The Renaissance was the great age of vocal polyphony, music consisting of a number of equally important voice parts all woven together to create a complex tapestry of overlapping melodies and beautiful harmonies. In religious music, the primary compositional forms were the Mass and the motet, while in secular music they were the French chanson, or song (for three or four voices), and the Italian madrigal. Instrumental music was not, for the most part, as formalized during the Renaissance as it would later become.
Instruments were used in varying combinations to accompany singers (in both religious and secular music), to provide music for private entertainment and dancing, and to provide festive or ceremonial music for towns and royal courts. Principal instruments of the period included the lute, organ, and harpsichord, viols, recorders shawms (double-reed precursors of the oboe), cruhorns (also double-reed instruments), trombones and trumpets (Gangwere).
Among the most important composers of the Renaissance were Guillaume Dufay, of the so-called Burgundian school, centered at the court of the dukes of Burgundy in Dijon France and Johannes Ockeghem, Jacob Obrecht, Josquin des Prez, and later, Orlando di Lasoo of the Flemish school (Pen).
The unvarying structure of the mass, the constancy of the text, and the solemnity of function were not conducive to musical experimentation in mass composition. Flemish masses still used the cantus firmus techniques of the earlier Burgundian masters. In the hands of exceptional composers such as Giovanni da Palestrina the mass was a highly devotional and serene expression of the liturgy, perfectly suited to the austerity demanded by the Counter Reformation. Palestrina’s flexible arched melodic lines, his studied use of consonance and dissonance, and his beautifully constructed harmonic sonorities became the model for generations of counterpoint teachers (Hoffman).
The early motet (from the French word meaning “word”) frequently contained different texts in various languages for each voice parts. Complexities of word setting and tone painting were simply not an important aspect of the music for early motet composers. As the humanism began to exert its influence, composers grew more attentive to text setting. The single text was the motivating force for the motet. Each section of music was presented as a separate musical episode that attempted to highlight the clarity of the text as well as to convey the emotional impact of the words.
This style of sensitive text representation came to be known as music reservata. Composers developed specific techniques for the musica reservata style. Second, the natural speech rhythm was matched by melodic rhythm so that the words were correctly accented. Third, syllabic treatment of text and expressive figures were used to portray the message of the text (Hoffman).
Chansons were three-voice secular works in which the music closely mirrored the meaning of the French poetic text. The text, usually an expression of love, was in rondeau form with a two-line refrain (A B a A a b A B). Although they may have been performed entirely by voices, the usual presentation probably featured a solo voice on the top (superius) line with the bottom two polyphonic lines played by instruments (Hoffman).
Other musics such as chorale, anthem, psalm settings, frottola and madrigal are legacies of Renaissance period. It was only during the Renaissance that musicians begun to recognize the idiomatic potential of instruments and consequently began composing in particular genres intended for instrumental rather than choral performance (Pen).
Gangwere, Blanche. Music History During the Renaissance Period, 1520-1550: A Documented Chronology. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
Hoffman, Miles. The Npr Classical Music Companion: An Essential Guide for Enlightened Listening. Houghton Mifflin Books, 2005.
Pen, Ronald. Introduction to Music. McGraw-Hill Professional, 1992.