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p. 303. Repertories: Renaissancelocked

  • Kelly Thomas Forrest


‘Repertories: Renaissance’ explores the music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Sacred Renaissance music included masses, which combined the sung portions of the Catholic mass with a thematic musical link, and motets (which introduced imitation to the Renaissance style). Secular music comprised vocal forms, such as madrigals, and instrumental forms, which were vocal forms performed on instruments. Improvised music by definition was not written down, but clues exist as to how it was performed. The participatory nature of Renaissance music is important, and we can enjoy Renaissance music now as it was enjoyed then; with close links between high and low society, and between professionals and amateurs.

Renaissance, to musicians, means essentially the music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is not really a rebirth of anything, but it is a period whose music has a sort of Apollonian balance; a quality found also in Renaissance visual art. This is the period of the great composers of polyphonic vocal music: Guillaume Dufay, Josquin Des Pres, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina—all of them churchmen, at a time when church music was at the cutting edge of musical style (not so true today…). Masses and motets led the way for composers of other music, but all of these composers were also creators of secular song.

The fifteenth and, especially, the sixteenth centuries provide us with musical sources of a kind we do not have earlier: printed music. The printing of music is a complicated affair because of the coordination of words and music, and especially because the crossing of continuous staff-lines with separate note-stems makes setting individual characters very difficult. But from the very early sixteenth century we have beautifully made collections of masses, motets, songs, and instrumental music from the Italian printer Ottaviano Petrucci; his books were expensive, made by a time-consuming and difficult technique in which each sheet of paper goes through the press twice, once for the staves and again for the notes. By the 1530s, the French printer Pierre Attaingnant had developed a means of single-impression printing in which p. 31each note is provided with its own section of staff-lines. And through the sixteenth century a rising tide of printed music, sacred and secular, provides us a record of the range and extent of Renaissance music.

Sacred music

The sacred music of the Renaissance has never really left the repertories of church choirs. The Cecilian movement of the nineteenth century did a great deal to restore this music to the choral forces of cathedrals and major churches, and the cathedral and collegiate choirs of Great Britain have kept the tradition of Tudor church music alive in their enduring choral traditions. In a similar way, church organists have a continuing tradition of performing early music. But it is really the music of the late Renaissance—the music of Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd, Victoria, and many others—that is what we know and retain in our choral repertories.

Earlier Renaissance music—masses and motets of the fifteenth century, works of Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Pres, Isaac, Mouton, Regis, and many others like the composers in the magnificent Eton Choirbook—do not lend themselves to performance by church choirs. The vocal ranges do not usually fit an SATB arrangement, the pieces have voices that do not seem normal (long-note cantus firmus, overly active parts), but they survive and revive on recordings and concert programs.

It is the professional ensembles, and not the church choirs, who perform and record the majority of the vocal music of the Renaissance. Most of these ensembles are not choirs per se, but ensembles of solo voices who most often sing the music with a single voice on each part. This seems, in fact, to be closer to the performance practice of most Renaissance performances than the treble-heavy cathedral choirs or the large university or church choirs of today. Much remains to be learned about the personnel p. 32

4. An engraving of a papal ceremony in the Sistine Chapel by Etienne Duperac (1578; detail). The papal choir, gathered around a lectern, sings from the balcony inside the choir screen on the right wall.

p. 33of Renaissance churches and princely chapels, but it seems that even in cases where there are enough singers to double the singing parts, as in the Sistine Chapel, the singing was most often done by individual singers.

Sacred vocal music consists of masses and motets, with a few particular genres (hymns, sequences) that sometimes are also subsumed under the category of motet. A mass is, generally, a setting of the five sung portions of the Catholic Mass whose texts are invariable, and which can thus be named for their Greek or Latin texts: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. Many Renaissance composers chose to compose settings of all five texts, often linked by some sort of thematic musical material.

In the fifteenth century, a favorite and much-admired device was to structure all five movements of a mass on the same cantus firmus. A cantus firmus is a pre-existent melody, often performed in long notes, and usually in the tenor voice (originally named for this function, tenere meaning “to hold” in Latin). It is clearly related to the medieval practice of embellishing the chant with additional voices while leaving the chant intact in one of the voices.

It might seem to make sense to use a chant Kyrie-melody as the cantus firmus of the Kyrie movement, a chant Gloria chant for the Gloria, and so on; and this is sometimes done: Guillaume de Machaut’s fourteenth-century Messe de Nostre Dame is one of the best-known examples. But by the fifteenth century, it seems to be desirable to provide a sort of unity among the five movements by using the same cantus firmus for each; and in such a case, it is easy to see that a Kyrie-melody, though entirely appropriate for the Kyrie, does not make much sense for the other movements. And so it became customary to choose melodies from elsewhere: a sacred chant related to the subject of the mass (Dufay’s masses Ecce ancilla domini and Ave Regina caelorum borrow the p. 34melodies of Gregorian antiphons; so do Josquin Des Pres’s Gaudeamus and Ave maris stella; his Pange lingua uses a hymn). Various composers use a melisma (a long string of notes sung to a single syllable) sung on the word “Caput” in a Gregorian antiphon; many use secular melodies (Dufay has a mass Se la face ay pale based on his own song; Ockeghem uses song melodies in his masses Au travail suis and De plus en plus; Josquin composed masses based on Malheur me bat and Fortuna desperata; various composers, including even Palestrina, used a favorite song called “L’homme armé”).

This tradition of the cantus-firmus mass is of enormous importance to composers and musicians in the fifteenth century; chief among them are Guillaume Du Fay (1397–1474), Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410–1497), and Josquin Des Pres (ca. 1450/1455–1521), along with his contemporaries Isaac, Obrecht, and Pierre de la Rue. The technique of cantus firmus addressed the challenge of providing both unity and variety in a long piece (such a mass was about as long as a Mozart symphony). The cantus firmus provided an underpinning against which the other voices could be composed; various sections where the cantus firmus is absent provide for duos and trios, often using the technique of canon or imitation; and the overall shape retains an element of unity.

Not all masses were based on cantus firmus technique, however. Ockeghem has masses with no cantus firmus: the mass Mi-mi (named for its modal character) and a mass Cuiusvis toni, that can be sung in any of several modes. Josquin has two masses based on canons.

Renaissance motets are sacred works based on Latin texts other than those of the Mass. Dufay composed a number of ceremonial motets in the grand cantus-firmus style of the late Middle Ages, but most composers assembled their motets using other techniques: sometimes paraphrase, in which one or more p. 35voices use the general outlines of a chant or other melody but adapt it to modern melodic style, or imitation, in which the voices enter progressively, each beginning with the same melody.

Imitation, familiar to us now from works of composers ranging from Josquin to Bach, Handel, and many others, is one of the chief contributions of Renaissance style. The technique is among the most important musical techniques of the sixteenth century and generally works as follows: one voice sings a motive, the next voice enters with the same motive while the first voice continues with new music; the third voice enters with the same motive while the other two continue, and so on until all voices are singing. There may then be a cadence, concluding a point of imitation. Or one of the voices may begin a new motive, imitated in turn by the others, probably in a different order this time, to make a second point of imitation. This technique has great advantages; it provides a sort of springboard cantus firmus, in which each entering voice sings the motive and provides a fixed point, a temporary cantus firmus, for the composition of the other voices. It also provides a sort of guarantee of the equality of the voices, since they all participate in the imitation. Variety of texture is provided by varying the number of voices; by providing sections in non-imitative counterpoint, or in homophonic style; by varying the imitation—imitation in pairs of voices, variation in the nature of the motive itself. Pre-eminent composers of sacred music in this imitative style include Palestrina, Byrd, Victoria, and Lassus: the composers whose music is often thought to represent the apogee of Renaissance church music.

Many of the masses, and sometimes the motets, of these composers of the sixteenth century, are based on pre-existent models (as were many masses of the fifteenth century). But for these composers the model is usually a polyphonic piece, a song, a motet, or a movement of a mass. The composer of the new work may use aspects of the model—its motives, its sequence of p. 36textures, some of its melodies—and recompose them to make an entirely new work. Palestrina’s mass Veni sponsa Christi, for example, is based on his polyphonic motet Veni sponsa Christi; the motet, in turn, is based on the melody and text of a Gregorian antiphon.

Emulation of other composers, or of one’s own work, was evidently an admirable quality; many composers used a melody by an admired teacher or contemporary in their own music: it was a way of showing respect.

Secular music

Not all Renaissance music was sacred. Songs, instrumental music for ensembles, and for solo keyboard or lute, account for the great richness and variety of genres and styles of secular music.

Vocal music for ensemble reached a remarkable high point in the Italian madrigal, which sought to give musical expression to poetry of the highest order. The various kinds of expression, from general emotions (grief, love) through individual descriptive details (birdsong, ripples, etc.), were among the delights of composer, singer, and audience. English-speakers will probably never fully come to appreciate the combination of literary and musical art that reached this zenith for Italians; but the madrigal was imported into England, and many examples were written there, inspired by Italian models.

Madrigal composers of the early sixteenth century were northerners working in Italy: Arcadelt, Verdelot, Willaert, Rore, and the younger Wert; later madrigalists were mostly native Italians: Andrea Gabrieli, Marenzio, Monteverdi, and the chromatically (and criminally) audacious Gesualdo. They set poems of Petrarch—the foremost source of madrigal texts—and also Ariosto, Tasso, Guarini (“The Faithful Shepherd”), and Marini, most of them great poets. The English madrigalists, p. 37however, did not set Shakespeare and his equals; their poems are more occasional and pastoral (“Phyllis gave me fairest flowers”).

Madrigals are part-songs for groups of individual singers, and they are cultivated by the singers themselves, perhaps with a small audience; it is participatory music, available to any well-educated gentleman or lady. Later in the sixteenth century, as the expressive quality and the dramatic declamatory aspects of the madrigal came more to the fore, the pieces themselves got to be more difficult, requiring really expert singers, and creating the beginnings of a gap between music for the recreation of amateurs and music for entertainment by professionals. Dramatic madrigal cycles, “madrigal comedies,” by such composers as Orazio Vecchi and Adriano Banchieri, linked a series of madrigals telling a story, assuming characters, and generally approaching a madrigal version of opera.

The gap between amateur and professional is an important aspect of the change of musical style, and of the place of music in society, that helps define the difference between Renaissance music and that of the Baroque period. Madrigals continued to be a source of recreation and pleasure, and they were among the first repertories to be “rediscovered” by the early-music movement; consider the Deller Consort, the editions made in England in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the inevitable presence of a “madrigal” in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

There was plenty of other vocal music; madrigals were imitated in many other countries, but there were also simpler, more singable songs, designed for a single voice with accompaniment, or for several singers; often one of the voices would carry “the tune,” the other voices assisting either as instrumental parts or as harmonizing voices.

The boundary between vocal and instrumental music was not so strict as we sometimes imagine. Music historians like to point out p. 38the “rise of instrumental music” in the Renaissance, and they are right to note the increasingly complex compositions for keyboard, lute, and consorts of instruments, a rich repertory of purpose-built instrumental music. But it remains true that the great majority of Renaissance instrumental music is simply vocal music played on instruments—masses, motets, madrigals, and songs played by instrumental ensembles—or versions of vocal music adapted for solo instruments (“intabulated” was their word, meaning put into tablature, or instrumental notation).

Renaissance instruments tend to perform in groups of like sound, a whole range of viols, for example, or recorders, from sopranino to contrabass, which can perform like a group of singers; such a group, or consort, could take on any vocal music that is within the ranges of the instruments. Composers enjoyed writing music for such combinations—the consort music for viols of Tudor England is among the great treasures of Renaissance music, even though the specific instruments are often not named—so as to provide maximum flexibility (and sales). Some publications are labeled as “apt for voices or viols,” making evident what was standard practice for instruments. Sometimes instruments were specified, and when a mixture of instruments of different kinds played together (a “broken” or “mixed” consort) it might be the result of necessity, or it might be designed for a special sonority; Thomas Morley’s book of consort lessons uses a standard grouping for late sixteenth-century England (violin or treble viol, flute or recorder, bass viol, lute, cittern, and bandora). Consorts of like instruments seem to have been the norm, rather like choirs of voices, but a household in which everyone played a different instrument could simply play whatever music was at hand, using the available musicians and their instruments.

A great deal of the Renaissance instrumentalist’s time was devoted to providing accompaniments for songs. Many songs survive with lute accompaniments; sometimes these are newly composed, but often they are arrangements of madrigals, motets, or other p. 39

5. One of many plates from Michael Praetorius, Syntagma musicum (1619), which includes a Theatrum Instrumentorum (theater of instruments). These detailed illustrations give valuable information about instruments of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This plate shows trombones, cornetti, and trumpets.

p. 40part-songs. It is an easy enough matter to create such arrangements on the spot: a consort might be formed to convert a motet or a madrigal into a song by having one of its voices sung and the others performed instrumentally.

The solo instrumental music of the Renaissance is a great and little-played treasure house of music for organ, harpsichord, and lute, and occasionally for solo melody instruments. The queen of instruments, and the instrument present in every Renaissance household, was the lute. There is an enormous amount of very artful and intricate music for lute, and the few lutenists in the world capable of playing it are worth seeking out and hearing. The lute is not very loud, and so it is not a candidate for Carnegie Hall. It is an intimate instrument, perfect for the player himself, or for a very few listeners, or for accompanying a singer (the volume of the lute may well say something about how singing technique worked in Renaissance music). Anyone lucky enough to hear works by Francesco da Milano (called “the divine Francesco”) or John Dowland (whose lute music is of dazzling polyphonic complexity, and whose songs to the lute are unparalleled) will understand the heights to which the lute can lift us.

The surviving music for the lute is not all of this exquisite quality; there are many arrangements of vocal music, many of them skillfully done; lots of variations, dance pieces, and song accompaniments. And there is music for beginners; everybody learned to play the lute.

Music for harpsichord and other keyed instruments (spinet, virginal) is in many ways like lute music (you could even posit that a harpsichord is a mechanized lute), in that it consists of many intabulations of vocal music, lots of variations and dances, and a few pieces composed out of the fancy (as opposed to being based on something—a song, a tune for variations, a dance rhythm). These fancy-pieces—sometimes called fantasias, but with other names as well—are what the scholars point to as the “rise of p. 41instrumental music.” And they can be grand pieces, some motet-like, some song-like, some dazzlingly virtuosic and improvisatory-sounding.

Music for organ naturally includes a good deal of music for liturgical use, often based on Gregorian chant melodies. There is much other music besides, in genres called fantasia, ricercare (often imitative like vocal motets), canzona (in imitation of French chansons), toccata (“touch-piece,” which often sounds improvisatory) or, in Spain, tiento and ensalada.

The level of virtuosity in some of this music is very high. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a very large manuscript book of keyboard music (so called because it is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge), begins with a set of variations by John Bull that are so technically challenging that one eighteenth-century owner, the music historian Charles Burney, wrote that “some of these pieces, which were composed by Tallis, Bird, Giles Farnaby, Dr. Bull, and others, are so difficult, that it would be hardly possible to find a master in Europe who would undertake to play one of them at the end of a month’s practice.”

Improvised music

The music mentioned so far consists of the great repertories of vocal and instrumental music distributed by means of written copies and, in the sixteenth century, by means of the printing press. There is, however, a large body of Renaissance music that was never written down, because it was improvised on the spot. This music is of course lost to us, but it was an important part of the music heard, and we have some hints of how it was done. It is one of the great challenges facing modern performers to interpret and re-invigorate these important traditions. Three examples will have to serve for many.

In a manuscript book of organ music called the Buxheimer Organ Book (now in Munich), there is a great deal of music for p. 42liturgical services, most of it based on chant; there are also many intabulations of vocal music of all sorts, sacred and secular. A further element of the book’s contents is the mid-fifteenth-century Fundamentum organizandi of Conrad Paumann, a blind organist in Nuremberg. The Fundamentum is a progressive textbook on how to improvise at the organ. Starting with what to do when the chant moves up one note, it progresses to what to do when the chant moves up a third, a fourth, and so forth. Then down one note, down a third, and the like. The idea is that you can learn to improvise an organ piece using any melody as a basis if you learn the simple rules.

Paumann’s kind of music consists of a highly decorated upper voice, presumably played by the right hand, with the chant in long notes and a countertenor voice, these presumably played by some combination of left hand and pedals. There are in fact several versions of the Fundamentum, which must represent different stages in the teachings of this blind master—who must have dictated the various versions to different students.

The liturgical music in the Buxheim book and elsewhere make it clear that this style is just what is desired; the finished pieces in the book look like the result of the application of Paumann’s principles. Anybody, then or now, who learned Paumann’s system and who knew the notes of the chant to be interpreted, could be an endless source of new music without ever having to write any of it down.

The oldest printed book of instrumental music is called L’art et instruction de bien dancer, produced by a certain Michiel Thoulouze in Paris around 1496. It consists of a treatise on how to dance the stylish dance of the time, the basse danse, along with some music for dancing.

The music, though, is odd. Each dance consists of a series of square black notes, about thirty-five of them, with indications of p. 43

6. A late-fifteenth-century entertainment; couples dance the basse danse to music performed by a trio of shawms.

the series of choreographic steps. But surely playing thirty-five long notes is not very conducive to dancing.

As it happens, these melodies, or tenors, are meant to be the foundation for the dance (each note is the same length and p. 44corresponds to a choreographic unit), and also the foundation for a polyphonic performance of dance music. Musicians were expected to produce a lively accompanying part while a fellow instrumentalist performed the tenor. There are many pictures of instrumental ensembles consisting of a trombone (or perhaps a slide trumpet) and one or two shawms (loud, double-reed instruments) playing music (without music stands!) while couples perform the basse danse. In some of these pictures only one of the shawm players is playing. It seems that the alto shawm plays the tenor, and the shawm and the brass instrument provide counterpoints, one pausing for breath when the other player takes over. Occasionally the two players may perform simultaneously, especially perhaps if they are very skilled. Fortunately there survive a few examples of this music, in which a tenor in even notes—a tenor that corresponds to one of those in the Thoulouze book—is accompanied by one or two additional voices; these upper voices sometimes take turns, sometimes play together, but always have the same meter and rhythm—that of the dance itself. These few written pieces give us a valuable window onto a largely unwritten practice. It is clear that the instrumentalists for the basse danse do more or less what Conrad Paumann suggests: take a long-note melody and provide impromptu additional voices.

There are other sources of information about the basse dance—including a manuscript for the Burgundian court written on black parchment with gold and silver ink. The basse danse (sometimes paired with a livelier dance, about which we know less) was danced all over Europe, and traces of it are found in Germany, Spain, England, Italy, and elsewhere. It is the oldest dance that can be reconstructed with any degree of confidence.

Both the organ and basse-danse improvisations are concerned with adding additional melodies to a pre-existent chant or tune. There is another kind of Renaissance improvisation, very much akin to these in some ways, which is a system for making virtuoso instrumental music out of vocal music, but in this case the player p. 45takes an original vocal line and embellishes it by making many small notes for longer notes of the original melody. This process, called “divisions” or “diminutions” from the subdivision of longer notes into shorter ones, is described in a number of treatises from the sixteenth century designed to teach instrumentalists how to produce a virtuoso solo melodic line for their instrument.

One of the earliest, and the most musical, of these division tutors is the 1553 Trattado de Glosas sobre Clausulas of Diego Ortiz, a musician working at the Spanish court of Naples. His book is an instruction manual for players of the violón (presumably the viola da gamba). In its first part it gives ornamented versions of a variety of cadences and kinds of melodic motion (rather like Paumann’s approach); and in a second book he gives a variety of model pieces, called recercadas, in several groups: a group of single melodies (solo pieces for viol); a group of six on a basse-danse tenor; a set of pieces on an Italian madrigal, and a set of pieces on a French chanson (these mostly ornament a single voice of the vocal model, with a keyboard accompaniment). Finally there is a series of recercadas on “Italian tenors,” by which he means standard harmonic patterns (with names like passamezzo, Romanesca, etc.) that were well-known bases for improvised variations and dances.

These bass patterns are harmonic templates rather like the American blues, in that they consist of a standard series of harmonies that all musicians knew and could participate in; it would be enough, probably, to say “Passamezzo antico, in G, galliard rhythm” to set any group of Renaissance instrumentalists playing together, and to set any group of Renaissance ladies and gentlemen dancing.

Ortiz’s treatise, however, and a number of others like it (mostly by Italians, including a professional cornetto-player from San Marco in Venice), are designed to teach something that in fact can not be taught, namely, how to be a dazzling virtuoso on your p. 46instrument, and how to take any song, or anything at all, and make of it a flashy showpiece. Some such virtuoso pieces exist in the written literature for lute, harpsichord, and organ, and mark the level of virtuosity that could be expected from the best players; but this virtuosity is not so readily seen in the literature for solo melody instruments—except as it is hinted at in this series of treatises on improvisation. It must have been a thrilling thing to hear a favorite song transformed in real time into an amazingly dazzling recorder solo. It’s not unlike some aspects of jazz performance.

Performing Renaissance music

Renaissance music has a particular importance to the modern early-music revival. The perception of Renaissance music as participatory, the idea that there is a bridge between high and low culture, and the idea that music is accessible to all, are values that were important in this revival during the 1960s and 1970s. It is not insignificant that the most-wielded armaments of the movement are the recorder and the viol, and that groups of these instruments together, playing consort music, are the center of the many summer workshops and other gatherings that bring together performers at many levels. The Lute Society in the United Kingdom, the American Recorder Society, the Viola da Gamba Society of America, and their counterparts in other countries have done much to assure a continuing interest in the consort music of the Renaissance, and in the performance of vocal part-music on instruments.

The instruments used by modern amateur players to play Renaissance music are more or less Baroque instruments. Gambas of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century proportion are actually quite a bit smaller with respect to their pitch than are those—more of Baroque proportion—used by most players (this is actually a touchy matter: some experts contend that Renaissance viols were larger, but that only the smaller sizes have survived). Modern p. 47recorders, too—especially the remarkably good plastic ones—are mostly versions of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century models; Renaissance recorders have a different bore (meaning that these instruments are cylindrical rather than conical, as are Baroque instruments), and are not usually jointed. Details of this kind do make a difference in the sound, the agility, and the flexibility of the instruments involved—but only in the hands of experts; a good instrument in the hands of a good amateur can play a wide range of music, even if it is not the instrument that, say, Ortiz would recognize. Such a distance, of a century or so, is about the distance between Bach’s harpsichord and Brahms’s piano.

Other instruments are popular, too, among players of Renaissance instrumental music. The “buzzies,” capped double-reed instruments like the crumhorn, the dulcian, the rankett (or “rackett”), provide a change of sonority, and sometimes an outburst of hilarity, when one of them is used or a consort is played together.

Some instruments are rarer, mostly because they can really only be managed by experts: cornetto, trombone, shawm: these are part of the “loud” category of instrument, generally used outdoors (shawm and trombone) or in church (cornetto, trombone) by professional musicians. There are some modern virtuosi on cornetto—likened by Marin Mersenne to a ray of sunlight in a darkened cathedral, and by others as the instrument nearest to the human voice—and there are a few ensembles specializing in loud-band music (shawms are very loud double-reed instruments). These give us something of the idea of what a Renaissance town band might have sounded like, or the kind of instrumental doubling or instrumental interludes to be found in some of the late-Renaissance works of church music by Giovanni Gabrieli, Monteverdi, and others.

In our time we have the good fortune to be able to enjoy Renaissance music in the way it was experienced in its own time: p. 48from the Chapel Royal to the private household, the distance between professional and amateur, and the difference between their musics, was not so great that those who are listeners now might not be participants tomorrow. We too have splendid professional ensembles, and a thriving culture of individual participation.