Renaissance Music

Renaissance Music

Renaissance Period: from about 1400–1600

virginal (musical instrument)   serpent (musical instrument)theorbo (musical instrument)
girl playing virginal    ~     serpent    ~     woman with theorbo
Click any image to enlarge.
(public domain images from Wiki Commons)

  • Renaissance composers include Josquin Des Prez, Thomas Tallis, Giovanni Pierluigi da Pastrina, Orlando de Lassus, William Byrd, Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Monteverdi, Clement Janequin
  • Vocal music includes French chansons, German lieder, secular madrigals, motets, quodlibets (literally meaning “whatever you like,” sort of a mashup of snippets of various tunes that were popular at the time).
  • Instruments commonly used: violin, viol, viola, cello, violone, lute, archlute, theorbo, harp, cittern, vihuela, crumhorn, recorder, shawm, dulcian, cornett, sackbut, serpent, natural horn, slide trumpet, natural trumpet, clavichord, harpsichord, virginal, organ, drum, timpani, cymbals, tabor. Read about these instruments here.

During the Renaissance, “the characteristic ‘ideal’ sound became that of four of more voice lines of similar character and equal importance in a homogeneous tone color, instead of three more or less dissimilar lines in contrasting timbres as in the Middle ages. The idea medium was an unaccompanied vocal ensemble (a capella)…. Composers began to write all the parts simultaneously instead of successively, as in the Middle Ages.” (from A History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout)

A few prime examples of Renaissance music are these favorites among many early music fans.

“Le Chant des Oiseax” — a madrigal for an unaccompanied four-part vocal ensemble by Clément Janequin that imitates bird calls and songs.

The quartet in the first version below includes a soprano, countertenor, baritone, and bass.
In the second version, you can follow along the score, which notes the onomatopoeia (bird songs).

Janequin singers      Janequin score

“Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis is a motet for 40 voices. According to this piece’s Wiki page:

Spem in alium motet
Click to hear the Tallis Scholars sing this remarkable motet.

“The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass). It is most likely that Tallis intended his singers to stand in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. … The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mass, the work is continually changing and presenting new ideas”

Giovanni Gabrieli experimented with space and sound, often positioning brass choirs in different parts of a venue to play antiphonally, echoing each other at times. He also wrote simpler pieces for brass ensembles of varying sizes.

Here are three different presentations of his “Canzona per Sonare No. 2” for brass quartet (sometimes arranged for quintet).

The first is performed by Calliope Brass via Zoom, the second is an animated score (watch other animated scores by Stephen Malinkowski here), and the third is performed by the Santa Barbara (CA) Trombone Society’s Sackbut Quartet (the sackbut is the ancestor of the trombone).

Gabrieli on Zoom
Gabrieli animated score
Gabrieli played on sackbuts

Continue to Baroque Music.

Return in time to Medieval Music.