Archive for the Renaissance Category

Medieval and Renaissance Music: Why is it Important?

Posted in Medieval, Music, Renaissance with tags , on February 26, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Historians often point to the Medieval period as the beginning of the unbroken tradition of notated (written down) Western music that developed into what we now consider “classical” or “art” music. Although the earlier Ancient music of Greece was very important and influential, only a few fragments of Ancient Greek music have survived. The Medieval period lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century (specifically 476 AD) through roughly the 15th century.

It was in Medieval cathedrals and abbeys that explorations of the nature of pitches and rhythms began evolving into what would become the practices of composing and performing standardized much later in the 18th century. Important technical tools such as written musical notation and solfege (a method for sight-singing) also first appeared in the Medieval period. Music with increasingly sophisticated counterpoint–simultaneous melodic lines–began appearing in the 1100s.

Music by Orlando di Lassus

16th c. music by Orlando di Lassus (click to view source)

The following centuries after the Medieval period saw new developments in musical style, and Renaissance style reached its peak during the 16th century with the music of Palestrina and Lassus.

Tastes and ideas eventually changed and composers like Claudio Monteverdi paved the way for the new Baroque style of music, which began in the 17th century.

While there were a lot of different musical styles during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, there was a clear continuity of musical forms and similarities in the way that people composed, performed, and listened to music during this entire period.

Vocal Music

Instrumental music was popular in the Medieval and Renaissance periods in the contexts of out-of-doors dancing, lords’ banquets, town festivals and ceremonies, popular songs, etc. The surviving documentation of instrumental music is unfortunately not very good, partly because music notation from this time isn’t always very specific about what instrument or voice should be performing a musical part. A lot of instrumental dance music was also learned and passed on orally—that is, by ear rather than by writing—so we don’t know exactly what it was like.

Vocal music held an important position in the Catholic church, which was the dominant cultural and political force in Western Europe, and many of the most highly respected composers specialized in vocal music. On the whole, instrumental music wasn’t considered as worthy of development in the church as vocal music was until, arguably, the late 1500s-early 1600s, with the beginning of the Baroque period.

For these reasons, vocal music is a good focus of study to trace important developments in music during the Renaissance and before, although a consideration of instrumental music during this time is important for a complete understanding of the history of music.

An Introduction to Michelangelo’s Poetry

Posted in Art, Literature, Renaissance with tags , on February 12, 2012 by Nell

Although Michelangelo’s poetry is not nearly as well known to the public as his sculpture, painting and architecture, it was an important facet of his creative life and appears to have been a passionate and somewhat private secondary form of expression for the artist (he was unpublished during his lifetime, and many of the poems were gifts to friends). Michelangelo worked in the tradition of Italian lyric poetry as defined by Petrarch and Dante. Echoing Petrarch’s Laura and Dante’s Beatrice, Michelangelo often addresses a woman–who may be imagined as the poetic representation of Vittoria Colonna, with whom he had an intense friendship (now considered by scholars not to have been truly romantic).

Michelangelo wrote over three hundred poems, many of which utilized imagery or metaphors from his primary medium of marble sculpture. Fragments of verse can be found in Michelangelo’s sketchbooks, scribbled on the same pages as studies for his masterpieces, showing that these two disparate art forms were complementary or intimately related in his mind.


The poems I selected for my musical interpretation of Michelangelo’s poetry and art, Revealed in Stone (2009) for tenor and piano, center around a few of the most prevalent and intriguing themes in Michelangelo’s repertoire: time, death, and the immortalizing power of art; the artist’s concetto (conception or idea) and the perfection of its realization; the reflection of the artist’s self in his creations; the tension between hiding and revealing, which relates to the subtractive process of marble sculpture; and a yearning for spiritual release, or elevation, from the human condition.

He alludes directly to this idea with a metaphor for sculpture as the earthly confinement of an enigmatic spirit (“I came down, against my will, from a great ravine / in the high mountains to this lower place, / to be revealed within this little stone.”).



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Michelangelo’s Non-finito Sculptures

Posted in Art, Renaissance with tags on February 12, 2012 by Nell

While Michelangelo is best known for masterpieces such as his David and Pieta, among the most compelling products of Michelangelo’s sculptural output, and those which most strongly symbolize the Neo-Platonic theme of the struggle to transcend physical form (alluded to in the poems), are the non-finito (unfinished) sculptures – particularly St. Matthew and the Slaves (works that were a major influence on Auguste Rodin).

These are vague, faceless figures that appear to be struggling to emerge from masses of marble. It is debated whether or not Michelangelo left them intentionally unfinished, but either way these are striking examples of the outstanding characteristics of Michelangelo’s art: dynamic, overwhelming strength veiled in melancholic beauty. This was the vision I had in mind as I searched for the mood and language of my music in Revealed in Stone.

Michelangelo, Young Slave

Young Slave

Michelangelo, Awakening Slave

Awakening Slave

Michelangelo, St. Matthew

St. Matthew

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Madrigal and Word Painting

Posted in Music, Renaissance with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Madrigal was a form of non-religious (secular) Renaissance vocal music for two or more singers, which reached the peak of its popularity in the 16th century. In France, the equivalent form was known as chanson.

Unlike most sacred music of the time, madrigals were composed in the vernacular language (English, French, Italian, etc) rather than Latin. Composers generally used secular poetry as texts, and sometimes utilized word painting (see below) as a notable compositional device.

What to listen for:

  • Madrigal was sung in the vernacular, i.e. the common tongue, rather than Latin.
  • The use of word painting (it’s not in every madrigal, but it’s in a lot of them).
  • Madrigals are often (though not always) playful, lively, and clever in tone.
Word painting is a device used frequently in Renaissance vocal music, especially madrigalsalthough it certainly also appeared in church music—in which the musical events are designed to illustrate or reflect the text. (Examples below.) This practice is still very much alive in music today, although it used differently. Word painting is related to the concepts of tone painting and program music, in which instrumental music tells a story without text.

Recommended listening:

This piece a classic and clear example of word painting. Pay special attention to the way the words and phrases “ascending,” “descending,” “running down,” “two by two,” etc, are treated by the composer in this piece! To begin with, I suggest you listen and look at the score to perceive this on your own—but here’s a “cheat sheet” of notable moments.

I personally think this chanson (French madrigal) is completely fantastic, and it’s a great example of word painting and musical depiction. In this piece, titled “The Song of the Birds,” the singers imitate bird calls as a musical illustration of the content of the text. (Check out the music 3 minutes in!) Here’s a translation of the French lyrics into English:

Wake up sleeping heads! The God of Love calls you! The birds will work wonders this May Day to dispel your worries. Unplug your ears.

Everyone will be filled with joy, for the season is pleasant, and the song-thrush will make sweet, original music. Everyone will laugh and rejoice. The nightingale sets the woods ringing with twittering throat.

Flee regrets, tears, and cares! The season is pleasant. Away Mister Cuckoo, everyone regards you as a traitor. “Cuckoo” . . . treacherously laying eggs in each nest uninvited. Wake up sleeping heads! The God of Love calls you!

[Source for this translation]

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on madrigal


Posted in Medieval, Music, Renaissance with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Music by Orlando di Lassus

Music by Orlando di Lassus (click to view source)

The term polyphony can be used to describe a general style of music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods or, more broadly, to refer to any musical texture of more than one distinct, simultaneous melodic lines.

Polyphony emerged out of Medieval church music (chant) around the 12th century with the invention of organum (the earliest named composers of organum were Leonin and Perotin, both working at Notre Dame in Paris).

This form of music reached the peak of its popularity and sophistication in the Renaissance in the 16th century (Palestrina and Lassus, aka Lasso, are considered the defining composers of that period).

Polyphony may be found in motets, masses, and madrigals, the dominant genres of vocal ensemble music during the 14th-16th centuries.

What to listen for in Renaissance polyphony:

  • Polyphony utilizes mostly contrapuntal textures (often mixed with short passages of homophony, in which all the voices sing in the same rhythm but with different pitches), rather than melody-and-accompaniment type of textures (what we think of as “song”).
  • Each of the different voices have equal importance in the overall sound of the music. (This is in contrast to monophony, in which there is one melody which performers would sing simultaneously.)
  • Polyphony often involves canon, a compositional technique utilizing imitative counterpoint, where two or more voices perform the same, or very similar, melodies in a sequence of overlapping entrances. (Think “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”) Sometimes the melodies are transposed (i.e. starting on a different pitch) or otherwise altered.
  • The harmonic system used in this music was derived from the church modes (see chant for more info) and therefore sounds noticeably different from the tonal music of the Baroque and Classical periods.

Recommended listening:

See organum to hear the very earliest polyphony, which is stylistically and technically different than this later music.

Late Medieval polyphony:

Renaissance polyphony:

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on polyphony

Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods [GUIDE]

Posted in Guides, Medieval, Music, Renaissance, Videos with tags , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

 Vocal music in the Medieval and Renaissance periods is some of the most interesting and beautiful music of all time. Use this guide as a jumping-off point to explore some of the more important genres and techniques in the Medieval era through the Renaissance (ending around 1600).



…video coming soon!