Renaissance Music (1400 - 1600)

During this period music started to become more complex, with sophisticated harmonies and counterpoint, which just means musical parts moving against each other to create interest and excitement. Music was essential to all forms of life in the Renaissance, and it permeated the religious, civic and courtly aspects of society. It was a period of growth in the spread of ideas — political, economic and, of course, religious — and this naturally led to rapid developments in music. It was a period of patronage: as a composer you could only make a living if you were paid either by the church or by a wealthy individual such as the local nobility. It was a period of growing complexity in music, with the advent of ‘polyphony’ — a conjunction of two Latin words: ‘poly’, meaning ‘many’, and ‘phonos’, meaning ‘sounds’. Put simply, polyphony means music made up of several simultaneous strands — or melodies — to create a complex interwoven tableau of sound.

The complexity of polyphony — compared to what had gone before — required composers to agree upon a set of guiding principles by which this music would be created. This coincided with the development of printing, which further helped the spread of these music forms and ideas. Prior to 1501, music had to be copied by monks with quill pans or learned by ear; music books were owned only by the church or extremely wealthy noblemen. But, in 1501 Ottaviano Petrucci — a printer in Venice — published a collection of polyphonic music, the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton A. It was a great success and led to the spread of printing throughout France, Germany, England, and beyond. After Petrucci, while these books were not inexpensive, it became possible for far greater numbers of people to own them and to learn to read music.

A great deal of choral music was written during this period, with the church being so prevalent in society and requiring music for its many rites and services.

Key Composers

William Byrd
Josquin Des Prez
Giovanni Pierluigi daPalestrina
Giovanni Gabrieli
Claudio Monteverdi
Thomas Tallis