Renaissance Innovation

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Renaissance Innovation

The Late Medieval International Style.

Like late Gothic sculpture and painting throughout much of Europe, the surviving musical texts of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries display the prominence of an "international style" that flourished over large expanses of Europe, particularly in France, Italy, and the Netherlands. This style was already making use of a number of innovations in musical composition, rhythm, and harmony that had been pioneered in fourteenth-century France, particularly in Paris at mid-century, and somewhat later in Avignon, the capital of the papacy at the time. With the eventual return of the capital of the church to Rome in the early fifteenth century, Avignon faded as a center of musical innovation, and instead new centers of experimentation began to emerge in other places. For inspiration, composers began to turn to the music of England, an island that had been relatively isolated from many continental musical traditions during the Middle Ages. This isolation had caused English composers to follow a slightly different course from the courtly, chivalric styles and rigid plainsong melodies that had flourished in France or those favored by the civic musicians of Italy. The Mass in use in much of later medieval England—known as the Sarum Rite after its origins in Salisbury Cathedral—made use of melodies and scales in its chants that differed from those favored in continental Europe. Generally, English musicians used major keys rather than the varied and often minor-sounding modal scales that were employed on the Continent. The polyphony that developed from such a tradition, too, was different from the French and French-influenced sacred music popular in much of Europe during the fourteenth century. In most of continental Europe, for example, intervals of the fourth, the fifth, and the octave had long been favored as the most perfect harmonies. The third and the sixth—while they had begun to make inroads throughout the Continent at this time—were sometimes controversial. Much medieval musical theory taught that the harmonic relationship between these two intervals was too close and consequently dissonant. To modern Western ears, however, both the third and the sixth have long been heard as the most perfect or consonant of intervals, the very basis upon which much harmony rests. It is sometimes difficult for modern listeners to imagine a time when these intervals were heard as dissonances, but they were only gradually accepted in the fifteenth century, prompted largely by English examples. It is for this reason that scholars have often identified the reception of these harmonies as "consonant" as one of the first markers of the birth of a true Renaissance style.


One of the key figures in popularizing the new harmonies and in pioneering new settings of the Mass and sacred music generally was John Dunstaple (1390–1453), the greatest fifteenth-century English composer. Dunstaple was a member of the household of the Duke of Bedford, a powerful commander in the English army of the time. England's engagement in the Hundred Years' War against France resulted in military victories that gave Bedford practical control over a large portion of French territory in the 1420s. Dunstaple may have spent the years between 1422 and 1435 living in France in Bedford's household, although the evidence for this French residency is slight. His works, however, must have had many admirers on the Continent since they exist in many manuscript collections throughout Europe. Seventy of his compositions survive, demonstrating his taste for the full sound and major tonalities favored by English composers of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In addition, he made frequent use of thirds and sixths in his work, helping to popularize their use by later composers in France and Burgundy especially. Like the French medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377) before him, Dunstaple also set the Mass in choral music. These settings were, like Machaut's earlier French example, artistically unified, but in a new, bold way. Dunstaple constructed many of the individual parts of his masses on pre-existing church melodies, but he granted to these settings a new lyricism as well as the harmonies of English music of the time. Dunstaple also wrote numerous carols, a type of song structure that was distinctly English, yet similar to the French songs known as rondeaux and the Italian form of the rondeau, the ballate. The carol had its origins, like these continental forms, as accompaniments for dances and made use of contrasting stanzas set against choral refrains. By Dunstaple's time, however, composers increasingly used the genre to set religious poems to music. In writing carols, English composers like Dunstaple gave primacy to their texts, which they set from poems written in Latin, English, or sometimes in a lively mix of the two languages. Most carols had two-or three-part harmonies with colorful texts, and while these songs were not truly "folk music," they did have a popular and distinctively English flavor.


No other place in fifteenth-century Europe surpassed the musical achievements and innovations of Burgundy. Although the heartland of this powerful duchy lay within France and was officially subject to the French king, the dukes of Burgundy had by 1400 surpassed him in the wealth and splendor of their court, particularly as France became mired in the Hundred Years' War. To their homelands in eastern France, the dukes had added through skillful marital alliances the rich Low Countries of Europe (that is modern Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg), a large portion of northeastern France, as well as the province of Lorraine. In the early fifteenth century they maintained their capital at Dijon, but Burgundy's dukes began to spend more time in their northern possessions, particularly in Flanders or modern Belgium, than in the original seat of their power. The Burgundian territories that they ruled were diverse in language and culture, and so each year the court spent a great deal of its time traveling through these various lands. This annual progress bred sophistication in Burgundian standards of musical performance, as accomplished musicians flocked to this court from throughout the dukes' possessions to receive patronage. Through their travels, too, the dukes learned of musical forms and innovations in the far corners of their vast lands. Thus the rise of Burgundian power was a force that aided further developments in an International Style in music throughout the Continent, as rulers elsewhere imitated the tastes of the rich Burgundian court. Rising to prominence around 1400, the Burgundian court became an important center of art, culture, and music under Duke Philip the Good (1419–1467). Philip, an enthusiastic supporter of church music, retained a large choir and the most elaborate armory of musical resources in Europe. Beyond his ranks of singers, Philip also employed trumpeters, bagpipers, drummers, organists, and a vast array of other instrumentalists. The attention he showered on music was surpassed by his successor Charles the Bold, whose rule began in 1467. He was to be the last of the Burgundian dukes, however, as the duchy of Burgundy reverted to France and the northern possessions in the Low Countries came under the control of the Habsburg dynasty upon his death in 1477.


During Burgundy's heyday, a number of composers of distinction flourished. Generally, those favored at the Burgundian court made use of the new inspirations from the composer John Dunstaple and other English figures to enliven their musical traditions. Among the most accomplished of these figures was Guillaume Dufay, a figure of the first importance in fashioning a distinctively new musical style. Dufay was born near Brussels around 1397, and became a choirboy at the Cathedral of Cambrai, an important bishopric within the Burgundian lands. As he reached maturity, he traveled to Italy, where he found employment at first in the household of the powerful Malatesta family before serving for a time in the papal choir at Rome. In 1432 Dufay left Rome to serve the duke of Savoy on the northwestern frontier of Italy. Thereafter, he lived in his native Cambrai until his death in 1474, except for a brief four-year return to Savoy in the 1450s. Dufay is often associated with the Burgundian style and its innovations in music, but he was truly an international figure, as at home in the world of Italy and Savoy as he was in his native Cambrai. He was also highly educated, an unusual status for a musician by the standards of the time. He had received a degree in canon law from the prestigious University of Bologna, and his education allowed him to acquire a number of offices in the church. The works that Dufay composed while in Cambrai proved to be particularly fruitful in inspiring other composers, including Gilles Binchois (1400–1460), the second great Burgundian composer at the time. Dufay's output included a number of masses, motets, and secular songs or chansons, while Binchois was notable, in particular, for the quality of his chansons.

The Mass.

Although the duchy of Burgundy disappeared as a political force following the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, its musical styles survived into the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries throughout much of Europe. The Burgundian chanson (song) style developed by Binchois and Dufay relied on free flowing melodies, frequent use of triple meter, and a gentle, sometimes melancholic sound. These features of the style survived to be deployed in many of the masses which composers in the former Burgundian lands and elsewhere in Europe wrote at the time. Before the early fifteenth century there had been relatively few attempts to craft a single unified musical service around the ordinary parts of the Mass, that is, those sections of the Mass that were unchanging and occurred in every celebration


The forms in which Renaissance composers wrote their music differed greatly from those of the modern world. The most popular musical genres are summarized below.

Allemande: From a French word meaning "German." The term was given to a popular dance of the sixteenth century that was written in double meter and believed to be German in origin. Allemandes survived in dance suites, and were even used in the early symphonies of the eighteenth century.

Caccia: From the Italian for "hunt" or "chase." A popular Italian song of the fourteenth century in which two vocal parts appear to be chasing one another.

Canon: Meaning "rule" or "law," a canon was a musical form in which composers originally wrote out a musical theme and then devised a series of rules by which the other voices in a choir were to sing the theme in polyphonic patterns. Canons became increasingly complex in the late fifteenth century and came to include counter-themes. As a result of their rising difficulty, all the parts of a canon came to be written down. Canons played a major role in the development of the art of counterpoint, the combination of polyphonic lines into a single artistic unity.

Carol: Originally, a song that was used to accompany ring and line dances. During the Renaissance, English composers embraced the carol and made it into a distinctly native style that played the same role in English music as the chansons did in France or the Lied in Germany.

Chanson: One of the longest lived native song styles in French-speaking Europe. Their popularity spread to almost every corner of Renaissance Europe, and under the influence of the period's foremost composers the form often became a remarkably complex art song that was performed in court and cultivated urban societies.

Chorale: A hymn form originally embraced by Martin Luther and other early Protestant reformers in Germany. Chorales were originally performed in unison. Quite quickly, though, rich harmonies were created around these hymns' melodies, which were usually carried in the uppermost vocal part. The chorale inspired the greatest sacred music of the German Reformation and survived into the age of Bach to be transformed into a high musical art form.

Frottola: A verse song much performed and published in Italy in the sixteenth century. The melody was usually carried in the top voice with three parts harmonized below. In performance, all four parts could be sung, or the lower three harmonies could be played by a small ensemble as an accompaniment to a solo performer.

Lied: German for "song." The earliest Lieder that survive from Renaissance Germany date from the fifteenth century, and show that this form was then written either as a simple single-line or homophonic song or that it was set in three-part harmony.

Madrigal: Originally a popular medieval Italian song that contained a refrain (known as a ritornello), the madrigal was embraced by and transformed into a high art form. Madrigals became an important form of vocal chamber music and were written in four, five, six, and even more parts. Italian madrigal composers like Gesualdo and Monteverdi set to music some of the finest Italian poetry of the period.

Mass: From the fourteenth century European composers began to compose masses that set to music the unchanging parts of this religious ritual's texts (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and so forth). By the fifteenth century the writing of masses provided an important opportunity for a composer to demonstrate his skill in linking the work's various parts together into a single artistic unity.

Motet: Originally a musical form that was performed outside the rituals of the Mass or the Offices of the church, but which usually, but not always, made use of sacred texts. The first motets had contrasting vocal lines and texts given to various voices in a choir. These lines were sung simultaneously, and thus the motet played a key role in the development of polyphony. The motet is one of the longest-lived choral forms in European history, with its origins stretching back to the High Middle Ages.

Plainsong: Also known as plainchant or Gregorian chant. By the time of the Renaissance this form of unison or chant singing already had a history that was more than a thousand years long. Plainsongs were not composed in keys like modern music, but within a system of eight modes, some of which sounded similar to modern major and minor keys, and others of which had completely different characters.

Rondeau: A lively French song with contrasting themes that was used to accompany dances.

Virelais: A popular French song of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that was preceded and followed by a refrain.

of the ritual. In the fifteenth century, though, such attempts soon grew common. To give their works artistic unity, composers often relied on older plainsong melodies, sometimes using a different plainsong in each of the separate movements they wrote, a practice that has sometimes been called "plainsong mass." The custom also developed of choosing a musical motif from one plainsong and building it into each of the five movements of the Mass, a development that has often been referred to as the motto mass. Another fifteenth-century development was the appearance of the cantus firmus Mass, in which a single melody, often adapted from a secular song, appeared at the beginning of each movement in the tenor voice. Cantus firmus masses had first been written in England in the early fifteenth century, but after 1450, they became the customary way to set the Mass to music. Among the most beautifully integrated masses of this time were those of Dufay, who drew upon his own musical ballads to craft artistically integrated and aesthetically pleasing sacred music for the service. In the sixteenth century the fashion for cantus firmus masses soon evolved into the Imitation Mass. In this form even popular songs were inserted into the various movements of a Mass, and the polyphony imitated the source of inspiration, often in a highly original way. Such ingenuous works fascinated many sixteenth-century composers, and the form, in fact, soon became dominant throughout Europe at mid-century. Yet the fondness that imitation masses expressed for secular music was criticized by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the church council that met to consider ways of reforming Catholicism in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.


Another standout among the many competent composers of the fifteenth century was Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420–1497). Ockeghem was born in the French-speaking province of Hainaut, at the time part of the duchy of Burgundy. He began his career apparently as a member of the Cathedral choir at Antwerp, but soon entered into service in the household of Charles I, duke of Bourbon in France. In 1452, he became a member of the royal chapel of the king of France, and during the remainder of his long life he served three French kings. By the time of his death he was celebrated in verse and song as one of the founders of a new musical style, and he has long been revered, together with Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez, as an important developer of a distinctive Renaissance style. Unlike Dufay and des Prez, however, his surviving body of works is somewhat small, consisting of ten motets, thirteen settings of the Mass, and twenty chansons. In contrast to Dufay, who preferred to set his chansons using two and three voices, Ockeghem most frequently used four separate vocal parts. The lines of his works are longer and are often complex. One of the most distinctive features of his style is his use of an expressive bass voice, a departure from previous compositions in which comparatively little importance had been granted to this part of the harmonic range. Ockeghem also extended the range of the bass voice downward four or five tones lower than had been common previously. The result was a harmonic texture with more gravity, but with a broader range of sound, and his emphasis on the lower sonorities opened up new possibilities for later composers. In his settings of the Mass, Ockeghem sometimes relied on a familiar, pre-established melody to serve as a cantus firmus throughout his setting. At other times he avoided the use of a cantus firmus and instead developed the individual movements of the Mass as a canon, a contrapuntal form in which successive vocal parts imitated the line that had been set out by the first voice. Ockeghem was a master of the canon, a style of composing that took its name from the Latin word for "rule" or "law." Up to this time composers had not usually written out all the various parts of their canons. Instead they often wrote down the first voice and then set out a set of rules or canons by which the other voices in the choir should follow or imitate the first voice. The voices were usually to proceed through principles of strict imitation. Ockeghem vastly extended these possibilities by writing canons in which the voices moved at different speeds while reproducing essentially the same vocal line. He also created double canons in which several vocal parts proceeded in canonical form, while several more wove independent lines around their harmonies. These innovations established Ockeghem as an early master of the art of counterpoint, making his compositions vital to later sixteenth-century students and masters who mined their intricacies for inspiration. At the same time the very complexities of his creations tended to make later composers assess his works as mere products of technical finesse. Recently, his compositions have been more adequately studied, however, and Ockeghem has been restored to his position as a master of expressive vocal lines as well as contrapuntal invention.


As the life of Johannes Ockeghem illustrates, the musical innovations occurring within the duchy of Burgundy in the fifteenth century soon spread farther afield through the migrations of composers and musicians. Jacob Obrecht (1452–1505) was one important figure who developed compositions using the broader ranges of harmonies and new musical forms on the rise in Flanders and France. His surviving opus includes thirty masses and about an equal number of chansons. He also composed songs in Dutch and instrumental music, although comparatively little of this music has survived. Unlike Ockeghem, Obrecht usually relied on cantus firmus melodies to grant structure to most of his masses, adopting popular, well-known secular songs as well as Gregorian plainsong melodies to serve in this role. He opened up new imaginative vistas, though, in the use of cantus firmus. In some compositions, for instance, he repeated the borrowed theme at the outset of each movement of the Mass, as was customary at the time; at other times he relied on the first phrase of the melody in the mass's first movement, while using the second phrase in the next, the third in the following, and so on. Or in still other compositions he based his masses around two or three cantus firmus melodies simultaneously. Obrecht also wrote various movements of his mass settings in canon style, although his use of the form was not exact, with the various voices sometimes subtly altering the original melody that had been set out by the first voice. Obrecht's modulations and violations of received forms thus presented followers with new ways of envisioning vocal music. In his travels to Italy, moreover, he brought to that country a knowledge of the new styles and forms emerging in Northern Europe at the time.

Josquin Des Prez.

Josquin des Prez, a composer born sometime around 1450 in northern France or within the Flemish province of Hainaut, ranks as the greatest musical genius of the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He gained recognition as a genius in his lifetime, and his reputation as the "father of musicians" survived long after his death. Even in the late sixteenth century commentators continued to compare his achievements to those of Michelangelo in the visual arts. As with the creations of Michelangelo, contemporaries found des Prez's compositions remarkably expressive, noting his ability to forge a complete union between music and the chosen text. Further comparisons between the two men include their ability to solve complex aesthetic problems in a way that seemed effortless, and their willful individuality coupled with occasional bouts of moodiness.

Des Prez's Music.

Josquin des Prez's surviving compositions include some eighteen masses, fifty motets, and about seventy chansons. His masses are masterful creations, although they are not ranked among his most innovative works. In these, Josquin des Prez usually relied on a cantus firmus melody to grant structure to his works, often choosing these themes from popular secular songs of the day. Sometimes he paraphrased these tunes, and in his most skillful creations he relied on all the voices that had appeared in the original chanson to create a free-flowing expansion of the original's themes. In this way his masses extended the boundaries of the cantus firmus mass, and were the origins for the imitation or parody masses that flourished in the later sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Catholic Church. In these parody or imitation masses, composers sometimes used the initial theme quite explicitly and at other times they played with it extensively, constructing variations that disguised the theme's origins through elaboration and ornamentation. In this way Josquin des Prez helped to solve a central problem that revolved around setting the Mass to music: how to keep an audience captivated over a long period of time by using music to outline the various distinct parts of the Mass's ritual. While Josquin's masses are artistically notable, his motets are even more accomplished demonstrations of his skills as a composer. The Mass may have still been a major vehicle for demonstrating an artist's inventiveness at the time of his life. But his skill in the motet, and his far greater output in this genre, shows the increasing importance that nonliturgical music—music that was not to be performed within the Mass per se—was to have in the sixteenth century. The unchanging nature of the Mass's text gave a composer relatively little freedom to explore the relationship between words and music, since church tradition narrowly prescribed the acceptable text. In a motet, by contrast, a composer could set poems and other texts of greater variety to music since the motet was performed outside the regular structure of the Mass and thus did not have to conform to the ritual's restrictions. Des Prez's work in the humanist-influenced courts of Italy caused him to focus on the imaginative possibilities that music offered for conveying literary meaning. To do this, he abandoned the involved, complex lines of the type of French and Flemish music exemplified by Ockeghem and his followers, and instead he tried to forge a union between the chosen words and notes so that the lines of the poems and other texts he set to music could be consumed as thoughts. The example that he left behind in his motets inspired several subsequent sixteenth-century composers of vocal music who relied on rhythm, harmony, pitch, and tonalities to suggest the meanings of their texts.

Importance of Early Renaissance Innovations.

During the course of the fifteenth century an international style of musical composition flourished throughout much of continental Europe. This style was at first enlivened by the examples of harmony and rhythm of English composition and later inspired by the complex lines and intricate counterpoint harmonies of the Burgundian composers. Harmonies of thirds and sixths in many musical compositions were relative innovations, and writers of masses and motets borrowed melodies for their works from the church's plainsong and the secular chansons. Through the influence of Johannes Ockeghem and others the harmonic possibilities of fifteenth-century music expanded to include a wider range of pitches and in many cases to subject the construction of harmony to the bass, rather than the tenor voice. In this process the once-dominant tenor voice began to fade in favor of a more equal construction of harmony between all the voices. In Ockeghem's work, in particular, the bass became the entire foundation upon which the upper harmonic relationships were created. In this way a more resonant sound began to flourish. While the Mass remained the primary vehicle through which composers demonstrated their imaginative finesse, the motet became increasingly important as a vehicle for expressing the complex meanings of texts. As the century drew to a close the genius of Josquin des Prez opened up a new flexibility for forging relationships between texts and the musical forms in which they were conveyed. During the sixteenth century composers were to build upon this new sophistication to create a distinctive Renaissance mixture of polyphony, harmony, and melodic exploitation.


H. M. Brown, Music in the Renaissance (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1976).

D. J. Grout and C. V. Palisca, A History of Western Music. 5th ed. (New York: Norton, 1996).

Gustave Reese, ed., The New Grove High Renaissance Masters: Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd, Victoria (New York: Norton, 1984).

E. Sparks, Cantus Firmus in Mass and Motet, 1420–1520 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1963).

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Renaissance Innovation

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