Probing Question: What defines Renaissance music?

Michelangelo. Da Vinci. Shakespeare. The invention of the printing press. Are you thinking “Renaissance” yet? Most people know that the approximately 200-year era following the Middle Ages was one of intense flourishing of visual arts and literature. Yet fewer people understand the explosion of musical activity and innovation during the Renaissance, notes Marica Tacconi, professor of musicology at Penn State.

“The arts underwent a radical transformation,” she explains. “When we consider the music of the Renaissance period, I think the words ‘order’ and ‘control’ best describe many of the changes.”

At the beginning of the Renaissance, “composers followed strict rules and they sought to control elements such as texture, dissonance, and the relationship between text and music,” says Tacconi. “By the end of the Renaissance period, in the late 16th and early 17th century, composers gave up some of this order and control in favor of greater expressive freedom. They wanted to convey the full range of human emotions—joy, excitement, anger, pain—and they believed that breaking away from those strict rules enabled them to be more expressive.”

One of music’s most expressive dramatic genres was born at the end of the Renaissance, notes Tacconi. “It’s not by coincidence that opera—the musical genre that most vividly portrays emotion—was invented in this period, first by composers in Florence and then in Mantua by the great master of the period, Claudio Monteverdi.”

As was the case with most composers of the day, Monteverdi’s work was nurtured under a system of patronage that was essential to creative life during the Renaissance. Notes Tacconi, “The idea of “art for art’s sake”—or “music for music’s sake”—did not really exist until much later in history. First and foremost, Renaissance composers were regarded as craftsmen and they wrote music to satisfy their patrons’ taste and aesthetic requirements.”

In most cases, she adds, music was commissioned and composers were employed by a religious institution or by aristocratic families. “This system of patronage was especially well-established in Italy, which at the time was a series of city-states, such as the Republic of Florence, the Republic of Venice, and the Duchy of Ferrara,” Tacconi explains. “It led to remarkable artistic (not to mention political) competition among the various city-states. A city’s ruler often sought to outdo another by commissioning ever-grander and more sophisticated art and music.”

The early development of opera provides a good example, she says. “The Duke of Mantua commissioned his court composer, Claudio Monteverdi, to write a ‘favola in musica’ or ‘fable in music’ that would outshine what the Florentines had been doing for the past few years.” The result? The first operatic masterpiece, Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, which premiered in Mantua in 1607.

Opera, along with other genres of music, strove to provide a more accessible experience for listeners. Says Tacconi, “The process of religious reform during the Renaissance brought music closer to the people. In Protestant lands, religious music was changed to the vernacular, and new music, such as Lutheran hymns, was introduced with the goal of involving the congregation. The Roman Catholic Church retained Latin as the language of its religious music, but composers adopted a less complex and cerebral style than in the past.”

The period of transition between the Renaissance and Baroque (ca. 1600) has had a lasting impact on the evolution of music, Tacconi remarks. “Many of the musical changes that happened in that particular period are still present in music today. For example, music changed from being modal to being tonal, meaning that composers started to use the kinds of scales, such as G major and E minor, that are still at the basis of today’s music.”

Next time you listen to rock, blues or pop music, you might realize that the “predominant texture”—a single melody accompanied by one or more instruments—is called “monody” and was a development of the late Renaissance. Or you might just sit back and groove to the music, which would be a fitting tribute to an era that emphasized creative expression and individual enjoyment of the arts.

Marica Tacconi, Ph.D., is a professor of musicology at Penn State and can be reached at mst4@psu.edu.

Last Updated August 09, 2011