From Hylton, J.B. (1995) Comprehensive Choral Music Education Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 160-170.


Renaissance means rebirth. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europe experienced a new flowering of intellectual and artistic activity. Developments in literature and the visual arts, as well as in music, were stimulated by a new emphasis on the human spirit. Although this new spirit of humanism prompted momentous changes in the church, most notably the Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther (1483-1546), the church continued to provide the primary impetus for musical activity. In addition, the courts of various members of the nobility provided important support for musical activity, both sacred and secular. The invention of the printing press around 1450 facilitated the dissemination of printed materials of all kinds, including musical scores.

A variety of musical styles developed during the Renaissance, beginning with the music of Dufay (c. 1400-1474) and the Burgundian School. The Franco-Flemish tradition of sacred polyphony culminated in the music of di Lasso (1532-1594). At the same time, the conservative Catholic musical tradition most clearly exemplified by the Italian Palestrina (1525-1594) and the English secular and sacred musical tradition most clearly exemplified by Byrd (1543-1623), Tallis (1505-1585), and others embodied significant stylistic and formal changes. Finally, madrigal singing, an important tradition of secular music, with its roots in Italy, exerted an influence during the sixteenth century and was appropriated and adapted by the English during the reign of Elizabeth 1, herself an ardent supporter of the arts and an amateur musician. The Venetian polychoral tradition led to the music of Monteverdi (1567-1643) and Schuetz (1585-1672), whose compositions represent the transition from Renaissance practices to Baroque ideals.

Important Sacred Forms

Mass. The mass is a sequence of prayers and ceremonies commemorating the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ. Along with the Offices, it constitutes the basic liturgy of the Roman Catholic church. The mass may be said or sung and consists of two parts: the proper and the ordinary. Those portions of the mass constituting the proper change throughout the year. The ordinary of the mass, however, consists of the invariable sections of the service. For musical purposes, the ordinary of mass is of the most interest, for it has inspired thousands of choral works. The ordinary of the mass consists of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei (see Appendix B for a complete translation). When musicians speak of a mass, it is usually the ordinary of the mass they are referring to. Composers sometimes set individual sections of the mass to music (e.g., a "Kyrie" or an "Agnus Dei"), or they may compose a musical setting of the entire ordinary.

Requiem. The requiem is a mass for the dead, with the word itself from the Latin requies, which means "rest." In a requiem mass, certain sections of the proper become invariable and are added to the chants of the ordinary, and the joyful sections of the ordinary (the Gloria and Credo) are omitted, resulting in the following sequence of sections: Introit, Kyrie, Gradual, Sequence, Offertory, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Communion. Settings of the requiem by various composers may omit certain of the sections just listed, reflecting the composer's attitude toward death; a desire to emphasize certain aspects of the text for musical, dramatic, or spiritual reasons; or the liturgical tradition for which it was written.

Motet. The term motet first arose in the thirteenth century and was applied to a type of composition that developed from the clausula, when a text was added to the previously unvoiced part of a two- or three-part composition based on chant. Originally intended to be sung by solo voices, by the middle of the fifteenth century, the motet was a sacred choral composition, using a text other than the ordinary of the mass.

Anthem. The anthem is a sacred choral composition, intended for use in the Anglican services of morning or evening prayer. Two types of anthems developed known as "full anthems" and "verse anthems." Full anthems were written entirely for choir; verse anthems featured alternating choral and solo passages.

Chorale. The chorale is a hymn tune of the Lutheran Church. Some of these tunes were adaptations of Latin hymns used in the Catholic church, some were adaptations of preexisting German hymns or secular songs, and some were newly composed. Chorales were often used as the basis for more extended choral works such as chorale motets, which became a highly significant part of the repertoire during the Baroque era.

Calvinist Psalm Setting. The Calvinist church opposed the singing of nonbiblical texts, and musical settings of Psalm texts were an important feature of the Calvinist service. These were based on both preexisting and newly composed melodies.

Important Secular Forms

Italian Madrigal. The Italian madrigal was the most important secular musical form of the Renaissance. The origins of the word may relate to the mother tongue (matricale) or a pastoral poem (mandriale). The madrigal was preceded by the frottola, a love poem set in three or four parts, with the top part sung and the others played. The Italian madrigal went through three stages of development, beginning with the chordal style of Arcadelt and Festa continuing through the generation of composers that included Willaert, Di Lasso, and their contemporaries, and culminating in the chromatic, expressive works of Marenzic, and Gesualdo. Monteverdi's madrigals demonstrate clearly the transition from Renaissance to Baroque musical style.

English Madrigal. Italian madrigals became highly popular in Elizabethan England. Initially, translations of the Italian music were often performed, and eventually, English compositions based on Italian models were numerous and well received. The English madrigal style was lighter and simpler than the Italian, both textually and musically.

Chanson. The chanson was the primary French secular form of the Renaissance. Renaissance chansons fall into three categories: contrapuntal, program, and Parisian. Contrapuntal chansons, best exemplified by those of Josquin, are primarily imitative in style, in five parts. The Parisian chanson consisted primarily of chordal writing in four parts. The program chansons included musical representations of bird songs, street vendors, battles, and other "programs."


During the Renaissance, the centers of musical influence in Europe shifted from one location to another. During the first half of the fifteenth century, the dukes of Burgundy, most notably Philip the Good, were important patrons of the arts, and the area in which they lived became an important musical center (the area presently comprised of Holland, Belgium, and northeastern France). Two important musical figures predominate in the Burgundian School: Dufay (1400-1474) and Binchois (1400-1460). Dufay wrote around twenty-five mass movements or pairs of movements, as well as eight complete masses, in addition to isorhythmic motets. Isorhythm was a unifying technique in which a particular pattern of long and short notes was used in successive divisions or repetitions of a melody. Binchois composed mass movements, motets, and chansons.

The Franco-Flemish choral tradition continued with the work of Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1430-1495) and Jacob Obrecht (c. 1450-1505). Ockeghem was a conservative composer, a student of Dufay, noted primarily for his sacred music. Obrecht, born in the year that is generally used to mark the beginning of the Renaissance. utilized imitative counterpoint and cantus firmus technique. In a cantus firmus mass, a preexisting melody (secular or sacred) provides the unifying basis for a composition. Obrecht was also noted for his parody masses, in which a preexisting section of polyphony (or an entire work) was modified and adapted.

The most important musical figure during the first half of the Renaissance was Josquin des Prez (1440-1521). Born in Flanders (present-day Belgium), Josquin worked in Italy and later in France. His compositions summarized and embodied all that had come before, just as Bach's would two centuries later. Josquin's compositions included masses, motets, and secular pieces, and exerted a strong influence on other composers of his day. Josquin's music displays not only northern European contrapuntal characteristics, but blends with them the influence of Italian secular solo singing, resulting from his years in Italy. His compositions thus constitute an unusually beautiful and expressive mixture of colors, styles, and techniques.

Other notable composers who were contemporaries of Josquin or were of the following generation included Nicolas Gombert (c. 1490-1556), Pierre de la Rue (c. 1460-1518), Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450-1517), and Jacobus Clemens (c. 1510-c. 1556) who was also known as Clemens non Papa.

The Franco-Flemish musical influence culminated in the work, a century later, of Orlando Di Lasso (1532-1594). Di Lasso was born in Mons, and was taken as a boy to Rome, where he was a choir boy and later choirmaster. He traveled to England and France, and in 1556 became a member of the chapel of the Duke of Bavaria in Munich. His large musical output includes hundreds of compositions, both sacred and secular. Di Lasso's compositions included masses, motets, madrigals, lieder, and chansons.

In the sixteenth century, the main center of musical influence shifted southward from the Franco-Flemish area to Italy. Even those composers who were natives of northern Europe often traveled to Rome for periods of time. Rome and Venice were both important musical centers. The Catholic church continued to provide strong impetus for musical composition. The Council of Trent, which met intermittently from 1545 to 1563, sought to preserve the integrity and purity of church music by setting forth strict rules concerning the use of polyphony and the use of secular melodies as the basis for sacred compositions. The sacred music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) embodies the reforms called for by the Council. It is characterized by strictly controlled melody, rhythm, and dissonance, creating a sense of unparalleled devotion and restraint. Palestrina's work includes over five hundred sacred compositions, as well as madrigals. Similarly, the music of Tomas Luis de Vittoria (c. 1548-1611), a Spaniard who studied in Rome with Palestrina, is also characterized by reverence and restraint.

In the latter part of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, an interesting choral tradition developed that was centered in Venice. The Venetian style foreshadowed Baroque innovations in its preoccupation with antiphonal singing and the juxtaposition of contrasting musical forces. The architecture of St. Mark's Cathedral encouraged the use of multiple choirs.

The Venetian style was begun by Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562) and continued by Cipriano de Rore (1516-1565), Claudio Merulo (1533-1604), and Andrea Gabrieli (c. 1520-1586), and culminated in the works of Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612), which were written for as many as four or five or more antiphonal choirs.

The Protestant Reformation, begun by Luther in 1517, resulted in some new directions for sacred music during the sixteenth century. In addition to the music being written for the Catholic church, the Anglican anthem, the Lutheran chorale and chorale motet, and Calvinist settings of Psalms have continued to be significant parts of the choral repertoire. William Byrd, probably the foremost English composer of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, wrote Latin motets and masses, as well as anthems and complete services for the Anglican church. Other important composers of anthems included Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), Thomas Tompkins (1572-1656), Thomas Morley (1557-1602), Thomas Weelkes (c. 1575-1623), and John Wilbye (1574-1638). In addition to Martin Luther (1483-1546), chorales and chorale motets were written by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) and Joharm Eccard (1553-1611). The chorale motet reached its highest stage of development during the Baroque era. Claude Goudimel (c. 1505-1572) was the most important Renaissance composer of Calvinist Psalm settings, which were French translations and versifications of the Psalms intended for congregational singing.

Secular music composed during the Renaissance has also remained an important part of the choral repertoire. The secular music written during this period was vocal chamber music. It is therefore best suited to performance by a small ensemble, employing a light and subtle tone. The roots of the madrigal are in Italy. Three generations of sixteenth-century Italian madrigalists are recognized today. The first generation is represented by Jacob Arcadelt (c. 1505-1560), Philippe de Verdelot (d. 1550), and Costanza Festa (c. 1490-1545). The second generation and the next stage in the development of the form is represented by Willaert and Cipriano de Rore, each of whom has already been mentioned in connection with their sacred compositions in Venetian style, as well as Di Lasso, Giaches de Wert (1535-1596), and Philip de Monte (1521-1603). During this period, Giovanni Gastoldi (c. 1556-1622) was noted for a particular type of simple, dancelike madrigal known as a balletto, which featured a "fa-la-la" refrain.

The final stage in the development of the Italian madrigal is evident in the compositions of Luca Marenzio (1553-1599) and Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1560-1613). The madrigals of Marenzio are characterized by a variety of compositional techniques and by the use of chromaticism to bring out the expressive nuances of the text. Gesualdo's music carries to an extreme degree the emotionalism and the chromaticism found in the music of Marenzio.

During the last half of the sixteenth century, the madrigal became highly popular in Elizabethan England. Initially, translations of Italian madrigals were published and performed. This led to the composition of madrigals by English composers, using English texts (usually somewhat

lighter and more popular in character than the Italian pieces). The Italian balletto was adapted and termed a ballett, using the same "fa-la-la" refrain. Major English madrigal composers include Morley, Weelkes, Wilbye, and Gibbons.

Renaissance Style

As we have seen, the Renaissance was a period with a wide variety of musical styles. An Italian madrigal should be performed differently than a mass by Palestrina or an anthem by Gibbons. Festive music from Venice requires a different approach than a Parisian chanson. The sound of music written for the cathedral should differ from that intended to be sung informally after dinner.

Text was of great importance to Renaissance composers. Text and music became totally integrated and mutually enhancing. New forms, styles, and compositional techniques, while they add to the complexity of the choral conductor's task, also added greatly to the richness of the repertoire from this period.

The original scores of Renaissance music contain less information than those from later periods in music history. What information there is may be written in notation that is unintelligible to most contemporary choral singers. Many musical decisions were routinely left to the performers, who often included the composer. For the present-day performer, this requires careful selection of the performance edition used. The problems of old notation, starting pitch, unwritten but necessary accidentals, and other esoteric questions will have been answered by the editor. The issue for the contemporary conductor is to be certain the score selected has been skillfully edited. In recent years, the level of scholarship in choral music has increased markedly, but there are still editions available containing inappropriate dynamic, tempo, and expressive markings.

How can you tell when a score is well edited? A well-edited score will clearly indicate what markings are from the composer and which have been added editorially. It often includes notes concerning the piece, the composer, and the style. A well-edited score from the Renaissance will not include numerous expressive and dynamic markings without indicating they are editorial.

Once a score has been selected, what are the important issues? The appropriate use of voices and instruments, interpretation of pitch, tempo, and rhythmic markings, and matters of expression are some basic areas of concern. Remember, however, that any performance of older music is necessarily a compromise because it is impossible to duplicate the conditions under which it was originally performed.

The tone quality desired for Renaissance music will vary according to the purpose of the composition. It is impossible to recreate the sound of a Renaissance cathedral choir with a twentieth-century school choir of mixed voices. The Renaissance ensemble utilized men and boys, with boys singing the soprano and alto parts. The male castrato sound that was characteristic of certain music of the Renaissance and Baroque does not exist today.

Although it is impossible to duplicate exactly the choral sounds heard in a Renaissance cathedral, it should be noted that much Renaissance sacred music is well suited to the adolescent voice. It does not make large demands in terms of range, and the light quality of the young singer is much better suited to it than to many other types and styles of literature. A perfectly straight, vibrato-less tone is not desirable for any music. Choirs should have the opportunity, however, to listen to performances or recordings by contemporary choirs of men and boys, to hear the tone quality Then, within the bounds of good vocal production, that sound may be emulated.

The number of singers most appropriately employed for Renaissance sacred repertoire is relatively small. The papal choir in the sixteenth century reached a high of twenty-four singers, which was considered the ideal number for performances of sacred literature. Here again, it may be necessary to make a compromise if you want the concert choir of sixty voices to have the opportunity to perform some of this literature. Simply be aware of the compromise being made and alert the students to the necessity for light, controlled singing.

This kind of ethereal, carefully controlled choral sound had its roots in the Franco-Flemish polyphonic tradition. The southern Italian tradition of solo chamber singing requires a light, soloistic approach to the sound. Probably the majority of the madrigal repertoire was originally performed with one person per part. In emulating this kind of sound with a contemporary madrigal ensemble, each singer has the difficult task of singing lines that ere probably intended for a single voice, but singing them with careful attention to blend and uniformity of approach to the nuances of textual accentuation.

The use of instruments can enhance the performance of Renaissance choral music. For young choirs, the inclusion of instrumental parts has the added benefit of providing additional support for the singers. The use of instruments in Renaissance music differs from current practice in some important respects.

The instruments of the period differed from our contemporary versions. The recorder, a predecessor of our current cross-blown flute, and the sackbut, a predecessor of the present-day trombone, were employed. The krummhorn, a double-reed instrument, was somewhat analogous to the current oboe. Krummhorns and recorders come in various sizes (soprano, alto, nor, and bass being the most common). Viols of various sizes, similar to the modern cello, were prominently used. Small percussion instruments such as finger cymbals or tambourine may be used to reinforce pieces with a strongly rhythmic character. The lute, a forerunner of the guitar, provides a very beautiful and characteristically Renaissance sound, which can be used good advantage. Currently, depending on the size of your community, u may find a surprising number of players of Renaissance period instruments. It is worth investigating whether such individuals or ensembles might be available to participate in a concert or to come to the school and demonstrate for students the instrumental sounds of the Renaissance. Recordings of authentic instruments also help students understand and appreciate the sounds of Renaissance instrumental music.

If authentic instruments are not readily available, you will need to make a decision about substituting modern instruments for their Renaissance counterparts. The contemporary flute can be substituted for the recorder, and a contemporary cello could replace a viol da gamba quite satisfactorily. Likewise, the guitar may be used in place of a lute. A brass quartet may be used to good effect in polychoral music of the Venetian school.

The piano was developed in the eighteenth century. Its tone quality is not appropriate for music of the Renaissance. Fortunately, the increasing availability and affordability of synthesizers and other digital keyboards as well as harpsichords of high quality make it possible to avoid the use of the piano for this repertoire.

The instruments were used in a different manner than they are today. They doubled and reinforced vocal lines rather than playing independent parts. That said, there are a variety of ways in which the colors of the instruments can be exploited to add richness and variety to Renaissance choral pieces. The Renaissance notion of leaving decisions to the performer means it is very much in keeping with the style of the period to experiment with instrumental colors in various roles in support of vocalists.

Here are some suggestions for the use of instruments:

1. Use a quartet of recorders, flutes, or krummhorns. Have the singers sing a selection through without instrumental support, then have the instrumental quartet play the selection through, and follow that with a combined vocal-instrumental rendition.

2. Simply have a cellist support the base line or a string quartet support the vocal lines in the manner described in number 1.

3. Use small percussion instruments to reinforce strong rhythms.

4. Use the lute or guitar to provide an accompaniment for madrigals or other secular songs.

A choir and a brass ensemble may provide a beautiful contrast in color in a polychoral festive piece of the Venetian school with the singers as choir 1 and the instrumentalists as choir II.

As we mentioned earlier, the interpretation of Renaissance notation is best left to the editor of the performance edition used. However, even with a well-edited modern edition of a Renaissance choral work, some basic aspects of pitch, rhythm, and tempo require some discussion and explanation.

There was no standardized concert pitch during the Renaissance. It is difficult if not impossible to determine the exact starting pitch intended by the composer, although an examination of the ranges of the vocal parts provides a good basis for making a well-educated guess. Given the variability of pitch from country to country, city to city, and church to church up until the nineteenth century, the contemporary conductor should feel free to experiment with the tonal center for any piece of Renaissance music and to select key that best suits the particular ensemble in terms of comfortable vocal ranges and secure intonation. It is often a help in rehearsal to try several different starting pitches.

When a Renaissance piece is transcribed in contemporary musical notation, the note values of the original score are usually shortened, while of course retaining the same relative lengths as in the original score. Bar lines usually added as a convenience for modern performers. However, the metrical scheme implied by the barlines should not necessarily be adhered to

The dynamic range used in Renaissance music is smaller than that employed in later periods of music history. Nevertheless, the dynamics should also be judged according to the setting for which the music was written. Festival pieces utilizing singers and a brass ensemble naturally tend to be louder than those written for the drawing room.

The predominant determinant of appropriate dynamics should be the expression of the nuances of the text. The closely related interdependence of text and musical line in the Renaissance must always be considered.

Remember that any performance of music from the Renaissance will represent a compromise in terms of authentic performance practice. We must go back to the basic premise of thorough score study, the selection of a well-edited score, and a desire to bring out the musical and expressive nuances inherent in it. Also, note that much of the information currently in use concerning style and performance practice has only come to light in the last twenty-five years. Undoubtedly, the continuing efforts of musicologists and choral conductors will supply additional information that will replace some of what is currently accepted. Thus continuing study is critical to the effective musical education of students and the presentation of performances that are based on the most accurate information available.