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The renaissance (meaning rebirth), was a period of European history spanning 1400-1600, perhaps best known for its flourishing secular life and the birth of modern science. It was also a time of exploration, both in abstract through the arts and scholarship, but also literally in the conquest of the Americas and Asia.
Renaissance scholars were attempting to revive the culture of ancient Greece, which they considered to be the peak of human civilisation (hence rebirth). Raphael’s 1509-11 painting The School of Athens (below) is a classic tribute, portraying the intellectual vibrancy of Greek culture through the realistic detail and three-dimensional perspective of Renaissance art. Notice the patterned symmetry of the architecture (an homage to coherence and reason) and the bold contrast between Socrates in Gold and Plato in Blue (centre), as if putting the spirit of debate into colour.
The phrase renaissance man, meaning polymath, is familiar today: partly a recognition of the many strands of culture which transformed during the era, and also a nod to the great renaissance artist, scientist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci. One can imagine renaissance man (in general) as being interested in this life for its own sake, whilst medieval man would be more concerned with this life for the sake of the next.
Music was by no means exempt from the new cultural developments. The 15th Century witnessed innovations which multiplied music’s expressive potential, which composers of the 16th century distilled into European music’s first masterpieces. Today, I’ll explain how compositional technique transformed, how it influenced all subsequent music, and how it points to a relationship between the objective reality of sound and our emotions.
John Dunstable: the discovery of triadic harmony
Last post I discussed how Pythagoras discovered that strings at simple ratios produce stable, clear sounds (consonance), whereas strings at complex ratios produced unstable, harsh sounds (dissonance). I went on to discuss the Parisian composers of the 12th and 13th centuries who first composed polyphony with harmonic intervals such as the fifth (frequencies at ratios 3:2) and fourth (4:3). In the major development going into the renaissance, Englishman John Dunstable (C.1390-1453) was the first composer to start using the more complex thirds (ratios 5:4 or 6:5) and sixths (8:5 or 5:3), wading into the deeper waters of expressive possibility.
Little is known about Dunstable’s life, and much of his music was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Even what remains is rarely performed today, but his influence has been incalculable. By combining harmonic intervals of fifths and thirds, Dunstable created what we now call triadic harmony, chords ‘in thirds’ (see figure 1).
What is so special about triadic harmony? The sweet, balanced sound of triads became the basis of all subsequent classical and popular music, with the odd experimental exception in the 20th century. Even most of the popular music in non-western cultures is largely triadic. So why should these chords have been adopted with such enthusiasm? Why not others? Is it merely down to cultural preference? Whilst culture no doubt plays a role, the immense importance of triads is a consequence of objective acoustic facts.
Just as white light consists of many colours, not usually visible, so too is there a spectrum of additional notes sounding quietly over the main note (or fundamental) of a resonating body (be it string, tube, or drum skin). This series of notes, the overtone series, is detailed below in figure 2.
On figure 2 I have labelled the fourth to sixth notes from the left ‘C major triad’ – the same triads which Dunstable was the first to compose in the 15th century were already present within the notes themselves – they were not merely imposed on notes. Dunstable, unknowingly, discovered, rather than invented, the triad. This naturalness (try not to cringe) is a major factor influencing the widespread adoption of triads: they sound right because, well, they are. None of this is to conflate naturalness with goodness, or to dismiss non-triadic music, but an attempt to explain that the almost universal adoption of triads is not the consequence of mere social factors.
In these early days of harmonic exploration, composers were unknowingly mining deeper into the overtone series to expand their expressive repertoire. In finding the triad, Dunstable struck gold. On figure 2 I have labelled the increasing intervals between notes; you may remember that octaves have been used for as long as people have been singing, then the Notre Dame school used fifths and fourths (12th-13th C.), now Dunstable introduced thirds and sixths (15th C.). There is a path here, and it’s not a coincidence.
Despite his contemporaries considered Dunstable to be Europe’s leading composer, even what survives of his music today is rarely listened to today. Perhaps this is due to his meandering melodies or the sheer wealth of more interesting later music to enjoy. Nevertheless, here is a quick example of the new richer harmonic writing with triads.
Despite being an English innovation, the new expansion of harmony became synonymous with the Burgundian school: a set of composers from France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Chief among them, and still the most-listened to today, was Guillaume Dufay (c.1397-1474). Dufay’s output reflected the broader renaissance interest in secular life, but below is the most famous example of his sacred writing. You may notice that, like the Dunstable example above, the voices move almost identically, without much independence. This leads to extraordinary clarity and balance, allowing the piece’s harmonic richness and ambience to come to the surface.
Though it was Dunstable’s innovation, the first great triadic writing was at Dufay’s hand. Where Dunstable’s music comes across like he hasn’t quite mastered the new style, Dufay’s music speaks organically, without any awkwardness. To steal a phrase of Martin Luther’s (who was praising the later Josquin des Prez), “he is the master of the notes: they must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will.”