Music and the Renaissance | (2023)

Problems of Definition.

In art, architecture, and literature, long-standing definitions of Renaissance style have stressed the importance of the recovery of ancient models and their impact upon the artists and writers of the period. To speak of a "musical Renaissance," however, is more problematic. In the three centuries following 1000 c.e., European composers and musicians had developed distinctive national styles and musical forms that continued to shape the achievements of the Renaissance long after the recovery of Antiquity had begun in other arts during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. While knowledge of ancient styles proved often to be crucial for the creation of "Renaissance" paintings, sculptures, and architecture, the application of suchknowledge to music presented a special problem to the scholars, composers, and musicians of the time. The improvisational, performance-based music of Antiquity yielded very few documents or records that could be studied by later generations; as a consequence, Renaissance scholars did not focus on ancient musical theory or performance practices until comparatively late in the period—not until the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The absence of scholarship concerning Antique music prevented most attempts by Renaissance musicians to imitate ancient practices; as a result, the ancient world had a comparatively lesser impact on the great changes that occurred in music during much of the Renaissance than it did in the other arts. For these and other reasons, historians of music, in contrast to those of art, architecture, and literature, have long dated the emergence of a distinctive Renaissance style in music only after 1450, roughly a century and a half later than in other media.

Music as a Science.

During both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance a clear line existed between music's role as a branch of the sciences on the one hand and musical composition and performance on the other. What modern scholars consider music theory was in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance known as "speculative" or "scientific" music (in Latin musica speculativa or musica scientia). From the early Middle Ages philosophers had included music within the "mathematical" sciences, four distinctive branches of the seven liberal arts. These disciplines together were known as the Quadrivium, and anyone who hoped to gain entrance into a university needed to acquire knowledge of the mathematical relationships that existed in musical pitches, intervals, and harmonies. In this way the academic study of music developed as the "science of sound" and a great deal of theory was written during the Middle Ages that treated the physical properties of music. Philosophers speculated upon music's abilities to produce changes in the characters of its listeners as well as to generate alterations in the external world. This body of theory grew immensely during the Renaissance, too, largely as a result of the contact of intellectuals with the works of ancient writers that treated music as an important aid to philosophy. At the same time, the great philosophers of the ancient world, although they had prized music for its ability to speak to the human soul, had had little definite to say about musical practices per se. Thus the discussions of music as a science that continued during the Renaissance were not an abrupt break with medieval tradition. One figure whose work continued to be widely read and discussed was Boethius (480–524), a late antique figure who had transmitted the musical knowledge of his day and of the ancient world to the Renaissance. While important as a transmitter of knowledge, Boethius was also a major figure in the history of musical theory and science in his own right. He treated music as one of the four branches of mathematics, a view that continued to be shared in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Yet he also insisted that music had a special role among these sciences because it might breed both ethical virtue and reason.

Musical Performance.

Performers, by contrast, were largely unaffected by these rarefied discussions of music as the "science of sound," or of music's role as one of the mathematical sciences. In fact, the evidence suggests that while many musicians may have been able to read music, they were not able to read the written word. They learned their skills by being taught in the home, or from someone nearby who could already sing or play an instrument, or by serving for a time as a choirboy in a local church or cathedral. Musical performance was a practical art, and most accomplished musicians were by and large unaware of the complexities of musical theory or of the scientific and philosophical discussions about music. The performance of music was instead governed by long-standing traditions, by the role that music played in the church, and by the secular songs and ballads that were performed in medieval society. While the music of the church often bore a resemblance across regions, secular music differed greatly from place to place, with the popular or "folk" music of France making use of traditions, sounds, and instruments that were often very different from those of Italy or Germany. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a wealth of these native kinds of music existed everywhere in Europe, although most music was still performed from memory or through improvisation of a well-known tune. Far less music was "composed"—that is written down—than was to be the case in later centuries. Even many cathedral choirs improvised their harmonies according to generally accepted conventions, rather than reading the parts from a score. During the Renaissance quickening changes in musical tastes helped to popularize the practice of writing down a greater range of music than previously. As composers gained reputations in places far from their homeland, a fashion for "new music" emerged, and written scores were more necessary than ever before to satisfy the demands of audiences for the admired works of the age.

Role of the Church.

During the fifteenth century, the writing of sacred vocal music for the rituals of the church continued to be the most important outlet for those who composed music. While a current of innovationis discernible by the 1300s, the music of the church had long been defined by the primary importance of plainsong, a form of unison or chant-style singing. Since early Christian times plainsong had been the dominant form of music performed in the European church. Modern listeners popularly refer to plainsong as Gregorian chant, a term that is technically a misnomer, since it associates one form of early medieval chant sanctioned by Pope Gregory I (540–604) with the rich variety of plainsong that flourished in medieval Europe. Plainsong involved the singing of texts, prayers, and biblical readings that were used in the church's rituals, thus elevating their performance above mere spoken recitation. The simplest forms of plainsong used only a single tone, sometimes with a falling pitch on the last note of a phrase. But several thousand plainsong melodies survive from the Middle Ages, showing a considerable diversity and complexity in the form's development. Medieval plainsong did not have "keys" like most Western music has had since the seventeenth century. Instead plainsong was based around a system of eight scales known as modes; these modes governed the progression of tones and semi-tones used in a piece's scale. While some of the medieval modes sounded remarkably similar to the modern system of major and minor keys, music written in some other modes has a very different character than that written in the modern system of tonality. Plainsong developed during the Middle Ages in close connection with monasteries and cathedrals, and their performance occurred during a series of daily religious prayers known as the Offices and in tandem with the celebration of the Mass. The Offices began with Matins, a service that occurred in the middle of the night, and they continued with Lauds at sunrise. Thereafter they followed at intervals of about every three hours during the day and concluded with Vespers and Compline at sundown. At these services, monks and clerics chanted prayers, hymns, Psalms, and lessons from the Scriptures with matins, lauds, and vespers generating the most complex musical forms. The Office of Vespers was particularly important, since it was the only ritual that initially allowed monks and clerics to perform music that was polyphonic, that is, in which multiple melody lines or harmonies were sung simultaneously. As such, musical innovations tended to develop around the Office of Vespers.


introduction: In his famous work The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio described the entertainments of a group of ten noble men and women who fled Florence during the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348. For ten days, the company told stories, each day electing a king or queen to preside over their efforts. In his introduction to the work, Boccaccio describes how music enlivened this aristocratic circle's time in exile.

Thus dismissed by their new queen the gay company sauntered gently through a garden, the young men saying sweet things to the fair ladies, who wove fair garlands of divers sorts of leaves and sang love-songs.

Having thus spent the time allowed them by the queen, they returned to the house, where they found that Parmeno had entered on his office with zeal; for in a hall on the ground-floor they saw tables covered with the whitest of cloths, and beakers that shone like silver, and sprays of broom scattered everywhere. So, at the bidding of the queen, they washed their hands, and all took their places as marshalled by Parmeno. Dishes, daintily prepared, were served, and the finest wines were at hand; the three serving-men did their office noiselessly; in a word all was fair and ordered in a seemly manner; whereby the spirits of the company rose, and they seasoned their viands with pleasant jests and sprightly sallies. Breakfast done, the tables were removed, and the queen bade fetch instruments of music; for all, ladies and young men alike, knew how to tread a measure, and some of them played and sang with great skill: so, at her command, Dioneo having taken a lute, and Fiammetta a viol, they struck up a dance in sweet concert; and, the servants being dismissed to their repast, the queen, attended by the other ladies and the two young men, led off a stately carol; which ended they fell to singing ditties dainty and gay. Thus they diverted themselves until the queen, deeming it time to retire to rest, dismissed them all for the night. So the three young men and the ladies withdrew to their several quarters, which were in different parts of the palace. There they found the beds well made, and abundance of flowers, as in the hall; and so they undressed, and went to bed.

source: Giovanni Boccaccio, "Introduction to Day One," in The Decameron. Trans. J. M. Rigg (London: Routledge, 1921).

The Mass.

The rituals of the Offices occurred in cathedrals and monasteries throughout Europe and were performed only by the monks and priests who resided in these institutions. By contrast, the Mass was a universal religious rite, separate from the Offices, in whichall medieval Christians participated. Priests celebrated the ritual, although lay people attended it and played a role in its celebration. While the Offices were relatively short religious observances, the Mass was the church's most important, and therefore, elaborate religious rite. Sacred music accompanied the Mass very early in the history of the church. The Mass was celebrated in Latin and although there were variations in the ritual throughout Western Europe, it proceeded with a text that was largely fixed according to custom. Often the celebration of the Mass was a relatively humble affair, with priests merely chanting the text of the ritual before those who were in attendance. Yet "high" masses accompanied by choirs, music, and instruments were also celebrated in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and were especially common in Europe's most important churches on particularly solemn occasions.

Civic Music, Sacred Forms.

By the end of the Middle Ages, Europe's cathedrals were vital centers of musical production, a trend that was to persist in the Renaissance and beyond. The quality of music performed in a town's cathedral or major churches was already an important element of civic pride by this time. Town governments helped to fund the establishment of choral schools, choirs, and instrumental groups to accompany the singing that occurred within their churches. In Italy, where great commercial wealth came to be amassed during the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, choirs were a major preoccupation of town governments and not just church officials. At first, the great Italian cities—places like Florence, Siena, and Milan—imported many of their singers from northern Europe, particularly from Paris and throughout northern France, the great centers of musical composition and performance in the later Middle Ages. Over time, though, these towns nurtured their own home-grown talent, so that by the fourteenth century, a city like Siena or Florence already had its own widely admired musical establishment. At the same time not all music that was performed in Europe's cities was liturgical in nature. Civic music—music that was intended to accompany the rituals of government such as the reading of public announcements and proclamations—the processions of city officials and of visiting dignitaries, and important feast days were all major occasions for musical performances.


H. Chadwick, Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1981).

Frank D'Accone, The Civic Muse: Music and Musicians in Siena during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

D. J. Grout and C. V. Palisca, A History of Western Music. 5th ed. (New York: Norton, 1996).

Ann Moyer and G. Reaney, Musica Scientia: Musical Scholarship in the Italian Renaissance Guillaume de Machaut (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press; London, England: Oxford University Press, 1992).

C. V. Palisca: "Boethius in the Renaissance," in Music Theory and its Sources. Ed. A. Barbera (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990): 259–280.

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