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The Renaissance Period
The Renaissance, which literally means “rebirth” in French, saw movement and change in many different spheres of
cultural activity as Europe began to rediscover and identify with its Greco-Roman heritage. The natural sciences (in
particular astronomy) began advancing at a rapid pace, and some
philosophers began to discuss secular humanism as a valid system.
The discovery of the American continents by European navigators
resulted in the first widespread speculations of international law and
began a crisis of consci ence over human rights that would haunt the
West for centuries to come. In particular, however, the Renaissance is
remembered for a great a flourishing of the Arts.
Secular instrumental music (for early instruments like shawms,
crumhorns, and sackbuts) became increasingly popular during this
period and composers
began to write it down
for the first time. The
became very popular in
composers like John
Dowland and William
Byrd. The motet, a three-part polyphonic composition written for voices or
instruments, became popular around this time as well.
Despite the increase in secularism, it was still within a religious context that the
Renaissance arts truly thrived. Renaissance popes (corrupt as they were) were
great patrons of such artists as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Gianlorenzo Bernini.
Composers of church music expanded polyphony to six, eight, or even ten
interwoven parts. The masses of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Tomás
Luis de Victoria, and Orlando di Lasso in particular remain some of the most
beautiful music ever composed. This polyphonic style was also used by the French composer Josquin des Prez, who wrote
both sacred and secular music.
The Renaissance Period at a Glance
New Genres
New Techniques
Madrigals, motets,
Polyphonic techniques
polyphonic masses
expanded for up to ten
simultaneous parts.
New Media
Choirs were expanded to include
women. Composers began to
write down music for early
John Dowland,
William Byrd,
Palestrina, Victoria, Di
Lasso, Des Prez
Important Terms
Madrigal – a usually upbeat polyphonic composition for vocal ensemble from England
Motet – a three-part polyphonic piece for voices or instruments, can be sacred or secular
Mass – the central worship service in most Christian churches; musically, a suite consisting of five movements called the
Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei (named after the first words of the text for each movement)