The birth of fine arts, the rise of the middle class and amateur artists, and the advent of printing from moveable type increased musical literacy across Europe during the Renaissance, according to Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney in the book “The Enjoyment of Music.” The music during this period is known for its modal harmonies, a cappella pieces, and imitative polyphony, as composers turned to “word painting,” using music to express ideas and emotions.
Masses were a form of sacred music that dominated the Renaissance period, according to New York University. Masses were polyphonic, which means they had two or more melody lines. Music had an important role in church rituals, and masses had five sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The Kyrie is a prayer of mercy, the Gloria praises God, and the Credo is the confession of faith. The Sanctus is a song about God’s holiness, and the Agnus Dei is a song that asks God to take away the sins of the world and grant peace and mercy. At the beginning of the Renaissance the composers based masses on Gregorian chants. Guillaume Du Fay is an example of an early Renaissance composer who is known for writing four-part masses, such as the “L’homme armé.” After the Protestant Reformation, during the high Renaissance, cardinals on the Council of Trent pushed for changes in sacred masses because they became extravagantly embellished and more secular, according to Machlis and Forney. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina answered the Council of Trent’s demands and wrote over 100 masses, including the “Pope Marcellus” mass.
During the Renaissance, the motet became a popular type of polyphonic music that used three or four voices. The composers set the music to sacred Latin texts for use in religious services or as part of a mass. It was common for a composer to base a motet on a fixed melody, like a chant. Franco-Flemish composer Josquin Desprez wrote over 100 motets. One of his popular pieces is the 1475 “Ave Maria…virgo serena.” In it, Josquin experiments with different voice combinations and musical textures as the piece alternates between two, three and four voices.
The chanson is a secular genre that arose during the Renaissance, in which composers wrote polyphonic songs to enhance popular or courtly poems. The music style was particularly favored in the French courts, according to Machlis and Forney. It was common for a chanson to have three voices, and have at least one instrument play a lower voice. Popular chanson composers included Guillaume Du Fay, Johannes Ockeghem, Gilles Binchois and Robert Morton. A well-liked Burgundian chanson is “Il sera pour vous/ L’homme armé.” Musical scholars believe Du Fay or Morton wrote the piece.
Madrigal Dance Music
The madrigal -- music set to short, lyrical love poems -- became a popular secular genre during the 16th century, according to New York University. In this genre, soloists or ensembles play instrumental dance music. The music for outdoor performances called for loud instruments, while those for indoor and civic occasions used softer instruments. The madrigal flourished among aristocrats as the themes included humor, satire, politics and current events. Machlis and Forney state that one of the greatest Italian madrigal composers is Claudio Monteverdi, who wrote pieces such as “A un giro sol.” Madrigal music also became popular in England during the Elizabethan age.
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