Styles & Forms | Renaissance | Classical
The main opportunities for professional music-making in the Renaissance continued to be provided by the church and by royal and ducal courts, particularly those in Italy. They sponsored musical entertainment both on a large scale, such as the lavish Florentine intermedi, and on a more intimate level, in the form of the madrigal.
The influence of humanism balanced the attempts of militant Catholic authorities in Italy and Spain to clamp down on what they saw as the seductive and profane excesses of music. Composers and theorists returned to ancient classical texts to justify their search for new means of expression, their concern to reflect the mood and meaning of the text, and their belief in the power of music to convey and evoke human emotions.
On a more practical level, the economic prosperity of many European cities in the late fifteenth century and the development of music printing and publishing created a new market. The emerging middle classes were eager to buy books of music that they could perform for their own entertainment.
A setting of the Latin Mass was among the most important works a Renaissance composer could write, and its words inspired some of the finest music of the age. The movements of the Mass consisted of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Many composers structured and unified their Mass settings by basing all five of these movements on the same tune. This tune – often taken from a secular song – is called a cantus firmus (‘fixed melody’). One of the most famous examples is ‘L’homme armé’: Du Fay, Ockeghem, Busnoys, Josquin and Obrecht were among the earliest composers to write a Missa L’homme armé, a competitive tradition that continued in the sixteenth century.
Some of the most prolific composers of Mass settings in the sixteenth century were the Spaniards Morales and Victoria, and, above all, the Italian Palestrina, whose 104 Masses combine technical mastery with expressive power and are considered the epitome of the Renaissance Mass style. England’s strong tradition developed rather separately from that on the continent; among the most beautiful English Masses are those by Taverner and Byrd.
The Spanish ‘Golden Age’
Artistic and cultural life flourished in Spain during the reigns of Charles I, later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and Philip II, which spanned most of the sixteenth century, though as a result of the Inquisition many composers felt obliged to focus on sacred music. Three composers stand out in this ‘golden age’ of Spanish music: Morales, Francisco Guerrero (1528–99) and especially Victoria. All three were masters of the techniques of Renaissance polyphony – Palestrina’s music was a great influence on Victoria, who, like Morales, spent much of his career in Rome – and their Mass settings and motets are works of great expressiveness and emotional power.
The Development of Compositional Process
During the Renaissance, music began to move away from the strict compositional practices of the Middle...
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