Sacred music – that is to say the setting of either liturgical or non-liturgical religious texts, generally in Latin but sometimes in the vernacular, for use at services or for private devotions, in church, at court or among the bourgeoisie – is the predominant music throughout the period which began soon after 1400 and ended about 1600 with the advent of opera, and which is known in music history (by an approximate analogy with the history of art) as the Renaissance. Although by the 15th century various kinds of secular song in the vernacular were widely popular as entertainment at the courts of royalty and the aristocracy, at monasteries and among townspeople, and during the second half of the 16th century secular pieces, especially Italian madrigals, were much cultivated by progressive composers, the era was nevertheless marked far more by the unchallenged social and artistic standing of sacred music. It was an art which flourished both at churches and courts, a fact unaltered by the Reformation, except where it actually discouraged the arts altogether. Sacred composition of the period gave rise to the cyclic, i.e. musically unified, setting of the Ordinary of the Mass, a form which evolved according to inherent compositional factors until it was largely independent of its intended purpose, that of providing music for the unchanging sections of the Mass to be used in liturgical celebrations. Sacred music also developed in accordance with innumerable liturgical and non-liturgical factors to give rise to the diverse forms and creative techniques demonstrated in the sphere of the “motet”, which by the last third of the 15th century had become so broad and diverse a concept that Johannes Tinctoris (c.1473-74) defined motetus only vaguely as a polyphonic cantus of moderate length, to texts of various kinds but generally sacred in character (the expression “moderate length” is to be understood in comparison with the longer mass on the one hand and the shorter secular song on the other). The mass and motet were, above all, for a long period of time the domains in which compositional techniques evolved: it was on the mass as a cyclic form and on the elaborate motet written to celebrate notable ecclesiastical and political occasions that composers concentrated their craftsmanship and powers of invention; and it was above all in the motet, to some extent under the influence of Renaissance humanism, that the musical rendering of textual form and content developed, with correct and heightened declamation as well as graphic and affective illustration of particular details. Even during the second half of the 16th century, by which time the madrigal had become the field for experimentation by progressive composers, the tradition of sacred polyphony which had evolved since the beginning of the 15th century blossomed for the last time at the hands of the richly imaginative Orlando di Lasso and in the classical mastery of Palestrina.
The boundaries of the era in question are clearly marked, and each of its principal events took place almost exactly at the turn of a century: English music made its mark on the Continent soon after 1400, and the first operas appeared shortly before 1600. The Burgundian poet Martin le Franc (c.1441) and theorist Tinctoris who worked at Naples (c.1475) were aware that with Dunstable, Dufay and Binchois a new musical era had begun and that the new sound, the frisque concordance from England, had given Continental music a contenance angloise. There had been links between English and Continental music as early as the 14th century; the fact that English music, previously of only minor importance on the European mainland, now became extremely influential there was due to the emergence of Dunstable as an exceptional composer, and to the fact that the spread of his works and those of his English contemporaries was greatly assisted, indeed dictated, by political factors, above all by the English domination of Paris (until 1436) and a large part of north-western France until the end of the Hundred Years’ War. The Duke of Bedford, the English governor, had a musical establishment at his Paris residence, while English musicians served at the court of the Dukes of Burgundy; and even the Council of Constance (1414-18) English musicians won admiration when they celebrated the feast of St. Thomas “with angelically sweet singing”. A generation later in the fully developed courtly of the Duchy of Burgundy, in the cultural centres both courtly and municipal of France, which was recovering from the wounds of war, in the wealthy Flemish trading towns, and finally in the culture of the Italian courts, musicians who had already been influenced by English composers were able to carry their art to unknown summits of brilliance. There was an “explosion of talent”, first in the Duchy of Burgundy and the Diocese of Cambrai, then at the Court of France. Under the direct or indirect influence of Dufay, who remained the predominant figure on the musical scene until well into the second half of the 15th century, the second generation of composers flourished. Some of them worked at new musical centres in Flanders and Brabant, while others were appointed to Italian courts whose models in cultural matters were the courts of Burgundy and France. Thus began the European reputation of what is incorrectly described as “Music of the Netherlands”, much of which was in fact the work of French-speaking composers from Artois, Picardy, Hainault and the Ile-de-France.
Equally clear-cut is the end of the era at the close of the 16th century. The creation of opera as – what was intended to be – the rebirth of ancient drama on the basis of music enhancing the eloquence of speech marked a highly significant caesura between the earlier virtually unified concept of composition and a new, theoretically sanctioned division between a traditional prima and a modern seconda prattica – even though many characteristic features of this seconda prattica had in fact been foreshadowed during the 16th century: increasing emphasis on the meaning of words in vocal composition and the emancipation of instrumental music, the determination of sonority and structure by the bass and the discant parts, and the growing significance of the tonal cadence in its modern sense. The importance of this change of direction on the history of music, or more correctly on the history of composition, was possibly even greater than that of the caesura around 1400. Unlike that earlier occurrence, however, it happened not before and in conjunction with events of world history, but – far more unobtrusively – at the courts and cities of northern Italy. These, however, embodied the forces which were to dominate the future: courtly society at the transition from the concept of the Renaissance uomo universal to Baroque absolutism, and trading cities where even art began to be regarded as a commodity.
The element which unifies the music of the era in question, as regards its place in the history of composition and music theory, is the unity of what is known rightly as classical vocal polyphony (the participation of instruments in performance, widespread though this practice was, and the instrumental genres and forms were of less structural and functional importance): the system of writing in two or more voices (parts) – generally three, then four and finally five – each of which has its own melodic and rhythmic life, all the voices being organized in accordance with the church modes. The combination of the voices, like the harmonic progression of the music as a whole, is controlled by varying degrees of consonance and dissonance and governed by the rules of contrapunctal partwriting. Naturally during the course of the two centuries this system underwent substantial alterations and changes of emphasis. It began with the transition from the Continental counterpoint of the 14th century under the influence of English composers – an influence manifested above all in the preference for third and sixths in parallel motion (probably a resut of improvised part-singing against a plainsong hymn), and for counterpoint containing very few dissonances. Even during the time of the first generation of composers, Dufay and Binchois, this new concept of sound and construction regarded by their contemporaries as revolutionary was differentiated in many ways, and was then increasingly clearly individualized in personal styles: in the rhythmic and melodic shaping of all the parts, the balancing and matching of melodic phrases, increased use of the lower register of the male voices, increased rhythmic definition, illustration of details of the text, and in the (very slow) change from a formal concept based on numbers and proportions (and their symbolism) to one founded on the meaning of words and on what is actually audible in performance. At the same time new techniques of composition evolved and were refined: the various sections of Mass settings were unified by means of a constantly recurring cantus firmus and by identical biginnings to the movements, while increasingly complex canonic techniques were developed, and the number of voices and sections, the mensural succession and even compositional techniques were established for certain types of motets. In the course of the 15th century, the presentation of the text became increasingly important: consideration of metre and rhyme, verse and strophe, the correct declamation of prose passages, matching rhetorical structures and underlining details of the subject matter, for which a wide range of melodic and rhythmic contrapuntal techniques was gradually evolved. In the generation of Josquin Desprez the basic principles of his treatment of the text already were virtually fully developed. During the 16th century the means by which these principles were realized in the process of composition were refined and extended. This process – although more in the sphere of secular than of sacred music – greatly stimulated the entire evolution of compositional technique throughout the century, to the time of the madrigal art of Marenzio, Monteverdi and Gesualdo.
The development of the art of composition, which can be regarded as a continuous process of differentiation from Dunstable and Dufay to Lasso and Palestrina – within the system of the church modes and of vocal counterpoint – was carried forward during the 15th century principally by French-speaking composers, and during the 16th by musicians from all parts of western, southern, central and eastern Central Europe; it formed the necessary background before which the individual styles to great composers were able to develop. The more differentiated the overall style, the more clearly could the stylistic features of individual masters or schools stand out, while, conversely, it was these individual developments that carried the entire stylistic evolution forward. This development of individual styles was also fostered by the Renaissance concept of the superior, responsible and creative individual, which had already made its mark on Italian music of the 14th century, and which now spread to influence the musical thinking, compositional practice and establishing of traditions in all the European countries. This is clear in the first generation after Dufay, as Tinctoris expressly associated the stylistic change of direction after 1400 with a few outstanding personalities as “discoverers”, and other authorities of the time named many composers of the period as pupils of the great Dufay. Even more evident is the predominant role - whether real or imaginary – of the individual as demonstrated by the respect in which the princeps musicorum Josquin Desprez was held throughout the entire 16th century and in the most diverse quarters. Finally the increased importance of the composer’s individuality (which was not necessarily the same thing as the emergence of a distinctly individual style) had a marked effect on the manner in which the music was preserved for posterity: attributions of authorship became more important, while manuscripts and published editions were devoted solely to the works of individual composers. The invention of music printing around 1500 also assisted this process, promoting greatly the speed at which it could become widely, known, and facilitating the building up of a specific repertoire, together with the growth and increasingly international character of musical culture in the church, at court, and among the bourgeoisie.
Many of its attributes which have been briefly touched upon here point to the period between Dufay and Palestrina as the first era o modern history in musical as well as in other respects. The ever-increasing prominence of words and their meaning, together with tonal organization which often produces the effect of the major and minor key system (although that had not yet been consolidated), supports a direct if limited understanding of the works. The increased differentiation of the elements of composition reveals developments of a regional and chronological nature more clearly than in former centuries, and thereby facilitates historical understanding. For the first time the ever-increasing highlighting of individual styles quite clearly allows qualitative differences to make themselves felt, and in the case of really great composers of the period these individual styles gave rise to a musical language which expresses a deeply personal involvement with the words set, and which still has the power to move us today. In this sense the music of the 15th and 16th centuries is in the true meaning of the word Renaissance music, marking the beginning of what may be termed the modern era, which in our time is approaching its end.
Translation: John Coombs
Translation: John Coombs