Music History 102

The Renaissance

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

The Renaissance was a time of rebirth in learning, science, and the arts throughout Europe. The rediscovery of the writings of ancient Greece and Rome led to a renewed interest in learning in general. The invention of the printing press allowed the disbursement of this knowledge in an unprecedented manner. The invention of the compass permitted the navigation of the world’s oceans and the subsequent discovery of lands far removed from the European continent. With Copernicus’ discovery of the actual position of the earth in the solar system and Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church lost its grip on society and a humanist spirit was born. This spirit manifested itself in the paintings and sculpture of Michelangelo, the plays of Shakespeare, and in both the sacred and secular dance and vocal music of the greatest composers of the era. Renaissance music compositions were characterized by the polyphonic style with instruments as the focus of music. The lute was the most commonly used instrument followed by the Viol.

painting of Renaissance musicians in church procession

Dance music of the Renaissance

Throughout the Renaissance, instrumental dance music flowered and thrived, and was composed, or more likely improvised, by many people. Musicians whose names have come down to us collected much of this existing music and had it published in various volumes over the years. The Terpsichore of Michael Praetorius (c.1571-1621) and the dance music of Tielman Susato (c.1500-1561) represent some of the outstanding examples of dance music from the late Renaissance. A piece such as La Spagna, (attributed to Josquin des Prez) is an excellent example of the buoyant rhythms and sounds of Renaissance dance. Many of these dance forms were modified and developed by later composers and found their way into the Baroque dance suite.

sheet music and sketch of Josquin des Prez

the Golden Age of Polyphony

Josquin des Prez

Born: Hainault or Henegouwen (Burgundy), c. 1440
Died: Condé-sur-Escaut, August 27, 1521

Not much is known about the life of Josquin des Prez, but it is generally agreed that he studied under the earlier Renaissance master Johannes Ockeghem (c.1420-1495), who was the first great master of the Flemish school of Renaissance composers. There are references to Josquin having served at several courts in Italy and France, and at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. He died while serving as canon of the collegiate church at Condé. Among his surviving works are more than a dozen masses, a hundred motets, and a good deal of secular music.

The serene, almost otherworldly choral sound of the Flemish school’s style can be heard in the Gloria from Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé. Flemish composers of the time often based the cantus firmus on a popular melody of the day, composing new music for the other voices in counterpoint to the tune. The simultaneous interweaving of several melodic lines (usually four: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) in a musical composition is known as polyphony. Polyphonic music of the Renaissance could be very complex and intricate, often obscuring the words and the meaning of the text which had been set.

painting of Palestrina

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Born: Palestrina, near Rome, ca. 1525
Died: Rome, February 2, 1594

Palestrina spent much of his career in Rome, serving as organist and choirmaster at both the Sistine Chapel and at St. Peter’s. A productive composer, he wrote over a hundred mass settings and over two hundred motets. At the same time, he managed a very successful furrier business, from which he died a very wealthy man.
In keeping with the strictures of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to rid the music of the Catholic rite of the “worldly excesses” of the Protestant Reformation, Palestrina composed in a purer, more restrained style. Gone are the vocal lines based on popular melodies. Instead, each voice part resembles a chant melody, each with its own profile and crystalline line. In the opening Kyrie from Palestrina’s most famous work, the Pope Marcellus Mass, one can at once hear the classic, pure lines of the text set clearly amidst the various voices of the choir. Palestrina’s polyphonic writing is of such quality that many later composers (including Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms) spent their early years studying counterpoint in the “Palestrina style” as set down in a famous textbook by J. J. Fux in 1725.

Queen Elizabeth I Playing the Lute by Nicholas Hilliard

The English Madrigalists

Around 1600 in England, composers and poets were collaborating on a body of music known as the English madrigal. The composer and lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626), although concentrating mostly on melancholy ayres for solo voice with lute accompaniment, also wrote madrigals. Some of the best known of the English madrigalists include Thomas Morley (1558-1602), Francis Pilkington (ca.1570-1638), William Byrd (1543-1623), Orlando Gibbons(1583-1625), and Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623). Queen Elizabeth I herself was an accomplished lute player, and supposedly delighted in the songs and ayres of the madrigalists. Weelkes’ madrigal Come, let’s begin to revel’t out is a prime example of this cheerful and sprightly part-song. The texts of many of these madrigals, however, deal with spurned or unrequited love, and are often sad, but very beautiful.


  • How did music in the Renaissance differ from Medieval music?

Renaissance music introduced the element of polyphony in music, and incorporated a  wider range of instruments. And while secular music did exist during the Middle Ages, it became more widespread during the Renaissance, mirroring the cultural trend in general at the time, when life, science and art were moving further away from the Church than before.

  • Which musical element is an innovation attributed to the Renaissance?

The polyphonic texture in music was innovated during the Renaissance.

  • What was the Renaissance period in music?

The Renaissance period in music lasted from 1420 AD to 1600 AD.

Related Resources

A Discography of the recordings used in The Renaissance

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane