The Renaissance period was approximately from 1400 to 1600. Translating as “rebirth”, the Renaissance saw an explosion of culture. Knowledge, literature, and the arts all flourished, and the invention of the printing press in the Holy Roman Empire in 1440 helped to disperse this movement across Europe.
The music of the Renaissance was quite distinct. For one thing, it was fundamentally modal. The Ancient Greeks applied the names Dorian, Ionian, Lydian, Aeolian and Phrygian to the modal scales, some of which contain accidentals depending on the intervals between each note. Without accidentals on certain notes on scales, the tonality of this music was quite ambiguous. It was only when musica ficta made an appearance that this trait was lost. This was the introduction of sharps, flats, or other accidentals to avoid strange-sounding intervals and note clashes. Johannes de Garlandia, the French 13th century music theorist, wrote that ficta was essential in polyphony as it was necessary to forestall said dissonances and to properly arrange cadences. By adding accidentals, musicians developed what we know today as the major and minor scales.
There was a clear divide between sacred and secular works. Sacred music was focused on voices (called ‘a cappella’) so contained hardly any instruments. The words were typically in Latin, the sound was sweeter and had a more melodic sound. Composers frequently used imitative polyphony and ‘word painting’, a musical representation of images. Much emphasis was put on capturing emotion and imagery at this time. Secular music was rather bawdy and raucous, often about drinking and popular pastimes.
Philippe de Vitry, a French composer, wrote Ars Nova (“New Art”) in 1302, a book that suggested the use of more complex rhythms in music. This included adding rests in the middle of a vocal phrase, a technique called ‘hocketing’. A contemporary of de Vitry, Guillaume de Machaut, used de Vitry’s ideas and became one of the first composers to write a complete Mass. Mass was an important part of sacred vocal music in Italy, where musical activity had increased significantly. Music here carried features from the Trecento (1300s) including the caccia, ballata and the madrigal, which became a popular dance in the Renaissance.
Secular music grew considerably in the Renaissance period, and contained many more instruments than sacred music. There were four popular dances, pavane, galliard, courante and allemande. These were usually grouped in pairs or groups, and foreshadowed the dance suite of the Baroque period, which also had four parts: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Other instrumental music included variations (where a simple theme was followed by at least one variation), fantasias (contrapuntal pieces for solo instrument), canzona (‘song’ for instruments which were often homophonic), ricerar (contrapuntal instrumental composition which was a precursor of the fugue), and toccata (virtuosic keyboard piece).
Instruments in the Renaissance were mostly wind instruments, ranging from the brash double-reeded shawm to the softer-toned sackbut, the ancestor of the modern trombone. The wooden recorder received great popularity in the Renaissance, as well as the wooden flute. Other popular instruments include the cornett was a wooden or ivory curving instrument with finger holes and a similar mouthpiece to present-day brass. The serpent (the bass cornett), was also a curving wind instrument with six finger holes arranged in two sets of three.
The crumhorn was a special development in the 15th century because although it contained a double reed, the player’s lips did not touch it because the reed was enclosed inside a protective cap. The viol was the common string instrument at the time. They were very much like the modern violin as they were played with a bow, but viols had six strings with frets rather four strings and no frets. The virginal was a keyboard instrument similar to the harpsichord and was particularly popular in Elizabethan England. Unlike the modern piano, the strings run parallel to the long side of the case. Keyboard writing grew in this time as monarchs and nobles began playing music to themselves and to sustain musical ensembles (called “consorts”).
Many instruments were perfected in late Renaissance in Italy; for example, the violin was developed in the late 1550s. In the Baroque era, approximately 1600 to 1750, violins, violas, cellos and double basses replaced viols, and the important keyboard instruments were the clavichord, organ and harpsichord. The main wind instruments were the bassoon, flute, oboe, trumpets, horns and trombones although the last three were mainly for ensembles rather than orchestras. The recorder also was used a little, and the timpani were generally the only percussion. It wasn’t only instruments that were impacted though. In Florence, The Florentine Camerata, who were an important group of musical amateurs who met to discuss literature, science and the arts, developed monody, an important precursor opera. Opera itself began to appear at the beginning of the 17th century.
The Baroque orchestra was based on strings and basso continuo, a system where a low-pitched instrument would play a bass line while a keyboard instrument improvised or realised the harmony. This was a key feature of Baroque music. Unlike Renaissance music, which had chordal progressions based on the step-wise melodies, Baroque music was highly ornamented and contained diatonic chords of I, IV, V, II and VI. Both choral and instrumental music now moves chordally and the melody is derived from these harmonic progressions. The major and minor key system was well established, replacing modes.
Renaissance music is recognised for its use of polyphonic textures, while Baroque uses many different textures e.g. monophony, homophony and polyphony. Counterpoint is also developed as it forms a major part in fugues, a popular composition type at the time.
Baroque was became much more virtuosic, for singers and instrumentalists alike. This meant that music was characteristically harder to perform than Renaissance music, but it also led to the appearance of sonatas for solo instruments, and concertos for soloists of groups of soloists (concerto grosso).
The other common Baroque genres were the sonata and the chorale. The sonata (from Latin and Italian “sonare” meaning “to sound”) grew from the Venetian instrumental genre the ricercari and canzoni and came in many presentations from solo to orchestral. Choral music generally had grown even more since the Renaissance as composers kept becoming more and more elaborate. As well as operas, oratorios appeared which were more religiously based. To change with the times, Lutheran Mass was written for the reformed church. It was now normal to find, not an a cappella performance as heard in Renaissance times, but a full performance for soloists, chorus and orchestra. The cantata also came into view, which was a shorter version of the oratorio.
The Renaissance laid the way for many features of Baroque music such as the forms of pieces, the instruments used and in which ensembles they were used. Both eras have been incredibly important in influencing the music we know today.