Forms of Music During the Renaissance Period

During the Renaissance, the birth of fine arts, rise of the middle class, creativity of amateur artists and advent of printing from moveable type all increased musical literacy across Europe. 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.

Polyphonic Masses

Masses were a form of sacred music that dominated the Renaissance period. Masses were polyphonic, which means they had two or more melody lines. Music had an important role in church rituals. 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 as well as 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 music had become extravagantly embellished and more secular. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina answered the Council of Trent’s demands and wrote over 100 masses including the “Pope Marcellus” mass.

Sacred Motet

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 most 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.

Secular Chanson

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. It was common for a chanson to have three voices and have at least one instrument playing a lower voice. Popular chanson composers included Guillaume Du Fay, Johannes Ockeghem, Gilles Binchois and Robert Morton. A well-liked Burgundian chanson was “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. 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. 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.