Music, Vocal

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Music, Vocal

Singing played a vital role in Renaissance culture, both as a form of religious worship and as a form of entertainment. Between 1400 and 1600, singers and composers flocked to the great courts and cathedrals of Europe. At the same time, music publishers produced many editions of new songs and choral pieces. Vocal works became increasingly complex as composers wrote more elaborate harmonies and strove to express a wide range of ideas through music.


The Roman Catholic Church had a long tradition of vocal music. In many cathedrals and royal chapels, choirs sang during regular services as well as on special occasions. Some religious institutions commissioned composers to create music for their choirs. When Protestant churches formed in the late Renaissance, many of them also adopted singing as a form of worship.

Gregorian Chant. During the Middle Ages, the main form of music sung in the Roman Catholic Church was Gregorian chant, a type of song with a single melody line, no harmony, and a relatively free rhythm. By the mid-1300s, an enormous body of chants existed. Choirboys began their training by learning to sing chants, eventually memorizing all the melodies used by the church during the year. Because most Renaissance composers made their living as singers in religious institutions, they also became extremely familiar with Gregorian chant. For this reason, much of the music produced during the Renaissance was heavily influenced by chant melodies.

In the late 1500s, Catholic Church officials tried to revise the melodies of many Gregorian chants, claiming that the form had decayed over time. A commission appointed by Pope Gregory XIII (reigned 1572–1585) produced a new edition of all the chants, removing certain features—such as extra notes sung over short syllables—that were viewed as incorrect. However, the church never really enforced the use of the revised melodies.

The Motet. During the Renaissance, more composers began producing polyphonic music, which contained more than one melody line. One of the major forms of polyphonic religious music was the motet, a musical setting of a given text. The earliest motets featured two voices singing fast-paced melodies over a slow-moving tenor.

During the 1400s, composers began to write motets for four voices singing at the same speed. One of the great composers of the four-part motet was Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450–1521) of France, who wrote more than 50 motets. He developed the technique of introducing each line of the text with a short musical segment, sung by all the voices in sequence.

By the middle of the 1500s, the motet had become the most popular form of sacred vocal music in Europe. Some composers produced 200 or more motets, either taking their texts directly from the liturgy (the text of the religious service) or creating new lyrics. Music publishers produced volumes of motets to meet the demand for new pieces.

The Mass. In the Catholic Church, vocal music centered around the Mass, particularly the Ordinary, the parts of the service that do not change from day to day. During the 1400s, musical settings of the Ordinary of the Mass developed from short, isolated pieces into full-length works covering all five parts of the service.

Composers found different methods of connecting five parts of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei). Some introduced each section with the same musical motif*. Others used a given melody, known as the cantus firmus, in all five sections, varying the rest of the composition around it. The cantus firmus was usually sung by the tenor voice in the choir. In England, where the five-movement Mass first emerged, the composer often borrowed a melody from Gregorian chant to use throughout the work. Later, Flemish* composer Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1397–1474) and others adapted tunes from nonreligious works as the basis for Masses. The use of the cantus firmus varied, with some composers moving this melody from the tenor voice to other sections of the choir.

Other Sacred Forms. Renaissance composers created several other types of music for use in religious settings. Hymns, songs of praise containing many verses, appeared throughout the year. They often followed an alternating pattern, with half the verses sung in polyphony and half in Gregorian chant. The Magnificat (a song of praise to the Virgin Mary) and the Psalms also inspired many polyphonic pieces.

In the 1500s, composers began creating works for two or more choirs to sing in an alternating pattern. By 1600, this style, known as polychoral music, had spread throughout Europe. The performances could involve as many as four choirs accompanied by instruments, creating a monumental effect.

When the Protestant Reformation* spread across northern Europe it influenced the use of sacred music in many countries. Some Protestant leaders allowed polyphonic music in their churches. The German reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) created a new type of vocal work called the chorale—usually a song of praise in the vernacular*. He wrote a number of chorales (such as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God") and encouraged composers to create polyphonic settings for them. The chorale became the basis of the music used in Lutheran churches.

By contrast, the French reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) rejected most religious music, permitting only simple vocal settings of the Psalms. He published several books of psalms set to music, which had a tremendous impact on church music. Many of the pieces were later sung in Protestant churches in Germany, Holland, England, Scotland, and America.


Styles of secular (nonreligious) vocal music changed greatly in the 1400s and 1500s. The rigid structures developed in the Middle Ages gave way to more expressive and personal forms. The two most popular types of secular songs—the French chanson and the Italian madrigal—were based on lyric poetry*.

Chansons. The chanson, defined simply as a song with French words, rose to popularity in the 1400s. Composers all over Europe took poems with several stanzas* and set them to music, usually writing parts for three solo voices. The highest voice sang the main melody line, and the two lower voices sang supporting melodies. Instrumentalists sometimes played along with one or more of the voices or even replaced them.

Many of the great chanson composers, such as Guillaume Dufay, came from Flanders. Dufay wrote more than 70 chansons, mostly based on love poems. Although some of the Flemish musicians remained in northern Europe, many took positions in Italy at princely courts or at the papal* chapel. As a result, Italy developed a brilliant musical culture superior in many ways to that of Spain, France, England, and Germany in the early Renaissance.

After 1520, a simpler and more elegant type of chanson developed in Paris. The French chanson had a graceful melody that harmonized with chords sung by the three lower voices. The music closely followed the rhythm of the poetic text, with one note for each syllable. French composers such as Clément Janequin, Claudin de Sermisy, and Pierre Certon produced songs of this type.

Some French chansons were linked to a particular scene or event. One song by Janequin vividly described a battle, complete with trumpet fanfares, battle cries, and cannon fire. In the late 1500s, Claude Le Jeune composed chansons to texts by members of the Pléiade, a group of seven French poets who sought to imitate classical* poetry. Le Jeune's songs closely followed the rhythm patterns of the poems, using long notes for long syllables and short notes for short syllables. This approach, which resulted in an irregular rhythm, influenced French composers for the rest of the 1500s.

Madrigals. The madrigal first appeared in Italy in the 1500s, and it soon took the place of the French chanson as the most important Renaissance musical form. The madrigal grew out of another Italian form, the frottola. Popular in northern Italy from about 1480 to 1520, the frottola was usually based on a light, entertaining poem. It had four vocal parts, with the highest and lowest voices singing the more important melodies and the two middle voices filling in the harmony. During the early 1500s, serious poetry became increasingly popular at court. As a result, madrigals based on literary texts gradually replaced the frottola.

In the madrigal the four vocal parts were equally important, and each voice sang the entire text. Composers used the music to express the meaning and changing moods of the poem. Musically, the madrigal resembled the motet, which also involved four equal vocal parts. However, unlike the motet, the madrigal did not have a religious theme. Some madrigals—especially in Italy—maintained the lighter tone of the frottola. In time, however, composers in France and the Netherlands developed more serious, complex madrigals.

In the mid-1500s, composers added a fifth voice to the madrigal, and the music began to reflect the imagery* of the words more clearly. For example, high and low musical tones in the melody represented the ideas of "highness" and "lowness." The melody might also mirror actions—falling, climbing, or rising—mentioned in the text. As the poetry became more dramatic, composers used complex harmonies to reflect powerful emotions.

The madrigal reached its peak in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Musicians continued to look for the best ways of expressing the meaning and mood of the text through music. In Italy, composers such as Carlo Gesualdo and Claudio Monteverdi added new features to the form, such as rich and varied harmonies, solos, and instrumental accompaniment. However, some of these features conflicted with the basic idea of the madrigal as a balanced work for four or five voices.

At about the same time, audiences at the Italian courts (especially Ferrara, Mantua, and Florence) developed a preference for music that featured outstanding solo singers. This trend helped bring about the decline of the madrigal in Italy. It also paved the way for the growth of other vocal music forms—such as opera—that placed more emphasis on soloists.

Meanwhile, the madrigal remained popular in other parts of Europe, particularly England, Germany, Denmark, Poland, and the Netherlands. In England, interest in the form surged in 1588, with the publication of a collection of Italian madrigals with English texts. English composers such as Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes, and John Wilbye began writing madrigals modeled on the lighter Italian version of the form. Morley published five collections of madrigals. Weelkes, by contrast, produced bold, dramatic works in the style of Gesualdo and Monteverdi.

Other Vocal Forms. Another popular form of vocal music in England was the ayre, or air. Written for a solo voice usually accompanied by the lute (a stringed instrument), airs began to appear in print in the 1590s. John Dowland, an accomplished lute player and composer, published First Booke of Songes or Ayres in 1597. Often more literary than the texts of madrigals, the English airs include poetry by writers such as Philip Sidney, John Donne, and Ben Jonson.

An important song literature developed in Spain, where the villancico (similar to the Italian frottola) became widespread in the late 1500s. In Germany, the most popular form of vocal music was the lied, a four-part song with the melody in the tenor voice. Early lied composers created a distinctly German musical style. From about 1565 to the end of the century, the finest composers of this form were Orlando di Lasso of Italy, who worked in Munich for many years, and Hans Leo Hassler. Their works pushed aside the distinctive German elements and brought in influences from other regions, especially Italy.

(See alsoMusic; Music, Instrumental; Musical Instruments; Poetry. )

* motif

theme or subject

* Flemish

relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* lyric poetry

verse that expresses feelings and thoughts rather than telling a story

* stanza

section of a poem; specifically, a grouping of lines into a recurring pattern determined by meter or rhyme scheme

* papal

referring to the office and authority of the pope

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* imagery

pictorial quality of a literary work, achieved through words

Music in Many Languages

Most Renaissance religious music was sung in Latin. However, composers also produced sacred songs in their local languages. Examples include the carol (a song of praise or joy) in England and the noël (a Christmas song) in France. In Italy, singers performed the lauda, a song of praise, in Italian. Most laude were religious poems set to music for two or more voices. They became popular in cities such as Florence, Venice, and Rome, where religious organizations encouraged the development of sacred vocal music.