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Thursday, February 08, 2007

returning classical: an overview of early and high renaissance music

Renaissance, or the rebirth of awareness in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, started in Italy before sweeping the whole of Europe, with 15th- and 16th-century artists and scholars attempting to revive the knowledge and principles of the classical, pre-Christian Greek and Roman civilizations. Hence, the concept of rebirth had to do with the rekindling of human—as against spiritual—virtues. It became a desirable mission to achieve fulfillment in life, and no one looked down upon the enjoyment of the sensual pleasures and expression of human feelings. Both writers and artists had the secular and the religious for their subject matters and aspired to produce masterpieces that were appealing and understandable to humans as well as satisfactory to the Supreme Being. The Renaissance flowering in music spanned for a century and a half—from 1450 up to 1600, although its rather slow crystallization harked back to the Middle Ages, when the grandest artistic style ever attained had been in this art form.
The abovementioned revolution in perspective changed the way music was perceived as well as the manner music was composed, experienced, conferred, and distributed. The Europeans could witness statues, sculptures, dramas, and literature being restored, but ancient music was nowhere to be heard. However, there were available translations of texts by classical philosophers, poets, essayists and music theorists.
As it is, the musical rebirth is more a comprehensive cultural revolution and mindset than a particular standard of musical method. The musical alteration was so quick during the period—although at varying rates from country to country—that a singular definition of Renaissance style cannot be possible. The first noticeable intricate progress in music was during the twelfth century, when Parisian leading composers like Leonidus and Perotinus employed a metrical rhythm that imitated the stress rhythm of contemporary Latin and vernacular poems: triple time-based, using three beats each unit. This rather less euphonic music was further enriched in northern Italy about 1300, when ars nova, which used the duple time with two beats each unit, dividing long notes into shorter notes and minimally using melodies typical of troubadours of the medieval period, showed better flexibility and variety than did plain songs. The onset of fourteenth century had secular music influencing church music in more marked terms. Toward the close of the 1400’s, an international European style had blossomed from the array of compositional practice that was widespread in England and in Continental Europe. The influence of the Burgundian court caused this style to emerge primarily from the Low Countries or the regions of Netherlands, Belgium and northeastern France to the rest of Western Europe. The first century or so of the Renaissance saw the northern composers and their music ruling the chapels and courts of Italy, France, and the Holy Roman Empire comprised by Bohemia, Austria, Spain, and Germany. They started to maximize the use of canon wherein the same melody is voiced recurrently although at various times, such as the English composition “Sumer Is Icumen In.” Chords were then composed while a range of new systems of notations was devised and more instruments and secular part songs like the madrigals were invented. The novel stylistic methods created in the fourteenth century by the ars nova masters were developed further in the fifteenth century. Every subsequent generation improved the musical achievements of its predecessor, and contemporary composers rivaled each other in producing Masses, chansons and motets. The dominance of Netherlands music in the middle and later sixteenth century shifted to Mannerism, shown saliently in both secular and the predominantly performed church music. Also, it standardized much of the music of High Renaissance, showing calm temperament, ethereal characteristics and the noteworthy embodiment of the harmony present in the universe.
While the Renaissance was not able to come up with a unifying and definite musical style, the period affected many facets of European art music. Composers allowed textual structure to specify musical structure. The early Renaissance composers neglected the linkage between text and music, best exemplified by a tenor singing a French aria whereas the bass, a Latin text. Polyphonic portions were composed to be sung even as they got played in the long run and became second-ranked in importance. The composers’ search for full harmonies, melodies and associations among the voices shaped the texture of both secular and sacred works. Both sacred and secular melodies were still utilized to make single, large pieces, yet the borrowed article was spread among the voices instead of being assigned solely to the tenor. Whereas the tenor still had the dominant voice in the structure, the bass had the key role in harmony. Cadences remained to suit perfect consonances, but composers asserted for full triadic sonorities in between them. Rhythmic standardization and simplification leaned toward duple measure set by the breve (alla breve) value. The favored sacred types included the motet and the cyclical Mass. The chanson was remodeled until its texture was slowly contaminated by duplication. Mensuration and isorhythm canon, examples of concealed and esoteric structural mechanism, paved the path to transparent textures, mainly extending fugal and imitative segments and sometimes relieved by homophonic sections. Owing to such trends, composers were given further flexibility than ever before and, supported by the advent of music printing, more chances to reach out to an expansive audience. Most of these trends pervaded until the 16th century, when the musical style of the High Renaissance ushered in with a grandiosity that was not unlike the exquisite styles of the period’s arts and letters.
The 1500’s saw the emergence of native musical idioms or national styles. Advances during the period composed of developing the sacred polyphony made by composers who resided in Italy and the rise of new secular genres like lied, chanson and madrigal as the refined international style wove into the native traditions in France, Germany and Italy. Italians Arcadelt and Willaert were ispired by the humanist spirit to find a binding tie between music and text. Willaert molded music to suit the rhythms and syntax of the Italian and Latin tongues in his sacred and secular works. He even went beyond this to embody musically the significance of the textual message in his secular compositions. The changes notwithstanding, he stayed faithful to the inherited concept of modal, equality and independence of voices, diatonic counterpoint, full harmony, structural clarity and regulated dissonance. This closer association of words and music became the hallmark of the growth of fifteenth century schools of music. The fourteenth century alterations in musical style, only promising improvement from the harsh sounds of earlier centuries, became the springboard of speedy advances in the fifteenth century such that music, the last of the arts to make its presence felt during the Renaissance, achieved a major attention as an art form.
An even better relation between music and text was pursued by Vicentino, Rore, and Lasso, although they shifted the balance at least with regard to the madrigal, toward the expression of a poem’s imagery and passions, compromising a particular homogeneity and cohesion of style. Concurrently, the madrigal turned more declamatory and dramatic as composers tried to drive the point of the text to a bigger audience. During the 16th century’s latter decades, composers sought for novel means to express climactic emotions and witty conceits of modern poems: Monteverdi tried out with dissonance and new rhythms and textures whereas Gesualdo experimented with chromaticism. Meanwhile, Parisian chanson composers shied away from serious motet-like polyphony to have focus on light, tuneful, treble-dominated songs. Not a few English composers picked up from prevailing Italian trends with great enthusiasm, yet the most dominating genre to come out of the sporadic blossoming of vocal chamber music in England was the air and consort song. As the literate of the period grew interest in music, the art form became a staple in occasions such as coronations, games, baptisms, weddings, burials and fiestas.
Still on the same period, instrumental music leaped out of the overshadowing vocal music and improvisation. Music that used to be mainly vocal was now written in the accompaniment of solo instruments and instrumental ensembles. Far from the roughness of Early Renaissance music, that of the High Renaissance manifested clarity of form, dignified solemnity and tranquil emotion, and Flemish music became customized in the country adopting it, i.e. Netherlands music was modified to become German music in Germany. Dance music still reigned the scene just like in previous times, but toward the end of the 14th century, other independent genres of instrumental music compositions could be identified by their methods and operations. Originally distinguished with a specific instrument, many of these genres jumped to other instruments and to ensembles the likes of toccata, canzona, ricercare, sonata, prelude, fantasia and variations. While music with words remained the most popular to both composers and patrons, the emergence of instrumental music in the 16th century became the trailblazer of a process that will complete its rule in the centuries to come. This era was characterized by the improvement of instrumental music in terms of quantity and importance and was marked by the influential diaspora of musicians as well as the revolutionizing trait of vocal music. Classifications of instrumental music grew more distinctly. The 1600’s was characterized by keyboard composers and English lute taking the cue in instrumental writing until in the 17th century, Italian composers got attracted to instrumental music.
In retrospect, the fourteenth and fifteenth century musical style was shaped both by the appreciation for musicians and by musicology methods. What used to be a fan base of churchmen grew to include princes, nobilities, the aristocrats and government officials, accounting for the popularity of secular music during the early part of the Renaissance. Music teaching used to be centered in choir schools of main churches and cathedrals but the 1400s saw private music teachers earning a living by tutoring princes and elites. Music reached a greater effect when the fifteenth century marked the strong training in music amongst secondary schools and, to a much lesser extent, universities. The early Renaissance musical style was learned.
The absence in music of classical models seen in architecture, sculpture and literature had early Renaissance writers theorizing ancient Greco-Roman music via their ideas drawn from classical texts. This development resulted to the Platonic integration of music and words, practical examples of which were visible in fifteenth century compositions. The subject matter of musical composers, who expanded the range of harmony and of musical manifestation, can be seen through the tones, with the extrinsic world of nature and the intrinsic world of man depicted in music. The outstanding musical style progress of the period brought the Flemish composers’ inspiring influence in France, Germany, Italy, England and Spain in the same pace as other artistic styles sprang from Italy and swirled across Europe.
The success of musical experimentation during the Early Renaissance was gradual, rough and indeterminate for the most part. The Flemish countries had to give Italy its time to shine during this birthing of a radical age, subsequently having music give way to a greater flowering in other arts like painting, sculpture and literature. Music achieved equal footing with these early-mastered arts with the climactic musical expressiveness of the 1500’s, when the tedious attempts with new harmony and rhythm patterns and with developed instruments finally paid off. This particular music influenced later music in northern Europe more than did other art forms in post-1500 arts and literature. While during this age the northern Europe arts and letters were still trapped in the medieval trends, only music truly fitted Renaissance in its essential definition.
Meanwhile, parallel with the other art forms, the music of the High Renaissance led by figures like the Netherlands and Italy expressed the confidence of the period’s great flowering and the belief in universal harmony. The strain and intrinsic tension apparent in Mannerist and Baroque music were admirably untraceable in Renaissance music. All the arts, music included, had achieved enough during this rebirth to take pride in being able to rank at par with, if not surpass, the Greco-Roman classics on which they were inspired.

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