaps felt by The Council to diminish the sacred texts in favour of the music and was therefore unacceptable.
Renaissance composers such as Tallis, Palestrina, and Byrd amongst many, were brilliantly resourceful. They were clever enough to keep their jobs composing sacred music without compromising their style to accommodate the Catholic Church.
Gregorian Chant that dominated the sacred Medieval musical landscape was meticulously woven into polyphonic textures; audible, but not dictating the flow of the music. These composers forged ahead with their re-born creative freedom almost without upsetting those in power.
Polyphony was by no means the only development during this period of music. The harmony began to change too. In part, this was due to the polyphonic nature of Renaissance music but also modality began to lose its grip on composers of the day.
Today we are familiar with the concept of major and minor keys. A large amount of music written in the world is tonal or key-based. At the start of the Renaissance, modality featured as the basis for harmony and had successfully done so for hundreds of years.
It had its limits and as the late Renaissance flourished, a new system of keys began to emerge bringing with it even more layers of possibility to the composers working at the time.
Cadences, musical commas, and full stops began to shape melodic phrases increasingly giving the pieces a distinct shape that underpinned the harmonic invention.
The dissonance that was deliberately included in music was used as a means of rich expression facilitated by the new harmonic direction composers began to adopt.
If you explore the motets and madrigals of the mid and late period Renaissance composers, this change perhaps becomes most audible in this wealth of creativity.
Sacred music and in particular the Latin Mass remained central to Renaissance music, secular music enjoyed a complete revolution. Forms like the chanson, German Lied, and Italian madrigal were the cornerstones of the secular vocal world.
Secular vocal music was not the only type of music Renaissance composers wrote. What we see as the Renaissance period progresses is the rise in purely instrumental compositions.
These pieces were often closely aligned to vocal styles of the time with many based around popular courtly dances, variation forms, or improvisatory in nature.
Some of the more common instrumental forms included the Toccata, Canzona, Ricercare, Fantasia. Dance forms were many with some key ones being, allemande, saltarello, courante, galliard, and pavan.
Each of these various types of pieces enjoyed unique rhythmic and structural features that continued in their development into the Baroque Period of music.
The formation of ‘The Suite’ based on a sequence of dance forms gained in popularity in the late Renaissance and this travelled fluently into the Baroque Era.
In part, the development of a greater range of instruments brought about compositional opportunities. One major development was in the range of keyboard instruments that grew during this period of music.
The erstwhile organ was still an important instrument, the harpsichord increasingly became the focus of the composer’s attention with a considerable amount of music composed for this instrument.
Alongside the harpsichord also came the virginal and the clavichord that was variations on a harpsichord.
Other instruments included the natural trumpet, the family of recorders, transverse flutes, drums, lutes, and shawms to highlight only a few.
It was the quality and reliability of these instruments that allowed composers to make ever-increasing technical demands on players and push the boundaries of music.
Another significant development was that of the violin. The viol family of string instruments was used extensively during the Renaissance, however, under the patronage of Catherine de Medici (1519-1589), the violin was born.
Andreas Amati is credited by many to have been the inventor of the violin whose tonal qualities, range, and expressive power were far superior to the viol. This key musical development would prove to be fundamental to future composers.
What we hear in the music of the Renaissance is nothing short of a quantum leap in musical history.
From the development of new systems of harmony through to the creation of new instruments and instrumental groups that carved out the pathway for the following eras of music.