A History of Classical Music: Part 3 - The Early Renaissance

History of Classical Music: Part 3 - The Early Renaissance

Guillaume De Machaut (1300-1377)

Part 3 of Alex Johnston's series of articles outlining the history of classical music - with accompanying Spotify playlist

This is part a series of articles by List contributor Alex Johnston that provides a personal history of classical music. Streaming music technologies has transformed how we read about music, and this series will run in parallel with Spotify playlists containing many of the pieces of music mentioned. The ad-supported Spotify version of Spotify is free. The playlists will be embedded in each articles and on The List Spotify profile

The Renaissance. Right. Remind me again?

The European Renaissance! The remarkable flowering of humanist culture that happened between the 14th and 16th centuries! Oil paintings that look like the real thing! Great writing that's not in Latin! Hellaciously intricate and beautiful music! It was, as Eddie Izzard would say, very groovy. Bearing in mind, obviously, that the term ‘Renaissance’ wasn’t applied to this period until the 19th century.

Wait, the 'Early' Renaissance? Is this going to take more than one part?

Yes, because the first thing to notice about the music of the 14th-16th centuries is that there's suddenly loads of it. Paradoxically, this has to do with the fact that, between the late 16th century and the early 20th century, people largely forgot about Renaissance music.

It was considered uncool. The whole notion of styles of music falling out of fashion actually got started during the Renaissance itself: as early as 1470, the Flemish composer Johannes Tinctoris wrote "It is a matter of great surprise that there is no composition written over forty years ago which is thought by the learned as worthy of performance." Yes, even in the 15th century, the concept of 'dadrock' was fully understood. Of all Renaissance composers, Palestrina was the exception: he acquired classic status in his own lifetime and it was boosted when, in the early 18th century, his techniques for writing counterpoint were codified in an important teaching manual, Johann Joseph Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum. (Palestrina's counterpoint technique is still taught today.) Like Gregorian chant and the Notre Dame school, Renaissance music didn't get properly rediscovered until the 20th century.

And that’s the paradox: although Renaissance music is older than 18th century music, it seems newer, because it's less familiar. When you think of those hey-I’ve-heard-that-before popular classics, such the aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot, or the end of Tchaikovsky’s The Year 1812 (you know, the one with the cannons), all of them date from after the Renaissance. The earliest classical music that most people have heard is from the Baroque period, which is the early 17th century to the mid-18th century. There are no popular favourites in Renaissance music, so we listen to all of it -- which in turn is why Renaissance music spreads itself over two articles.

When you first listen to Renaissance music, one of the first things you’ll notice is that everything sounds vaguely similar to everything else. (This is deceptive: the more you listen, the more obvious the differences between one composer and another.) This is because nearly all Renaissance music is unaccompanied choral singing.


In order for any piece to end up in the repertoire, it had to get written down. People have made music in every imaginable way in every period, but most of it got played and never heard again. Only the church and the upper classes needed music that could be repeated as needed, which is why the stuff that got written down was usually the stuff that either a church or a nobleman paid for. Only later in the Renaissance do we find musicians operating as businessmen, selling their own music to the general public, but that's partly because instrumental music became increasingly popular in the 16th century and so there was increased demand for music that could be played and sung at home. In the meantime, if you don’t like choirs singing in Latin, you’re not really going to enjoy the early Renaissance.

Which would be a pity, because the Renaissance is famous for its polyphony. Polyphony is the technique of featuring more than one melodic line at a time, and Renaissance composers took it to mind-bending degrees of beauty and complexity, in the form of choral works consisting of multiple voices twisting and winding over each other in pretty much every imaginable way.

Here, as always, we have to introduce a reminder about recordings. To put it crudely, in popular music, the recording is the work; in classical music, the recording is just one interpretation of the work. Among the groups on the accompanying playlist, the Tallis Scholars have an entirely different approach from the Boston choir Blue Heron. It’s all a question of what sounds good to you. You don’t have to take our word for it; if you don’t like a piece, there might be a recording out there that you’ll prefer.

We’ve chosen the recordings on the playlist because they struck us as good ones, but it often happens with classical music that a piece you’ve previously been indifferent to suddenly comes alive in the right hands (or voices). That’s why we sometimes include widely different versions of the same piece.

A short note about the mass

So many compositions by Renaissance composers are settings of the Latin mass that it’ll help if you know more or less what it was. For most of the last 2000 years, the Catholic mass was celebrated in Latin because Latin was the official language of the church. In the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council decreed that, since so few people understood Latin anymore, the mass no longer had to be celebrated in it. To the disappointment of Catholic conservatives everywhere, it quickly wasn’t.

Composers used to set to music the various bits of the Order of Mass, which were the standard texts that didn’t change from one kind of mass to another: the Kyrie (‘Lord’), in Greek, which begged for divine mercy; the Gloria (‘Glory’), which glorified God; the Credo (‘I believe’), which was an affirmation of faith; the Sanctus (‘Holy’), which sanctified the Sabbath day; and the Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’), which was another request for mercy. Nearly every sung mass, from the earliest centuries down to our own, contains settings of most or all of these texts, which you can read both in the original and in translation. Which brings us to the first man to write an entire setting of the Mass by himself: Guillaume de Machaut.

The Ars Nova: Guillaume De Machaut (1300-1377)

Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

Machaut (pronounced like Mash-oe) presides over the transition from the medieval period into the Renaissance, and is incidentally one of the few composers to be also a major poet. He wrote a lot of songs, which can be divided up into ballades and rondeaux, but he's also notable for being the first person to write a polyphonic Mass on his own, his most famous work, the Messe de Nostre Dame (medieval French, ‘Mass of Our Lady’ – you can hear extracts on Tracks 1-3).

Machaut worked in a style that was called the ars nova ('new style'). The ars nova developed a compositional technique called 'isorhythm' in which a repeating melodic line called a color is superimposed on a repeating rhythmic pattern, called a talea. The crucial point is that the color and the talea seldom, if ever, match each other. The result is avant-garde medieval music, in which rhythms shift and melodies unpredictably syncopate all over the place.

This might make his music sound a bit clever. A less than great performance can be hard to sit through. But it's fascinating in its complexity and sometimes really pretty (e.g. the Kyrie of the Messe de Nostre Dame, or the lovely rondeau Puis Qu'en Oubli (Track 4)). It so happens that someone has lately revisited Machaut in a way that beautifully foregrounds his strange blend of modern-sounding rhythmic shifts and medieval stateliness.

French guitarist Noël Akchoté has played free improvisation with the late great Derek Bailey but he's also done brilliant, abrasive solo-guitar versions of Kylie Minogue songs (check out I Should Be So Lucky and Can't Get You Out Of My Head.) He's also recorded guitar versions of Machaut (Tracks 5-6).

These aren't technically immaculate classical renditions, although Akchoté is a really skilled player. He's overdubbing himself on steel-string guitar and the fret buzz and string squeak are clearly audible. The result lifts Machaut out of the 'classical' zone and strangely refreshes him, as if it were the kind of music you'd play for yourself and your mates. It's a testimony to the brilliance of Machaut's music that, six and a half centuries after it was written, it can still be affecting.

Nevertheless, Machaut still belongs squarely to an earlier period. Our next composer is startling partly because he sounds so much more contemporary. Which is why we're going to introduce him with an incredibly lame pun.

Guillaume Dufay (C. 1397-1474)

Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

It may sound unlikely that France would have two great composers in a row with the same first name, because as everyone knows, you can't Guillaume again. But Guillaume Dufay was the most famous composer of his time, and the sound of his music shows what a difference 100 years can make.

Dufay got lucky early on. Like most Renaissance composers he started as a choirboy, and he seems to have been a smart kid. He got a position as a chapel musician for the court of Burgundy. His court position meant that he got to travel, and on his travels he listened to some of the best music from all over Europe, which he soaked up like a cosmopolitan sponge. It shows in his music. Have a listen to Ave regina caelorum (Track 7), a motet which Dufay asked to have sung while he was on his deathbed. (What's a motet, you ask? It depends on when it was written, but in Renaissance terms it means a free-standing polyphonic composition for voices, different from a madrigal mainly because motets had religious texts and madrigals had secular ones.)

The piece dates from before 1465, but there are rhythmic and harmonic things going on in it that didn't become common practice until decades later. More importantly, this music doesn't need any excuse of being 'historically interesting' or 'important', even though it's both of those things. It speaks directly to us.

There's a reason why Dufay sounds more intelligible than Machaut, and to give a sense of why and how classical music has developed the way it’s developed, we’ll have a quick burst of theory.

Most of the modern music we listen to is in one key or another. A musical key is a way of organising notes so that a given note is established as the fundamental note or tonic of any given composition. This system is known as tonality, and it's one of the most important ways of making a piece of music sound like it has structure and emphasis. The next statement is a big, big generalisation, but here goes: pieces of classical music tend to start by establishing a tonic, then they stray away from it in more or less predictable ways, then in the end they come back to it again. Tonality wouldn't be fully codified until the 17th century, but that happened partly because composers like Dufay and those after him were already writing music that strongly implied it.

Machaut will start with a melody that, to our ears, implies a tonic, then he'll continue it in such a way that it implies a completely different tonic, and we feel confused or disoriented. Dufay is always pulled back to something like tonality, even though he didn't think of himself as using it. If we find Dufay more accessible than Machaut, Dufay's intuition of tonality is a big part of the reason.

Also, Dufay was just great. Listen to Sanctus Ave verum corpus (Track 8) for a taste of his gorgeous Latin church music, and also to Par Droit Je Puis Bien Complaindre Et Gemir (Track 9), a ballade with a beautiful lilting refrain. When Renaissance music was revived in the 20th century, Dufay quickly became the earliest composer to be generally agreed as essential listening. It's easy to hear why.

Johannes Ockeghem (C. 1420-1497)

Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

Ockeghem had what will become a very familiar career trajectory: started as a choirboy, got noticed, got a job as choirmaster once his voice broke, began composing. He was less cosmopolitan than Dufay, never going to Italy but spending most of his career in northern France, where he was royal composer to three French kings.

The Kyrie (Track 11) of the Missa Fors seulement has a remarkable beginning, starting with an unassuming couple of voices before bursting into ominous widescreen splendour. (Another notable thing about this piece is that the lower voices are really prominent; Ockeghem seems to have been in a menacing mood when he wrote it.) This mass gives us the chance to look at another very important thing about Renaissance composers: their striking tendency to use existing tunes as the bases for new works. We've already seen how Perotin and Leonin (see Really Early Music) would use slowed-down Gregorian chant as the basis for their pieces. Renaissance composers continued to use chant melodies as the bases for larger pieces, but also anything else they could think of, including their own songs. (You can find a parallel in the way Shakespeare, like other dramatists of the period, seldom bothered to invent his own basic plots, preferring to take them from novellas, histories and chronicles. In the 19th century, everyone becomes obsessed with the idea of originality and one result of this, as we'll see later, is that composers who borrow tunes suffer in comparisons to those who don't.) The Missa Fors seulement uses Ockeghem's own rondeau Fors seulement as the basic musical DNA, hence the title; but the rondeau melody is cut-up, shifted in pitch, played around with and sometimes abandoned altogether whenever Ockeghem happens to have a better idea. Have a listen to the rondeau (Track 10) and try to spot its melody surfacing and sinking in the texture of the Kyrie.

His other most famous piece is the Requiem, the Introit of which is included here (Track 12) because it illustrates the more meditative side of Ockeghem's personality. There is a 1530 picture of him in old age, leading his choir, rocking a very cool pair of glasses, which were a rare accessory at the time. Times were literally changing, in that the newest and hippest thing to own in the late 15th century was a mechanical clock. The wind-up clock, which divided up time into discrete chunks instead of smoothly tracking it like a water-clock or sundial, would end up having a big influence on how composers wrote music. You can already hear it in Ockeghem and Dufay; not so much in Machaut. Expect to hear it becoming firmer still in the next couple of centuries, and then to get torn apart later on.

Josquin Des Prez (C. 1450-1521)

Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

Josquin is the first composer known to have been prone to hissy fits. The early career is familiar by now: choirboy, shows talent, gets hired later on. An Italian nobleman, Ercole d'Este, was thinking of hiring Josquin as his court musician, but was hesitating between him and Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac. Ercole had his guys make some enquiries, and one of them wrote back: "It is true that Josquin composes better [than Isaac], but he composes when he wants to, and not when one wants him to". Lucky for us, Ercole chose Josquin. Listen to the motet Ave Maria … virgo serena (Track 13).

For better or worse, Josquin's Ave Maria has been called the Mona Lisa of Renaissance music and it's not hard to hear why. It’s fundamentally very simple, but the secret is in how it uses such simple means to construct such a complex and beautiful whole. The secret lies in how it uses the very common Renaissance technique of imitation. The first voice sings a simple rising and falling melody, and then a second voice comes in lower down singing the same melody but lower, and then a third voice comes in singing it lower down still, and then a fourth voice at the bottom of the range. After the initial section of straight imitation, they start answering and joining up with each other in subtle and devastatingly effective ways. It’s called imitative counterpoint, and it's Josquin’s mastery of this way of bringing complexity out of simplicity that made him into such a star in his own time (Tracks 14-15).

Robert Carver (C. 1485-c. 1570)

Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

Robert Carver was the first really great Scottish composer. He was a monk based at Scone Abbey, and that's pretty much all we know about him.

Well, apart from his works. Five of his masses and two of his motets of have survived. He's represented here by his most famous work, the nineteen-part motet O Bone Jesu (‘O Good Jesus’, Track 16), the text of which is a prayer which is trying to remind Jesus that he is after all our saviour and so please don't let me perish and be damned, “O Amatissime Jesu, O Desideratissime Jesu, O Mitissime Jesu” (“O Most Beloved Jesus, O Most Longed for Jesus, O Most Gentle Jesus”). Yes, the word “Jesu” crops up a lot in this piece, and although even attempting a 19-part motet is already evidence of somebody with a high level of confidence in his own ability, Carver's most effective touch is that every time the 19 voices arrive at the word 'Jesu' at the same time, they coalesce together into massive block chords, like a turbulent meeting that keeps voting on the same motion to make sure that everyone's agreed. One historian says that the 'raw grandeur' of O Bone Jesu makes Scotland 'seem as exotic an outpost of Christendom as Mexico': you may disagree, but the music is still magnificent.

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-c. 1563)

Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

Tallis is regarded as the godfather of English church music. He had a long career, starting under Henry VIII, lasting through the brief reign of Henry’s teenage son Edward VI and the almost as brief but considerably more violent reign of Mary I until well into the reign of Elizabeth I. He lasted so long because, although he was a Catholic, he was so good at his job as organist for the Chapel Royal that four English royals considered him indispensable. Tallis was also able to change his style as the politico-religious winds of England changed. Under Henry, he mastered the ornate style of writing church music to Latin texts. Under Edward, he simplified his style to reflect Edward’s own Protestantism: check out Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (Track 17), one of which was later adapted by 20th century composer Ralph Vaughan Williams for his hallucinatory Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, or the fervent Verily, Verily I Say Unto You (Track 18) for another example of how effective his simpler style could be. Catholic Mary wanted a return to the old ways, including burning people at the stake, where possible; her half-sister Elizabeth famously refused to decide either way, negotiating an Anglo-Catholic compromise that remains the endearingly wishy-washy heart of the Church of England today.

However, Elizabeth liked spectacle. And so, for her 40th birthday, Tallis rolled up his sleeves and pulled off the most spectacular technical achievement in Renaissance polyphony: the 40-part motet Spem in alium (Track 19). Yes, this piece actually has forty independent voices, although they don’t all sound at the same time all the way through; the best ways to hear its dazzling, Dolby-Surround splendour are either in a cathedral where it’s being sung, or in a quiet place on headphones. Of course, another way of listening to it has recently helped make it very popular: the billionaire hero of EL James’ erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey cranks it up before indulging in a prolonged spanking session with the novel’s heroine. Even Tallis, the consummate pro, might have huffed into his beard at this particular context for his music, but it has to be said that EL James has good taste in music. Spem in alium is a stunning listening experience, Imax for your ears.

Club Rheinberger

Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

Readers of the Introduction to this series of articles will recall the sad case of 19th century composer Josef Rheinberger, a richly gifted musician who nevertheless wasn’t quite amazing enough for us to go into detail about. From here on, we’ll be intermittently setting aside a quiet corner as Club Rheinberger: a place where other notable composers of the period can hang out even if they didn’t get more detailed coverage.

If you liked Machaut, you’ll probably like other 14th century composers like the Italian Francesco Landini (Tracks 1-3). Dufay-lovers will warm to early English composers like John Dunstable (Track 4). Ockeghem made the list partly because his great contemporary Antoine Busnoys didn’t (Track 5). If you liked Tallis, you should check out his peers John Browne, William Cornysh and John Taverner (Tracks 6-8). The Flemish composer Jacobus Clemens wrote some gorgeous music, notably writing some of his most popular works in his native Dutch (Tracks 9-10. He’s always known by his nickname Clemens non Papa, usually translated as ‘Clemens-not-the-Pope’; nobody knows quite why he’s called this, as Pope Clement VII died before any of Clemens’ music was published and nobody would have been likely to mistake a Flemish composer for the head of the church, but the nickname has stuck and an inexplicable Renaissance joke has come down to us. Finally, John Sheppard gets in on the grounds of his stunning Media vita (‘In the Midst of Life’, Track 11).

In our next instalment, Italian music ascends into heaven with Palestrina and into the depths with Gesualdo; in Spain, Tomas Luis de Victoria makes the counter-Reformation sound like a good idea; in England, William Byrd spreads his wings while John Dowland plays the blues; and music spreads beyond the domain of professionalism and becomes something that everyone does.

Happy listening.

A history of classical music

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