Click here for an enrichment point possibility!



October at Wayland Middle School gives us two connections to Renaissance music. The first happens every year: Christopher Columbus was alive during the Renassaince period, so we listen to music that he might have heard during his lifetime. Lately we have had a second connection: our drama students put on a play by Shakespeare. Both Christopher Columbus and William Shakespeare were alive during the Renassance, consequently we will be focusing some of our band workshop music history work on music of the Renaissance period.

The Renaissance period in music history was from 1400 (sometimes stated as 1450) to 1600. This period was a time of great changes in Europe (please do note that we are referring to European history when we refer to the "Renaissance era" or "Baroque era" or "Classical era" of music; these terms belong to Western music and Western Civilization, and do not refer to what was happening in Asia, Africa, the Americas or anywhere other than Europe). The word "Renaissance" means a revival or rebirth. The Renaissance period in Europe was a time of renewed interest in the arts and in learning.

Many famous people were alive during the Renaissance: Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, Leonardo Da Vinci was painting his Mona Lisa and making plans for a flying machine, Copernicus was trying to convince the world that the earth revolved around the sun, not the sun around the earth, Shakespeare was writing Hamlet , Romeo and Juliet and his other plays, and Christopher Columbus was asking Queen Isabella to finance his trip to the west Indies. The printing press was also developed in this era. No other single invention made more difference in the history of music than the printing press; with its development, music could be duplicated more easily (it took a LONG time to copy music out by hand!) and therefore more people could have copies of the music. On a not so pleasant note, it was also the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled from Spain all Muslim, Jewish and Protestant peoples.

Musically, many changes started taking place during the Renaissance. Music of the Middle Ages tended to be primarily unison songs (for voice) where instruments were just used for accompaniment. During the Renaissance period, instrumental music became popular and vocal music became more polyphonic (more than one part -- monophonic means only one melody line).

Another big change was in the music writing. Neumes, which was the notation used in Gregorian Chant and developed in the Middle Ages, showed only the direction of the melody, up or down, and some of the ornamentation. Musicians in the fourteen hundreds began adding flags and different kinds of note heads to show the duration of the note (how long you should hold it out) as well as its pitch (how high or low it is). Last year when we were looking at the music of Charlemagne's time (remember Pippin ?), we learned that music writing was just coming into being in the eleventh century, and you really had to know the piece before the notation made any sense; it was just a reminder of how the melody went. (Click to see an example of music writing from the 12th century (1100s); you will see that it doesn't tell you much! Click the next link to see music notation of the early 16th century (early 1500s), the Renaissance period; it has much more detail!)

A type of vocal music called a motet was developing during the end of the Middle Ages and came into real importance during the Renaissance. A motet was built around a melody called the tenor. "Tenor" comes from the Latin tenere, to hold, and was called such because the tenor melody was usually the longer, held out notes. The duplum and triplum, a second and third vocal part, were quicker notes, often highly ornamented and rhythmically much quicker than the tenor melody. The tenor part was usually taken from liturgical chant (church music) and would be in Latin. The duplum and triplum had totally different texts on different subjects and could even be in different languages! So one musical development of the Renaissance era was that vocal music became much more complex, and to some people, more interesting!

Madrigals were very popular during the Renaissance period. Madrigals were secular (not religious) songs, usually love songs, that were sung in multiple parts without any instrumental accompaniment. The madrigal group at our high school was created to sing this type of vocal music (although they often sing popular tunes as well!).

Instrumental music took on a life of its own during the Renaissance period. Music was written specifically for instruments, although not usually for specific instruments! The music was written with two or three or four parts and the musicians played the parts on whatever instruments were available. Instruments were grouped in "consorts", the same type of instrument in more than one size ranging from high to low. For example, the flute of the day was the recorder; recorders came in four or more sizes: treble, alto, bass, contrabass. Most often music was performed by a consort of like instruments, possibly with a tabor (hand drum) added.

Much of the instrumental music of the time was written in a polyphonic form. In polyphonic music each part had its own path -- the instruments were not moving together at the same time. One instrument would start a melody, then a second instrument would join with the same melody a few measures later, then the third instrument, etc. -- much like a round. The big difference between this music and rounds was that once the beginning part of the melody was introduced, that musical line might go off in a different direction than the others, and sometimes all of the lines would come together and play the same rhythms for a while. In rounds, everyone sings/plays exactly the same melody from start to finish.

Dance music was also a very popular style for instrumentalists and sometimes the musicians would simply play vocal music on their instruments. If you were in Elizabethan England and going to the Globe Theatre to see a play by William Shakespeare, chances are you would find musicians there to entertain you before the play began. They would be playing dance tunes in consorts of like instruments, or singing madrigals, or singing love songs to the accompaniment of a lute. You very well might even hear the love song, "Greensleeves" (Some of us know this as the melody for the Christmas carol, "What Child is This", but it was originally a Renaissance song of lost love.)

Some important composers of the era were:

  • Josquin des Pres, Netherlands, worked in Italy & France (1440-1521)
  • Guillaume Dufay, Netherlands, worked in France, Italy & Burgundy
  • Jean de Ockeghem, Netherlands
  • Orlando di Lasso, Netherlands / Germany, (1532-1594)
  • Heinrich Schütz, Germany, (1585-1672)
  • Michael Praetorius, Germany, (1571-1621)
  • William Byrd, England, (1543-1623)
  • Thomas Tallis, England, (1505-1585)
  • John Dowland, England, (1563-1626)
  • Dunstable, England, (died 1453)
  • Henry VIII, King of England, (1491-1547)
  • Orlando Gibbons, England (1583-1625)
  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Italy (1525-1585)
  • Girolamo Frescobaldi, Italy, (1583-1643)
  • Thomas Morley, England, (1557-1602)
  • Andre Gabrieli, Venice, (1520-1586)
  • Giovanni Gabrieli, Venice, (1557-1612)
  • Claudio Monteverdi, Italy, (1567-1643), served as a musical transition between the Renaissance and Baroque
  • Juan del Encina, (1485-c.1530) Spain
  • Juan de Anchieta, Spain, (1462-1523), worked in the court of Queen Isabella
  • Francisco de la Torre, Spain, (1483-1504)

Women composers of the era were largely ignored by history, but most women of the time played musical instruments and composed music. A few are noted in history:

  • Maddalena Casulana, Italy, (1540-1590). Maddalena was a nun and she used her musical talents to create and perform music of her church. "More than half of the music performed and published in the time of Maddalena was written by women. In Italy nearly two thousand of these musicians were nuns, writing in the service of their church." (Kendall, p.7)
  • Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was also a fine musician and composer. Her reign (also called the Elizabethan era) is often thought of as the greatest age of English music. This is the time of Shakespeare. (Click the link above to see a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and learn more about her, to learn why her Mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed by Elizabeth's father, King Henry VIII, and to hear a sound file of one of the Queen's compositions.)
  • Vittoria Aleotti/Raffaela Aleotta (c.1574-1646), also a nun.
  • Isabella d'Este (1473-1539), Patroness of the arts and musician herself.
  • Tarquinia Molza, Italy, (1542-1617)

Information for this page was taken from the following print sources and from some of the links on this page:

  • Pincherle, Marc. An illustrated History of Music. New York: Reynal, 1959.
  • Grout, Donald Jay. A History of Western Music. New York: Norton, 1960.
  • Osborne, Charles, ed. The Dictionary of Composers. New York: Taplinger, 1977.
  • Kendall, Catherine Wolff. Stories of Women Composers for Young Musicians. Toadwood, 1993.
  • Tomb, Eric. A Coloring Book of Early Composers. Santa Barbara: Bellerophone, 1989.
  • Mundy, Simon. The Usborne Story of Music. London: Usborne, 1980.
  • The Waverly Consort. 1942 - Music from the Age of Discovery, an audio CD. EMI, 1992.
  • Music of Shakespeare's Time: Vocal & Instrumental Works of Elizabethan England, a sound recording. New York: Nonesuch Records.
  • Plantamura,Carol. A Coloring Book of Women Composers. Santa Barbara: Bellerophone, 1991.
  • Sadie, Julie Anne & Rhian Samuel, eds., The Norton/Gorve Dictionary of Women Composers, New York & London: Norton & Co, 1995.

Here is a link to a great site to explore early instruments!! It has links to pages so you can see and hear instruments like the crumhorn, a rackett, a lute and the viols (to say nothing of the instrument called a lizard or what about the serpent!).

Here is another link to information about Renaissance & Medieval music with links to instruments. http://www.zzounds.com/edu--renaissancemusic

Here is a web ring devoted to sites focusing on early music women composers (this is the same as the link from the words, "Women composers" above).

Click here for an enrichment point possibility!

Go back to the past tidbits page.

Visit the Wayland Public Schools site http://www.wayland.k12.ma.us

Go to WMS Band introduction page

MS Band Workshop schedule Concert Dates Tidbits Current assignments
Enrichment ideas WMS bands intro A suggested recording list Awards Camps
Announcements Ensemble Information Music Links Forms Jr. District
High School pages Local Concerts Grading Policies Private teachers Jazz Grps
Wayland Middle School Bands, Wayland, MA muffitt@bandnotes.info