A History of Classical Music: Part 4 - The Later Renaissance

History of Classical Music: Part 4 - The Later Renaissance

William Byrd

Part 4 of Alex Johnston's series of articles outlining the history of classical music - with accompanying Spotify playlist

This is part of 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

Welcome back. We left off in the mid-16th century, and for quite a while yet, the vast bulk of music that gets written down is church music. And you know what that means, right?

… More unaccompanied choral singing?

Yes! And lucky you, because the later Renaissance contains some of the most awesome choral music ever written. Some think the awesomest.

It's the middle of the 16th century. European explorers are gleefully colonising the parts of the world where they haven't yet figured out how to blow stuff up. Movable type has been invented. You're seeing the birth and growth of the middle-class, and that means that written music is shifting from being the property of the upper classes to being something that anybody with an instrument and a bit of education can buy and play for their own enjoyment. From the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century, the 'music industry' consists of the trade in publishing printed music.

What does this mean for us?

It means that we get some of the earliest masterpieces of keyboard music, by English composer William Byrd, one of the towering figures of the age and the first totally awesome English composer. We also get to hear the lonesome lute-pluckin' of John Dowland, the second totally awesome English composer and the greatest writer of classical songs before Franz Schubert, who we won't be getting to for a couple of centuries yet. But for the most part, yes, we're still concerned with unaccompanied choral singing. But … it's so good, we're not going to apologise for it.

The composers we were listening to last time, guys like Machaut and Dufay and Josquin and Ockeghem and Tallis, were drawing the plans and digging the foundations of Renaissance polyphony. The ones we're concerned with this time are building on what they started: Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, Byrd. They have one thing in common, which is that they're all Catholics. Beyond that, it's complicated, as we shall see.

From the end of the 14th century to the end of the 16th century, Western Europe undergoes a long, bloody transition from the end of the medieval period to the beginning of the modern period. When Machaut is composing, hardly anyone challenges the political and moral authority of the church of Rome, because there's nothing to challenge it with. Then, as the 15th and 16th centuries go on, you start to see the early rumblings of the Reformation, which reaches one of its most conspicuous tipping points in England when Henry VIII, cheesed off that the Pope won't annul his marriage to Catharine of Aragon, declares that he himself, not the Pope, is the head of the English church – which in turn leads to a series of violent religious conflicts inside England itself, and ultimately to a long, undeclared war between England and Spain, not to mention a general schism within European Christianity that will spark off numerous wars later on. Even as Western music is codifying its own rules and becoming simpler, the political history of the period gets more and more unstable. And sure enough, towards the end of the 16th century, the music starts to show the strain.

The thing is, the best of the polyphonic music composed during the Renaissance is really good at helping you contemplate the divine vision - assuming that that's your thing. It's beautiful, intricate, absorbing, complex, meditative, all those things. It speaks for everyone, and assumes that you agree. What it's not so good at is illustrating the passion of the individual person.

Hang on. Isn't all music about individual passion?

Well, no, but I see where you're coming from. Nearly all 20th and 21st century Western pop music is about individual passion. We don't seem to be very good at doing collective experience. But back in the 16th century, almost all Western music - almost all Western art - was about little else. Only towards the end of the century does the emphasis begin to shift towards the individual.

Look at the most famous literary work of the period, Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1598). Hamlet is about lots of things, but one way of looking at Hamlet the character is that he's a thoughtful, educated, modern-seeming guy who comes to realise that fate has cast him as the avenger in an old-school revenge tragedy. Is he going to do what the story, i.e. centuries of collective experience, expects him to do, or what? This dissonance between Hamlet's sense of what kind of person he is, and what kind of story he happens to be in, has a lot to do with our modern sense of ourselves as not being necessarily bound by traditions that we happen to be born into. This of course implies the related question: do we have to be bound by anything at all? And if so, what? And if not, what are we supposed to do with ourselves?

We'll hear people like Gesualdo and Dowland wrestling with these questions in very different ways. Ultimately, of course, somebody would come up with a musical form that dramatized the conflict between individuals and society. The form was opera, but because opera doesn't get going until the 17th century, we'll be dealing with it in the next article.

In the meantime, we begin with the later Renaissance's greatest star.

Giovanni Pierluigi Di Palestrina (c. 1525-1594)

Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

The 17th century is the first point in Western music history when composers began to have a sense of history, as opposed to just a sense of fashion.

What's the difference?

Previous generations of musicians had always thought that their duty was to improve on what had gone before. In a way, all Western music before the 17th century is avant-garde, because the composers always considered their predecessors outdated. But the composers of the early 17th century were the first generation to be impressed enough by their predecessors' music to set it up as a model to be imitated, and the predecessor they tended to be most impressed by was Palestrina.

He was always famous. Histories of Western music from before 1950 or so usually start with him. His name wasn't actually Palestrina at all: it means 'Giovanni Pierluigi from Palestrina'.

Like Vito Corleone?

Exactly. The world named Palestrina after the town he came from, and also like Vito Corleone, he cast a long and influential shadow.

Palestrina was influential because he had three things going for him. The main one was his style; fluent, radiant, no nasty jarring dissonances. His fluency came from talent, but also serious practice.

Why was he so practiced?

Because of the second thing he had going for him, which was his job. He was official composer to the pope. That gave him the third thing he had going for him, something that every influential musician needs: prestige.

He actually worked for several popes. The pope who originally hired him was Julius III, who lasted only five years before ruining his own reputation by appointing his extremely rough-trade boyfriend as a Cardinal, which turned out to be an incredibly bad idea. After Julius came Marcellus II, who died 22 days after his election. Next up was Paul IV, who was quite the achiever. In four brief years he managed to kickstart the Roman Inquisition, institute the official persecution of the Jews, alienate English Protestants by refusing to recognise the kingship of Elizabeth I and fire his official composer on the grounds that nobody who'd actually had sex with a girl could be trusted to work for the church. Palestrina, who was married with children, was booted sideways, but on Paul's death he was soon lured back again, and he remained the Papacy's music guy for the rest of his long life.

Being musical director of the choir of St Peter's Cathedral in Rome, Palestrina's job was to write masses. He wrote 104 of them.

So what?

Think about it for a moment: Palestrina set the exact same text to music 104 different ways.

That's a lot of practice.

Yep. If you set the same text 104 times and have any talent at all, you end up learning how to do one thing very, very well. Most pieces of classical music have more than one part, but up until now we've mostly given extracts from larger works. It seems only right to give you the whole of Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli (see Tracks 1-6), the mass that, in one of the foundational legends of Western classical music, was traditionally credited with saving music itself.

It happened, so the story goes, because of the Council of Trent, which had been convened by Pope Paul III in 1545 in order to sort out all the bad blood that was still bothering the Holy Roman Empire over the Great Schism.

The great what?

They had two rival popes for a while. Nasty business, don't like to talk about it. The Council of Trent lasted 18 years and only in the final year did they get around to one of the lesser items on the agenda: Church Music and What To Do About It.

According to the legend, the Council decided to ban everything except Gregorian chant, on the grounds that having more than one melody at a time was just too sexual, but Palestrina saved the day by composing the Missa Papae Marcelli, which impressed the council so much by its godliness that they changed their minds, thereby making the Missa Papae Marcelli the saviour of Western music. The legend also claims that the Missa was dictated, like, directly to Palestrina by, like, angels.

Wow. Cool. Did that really happen?

No, of course not. The Council of Trent did issue a diktat about music, but it was fairly sensible. The relevant clause amounted to 'Make sure everyone can understand the words'. If you think back to Machaut and Dufay, they loved to spin out a syllable over several notes for the sake of a nice line. As the church became more powerful it started to think that this was the composer privileging his music over the word of god, and so came to disapprove of the practice. In real life Palestrina did indeed write the Missa Papae Marcelli, but on his own.

We tell this story because it shows how Palestrina, after his death, became an unquestionable authority. In the 18th century, the composer Johann Joseph Fux wrote a treatise on counterpoint called Gradus ad Parnassum, the principles of which he derived from Palestrina's technique, and Fux is still used in theory courses today.

Part of the secret of Palestrina's technique is that the rhythmic stresses are always on the combinations of notes that sound pretty. As a result, the Missa does indeed sound like it was dictated by angels - serene creatures from another world, largely uninterested in human problems. The most moving bits of the Missa are to be found at the end of the Credo, when the voices crying 'Amen' swirl around each other in an ecstatic cloud, or in the lovely Agnus Dei.

Palestrina was more human and interesting than his masses. His wife and sons all died in the 1570s. In 1581 he married again to a wealthy widow named Virginia Dormoli, which made him the first composer ever to get rich as well as famous, even if he didn't earn the money himself. He seems to have enjoyed his late wealth, using some of it to publish a lavish edition of his own works, which didn't hurt his prestige.

Writing masses was Palestrina's day job, but if you want to hear his most intense music you have to poke around. Listen to his settings of the Canticum Canticorum, better known as the Song of Songs. Easily the most incongruous book in the holy scriptures, the Song of Songs is a short collection of erotic love poems that somehow got included in the Tanakh and which has since been explained away by religious authorities as a complex allegory of the relation of the church to Jesus. Or, if you're Jewish, the relation of God to Israel. Or God to the human soul. Or something. Basically, anything but what it appears to be, namely, a collection of erotic love poems.

Palestrina's settings of it remind us that he was a husband and father, not a monk. Listen to Nigra Sum ('I am dark', from Song of Songs 1:5, Track 7) and Pulchrae Sunt ('You are fair', Song of Songs 1:15, Track 8), and the way that they exploit the enormous gulf in range between the voices at the top and the voices at the bottom; that's what makes them sexy.

We tend to associate artistic greatness with doing something new, but although Palestrina wasn't an innovator, he was still great. He picked up the techniques created by composers like Dufay, Josquin and Ockeghem and polished them until they gleamed. When you're in the mood for his particular brand of soaring uplift there's nothing like him, and when you're feeling a little less celestial, you can always kick back to the sound of a choir hymning the beauty of a loved one's body.

Orlande De Lassus (c. 1532-1594)

Orlande De Lassus

Palestrina set his masses so that you could understand the words. Orlande de Lassus went further: he's the first major composer to write music that actually supports and illustrates the words.

It may seem strange, but before Lassus and since, there have been composers, even great ones, who've regarded the words as nothing more than a pretext for the music. Lassus is the first of a line of composers that includes Schubert, Wolf and Britten, all of whom are dedicated to taking strong texts and setting them to music which illuminates the meaning. When composers pay such close attention to the words of a piece, the music tends to change as the tone and sense of the words change, whereas in an earlier piece like Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame, or in much later music like Schumann's great song cycle Dichterliebe or the early solo albums of Brian Eno, the music, however brilliant, has a logic of its own which is largely indifferent to the meaning of the words.

The most commonly-cited example of Lassus' sensitivity to words is his 1579 motet Cum essem parvulus (Track 9), taken from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, 13:11-13. The first sentence goes like this: 'Cum essem parvulus, loquebar ut parvulus, sapiebam ut parvulus, cogitabam ut parvulus; quando autem factus sum vir, evacuavi quae erant parvuli.'

Um, we didn't all do Latin.

'When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.'

Does the 'ut parvulus' bit mean 'like a child', by any chance?

Spot on. Now, in the motet itself, 'Cum essem parvulus (When I was a child)' is sung by the highest voices in the choir. 'Loquebar', 'sapiebam' and 'cogitabam' ('I spoke', 'I thought', 'I reasoned') are all sung by the lower voices, but the 'ut parvulus' bit is still sung by the higher voices. That may seem fairly obvious, but Lassus introduces a subtle touch in that 'loquebar', 'sapiebam' and 'cogitabam' grow successively more complex, as if to illustrate how the child's brainpower is increasing with age. At 'quando autem factus sum vir' ('when I became an adult'), all the voices sing together for the first time, linking the sound of the child with the sound of the adult; and as the words run into the passage about putting an end to childish things ('evacuavi quae erant parvuli'), the voices drop out, as if actually putting them away, until only the higher voices are singing the last word, 'parvuli' ('child').

This would all be very clever, except it also makes musical sense. As recently as 2005, an Oxford professor of English tried to argue that music is all very pretty but it can't communicate ideas. Over 400 years earlier, Lassus had quietly demonstrated that that the opposite is the case.

Lassus is a whole world. He's not the first and he won't be the last composer that we wish we could spend more time on. He wrote mountains of music: hundreds of motets; a lot of secular songs and madrigals; loads of masses, of which 60 have survived. We include here the epic De profundis clamavi ('Out of the depths I cry unto thee', Track 10) from his settings of selections of the Psalms. There's also the first in what will become a series of musical jokes from across the centuries: Lassus' setting of Super flumina Babylonis (Track 11), in which he deliberately writes stutterings, wrong entries and hesitations, as if the motet is being sung by a really rubbish choir. Fans of 70s disco outfit Boney M will note that 'Super flumina Babylonis' means 'By the rivers of Babylon'.

William Byrd (c. 1540-1623)

William Byrd

In some ways, Byrd resembles Palestrina and Lassus. Like Palestrina, his technique is remarkable. He was a master of polyphony and his Latin masses and motets are some of the greatest choral writing ever written. Like Lassus but unlike Palestrina, Byrd would have a go at anything, writing secular madrigals, music for viols and, most importantly, for keyboard, although the keyboard he knew was the virginal, a much more weedy instrument than the modern piano.

But there's an important way in which Byrd was different from Palestrina and Lassus. Like them, he was a Catholic. But they lived and worked on continental Europe, whereas he lived and worked in England.

How does that make him different?

Because, for Palestrina in Italy and Lassus in France and Victoria in Spain, being a Catholic was the default setting. For Byrd in England, being a Catholic was a serious liability.

Byrd was born into the reign of Henry VIII and grew up during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, during which the official religion of England zig-zagged between extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism. By the time he was mature, Elizabeth I was in power and although she personally didn't much care one way or the other, she felt compelled to please the Anglican faction and so finessed a sort-of compromise in which the state took pains to remind Catholics of how unwelcome their religion was, while trying not to alienate them to the point of actual treason.

That was the idea, anyway. In practice, Elizabeth let herself be persuaded that England's Catholics formed a vast spy network for the Spaniards, which could only be kept in check by sanctions and threats. For example, anyone who failed to regularly attend Anglican worship was accused of being a 'recusant', which is another way of calling someone a Nasty Spying Froggie Dago Person.

That's the big difference between Byrd, on the one hand, and Palestrina and Lassus and Victoria on the other. They're safe in Catholic Europe, writing music for the Roman church, but Byrd's employer, for the whole of his life, is the Church of England, the enemy of his own faith. He spends the second half of his career secretly writing Latin masses and motets for his Catholic friends while turning out English church music as part of his day job as organist to the Chapel Royal. Palestrina wrote 104 masses. Lassus wrote at least 60. Byrd wrote three.

And there's the crucial point: precisely because there was so much official disapproval for the idea of writing Latin masses in the first place, Byrd never had the opportunity to write as many as he would probably have liked, with the result that he saved many of his best ideas for the three that he got to write at all. The Mass in Four Voices (Tracks 12-16), the Mass in Three Voices and the Mass in Five Voices are now generally regarded as the pinnacle of his great achievement, along with a bunch of his Latin motets - the ones we've chosen here being the haunting Tristitia et Anxietas (Sadness and anxiety, Track 17) and the compelling Ave verum corpus (Hail, true body, Track 18). It's actually remarkable that Byrd's Anglican church music is as good as it is, considering that his heart can't have been much in it. But then he also wrote great music that had no religious content at all. He wrote extraordinary music for consorts (Track 19), and he's the first great composer for the keyboard. The First Pavan and Galliard, Track 20, is a representative example of his earlier keyboard style, although it's played here by the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould on the piano, rather than the virginal.

Byrd is not a composer given to stunts like Tallis' 40-voice Spem in alium or Gesualdo's bizarre harmonisations (see below). He's subtle but intense, open to continental influences but forging something powerful and personal. He's been called the first of the great all-round composers - his contemporaries may have matched his achievement in church music, but in writing so well for instruments he raised them up to have equal dignity with the voice, and that's a major reason why he's still listened to and studied today.

Tomas Luis De Victoria (c. 1548-1611)

Tomas Luis De Victoria

While the Reformation was going on in England, it was also going on in Europe. Martin Luther, one of the prime movers of Protestantism, was a talented amateur composer who wrote many hymns for the new churches that didn't want to be guided by Rome. (There are many deeply unpleasant things about Luther, but from a musical point of view his efforts paid off, in a way that'll become clear when we talk about what happened later on in German music.) Against this, of course, there was a Counter-Reformation: the church wanted to put a stop to all this Pope-hating.

It's time to meet the Habsburg family, a peculiar bunch whose destiny for several centuries was, essentially, to rule Europe. They did so by virtue of being in charge of the Holy Roman Empire, which began as the successor of the old Frankish Empire, grew to immense power and authority during the 11th century, and finally fizzled out in 1806, by which time it was, so people used to joke, neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.

We've already kind-of met Philip II, King of Spain. He was a Habsburg, and the reason we've kind-of met him is that he was briefly the husband, and then the widower, of Mary I of England. He's also the guy who sent the Spanish Armada in a doomed attempt to invade England, but these tactical missteps aside, he was a competent and energetic monarch whose imperial ambitions have a lot to do with why so much of North and South America has Spanish as a first language.

Why yet more history? Because, if you want to understand the history of music, follow the money. Philip II hired Tomas Luis de Victoria to be chaplain to his sister.

Victoria, like Palestrina and Lassus, wrote his music from a prestigious job in the heart of Catholic Europe. Lassus is the kind of composer who was so broad-minded that you sense he might have been a bit sceptical about his employers' ideological mission; with Palestrina, it's more like his sheer authority intimidated him into refining his own style to the point where it starts to lack human interest.

With Victoria, though, it's personal. He's as fluent as Palestrina, but more intense. We're confining ourselves to just one work: the Officium Defunctorum, written as a requiem mass for Maria, Empress of Austria, the extremely Catholic and rather terrifying wife of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. It's astoundingly moving stuff; grave, pious and yearning (see Tracks 21-23 for some examples). Victoria's music acquired a remarkable second life when the Spaniards conquered much of South America; a generation of South American composers drew on his influence and apparently also taught his techniques to the more musically gifted indigenous people they met.

Thomas Morley (c. 1557-1602)

Thomas Morley

Morley is an interesting character, part composer, part unprincipled pirate. Given that he was a sharp operator and from London it's tempting to call him a sort of Del Boy of Elizabethan music, except that Morley was not a kind-hearted buffoon but a talented composer and successful businessman. He's important in that he's one of the first musicians to make a living through being an entrepreneur, but he also wrote an influential handbook called A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), the 16th century equivalent of Music for Dummies, and composed a lot of stirring madrigals of the hey-nonny-no type, including the one given here, Now is the Month of Maying, Track 24. This song is notable for its catchy melody and bouncy rhythm but also because it's the first great let's-get-it-on song in English. If you're in any doubt, consider that 'Shall we play barley-break?' is not an invitation to help gather in the harvest. Nobody does that in May.

Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1561-1613)

Carlo Gesualdo

Unlike almost all Renaissance composers, Gesualdo wasn't a church official or an employee of a nobleman but a nobleman himself. His title was Prince of Venosa. Other noblemen considered it unbecoming for a chap to write music, because it was the sort of thing a chap paid an underling to do. But Gesualdo loved music, and he was the kind of chap who, when he started on a project, really went for it. This attitude led directly to his colourful private life.

He married his first cousin, Maria d'Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. She started an affair with another nobleman. One day in 1590, Gesualdo came home from a hunting trip to find the lovers hard at it in his marital bed. Now, if you were a Renaissance composer suddenly confronted with evidence that your wife was having an affair, the normal thing to do would be to fly into a raging sulk and write a bookful of madrigals about the faithlessness of women.

But that's not what Gesualdo did. He grabbed the nearest weapon and stabbed them both to death. He encouraged his servants to get involved, with shouts of "She's not dead yet!" As soon as that particular question had been cleared up beyond doubt, he dumped his victims' bodies in the courtyard of his castle and fled to a different city-state to be safe from the revenge of their families. Only then did he fly into a raging sulk and write a bookful of madrigals about the faithlessness of women.

A few years later he married again. One historian commented: "His second wife seems to have been a virtuous lady because Gesualdo did not kill her." Miaow. Late in life he acquired a taste for being flagellated, with results that we won't go into because you could be reading this over lunch.

It should come as no surprise that Gesualdo is the only Renaissance composer to be the subject of a documentary by Werner Herzog. His music is very, very strange. Remember our explanation of tonality, back in the last instalment? Like all Renaissance composers, Gesualdo is still operating within tonality, but only just. He does something that other composers wouldn't start doing in a systematic way until the early 20th century, wringing the maximum amount of expression out of each line by using the most extreme harmony he can find. Check out the madrigal Moro, lasso (I die, wearily, Track 25 - with a special bonus guitar version on Track 26), which lurches queasily from one harmonic territory to another with almost every new note. His melodies obey the same polyphonic rules that his peers stuck by, but the way he harmonises them is so outside what they do that it wasn't until the 20th century that any composer was ready to cite him as an influence. That composer, incidentally, was Igor Stravinsky, 20th century music's most incorrigible hipster. Gesualdo gets rediscovered by each new generation as if nobody had ever listened to him before. Wherever he is now, that thought presumably compensates him for the fire and pitchforks.

John Dowland (1563-1626)

John Dowland

If you've heard of any of the composers in this article before, there's a good chance that John Dowland is the one you've heard of. (His name, by the way, rhymes with 'Poland', not with 'plough-land'.) He has famous fans. Philip K. Dick wrote a 1974 novel called Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, an enigmatic and oddly moving alternate-universe story, which took its title from a song called 'Flow, my tears' in Dowland's Second Book of Songs (Track 27). More recently, Sting recorded a Dowland album, Songs from the Labyrinth. The reaction among more bigoted classical music fans was Gah! Blasphemy! but whatever you think of Sting, he did a very competent job. The only problem I have with his versions is that my chief reaction is not to be moved by the song, but to think 'Wow, what a competent job.'

Anyway, Dowland fascinates people. Why? Did he save English music? Did he kill someone? Was he the wrong religion? Did his whole family die on him? No. There are no known portraits of him and few anecdotes, just some music, some documents and some really bad-tempered letters. Most of the music is for solo lute, with some for viol consort, roughly the 16th century equivalent of a string quartet except that, unlike the instruments in a string quartet, viols have frets (like guitars) and you put the smaller ones in your lap, not tuck them under your chin. And then there are the songs.

Oh man, the songs. Dowland didn't write many of them, and they're all for voice and lute. 'Flow, my tears' is one of the most famous, partly on account of its relatively catchy tune, partly because the opening line ('Flow, my-y tears') is one of those classic, mournful minor melodies, partly because of the formal perfection of the song as a whole, partly because it helps to inaugurate a low-key but majestic tradition of melancholy English songwriting that would have reverberations way beyond the shores of this island.

But it gets complicated. 'Flow, my tears' wasn't the first time Dowland used that particular melody. It first appeared in print as a wordless piece for the lute, specifically a Pavan, called 'Lachrimae' (Latin for 'tears', a pavan being a stately dance, popular in the period; you'll find that a lot of short musical works from now until the classical period are technically one kind of dance or another, even if they aren't all that danceable.) The 'Lachrimae' pavan (Track 28) is basically 'Flow, my tears' without the words, and most scholars reckon that Dowland wrote it as an instrumental and later got someone to write lyrics to fit his tune. Dowland was not, by the way, a singer-songwriter. Plenty of people testified to his skills at the lute, but if he'd also been a singer there would be a letter somewhere in which he complains that people don't appreciate his singing enough.

It gets more complicated. In 1604 he went to the trouble and expense of publishing a collection of instrumental music called Lachrimae, and at the head of it was yet another arrangement of the tune, this time for five viols and a lute, which Dowland called 'Lachrimae Antiquae' (Track 29). He published Lachrimae in what's called 'part-book' format, meaning that the different parts were laid out on the page in such a way that if you laid the book flat on a table, each member of a group of players could theoretically sit around the table and read his or her own part. In practice, the book was printed in too small a format for that to work. Perhaps for that reason Lachrimae didn't sell well, and Dowland never again tried to publish his own music, but the work as a whole is one of the earliest important collections of instrumental music by a single composer.

Nevertheless, Dowland clearly had a business sense because his multiple adaptations of the 'Lachrimae' pavan reflect its popularity at the time. Many composers, including the older and more eminent William Byrd, adapted it for keyboard. It's referred to in plays of the time as the standard piece of tear-jerking music. Dowland fed the popular appetite for melancholy, even if, in his case, it was genuinely felt.

And this is where it gets really interesting, because although 'Flow, my tears' is genuinely moving, there's still an element of pose. The singer is forlorn, but he wants to be forlorn with a certain style. A later song, 'In Darkness let me Dwell', is a different class of beast (see Track 31). Like all classical songs, how you hear it depends on the performer, and I urge you to check out the version by Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Kenny, but in the meantime the Peter Pears/Julian Bream version is the best you'll find on Spotify.

The vocal melody enters very gradually indeed, and then rotates within a brutally narrow range like a prisoner obsessively pacing a cell, which figures since the entire song uses imprisonment as a metaphor for depression. The lute describes all kinds of tantalisingly hopeful harmonic prospects, only to dash them, one after another, like a sadistic gaoler. After a desperate climax (''Til death do come …') the final line ends on what we now hear, and what listeners back in 1600 must surely have heard, as an unresolved harmony - in terms of its own internal harmonic logic, the song is left hanging. The effect, at least as I hear it, is of hope and despair kept in an agonising and impossible balance.

Songwriting doesn't get any better than this.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

Orlando Gibbons

Gibbons was a man out of his time. By the time he was writing his mature music, Renaissance polyphony was no longer the thing to do if you wanted to be considered cutting edge. The Silver Swan (Track 32) is a good example of his way with a madrigal: intricate, delicate, almost unbearably sad. He wrote a good deal of music for keyboard but even his biggest 20th century fan, the aforementioned Glenn Gould, admitted that Gibbons' keyboard writing wasn't up to the standard of his choral work. For an example of his best church music, we've provided a cut of prime-grade Protestant angst: the magnificent anthem O Lord, in Thy Wrath Rebuke Me Not (Track 33). The fear and trembling is audible, especially in the hushed plea 'O save me', repeated in all the voices of the choir towards the end. Gibbons died young; he left some musically talented children and a wonderful body of music.

We have no Club Rheinberger this time around, because pretty much every late Renaissance composer whose work has survived would need to be in it. The abovementioned get the star treatment because they most obviously deserve it (sorry, John Wilbye); transitional figures like the amazing Giovanni Gabrieli will have to wait till next time.

Next, we'll be looking at the Seventeenth Century. We'll witness the birth of opera and oratorio, find out how tonality got to be invented, and see how the increasing prestige of Italian music had consequences which live on to this day. Everything is changing, and there's a long way to go yet, but have patience, my pretties. What riches we have in store: Monteverdi, Lully, Charpentier, Marais, Purcell, Buxtehude, Corelli. You lucky, lucky people.

A history of classical music

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