Sixteenth Century Achievements in Secular Music

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Sixteenth Century Achievements in Secular Music


As the dawn of the sixteenth century approached, humanism's influence on music grew increasingly important. Humanism was a complex literary movement that had its origins in the works of fourteenth-century intellectuals like Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio. The term itself is a nineteenth-century creation crafted to describe those in the Renaissance who practiced the studia humanitatis ("humane studies"). Thus humanism, the source for modern notions of the humanities, was not a philosophy, but a curriculum. As such, it differed greatly from the scholastically influenced studies that were dominant in most European universities at the time. The university system based its curriculum on logic, Aristotelian natural philosophy, and theology. By contrast, the humanists championed training in rhetoric (graceful speaking and writing), history, moral philosophy, and the languages. These disciplines, they argued, were better suited to creating virtuous human beings than were the logic and reasoned argumentation favored by the scholastics in medieval universities. The works of the humanists who followed Petrarch and Boccaccio persistently recommended the cultivation of the language arts and the study of Antiquity, and humanism sponsored a revival of ancient culture and learning that has long been synonymous in many people's minds with the very idea of the Renaissance itself. Throughout most of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the primarily literary concerns of the humanists had little impact on music, but in the final decades of the fifteenth century the links between humanism and composition became more important. As the humanists studied a broader range of ancient texts throughout the fifteenth century, they learned of the importance that ancient philosophers had attached to music. The importation of many ancient Greek treatises on music into Italy from the ailing Byzantine Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as forays into Western European monastic libraries aided their studies. By the end of the century most of the vast and variegated musical theory of Antiquity had been recovered and translated into Latin. Somewhat later, many of these texts were also to be translated into Italian. From this vantage point, ancient theoretical and aesthetic works that treated music could be read and studied by a broader range of educated men, and even by a small minority of cultivated women. From their reading, both humanists and educated composers like Josquin des Prez came to learn that the ancients had prized music for its power to ennoble the human spirit, inspire poetry, and change the soul. In a more general sense, humanist culture's emphasis on rhetoric and language expressed a fondness for good poetry; thus its influence came to be felt upon music in a deepening attention to the texts that composers set to music. These trends can be seen in the works of Josquin des Prez, the figure that has long been attributed with developing a distinctively Renaissance musical idiom.

Princely Patronage.

In the fifteenth century most humanists were only able to realize the ideal of the detached study of literature, history, and ancient philosophy through finding employment in Italy's burgeoning governments or through attracting the patronage of powerful princes and wealthy merchants. Similarly, as the taste for Antiquity flourished among elites, Italy's humanist-educated princes and wealthiest merchant, banking, and patrician families sought out the best composers and musicians to create works that expressed their love of the ancients and of the humanist creed of literary study. It was in Florence that a musical culture first began to flourish that made use of the philosophical insights drawn from the works of the ancients. During the 1470s and 1480s the city's wealthy merchants joined the backdoor manipulator of Florence's political life, Lorenzo de' Medici, in seeking out the best Flemish musicians of the day. Lorenzo was an avid supporter of the philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), one of the most important scholars of the day who was actively engaged in the translation and study of Plato's entire body of work. Ficino himself was a musician and physician, and his studies of Plato frequently recommended music's power to influence the cosmos. From Ficino, humanists and musicians alike began to adopt Plato's notion of poetic inspiration to defend musical composition. This idea—that poets were seized with divine inspiration when they wrote—could also be applied to musicians and composers, even as it came to be used in the High Renaissance by painters and sculptors in a similar fashion to defend their arts. Modern scholars have sometimes credited Ficino with founding the discipline of musical therapy, an interest that derived from his interests as a musician and physician. The practice of musical therapy was often undertaken in the hospitals of the later Renaissance and was recommended in the philosopher's works. Among the many other accomplished musicians that Lorenzo de' Medici invited to his court were Heinrich Isaac, Alexander Agricola, and Johannes Ghiselin. Medici patronage of the art was important, but almost every major court in late fifteenth-century Italy awarded employment to a sizable contingent of musicians and composers. At Ferrara, for example, the d'Este dukes patronized Jacob Obrecht, Antoine Brumel, and Adrian Willaert, among many others. In Rome, the papal household, as well as the many courts of the church's cardinals, maintained sizable contingents of musicians and composers. And in despotic Milan, the Sforza dukes stocked their chapel with 22 singers and their palace chamber choir with another eighteen. The composers among these ranks experimented with achieving the new Renaissance ideal of a music that stirred the emotions and purified the soul. Until 1550, those active in the great households and courts of Italy were predominantly from Northern Europe, and the taste for Franco-Flemish musical practices was strong. Still, Italians made inroads in these years, although the international character of the peninsula's musical life was constantly enriched and strengthened by the migrations of Europeans from beyond the Alps.


The emergence of a new, distinctly Italian genre of popular song in the second half of the fifteenth century points to this vitality. In the Renaissance the Italian term "frottola" had both a narrow and a broad meaning. In its broadest sense it came to be applied to any of a number of secular song types that were popular throughout the peninsula in the years between 1470 and 1530. This genre included a number of more specific song types, including odes, sonnets, capitoli, strambotti, and canzoni. In a narrow sense, the frottola also referred to a song that was written for four vocal parts with its melody usually placed in the uppermost voice. Underneath this melody, the other voices often provided an accompaniment of chords. Usually, frottola were written in 3/4 or 4/4 time. The origins of this form, which came to set much ancient and Renaissance lyric poetry to music, lay in the traditions of the early Italian Renaissance, when poetry had often been recited against a musical accompaniment. Over time, a tradition of extemporized singing of lyrics emerged, and became a popular form of entertainment, notably in the Medici household in Florence, but in a number of other courts throughout Italy as well. Lorenzo de' Medici greatly admired an artist's ability to extemporize vocally ad lyram ("on the lyre"), and many of Florence's humanists developed this skill. Among those that were particularly noted for the ability to perform such frottola were Raffaele Brandolini (1465–1517), a native Florentine who spent much of his life as a scholar in Rome, and who wrote an important treatise entitled On Music and Poetry. Two other performers of merit were Baccio Ugolini and Serafino dall'Aquila, but the custom for extemporizing songs was so popular that even Lorenzo de' Medici himself sometimes performed this way. By 1500, Mantua had become the most brilliant center of frottola performance; the city's duchess, Isabella d'Este (1474–1539) supported this popular song form by seeking out the best poetry from Italian authors, and then turning it over to musicians to be set to music. These departures from the genre's extemporaneous roots have provided music historians with manuscripts and printed editions of the works her composers wrote, an invaluable source for reconstructing the popular song trends of the age. In contrast to the many musical genres of the period that were heavily influenced by Franco-Flemish styles, the frottola style was a native art form, with its poetry and music written by Italians. Nurtured by Isabella d'Este and in a number of Italian cities, the form was a significant source of inspiration for Italian musical creativity in the sixteenth century.


introduction: In his Book of the Courtier, a conduct manual describing the arts necessary to succeed at court, the accomplished Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione singled out music for special consideration. The book was written as a dialogue, and in it, one character defends knowledge of music and skill in performance as befitting to those in refined society. He defends the art, moreover, from the charge that it is effeminate and stresses music's role in ancient philosophy, a defense that is distinctively Renaissance in nature.

And the count, beginning afresh:

"My lords," he said, "you must think I am not pleased with the Courtier if he be not also a musician, and besides his understanding and cunning upon the book, have skill in like manner on sundry instruments. For if we weigh it well, there is no ease of the labors and medicines of feeble minds to be found more honest and more praiseworthy in time of leisure than it. And principally in courts, where (beside the refreshing of vexations that music brings unto each man) many things are taken in hand to please women, whose tender and soft breasts are soon pierced with melody and filled with sweetness. There no marvel that in the old days and nowadays they have always been inclined to musicians, and counted this a most acceptable food of the mind."

"I believe music," [another] said, "together with many other vanities is appealing to women, and peradventure for some also that have the likeness of men, but not for them that be men indeed; who ought not with such delicacies to womanish their minds and bring themselves in that sort to dread death."

"Speak it not," answered the Count. "For I shall enter into a large sea of the praise of music and call to rehearsal how much it hath always been renowned among them of old and counted a holy matter; and how it hath been the opinion of most wise philosophers that the world is made of music, and the heavens in their moving make a melody, and our soul framed after the very same sort, and therefore lifts up itself and (as it were) revives the virtues and force of it with music. Wherefore it is written that Alexander was sometimes so fervently stirred with it that (in a manner) against his will he was forced to arise from banquets and run to weapon, afterward the musician changing the stroke and his manner of tune, pacified himself again and returned from weapon to banqueting. And I shall tell you that grave Socrates when he was well stricken in years learned to play upon the harp. And I remember I have understood that Plato and Aristotle will have a man that is well brought up, to be also a musician; and declare with infinite reasons the force of music to be very great purpose in us, and for many causes (that should be too long to rehearse) ought necessarily to be learned from a man's childhood, not only for the superficial melody that is heard, but to be sufficient to bring into us a new habit that is good and a custom inclining to virtue, which makes the mind more apt to the conceiving of felicity, even as bodily exercise makes the body more lusty …

source: Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, Trans. Thomas Hoby (London, 1561), in Source Readings in Music Theory: The Renaissance. Ed. Oliver Strunk (New York, W. W. Norton, 1965): 91–92. Text modernized by Philip M. Soergel.

Improvisational Versus Written Music.

The vigorous musical culture that flourished at the time created an almost insatiable demand for compositions that might be presented at the many ceremonial occasions, festivities, and court entertainments at which music was demanded. Most musicians were schooled in the techniques of musical improvisation, although the degree to which they relied on these skills depended upon the type of music that was being performed. Italian song traditions, in particular, had long had a vigorously creative and sophisticated set of improvisational and extemporizing techniques, while other kinds of music—polyphonic motets and settings of the Mass—were often more thoroughly composed or written down. In Italy, entire evenings of entertainment were sometimes constructed from extemporaneous song. But the most complex polyphonic music of the period, performed in church on solemn occasions or as part of civic festivities, required more disciplined performance practices and written music, since these compositions made use of many different and contrasting lines of counterpoint. They could not, in other words, be executed unless performers paid strict attention to written music. In addition, the increasing numbers of musical manuscripts that survive from the period reveal an emerging demand for music that might be readily replayed or sung time and again. The circulation of these manuscripts beyond the point at which they had first been written down and their extensive recopying in subsequent editions reveals as well the emergence of a sophisticated culture of musical consumption.


introduction: The Renaissance humanist Raffaele Brandolini wrote one of the first serious treatises about musical performance. In his On Music and Poetry (1513) he argued that music and poetry were disciplines that arose from the same creative impulse, an argument that supported music's claim to a high status among the arts, rather than in its traditional place as one of the sciences. Brandolini's statements were typical of many discussions about the relative merits of specific arts at the time, and his ideas came to have an impact in raising the importance accorded to music by the thinkers that followed him.

If you rebuke music, which nature herself instituted with the first elements of the world for lightening labors, for calming and stimulating affections, and for expressing happiness and enjoyment, I do not plainly see what liberal art you would find very worthy of praise. Or do you not accept the great literary tradition that the world is composed of musical ratio? For Pythagoras, studying with divine diligence the rhythms, modes, and inflections of the various pitches from the blows of hammers, established this ratio according to the model of heaven. His school of thought presented this opinion as transmitted from ancient times; and, not satisfied with merely the concord of dissimilars which they call harmony, that school also attributed its varied symphony to the diverse motions of the heavenly spheres. But we will leave these matters, all too obscure as they are, to be debated by natural philosophers; let us now lay out carefully those which are both easy to see and consistent with the qualities of popular knowledge.

What is it that urges oarsmen, laborers in the field, and artisans in the city to persevere in their work as much as does song? Nor does it encourage only those labors where many strive together, led by some pleasant voice; the fatigue of individuals is also assuaged by any simple song. For while some fight back savage tempests and gusts of wind with all their strength of body and soul, while others eagerly wield their hoes, mattocks, and axes to cultivate a field in good time, and while still others exert themselves in various and complex works for human benefit, they render labor lighter by means of song. In the camp, workers and soldiers too soften their labors day and night with the beauty of song, while they build palisades, dig trenches, and raise bulwarks, and keep their watches or vigils. There is no need to confirm all this with examples, since it is accepted in constant and everyday practice.

By the sound of music, moreover, an army itself is armed, drawn into formation, and led headlong against the enemy, as is shown by the experience and efforts of many kings and nations. The Lacedaemonians, not the least among Greek warriors, are remembered for their use of the music of the tibia when they joined in hand-to-hand combat—not, in brief, as a religious rite or for the sake of worship, but in order to moderate and modulate their souls. The Cretans, as tradition has it, were accustomed to go into battle with the cithara sounding beforehand, setting the pace of their march. The Amazons, excelling beyond their female sex in battle skill, were accustomed to wield arms to the sound of the reed-pipe, the Sybarites to the tibia … Indeed many others everywhere, though especially the Romans, have done so, as they were roused up for battle by the sounding of the horn and the clarion. For the louder it was than all others, the more the glory of Rome surpassed the others in warfare.

source: Raffaele Brandolini, On Music and Poetry. Trans. Ann E. Moyer (Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001): 13, 15.


With the invention of the printing press, new technology afforded musicians and composers a process that might make the hand copying of music less laborious. The first printed musical edition appeared in Venice in 1501, when Ottaviano Petrucci released a collection of 96 chansons, mostly written in French. While printed editions of music were cheaper than those compiled and copied by scribes in handwritten manuscripts, they were still enormously expensive by sixteenth-century standards and only available to the wealthy, cultivated few. To print his early musical editions, Petrucci had to process each page three separate times. First he had to print the staff lines on the page, then he printed the words that flowed under the lines, and the notes were added in the final impression. In 1520, Pierre Attaignant simplified the process when he developed a way to print music through a single impression in Paris; the new process quickly spread to Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. By mid-century, Europe's primary centers of music publication included Rome, Venice, Antwerp, Paris, and Nuremberg. The rise of these centers greatly increased the flow of knowledge about recent musical developments. By the late sixteenth century, for example, printed music traveled from Rome or Venice to the farthest corners of the European continent in a matter of months, and printing became a way for composers to establish their reputations on a European-wide scale. Figures like Orlando di Lasso and Giovanni da Palestrina enjoyed widespread renown throughout the continent by virtue of the printed editions of their works. Printed music, too, allowed new compositions to be played in many places quickly. Thus the press could play a role in establishing musical tastes. Orlando di Lasso, for example, was among the first composers whose printed music helped to establish certain common tastes throughout Europe rather quickly. At the same time the importance of printed editions of music should not be overemphasized. They were still an expensive rarity when compared to the vast amount of music that circulated in hand-copied editions. Much Renaissance music, moreover, continued to be improvised from pre-existing melodies, chansons, and other musical forms, or as in the tradition of the frottola, it was often by its very nature designed to be an extemporaneous exercise. Although many songs of this sort were not written down, such singing was often governed and judged according to complex conventions and rules.

National Styles.

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries French and Netherlandish composers and musicians practiced in many of the most important courts and religious institutions of Europe. By 1500, their dominance in Italy was particularly great. At the same time, all European regions had long had their own native musical cultures and idioms distinct from those of the Franco-Flemish composers who held the continent's most important musical posts. These national styles gained a higher profile in the sixteenth century, in part due to the increase of published manuscript editions. Not long after he released his first edition of mostly French chansons, for instance, the Venetian printer Petrucci devoted his attention to printing eleven vast collections of frottole. His editions helped in spreading the popularity of this style of performance, particularly at court, where the frottole could be played and sung by performers with vast differences in ability levels. Both hired players and amateurs could join in their performance. Their simplicity, too, meant that they were open to free extemporizing on the one hand, or that they might be accompanied only by a lute on the other. The growth of musical styles like the frottola gradually undermined the dominance of French and Flemish composers and musicians in Italy, as did the training of Italians at the hands of northerners like Adrian Willaert, the organist and music director of the Cathedral of St. Mark's in Venice, the most important musical post in Italy. In turn, the printing of these native songs and dances and their circulation throughout Europe eventually expanded the musical language of all countries as well.


The most important genre of secular music to flourish in Italy during the sixteenth century was the madrigal, a form that eventually became popular in many countries throughout Europe and which established Italy as the undisputed musical center of the later sixteenth century. The Renaissance madrigal was a musical setting of a short poem that bore little resemblance to the earlier madrigals that had flourished in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy. In the earlier period madrigals had been performed with verses that alternated with refrains. In keeping with the new influence that humanism exerted on sixteenth-century Italian taste, however, the later madrigal gave primacy to the text. It was a thoroughly composed form of music, with none of the connections to the popular and folk forms that had originally inspired the medieval style. Writers of madrigals chose to set poems that were written by the foremost poets of the age, and they expressed a preference above all for the fourteenth-century sonnets of Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374). During the time that the madrigal appeared, disputes were common among poets and literary critics concerning the direction literary Italian should take. The preference for Petrarch evidenced in the early madrigal writers, in particular, fit neatly with the aims of Pietro Bembo, one of Italy's most important arbiters of aesthetic taste and an important author. He argued that Petrarch's Italian was particularly musical in nature. Among the qualities that Bembo identified in Petrarch were rhythm, melody, dignity, sweetness, and magnificence, and he recommended the author's poetry to composers as particularly fitting for music. From the earliest development of the madrigal, then, Petrarch's creations played a central role in the musical genre, inspiring Adrian Willaert and other early writers in the genre to adapt styles in their compositions that mirrored the music of Petrarch and other major Italians' verse. In their remarkable settings these composers labored to fit their music to the moods and sounds of the poetry, crafting musical imagery that was harsh and grave or light and sweet as the text demanded. Besides Petrarch, some of the poets whose works were most frequently set in madrigals were Lodovico Ariosto, Pietro Bembo, Jacopo Sannazaro, and Torquato Tasso. While comic and satirical madrigals certainly appeared during the great Italian outpouring of madrigal writing that occurred between 1530 and 1600, most madrigals dealt with serious themes of love and eroticism. Many drew upon the popularity of pastoral poetry as well. The enormous fondness of the Italian elite for madrigals at the time cannot be disputed. More than 2,000 printed editions of these works survive from the sixteenth century alone, and the form remained one of the most popular in secular music well into the seventeenth century. Originally written for four voices, most madrigals after 1550 had five voices, and somewhat later, works written for six or more voices appeared. Composers intended each written part to be sung by only one voice, and thus the madrigal played a role in cultivated Italian circles as an early form of chamber music. The genre's appearance and rapid development thus point to a sophisticated, although mostly amateur, culture of musical consumption. Madrigals, in other words, were performed within Italian court circles by courtiers who were relatively well educated in reading and executing musical scores.

Gesualdo and Monteverdi.

The two greatest composers of madrigals were Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1561–1613) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). Gesualdo was an Italian nobleman, notorious for having murdered his wife and her lover in 1586 after he caught them in the act of adultery. He outlasted the scandal, however, and in 1593 married the prominent Leonora d'Este, niece of the powerful ruler of the duchy of Ferrara. Like other composers of the later sixteenth century in Italy, Gesualdo employed chromatic scales and harmonies in his work, a fashion at the time that was prompted through the study of Greek musical treatises. While the fad for chromaticism was considerable in Italy at the time, Gesualdo relied on it as more than a mere imitation of ancient style. In his beautiful madrigal settings, he employed chromatic melodies together with root chords that were a third apart. The result produced music that was frequently a touching response to his emotion-laden texts. By contrast, the late Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi was a master not only of madrigal composition but a pioneer in the writing of opera and a composer of sacred works as well. Born in Cremona, he served the Duke of Mantua, eventually attaining the rank of music master in his chapel. In the last thirty years of his life he gained prominence as the choirmaster at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. In 1587, Monteverdi began to publish his madrigals, and by 1605 he had produced five printed collections. His settings mixed contrapuntal and homophonic sections, and he freely employed the chromatic scales and dissonant harmonies that had grown popular in response to Greek theory. His settings were lively and sensitive responses to the texts he chose. In addition, his works were innovative and point to some of the trends that developed as important features of seventeenth-century Baroque music. Monteverdi, for instance, relied on the recitative style in many of his madrigals, allowing the voices to declaim certain important parts of the poetic text. The composer also wrote embellishments into his scores rather than allow performers to improvise these freely as was the sixteenth-century custom. Through their wide circulation in printed editions Monteverdi's madrigals had an enormous influence on the development of musical tastes and fashions, not only in Italy, but throughout Europe.


The madrigal, a courtly and elite form of musical entertainment, was prized by the musically sophisticated circles that had sprouted in Italy during the sixteenth century. Elsewhere in Europe, native styles of song and choral music underwent a similar development. In France the chanson, a native medieval genre, had become one element of the international European musical landscape by 1500. During the first half of the sixteenth century the chanson reacquired many native French elements, and in the vicinity of Paris, in particular, a style of chanson composition, frequently referred to as "Parisian chanson," emerged. The new form made use of distinctive French poetry, and was encouraged by the chivalric tone of Francis I's court. Another spur to the popularity of the Parisian chanson lay in the publication efforts of Pierre Attaingnant, who published some fifty books of chansons in the years between 1528 and 1552. Attaingnant was an innovator who perfected the process of single-impression musical printing, thus greatly reducing the cost and effort needed to print music. His chanson collections included more than 1,500 musical creations, and other French printers soon imitated their success. The earliest printed chansons were similar in many respects to the frottole popular in Italy around the same time. They were light confections that moved quickly and rhythmically, scored for four voices with the highest voice most often carrying the melody. Somewhat later, hundreds of the most popular of these songs were transcribed for the lute or for the voice with lute accompaniment. Among the most popular compositions Attaingnant published were the songs of Clément Janequin (c. 1585–c. 1560). Janequin's chansons made use of sounds that imitated the birds, calls to the hunt, battle cries, and street noises, and they had a dominant melodic line. Outside Paris, printers in sixteenth-century Lyons and Antwerp continued to publish chansons that were true to the genre's original polyphonic origins. And after 1550, French fascination with the polyphonic madrigal exerted an influence on the traditional chansons. At this time some composers experimented with inserting madrigal elements into the production of their chansons, including the madrigals' polyphonic and contrapuntal texture. As the seventeenth century approached, though, the homophonic Parisian style of chanson tended to dominate throughout France.

Musique mesurÉe À l'antique.

Another sign of the creative ferment that the alliance between Renaissance and humanism was producing throughout Europe lies in the development of the musique mesurée à l'antique. This French form developed in the second half of the sixteenth century in a series of experiments undertaken by members of the Pléiade, a group of poets concerned with applying the metrical lines of ancient Greek and Latin poetry to the writing of sixteenth-century French verse. Underlying the concerns of the members of the Pléiade—most notably Jean-Antoine de Baïf—was the notion that music and poetry should be reunited, as he and others believed they had been in the ancient world. De Baïf soon enlisted a number of musical colleagues to achieve this reunification of the two arts. The composers that participated in this effort to set French texts, based on classical metrical models, to music included Thibault de Courville, Guillaume Costeley, and, perhaps most importantly, Claude Le Jeune. Just as in the spoken performance of these poems, musique mesurée à l'antique proceeded through a combination of long and short sounds, intended to heighten the difference between the accented and unaccented syllables that were fundamental to the endeavor of creating French lyrics based on classical models. The result produced an austere, somewhat severe style of music, but one that fascinated French humanist intellectuals and many educated musicians and composers during the 1570s. In developing musique mesurée à l'antique, de Baïf worked in tandem with Thibault de Courville to set out a theory for the new music, and in 1570 enough interest in the project had developed to found the Académie de Poésie et de Musique, an institution that soon received a royal charter. Like many humanist-inspired experiments in music, the Académie de Poésie et de Musique had a philosophical agenda: to revive the power of music to achieve ethical virtua, a power that humanists believed had existed in Antiquity, but had long since been corrupted. Through concerts, de Baïf and other members of the Académie hoped to spread their new art form among a small cadre of intellectuals and members of Paris' political elites, who might then work for the reform of all music in France along the lines advocated by the Académie. Thus membership in the organization included both professional musicians and a second category of listeners, who were learned and often wealthy musical fans. This second group of members were expected to support the institution financially, in large part by paying expensive yearly fees for admission to its concerts. Despite such grand intentions the Académie was not a success, but points rather to the perennial appeal that the revival of classical musical forms had on the musical figures of the later Renaissance.


The Lied, a distinctively German song form, experienced a development similar to the madrigal in Italy and the chanson in France. The earliest collections of Lieder survive from the mid-fifteenth century, and show that these songs were performed either as simple monophonic melodies or they were set in three voices with the tenor singing the melody. Like the madrigal and chansons, the singing of Lieder flourished and developed in tandem with courtly musical life. One of the most accomplished sixteenth-century composers of these songs was Paul Hofhaimer (1459–1537), who served as organist to the Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1489–1519). Hofhaimer relied on traditional German melodies that he set in harmony according to the contrapuntal techniques popularized by the French and Flemish composers of the day. Through the efforts of composers like Ludwig Senfl, too, the Lied became a highly artful genre that was similar in many ways to the complex choral motets sung throughout Northern Europe at the time. At the same time Senfl and others composed shorter Lieder that imitated folk melodies and which often had a bawdy quality. With the rise of music printing in the first half of the sixteenth century, the wealthy city of Nuremberg became Germany's primary center of Lieder publication, and many collections of the songs issued from the city. Later in the century, however, Lieder publication fell off in Germany as the taste for the more complex Italian madrigal grew. The melodies that had been popularized in the earlier printed Lieder collections, however, formed the basis upon which many late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century composers constructed Protestant chorales, hymns that were sung in Germany's newly reformed Lutheran churches.

Madrigals and Songs in England.

The printing and performance of secular songs written in parts developed in England somewhat later than in the rest of Europe, and was intricately connected to the Italian madrigal's rising popularity in the late sixteenth century. Nicholas Yonge's 1588 Transalpine Music (Musica transalpina) represents the first collection of madrigals published in England. Yonge merely translated and adapted these works from Italian models, and in his preface he explained that he had been meeting regularly with a group of gentlemen to perform these works. His anthology became popular, and by the 1590s it inspired a number of composers to produce their own madrigals. Among the most prolific of these English madrigal composers were Thomas Morley (1557–1602) and John Wilbye (1574–1638). Great variety characterized the many English madrigals that were written between the 1590s and the 1630s. Generally, though, their musical phrases were longer than those that originated in Italy at the same time. And while Italian composers granted primacy to the setting of the texts, English composers tended to pay greater attention to the overall musical and aesthetic structures of their works. As the sixteenth century drew to a close in England, collections of lute songs became popular, too. In these solo songs with lute accompaniment composers set to music some of the best English poetry of the period, and the literary quality of these works is usually consistently better than the texts used at about the same time for madrigals. The two most prominent composers of lute songs were John Dowland (1562–1626) and Thomas Campion (1567–1620). Dowland's "Flow, my tears" was among the most successful and well known of the lute songs. Published in 1600, it inspired a number of variations and arrangements.

Instrumental Music.

Music intended to be played only by instruments had long existed in Europe as accompaniment to dances, or as incidental pieces at courtly banquets and other entertainments. Because most of this music was improvised or played from memory, very little instrumental music had ever been written down before the later fifteenth century; the surviving manuscripts and sixteenth-century printed editions we possess record only a small portion of Renaissance instrumental music. These written works, too, are rarely reliable guides to the actual performance of the pieces since, until very late, written music did not stipulate the embellishments that performers should include. Performers made these enhancements to the written text according to certain commonly accepted conventions, and at the same time they often freely improvised on the text's theme. The increasing number of musical instructional books common in Renaissance Europe points to the growing importance Europeans attached to the proper performance of instrumental music. Many of these books taught their readers how to embellish a musical line as well as how to tune their instruments. The first of such works, Sebastian Virdung's A Summary of the Musical Sciences in German, appeared in 1511. Many similar books followed that were of a practical nature and addressed both the professional and amateur musician. Consequently, they were written in the national languages rather than in the Latin preferred by writers of musical theory. The ensemble instruments preferred by the composers of sixteenth-century instrumental music were the viol, the harp, the flute, the shawm (an early double-reeded form of the oboe), the cornet, trumpet, and sackbut (an early version of the trombone). The keyboard instruments of the day consisted of the portable organ or organetto, the pipe organ (which by the sixteenth century had acquired the massive size and fixed position in churches similar to the modern instrument), the clavichord, and the harp-sichord. The most popular domestic instrument in use throughout Europe was the lute, an instrument that by the sixteenth century already had more than five centuries of history. In Spain the lute resembled the modern guitar, while elsewhere it was shaped more like a pear.

Performance Practice.

Despite the growth in forms of instrumental music, vocal music continued to be dominant in the written music of sixteenth-century Europe, and its importance influenced many instrumental performance practices. In accompanying the Mass or in the performance of other choral pieces, instruments typically served to double or substitute for voices in the choir. Instrumental and organ interludes were played between the various sections of the Mass or they were used as intermezzi within one of its sections. In addition, a number of musical forms developed that were based around vocal compositional models. In Italy, for instance, composers wrote pieces for ensembles and instruments that were termed Canzone da sonar ("songs to be played"). At first, these pieces imitated the fast-moving chanson vocal style, with its strong rhythms and straightforward counterpoint based around a central theme. Over time, however, composers broke these works into sections and often employed different themes in each of the work's movements. The sixteenth century, too, saw a great elaboration in instrumental dance music, much of it written for the lute, the keyboard, or small ensembles. Most dance music at the time still tended to be improvised, but printers also released collections of dances. Written and printed forms of dance music grew more complex, and while many pieces retained the rhythms originally associated with a dance, they were not intended to accompany dancers, but to serve as diversions in well-heeled or aristocratic households. Over time, too, composers tended to group these stylized, diversionary dances into suites comprised of several different types of pieces in contrasting meters. In the dance suites slow movements usually alternated with faster ones. Fashions for dances changed greatly over time. Around 1550, the most popular dance throughout Europe was the allemande, a dance in double meter that continued to be included in the dance suites written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries long after its popularity had waned. Pavanes and galliards, too, while popular in the sixteenth century, survived as musical forms long after their popularity had faded in the ballroom. In the Baroque era, for example, the widespread popularity of dance suites extended the life of many Renaissance dances. Although many forms like the pavane or the galliard came to be danced less and less over time, their rhythms and styles of musical composition lived on in instrumental music of that later period.


By the Renaissance, improvisation already had a long history throughout Western Europe. Improvised variations on tunes, for instance, had a venerable tradition as the accompaniment to social dancing. With the advent of printing, some variations began to be written down. In 1508, Joan Ambrosio Dalza published a series of Italian tunes for which he included variations suitable for accompanying dances on the lute. The custom of crafting variations continued to flourish in the sixteenth century, particularly in Spain, where composers for the lute and keyboard developed the genre of variation to a high level. Of all the sixteenth-century variations that survive, however, the most technically brilliant were those created by a group of English composers known as the Virginalists, who composed variations for the keyboard. The leading figure among the Virginalists was William Byrd (1543–1623), who composed a series of keyboard variations notable for their brilliant song-like character. Other Virginalists included John Bull (c. 1562–1628) and Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625). The art of variation that flourished in England at the time did not always place great emphasis on displaying the technical brilliance of the player, but instead composers tried to play ingenuously with the themes they selected from the lute songs and other melodies popular in England at the time.


Sixteenth-century achievements in music began with the great masses and sacred motets of Josquin des Prez, and the legacy of achievement continued unbroken throughout the century. In these developments, though, secular music played an increasingly important role. Humanism's influence on music could be felt in the revival of Greek and Roman theory concerning the art, and in a new attention to song texts. Chromatic and harmonic inventiveness were also another direct result of the revival of knowledge of antique music. In Italy, the great courts, cathedrals, and wealthy merchant families expanded their patronage of musicians and composers, attracting many French and Flemish immigrants during the first half of the century. Eventually Italians trained by the greatest of these figures established Italy as the undisputed center of European musical life, a position that it retained over the next two centuries. Italian forms, like the madrigals, frottole, and balleti, became popular throughout Europe, competing against native musical styles that were also being enriched and creatively reassessed at the same time. Instrumental music, too, became increasingly important during the later Renaissance, as exemplified by the many musical handbooks and written instrumental pieces that survive from the period. The tendency to commit more music to written and printed scores placed a higher emphasis on the technical virtuosity of performers, since a written text could now be compared against the actual performance. In turn, this new tendency to "fix" later Renaissance music in printed and written scores gave birth to many manuals that treated proper performance techniques and the arts of ornamentation and elaboration. The rising fashion for instrumental music at the time inspired the development of new instruments that often shared the traits of increased volume and tonal range. The innovations of Renaissance instrumental and vocal music, largely centered in Italy, spread quickly to all corners of the continent through travel and the printed page.


introduction: The sixteenth century produced a great number of practical guides to music that were intended for musicians. These treatises were largely practical and without a great deal of theory. The accomplished English musician and composer Thomas Morley wrote one of these works entitled A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music. In it, he described the various forms of dances and songs that were in use at the time, and advised his readers about the practice of "composing fantasies," many of which were not written down at the time, but improvised.

The slightest kind of music (if they deserve the name of music) are the vinate, or drinking songs, for as I said before there is no kind of vanity whereunto they have not applied some music or other, as they have framed this to be sung in their drinking, but that vice being so rare among the Italians and Spaniards, I rather think that music to have been devised by or for the Germans (who in swarms do flock to the University of Italy) rather than for the Italians themselves.

There is likewise a kind of songs (which I had almost forgotten) called Giustinianas and all are written in the Bergamasca language. A wanton and rude kind of music it is and like enough to carry the name of some notable courtesan of the city of Bergamo, for no man will deny that Giustiniana is the name of a woman.

There be also many other kinds of songs which the Italians make, as pastorellas and passamezos with a ditty and such like, which it would be both tedious and superfluous to relate unto you in words. Therefore I will leave to speak any more of them and begin to declare unto you those kinds which they make without ditties.

The most principal and chiefest kind of music which is made without a ditty is the fantasy, that is, when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it as shall seem best in his own conceit. In this way more art be shown than in any other music, because the composer is tied to nothing but that he may add, diminish, and alter at his pleasure. And this kind will bear any allowances whatsoever tolerable in other music, except changing the air and leaving the key, which in fantasy may never be suffered. Other things you may use at your pleasure, as bindings with discords, quick motions, slow motions, proportions, and what you list. Likewise this kind of music is with them who practice instruments of parts in greatest use, but for voices it is but seldom used.

source: Thomas Morley, A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music (London, 1597), in Source Readings in Music History: The Renaissance. Ed. Oliver Strunk (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965): 86–87.


F. Blume, Renaissance and Baroque Music (London, England: Faber & Faber, 1969).

H. M. Brown, Music in the Renaissance (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967).

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

J. Haar, ed., Chanson and Madrigal, 1480–1530 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961).

W. Prizer, "The Frottola and the Unwritten Tradition," in Studi musicali XV (1986): 3–37.

F. A. Yates, The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (London, England: Warburg Institute, 1947).