Chapter 7. The Age of the Renaissance

Chapter Outline



The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a period of great change for European culture, literature, art, and music. To some at the time, it seemed that the arts had been reborn after a period of stagnation. In his 1855 Histoire de France, Jules Michelet crystalized this notion in the term Renaissance (French for “rebirth”), now widely used to designate the historical period after the Middle Ages. The idea of rebirth captures the aims of scholars and artists to restore the learning, ideals, and values of ancient Greece and Rome. But scholarship, literature, art, and music did far more than revive the old. Currents already strong in the late Middle Ages continued, and the introduction of new technologies, from oil painting to the printing press, brought radical changes. In many cases, classical antiquity provided the inspiration for something really new, including new ways to read and understand the Bible, literature in vernacular languages, and realism and perspective in painting. 

In music, this period saw numerous developments. They did not all occur at once, so that the Renaissance is best understood as a time of continual and overlapping changes rather than as a unified style or movement. From the early fifteenth century on, musicians frequently held positions outside their native regions, especially in Italy. This led to the creation of a new international style drawing on elements of French, Italian, and English traditions and new rules for polyphony based on strict control of dissonance. The greater use of thirds and sixths required new tuning systems. The late fifteenth century saw the emergence of two principal textures that would predominate in sixteenth-century music- imitative counterpoint and homophony. In the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the revival of classical learning had many parallels in music, including a renewed interest in ancient Greek theory and ideals for music and a new focus on setting words with correct declamation while reflecting the meanings and emotions of the text. The development of music printing in the early sixteenth century made notated music available to a wider public. Amateurs bought music to perform for their own entertainment, encouraging composers to produce new and more popular kinds of music, especially songs in vernacular languages and music for instruments. The Reformation brought new forms of religious music for Protestant churches and, in reaction, new styles for Catholic music. All of these changes have affected music in fundamental ways ever since. 

These developments will be taken up individually in the next five chapters. Here we will set the stage by placing the changes in music in the wider context of the Renaissance, showing some parallels with the other arts. 

Chapter Outline: 

  1. Renaissance in Culture and Art
    1. The Renaissance (French for “rebirth”) began at different times for different aspects of culture.
      1. In some aspects it began in the 1300s.
      2. Some areas experienced a renaissance beginning in the 1500s.
      3. The term was coined in 1855 by a French historian.
      4. For the purposes of HWM, the period includes the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
    2. Developments in music
      1. An international style developed due to composers from northern Europe working in Italy.
      2. New rules for counterpoint controlled dissonance and elevated thirds and sixths in importance.
      3. The predominant textures were imitative counterpoint and homophony.
      4. Printing made notated music available to a wider public, including amateurs.
      5. The Reformation generated changes in music for both Protestant and Catholic churches.
  2. Europe in the Renaissance (Refer to Timeline: The Age of the Renaissance)
    1. European expansion
      1. Europeans established colonies around the world.
      2. Columbus’s 1492 trip led to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas, followed by colonies established by other countries.
    2. The European economy stabilized around 1400.
      1. Trade between regions with specialized products brought wealth to towns, cities, and individuals.
      2. The middle class continued to grow in numbers and influence.
      3. Rulers glorified themselves and their principalities.
        1. Impressive palaces and country houses
        2. Decoration with new artwork and artifacts from ancient civilizations
        3. Lavish entertainment
        4. Private chapels staffed by professional musicians
    3. Humanism
      1. Access to Greek writings influenced thinkers.
        1. Byzantine scholars fled to Italy because of Ottoman attacks, taking ancient Greek writings with them.
        2. Italian scholars learned Greek and translated Greek texts into Latin.
        3. The works of Plato and the Greek plays and histories became available to western Europeans for the first time.
      2. Humanism (from the Latin studia humanitatis, “the study of the humanities,” that is, things pertaining to human knowledge)
        1. Humanists emphasized the study of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy.
        2. They believed that the humanities prepared students for lives of virtue and service.
        3. The Church borrowed from classical sources and supported humanists.
  3. Renaissance Sculpture, Painting, and Architecture
    1. Classical models of beauty
      1. Nude statues based on Greek ideals (see HWM Figure 7.1) depicted the beauty of the human figure, as opposed to human shame in medieval art.
      2. Classical Greek and Roman styles were used to portray Christian themes.
      3. Musicians consulted Greek theoretical treatises for ideas on how to create classical beauty in music.
    2. Realistic depictions in painting
      1. Perspective, a method of showing three dimensions on a flat surface by orienting objects on a single point with vanishing lines toward it, made more-realistic images possible.
      2. Chiaroscuro, naturalistic treatment of light and shade
      3. HWM Figure 7.3 uses perspective and light to create a more-realistic image than the medieval image in HWM Figure 7.2.
    3. Clarity and clean lines are the new architectural style, the opposite of the ornate decoration of the Gothic style.
    4. Interest in individuals
      1. Patrons commissioned paintings to memorialize themselves.
      2. Minor figures in paintings were painted in detail.
    5. Musical parallels
      1. Expansion of range, allowing contrast between high and low registers and fuller textures
      2. Clarity of musical structure through frequent cadences and stylistic contrasts
      3. Focusing on a single tonal center was the equivalent of using a single vanishing point in perspective.
      4. Interest in individuals is reflected in unique personal styles and memorial works.
  4. The Musical Renaissance
    1. Renaissance musicians could refer only to treatises from ancient Greece, not to any actual pieces, so musical humanism does not imitate Greek music.
    2. Court chapels (e.g., HWM Figure 7.5)
      1. Rulers, aristocrats, and church leaders had their own chapels.
      2. Musicians at the chapels were on salary.
      3. Because they worked for the ruler, not the Church, they could be called upon for secular entertainment as well as sacred functions.
      4. Most musicians had other duties as servants, administrators, clerics, or church officials.
    3. Music education
      1. Choir schools in cathedrals and chapels taught singing, music theory, and academic subjects to boys.
        1. Most prominent composers of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries came from northern Europe, which was home to the most renowned centers for musical training: Cambrai, Bruges, Antwerp, Paris, and Lyons (see HWM Figure 7.6).
        2. In the sixteenth century, Rome and Venice became centers of musical training, and more composers were Italian.
        3. Noblewomen and women in convents received some musical instruction.
      2. Instrumentalists trained in the apprentice system.
    4. Patronage for music
      1. Competition for the best composers and performers erased regional differences.
      2. Court musicians in Italy came from France, Flanders, and the Netherlands (Franco-Flemish).
      3. English, French, and Italian styles merged into one international style in the fifteenth century (see HWM Chapter 8).
      4. Composers were able to compose in regional vernacular song styles because of their travels.
    5. The new counterpoint
      1. Thirds and sixths, now seen as consonances, required new approaches to counterpoint.
      2. Johannes Tinctoris: Liber de arte contrapuncti (A Book on the Art of Counterpoint, 1477, HWM Source Reading, page 158)
        1. He references composers active ca. 1430-1477, including many discussed in upcoming chapters of HWM.
        2. Without access to examples from ancient Greece, Tinctoris uses these composers as models for “the arranging of concords,” i.e., counterpoint.
        3. His rules for counterpoint include rules for the treatment of dissonance, including suspensions.
      3. Gioseffo Zarlino’s Le istitutioni harmoniche (The Harmonic Foundations, 1558) synthesizes the rules for counterpoint as developed after Tinctoris.
    6. New compositional methods and textures
      1. All voices became equal by the second half of the fifteenth century.
      2. Composers stopped basing works on the cantus-tenor relationship and began composing all voices simultaneously (see Pietro Aaron HMW Source Reading, page 159).
      3. Two textures emerged: imitative counterpoint and homophony.
      4. Imitative counterpoint
        1. Voices echo each other, repeating a motive or phrase.
        2. Repetitions are usually a fourth, fifth, or octave away.
      5. Homophony
        1. All voices move together in essentially the same rhythm.
        2. The lower parts accompany the cantus line with consonant sonorities.
    7. Tuning and temperament
      1. Music using thirds and sixths requires more sophisticated tuning than styles emphasizing perfect consonances.
      2. Pythagorean intonation
        1. Based on fourths and fifths and used during the Middle Ages
        2. Created dissonant-sounding thirds and sixths using complex ratios
        3. The ratio for a major third was 81:64, which sounds out of tune compared to the pure major third (5:4 or 80:64)
      3. Just intonation
        1. Walter Odington observed that musicians used simpler ratios in practice ca. 1300.
        2. He laid the foundation for tuning based on simple ratios for thirds (5:4) and sixths (6:5).
        3. In 1482 Bartolomé Ramis de Pareia proposed a system now known as just intonation to create perfectly tuned thirds and sixths.
      4. Temperaments
        1. Tuning systems designed to create the best-sounding intervals over the range of a keyboard were developed to accommodate works that used pitches outside the gamut.
        2. Singers could sing G-Sharp and A-Flat at slightly different pitches, but keyboards could not do this.
        3. Mean-tone temperament employs fifths tuned slightly smaller than perfect in order to create consonant thirds and usable black keys.
        4. Temperament was now governed by accommodations to the ear rather than adherence to past authority, in keeping with humanist principles.
    8. Reawakened interest in Greek theory
      1. Greek writings on music came to the West during the Renaissance.
        1. Aristides Quintilianus
        2. Claudius Ptolemy
        3. Cleonides
        4. Aristotle’s Politics
        5. Plato’s Republic
        6. By the end of the fifteenth century, they had been translated into Latin.
      2. Franchino Gaffurio (1451-1522)
        1. The most influential treatise writer of his time
        2. Gaffurio incorporated ideas from Greek treatises into his.
        3. Topics influenced by Greek theory included the modes, consonance and dissonance, relationship of music and words, and tuning.
      3. Heinrich Glareanus (1488-1563)
        1. Swiss theorist
        2. He added four new modes in his book Dodekachordon (The Twelve-String Lyre, 1547).
          • Aeolian and Hyperaeolian, with the final on A
          • Ionian and Hypoionian with the final on C
        3. By his time, composers frequently used C and A as tonal centers.
    9. New applications of Greek ideas
      1. Music as a social accomplishment
      2. Music as a servant of the words
        1. The structure of the text dictated the structure of the music.
        2. By the end of the sixteenth century, composers were following the rhythm of speech as well.
      3. Conveying emotion through music
        1. Inspired by ancient Greek descriptions of the emotional effects of music
        2. By ca. 1500, composers used various compositional devices to convey the feeling of the text.
        3. Greek descriptions of the qualities of the modes inspired composers to connect modes with emotional effects.
      4. Chromaticism, inspired by the chromatic genus of ancient Greek music
    10. Music printing and distribution (see HWM Innovations: Music Printing, pages 164-65)
      1. Printing from movable type began around 1450 for text and in the 1450s for chant notation.
      2. Printing from a single impression (see HWM Figure 7.8)
        1. Pieces of type contained the printed staff, notes, and the text together.
        2. John Rastell in London after ca. 1520
        3. Pierre Attaingnant in Paris (ca. 1494-1551/52)
        4. Staff lines were not continuous, but the method was a commercial success.
      3. Printing from three impressions: the printing press created the staff, the notes, and the words in separate passes over the paper.
      4. Harmonice musices odhecaton A, 1501, published by Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539), HWM Figure 7.7
        1. The first collection of polyphonic music printed entirely from movable type
        2. One Hundred Polyphonic Songs (actually only ninety-six)
        3. Volumes B and C followed a few years later.
        4. He held a patent on the three-impression process, preventing other publishers from using it.
        5. He printed both vocal and instrumental music.
      5. Amateur musicians used partbooks (each book contained one voice or part) for home gatherings, creating a large market for printed books (see HWM Figure 7.9).
      6. Effect of music printing
        1. Composers’ works could be heard throughout Europe and the Americas.
        2. Composers could make more money, either through publication or through the growth of their reputations.
        3. New musical styles evolved to satisfy demands for popular and regional styles.
        4. The music of the Renaissance is available to modern performers and scholars.
  5. Music as a Renaissance Art
    1. The humanist focus created a musical style that would appeal to the listener.
      1. Consonance
      2. Natural declamation of the words
      3. Emotional expressivity
    2. Developments in musical language, temperament, and musical aesthetics have persisted to the present.
    3. Renaissance counterpoint continued to be the main style for Catholic church music through the eighteenth century.
    4. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars began transcribing Renaissance works into modern notation.

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