Music Of The Renaissance

The spirit of change that was transforming so much of art and culture in the Renaissance also touched the musical styles of the period, the most important of which was polyphony, or the blending of several individual melodies, which ultimately led to the development of harmony.

By about 1500, polyphony included vocal orchestration, or the grouping of contrasting voices. This gave not only depth to the music and the singing, but also a rich texture, since various melodies could enter, depart and re-enter in a piece of work.

As well, this interaction of melodies was given greater color by the use of different rhythms for each of these melodies. This combination of various individual melodies to form a single musical mode reflected the ideals of the Renaissance, which always sought perfection and unity.

During this time, choirs were relatively small and consisted of 26 singers, exclusively male, in which the soprano parts were sung by boys or men who could sing falsetto, or a higher pitched tenor. Also, instruments began to be introduced as accompaniments to the choir. Only the choir of the Sistine Chapel was strictly forbidden to use instruments in its choral singing.

The Renaissance also saw the separation of music into religious and secular forms. The most important religious styles were the Mass and the Motet.

The Mass referred to the musical setting of that part of the Church worship known as the Ordinary, which consisted of five sections for which music was needed. The words of the Ordinary provided the text that Renaissance composers could set to music.

The Motet was the musical setting of those parts of the Church service that were not part of the Ordinary. Usually, the words used for Motets were familiar to the worshippers and provided composers with the opportunity to reach a profound expression that would be both moving and meaningful.

In fact, the composer sought to interpret the truth of the words through music. It was the motet that brought about a unique change in music – the unity of words and melody. It is something that we take for granted today, but we have to keep in mind that before the Renaissance, music always took a secondary role to the words. In the sixteenth century and onwards, both words and music were equally important.

The secular version of the Motet was the Madrigal, which was an intimate form of music, performed by a small group of singers, both male and female, accompanied by a lute. The Madrigal was in a sense chamber music, since it was created to provide entertainment for members of the aristocracy. Some famous madrigalists are Carlo Gesualdo (ca. 1560-1613) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) in Italy; while in England we have William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1558-1603), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).

Many important composers flourished in this era, such as Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1400-1477), who was a popular French composer, and was the first one to write large-scale Masses for four voices. These massive works, which often reworked a famous melody, began a style that was to remain popular throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

He is also famous for writing beautiful instrumental pieces, such as “Se la face ay pale” and “L’Homme armé. “When, in 1420, the dome of the cathedral of Florence, built by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), was dedicated, it was Dufay who was commissioned to compose a special a dedicatory motet, which he called “Nuper rosarum flores” (“The Flowers of Roses”).

Josquin des Prez (ca. 1440-1521) was born in what is now Belgium, but moved to Italy, where he became the court musician to the Dukes of Milan and Ferrara, and later served in the Papal Chapel at Rome. He was very famous in his own time, and was often called the “Michelangelo of music,” and Martin Luther referred to him as “the master of notes.” Josquin’s music was effortless, which made full use of the flexibility of polyphony, while creating beautiful melodies. His most famous work is the “Missa Pange Lingua.”

Palestrina (ca. 1525-1594) was another renowned composer whose name is often used to illustrate the music of the Renaissance, since he was regarded, in his own time, as creating the purest and the most perfect melodies and songs. A careful balance of ascending and descending phrases that gives a smooth flow to his music marks his work.

A famous contemporary of his was Lassus (1532-1594), a prolific composer,  who created some two thousand works, both religious and secular. He transformed the contrasting melodies of polyphony into expressive harmony. He was a master of matching the mood of the words with appropriate music, and he could write songs that were deeply moving as well as those that were humorous.

His fame was such that the Emperor Maximilian II made him a noble, and he was much favored by Pope Gregory XIII and King Charles IX of France. One his most famous works is the religious piece entitled, “Tristia est anima mea” (“Sorrowful is my soul”), which was published in 1565.

It is often said that the Renaissance was a time of immense musical variety and richness, and it was one of the few times in musical history that so many acknowledged masters flourished at the same time.


The photo shows, “The Concert” by Gerard van Honthorst, painted ca. 1623.

Externsteine: Germany’s Stonehenge

It was as if the gods of dim antiquity stood before us, brooding amidst the slowly dissipating mist of early morning.

High above ravens rasped a rough-throated song that was caught by the wind and tossed toward the rising summer sun.

We had finally arrived after a two-hour hike in the Teutoburger Forest. Before us stood in silence the Externsteine, Germany’s Stonehenge, a looming outcrop of five enormous, weathered, limestone pillars, rising nearly 30 meters above the forest.

They were formed during the Cretaceous period, 70 million years ago, almost before time itself. When I saw these rocks, like Frost-giants of myth, my mind began to wander.

his was once a holy site for the ancient Germanic people, the place where their sacred oak tree of life, Irminsul, grew as a living shrine to the old religion. But the old ways yielded to the new, and in 772 AD,

Charlemagne outlawed all pagan forms of worship, and cut down the ancient oak tree, thus forever severing the people from their pagan past. As if lost in a mist of dreams, my friends and I wandered about peering into man-made caves and clefts carved by hands now forgotten.

I found myself walking up steps that led nowhere, or suddenly coming upon a row of neatly drilled holes that now defied explanation. In the widest pillar stands a chamber of irregular shape, accessed by two entrances; the two windows that face me frame the midsummer sunrise.

The highest rock is accessed by carved steps and a dubious foot-bridge. It houses a roofless chamber, called the Chapel, where we find a round niche with a pillar altar, above which stands a perfectly circular window, some 35cm in diameter.

Much scholarly ink has been spilt on the various possible uses for this Chapel; but only one fact is certain: It is constructed according to astronomical orientations. The round window frames the moon at its most northerly rising, and during summer solstice, it catches the light of the sun.

When Charlemagne destroyed the Irminsul tree, he allowed monks to take over the sight so it could be put to Christian use. Their marks are everywhere. Chief among these is a carving from about 1120. It is a playful mixture of Christian and pagan beliefs – a mentality that is so hard to recuperate now.

The carving shows the Irminsul, the prime symbol of the old religion, bent to form a chair, upon which Nicodemus stands to lower the body of Christ from the cross. This is to show the subjection of the old religion to the new. But curiously the legs and feet of Nicodemus are missing.

Below the Irminsul is the World Serpent from Germanic myth who supports the earth. Here we have a snapshot of some ancient mind that we cannot know, other than what we assume. Geography and cosmology here is rooted in Christianity, even if it is supposedly pagan by the more romantic.

My friends and I spend several hours among the silence of the rocks — until the crowds begin to arrive — like all popular places it is difficult to be always alone with antiquity.

It is time for breakfast anyway, and we leave the creased faces of these hallowed rocks to the next batch of inquisitive visitors. In a clearing, we open our rucksacks and dig into our breakfast.

A delicious way to awaken from a dream. As I bite into my bread, I hear a flap of wings, and looking to my right, beneath a young oak tree, two ravens sit silently, watching me eat. Perhaps it was these ravens that I heard as we first came upon the Externsteine. They don’t seem frightened and are hardly shy.

Silently, quietly they sit, watching. In acquiescence to their presence, I break off two pieces of my bread and throw it to them. They eat in a very dignified manner, without rushing, without greed.

It is then I recall that in Germanic myth two ravens ever attended the god Odin. Perhaps the old gods are not dead; perhaps they come alive if we remember. I break off more bread and place it before the ravens, this time as offering.

Two Sonnets


You sit besplendoured midst celestial spheres,
To bebass you is thus fit heaven’s joy:
Just as the mists play upon placid meers
And hearts in love must first wisdom employ.

How is the tree in just one seed embowed?
How comes the earth to conceal each bright face?
What silence emblazons the drifting cloud?
Why yearns the soul for the fire’s embrace?

It is you alone that bestir the heart
And give the eye grand Promethean light;
In your limbs is found the highest of art
To kneel ‘fore which is supernal delight.

When Now grace and reason are wedded in you,
When As the fresh day’s herald is dawn’s soft dew.



Like lightning that strikes through the mighty oak
To find the arcane, dark richness of earth,
So does the patience of reason invoke
Grand gestures of both sadness and high mirth.

I reach forth in silence the joy of you
Which bepens your name upon my blank soul;
It is the mark of you, the purest hue,
The very urge that makes the sea to roll.

How halting the tongue that seeks to extol
The consummation found hidden in you,
The charter of which is read by but few
Like slow plaintiff birdsong that must condole.

When Like leaves and flowers true Nature convoke,
When So are my scanty words for you bespoke.


The photo shows, “Waiting By The Window,” by Carl Holsøe, date not known.


Two Sonnets


The sleeping eye in grandest dreams is lost,
And in vast emptiness is dowsed and tossed,
Where the world with eternity is crossed,
And darkness abides with pleasure untold.

The turning wheel of time leans to rapture,
Like breath is pressed and driven to capture
The memories upon the tongue that fracture
All the years gathered into life’s strong hold.

Multured sighs are sands upon the bright shore
Of lives lived, forgotten, as ages roar
Into boundless eons which spread before
That endless unknown span where stars unfold.

When shadows linger and when shadows fall
The blood remembers the high All, in all.



You are the gild and dance of deathless fire
That holds the colloquy of things long past.
What wisdom is caught in this earth’s dense brier,
Where dreams are ragged sails upon a mast?

The seamless spheres of day that cannot fade
Mold rich patterns, though none can yet define
High Beauty’s spreading calm which must abrade
This heart that it may not lie content like wine.

The whisper of your words is richer feast
As soars the arch despite the load of stone.
The building of my soul my breath increased,
That I might each hour, each minute atone.

The seamless stretch of time is your delight,
Which all may now have for a widow’s mite.



The photo shows, “Poème de l’âme 14: Sur la Montagne,” by Louis Janmot.