Introduction | Renaissance | Classical

Classical ideals began to emerge and take shape in musical treatises in the late fifteenth century. One of the most famous exponents of this was Johannes Tinctoris (1430–after 1511), who, in his writings, claimed that music had been reborn in the works of John Dunstaple (c. 1390–1453) and his followers around 1440.

Also central to Renaissance thinking about music was a strong belief in the power of music to move the passions of its listeners and the association of this power with specific modes (scales and melodic formulas). In his Dodecachordon (1547), the Swiss theorist Heinrich Glarean (1488–1563) expanded the medieval system of 8 modes to 12 and gave each of these systems a Greek name borrowed from modes found in Greek writings, such as Dorian, Phrygian and so forth. Later humanists realized that their modal system was, in fact, unrelated to the Greek one; the names stuck, however, and, along with them, the sense that this primary musical material was extremely important in determining the effect that the music had on the hearer.

In practical terms, the most important influence came not from the study of musical treatises, but from works on oratory and drama. Quintilian’s first-century treatise De institutione oratoria, which was discovered by Bracciolini in 1416, became a central text for the important field of rhetoric. The belief that music had the power to persuade led composers to draw on the principles of rhetoric – although perhaps unconsciously – in their composition.

Theorists like Joachim Burmeister (1564–1629) turned to rhetorical models to explain music. Oddly, the most important musical genre to arise from the study of ancient texts was one that belongs chronologically to the Baroque era. It became clear that classical drama had been sung throughout; attempts to revive this, in late sixteenth-century Florence, led to the creation of the first operas.


Defined simply as ‘the study of classical texts and thought’, humanism in practice was more far-reaching, embodying many of the ideals gleaned from these studies. Among the most important was the glorification of the individual, clearly articulated in On the Dignity of Man, an essay by the great fifteenth-century humanist Pico della Mirandola. Pico propounds a concept central to humanist thought: the importance of human achievement and self-will, as distinct from the power and will of God. Humanists were fascinated by heroes of classical mythology and drama such as Ulysses and Jason. They were represented in art – in a highly idealized physical form – and praised in literature. In music the most important classical hero was Orpheus, whose story was accordingly treated many times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is no coincidence that the first major operas, a Euridice by each of Jacopo Peri (1561–1633) and Giulio Caccini (c. 1545–1618) and Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), take as their theme this half-man, half-god whose singing had the power to charm the gods and tame the beasts. His story encapsulates two central tenets of humanist thought: the unlimited...

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