Styles & Forms | Renaissance | Classical Music

As a period in art history, the Renaissance dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century to the first part of the sixteenth. Under the influence of perspective and the rediscovery of Ancient Greek statuary, painting and sculpture in Western Europe, and particularly Italy, were transformed by a worldview we now know as ‘humanism’.

This phenomenon led to a new interest among the arts and sciences in human beings and their passions. In music, fundamental changes tend to take longer to emerge than in other arts, and are less conspicuous when they do. During the fifteenth century, composers continued to develop the techniques handed down to them by Machaut and his contemporaries.

New Centres Of Excellence

The main European centre of compositional excellence moved from northern France to Burgundy, an area that today would comprise Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Lorraine and north-eastern France. Though other traditions continued to flourish – in particular the English school of the sixteenth century, whose greatest exponents were Thomas Tallis (1505–85) and William Byrd (1543–1623) – from the late-fifteenth century onwards, the music of Burgundian composers starts to dominate the general practice of this period. Throughout the sixteenth century the Burgundians found lucrative employment and artistic freedom in the service of the various courts associated with the powerful Italian city states. There, they developed new forms that gave more attention to expressing the meaning of the text, marking perhaps the most significant difference between Renaissance and medieval music.

Ockeghem’s Masses

During the fifteenth century, the musical form that offered the greatest scope to an ambitious composer was the Mass. The Burgundian musician Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420–97) composed 13 Masses, the technical ingenuity and expressiveness of which represent a high-water mark in the genre.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Ockeghem’s music and that of Machaut is its sweeter sound. This was the result of the increasing harmonic importance of intervals of 3rds and 6ths. The staple harmonic unit of all modal and tonal music up to the end of the nineteenth century, 3rds and 6ths (as opposed to the 4ths and 5ths regarded as ‘perfect’ by earlier musicians) were first used extensively by English composers such as John Dunstable (1390–1453), before the Burgundian generation that included Du Fay brought them into mainstream European practice. Ockeghem’s harmonic sense is therefore fully contemporary. His melodic writing, on the other hand, denotes a return to the melismatic style of Gregorian chant, in which a long melodic phrase might be sung over a single syllable. Ockeghem’s music still retains many features of the earlier style in this sense, though in other ways – particularly its elaborate use of canon, a technique whereby voices enter in sequence in strict imitation of each other – his music offers resources that were taken up and used more freely by composers of the sixteenth century. His Missa Mi-Mi is a fine example of how these new resources enabled him to compose sacred music of...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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