ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Pre-Baroque Era

pre - 1600 A.D.

Musicians entertain at a renaissance banquet.

Throughout the Renaissance, music continued to become more elaborate, and more emphasis was placed on secular forms. Various geographical locations rose to prominence in succession—the Court of Burgundy in the early 15th century, the Netherlands in the late 15th and early 16th century, England in the late 16th century. Music historians generally point to Josquin Desprez (ca. 1450-1521) as perhaps the greatest genius of early music, but even his work is seldom encountered by today’s concertgoers outside of occasional programs by groups specializing in pre-Baroque repertoire.

Renaissance music sounds less foreign to our ears today because it began to rely more upon triadic harmonies, that is harmony based upon the interval of the third instead of the “perfect” intervals of the fourth and fifth that had dominated Medieval music. The music was really not yet tonal, but it gives the illusion of tonality with what seem like “wrong” or at least unexpected chords thrown in.

The “orchestra” as we know it would not be devised for some centuries, meanwhile the instrumental “consorts” of the time made use of a wide range of exotic instruments that fell into disuse long ago. A hallmark of these instruments was that most of them were available in numerous ranges—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—so that harmonic patterns could be played by a homogeneous ensemble. The last remaining vestige of this today is the string section of the modern orchestra, which includes the violin (soprano), viola (alto), cello (tenor) and bass. A consort comprising all instruments in the same family was called a “whole consort,” while those mixing and matching instruments were called a “broken consort.”

In popular culture, the rare reference to Renaissance music is usually to madrigals, which were polyphonic songs that began to proliferate shortly before the middle of the 16th century. Too often they have been parodied with nonsensical lines such as “Hey, nonny, nonny” (the brilliant Peter Schickele wrote one inspired take-off that begins, “My bonnie lass, she smelleth; making the flowers jealouth”); in reality they were highly sophisticated polyphonic songs with literate texts that are often reflected by the music itself. Notation by this time had become more precise, allowing composers to indulge in almost impossibly complex rhythms. Even more palatable to modern ears are Elizabethan lute songs and Renaissance dance music, which can be breathtaking in their rhythmic vitality and dazzling instrumentation.

Listen to Praetorius: “La Bouree” from Terpsichore

An old postcard illustration depicting St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice.

The onslaught of the Reformation in the 16th century led zealous reformers of all things ecclesiastical to try to strip away unnecessary ornamentation, whether in church buildings, liturgical services or church music. The Catholic Church responded with the Counter-reformation and a similar simplification of overly elaborate melodies in liturgical music. The best exemplar of this style was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-94), whose music was held up as a model for church composition for centuries.

Palestrina was active primarily in Rome; over in Venice Giovanni Gabrieli (1556-1612) became the most famous exponent of the newly emerging “concertato” style, which emphasized contrasts between vocal and instrumental forces, or between multiple choruses. The technique was naturally suggested by the physical layout of St. Mark’s Cathedral, which had two choir lofts, prompting the world’s first conscious experiments with stereophonic effects. This type of “terraced” dynamics, or sudden shifts of loudness, became a regular feature in the ensuing era of Baroque music.

Listen to Gabrielli: Canzon septimi toni

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