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Classical Music IV a: Renaissance on the Continent and in the church

The Renaissance (French for ‘Rebirth’) in the West brought new developments in polyphonic music --- an extension of the multi-lined melodic experimentation that had been done in the late Middle Ages by such people as Hildegarde, De Machaut, and Dufay.

One notable element in ancient music from prehistoric times on through the Medieval, by the way, was improvisation: It was normal practice for a performer to come up with a newly composed work on the spot, within expected structural parameters such as chosen modes and matching music with texts. This improvisation did continue on into later periods --- for example, Bach was a famous improviser, and players of Romantic concertos made up their own cadenzas --- but as a central practice it waned somewhat in the Renaissance, as composition became more static and complex as written on the page.

Northern Europeans such as the Germans and Dutch began developing thoroughly designed polyphonic pieces for use in church, such as fugues and canons. The first Italian to really run with these in a combination with the beautiful, lyrical southern European melodic forms was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in the mid-sixteenth century, and from there polyphony became essential to most Renaissance church music, on through the time of Bach and Handel in the mid-eighteenth century. (Polyphony took on a different character after Bach, but has never ceased in Classical music. More on that in later posts.)

The Mass and the motet were primary long works to be sung, often a capella.

Instrumental music for dancing and other festivities is marvelously shown in the colorful interweaving of parts in Michael Praetorius’ Terpsichore; Gabrieli’s antiphonal brass pieces are thrilling.

Secular songs called madrigals were prominent; late in the Renaissance period Gesualdo took special harmonic liberties with these to set the stage for increasing complexity in the time to come.

Monteverdi brought together singers with orchestra and new harmonic approaches in church music that opened the doors for the Baroque.

Here are a few representative snippets from --- once again --- a vast repertoire from the period. (This is the tiny tip of the iceberg!) It’s wonderful how modern recording, scholarship, and performance techniques have re-introduced the manner in which these great works were first presented long ago.

Ockeghem’s Missa l’Homme Arme: Kyrie, sung by the Oxford Camerata (starting with the folk tune used as its basis)

Josquin’s Missa l’Homme Arme sexti toni: Kyrie, sung by the Maîtrise Des Pays De Loire (with the score showing!)

Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli: Kyrie, sung by the Oxford Camerata (also with the score)

...and Palestrina's Gloria from the same

Lassos’ Penitential Psalms of David: De Profundis, sung by Chiaroscuro

Victoria’s Requiem a6, 1605: Sanctus and Benedictus, sung by Musica Ficta

Gabrieli’s Canzon septimi toni a2 for antiphonal brass, played by ensembles from Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston orchestras

Gesualdo’s madrigal ‘Io parto e non piu dissi’, sung by the Ensemble Metamorphoses

Monteverdi’s Vespers, 1610: Psalm 147 ‘Lauda Ierusalem’, sung by the Eindhoven Vocal Ensemble in concert

Praetorius’ version of the Christmas song ‘Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen’, sung by Chanticleer

Praetorius’ Dances from Terpsichore (selections), performed in concert by the Voices of Music

More of the same by the Collegium Terpsichore, a little more authentic in instrumentation

Classical Music History III: The Medieval times
Classical music IV b: The Elizabethan period


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