Last post I introduced a new era, the renaissance, by outlining the humble origin of triadic harmony in the 15th-century by Englishman John Dunstable. Through the triad, all subsequent music can be traced: it would spread from Dunstable to the renaissance masters of continental Europe, would be decorated elaborately by Handel and Bach in the baroque era, would form soothing (Mozart) and thundering (Beethoven) accompaniments in the classical era, and would then underscore the impassioned poetics of the romantic era. Later, they would be experimented on elaborately in the 20th-century, carried over to jazz, blues and so on to Elvis, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, EDM and beyond. Today we’ll trace its progress through the renaissance to Elizabethan England.
Like listening whilst you read? You can find today’s listening at the bottom of the page.
Composition just became a lot more complex
You may remember that the early renaissance composers wrote for multiple parts (polyphony) but that the parts were largely dependent on one another – the individual melodies were not free, so to speak. As composers started to master this early style, they sought greater independence between parts. This is not easy to do: composers today still have to strike a fine balance between what works across time versus what works in the moment.
To an unskilled composer, this balancing act is extraordinarily difficult – the melodic needs of a piece pull one way, whilst the harmonic needs pull in the opposite direction. The medieval composer merely had to write one nice melody, whereas the renaissance composer had to write multiple nice melodies and in such a way that they would coexist harmoniously. One can imagine two nations attempting to inhabit the same land (or perhaps a cohabiting couple); without a cooperative strategy, the strengths of one impinge on the other and vice versa. If music were as simple as playing lots of good melodies simultaneously, we could just take every Taylor Swift song and play them at the same time – music solved (maybe not).
So renaissance composers developed habits for writing in multiple parts, rules if you will (though they were never formalised at the time) to find a best-of-both-worlds scenario. During the mid-renaissance (1480-1520), Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez (is that you Professor Quirrell?) became established as Europe’s leading composer for his mastery of polyphonic writing.
His music features plenty of an emerging technique called imitation, wherein different voices (or instrumental parts) sing (or play) the same melody, just at a slightly later time. It sounds as though the second voice (or third, fourth, etc.) is copying the first. You may remember singing rounds such as Row, row, row your boat and Frère Jacques as a child – this is a very similar procedure. When managed tastefully, the effect of imitation is something like that of the swirling mandalas of Buddhist art, rather than the petulant copycatting of a younger sibling.
Here is a short example of Josquin’s style – pay special attention to the florid ascending figures which are imitated between parts.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, England enjoyed a prominent position in European culture, due in no small part to William Shakespeare. It was an era of substantial political and religious tension – whether culture flourished because or despite these tensions is an interesting point to ponder.
Nevertheless (and with just the exception of Henry Purcell), it would be the last time English composers were counted among Europe’s greats for over 250 years. Chief among them were Thomas Tallis (1505-1585, left) and his pupil William Byrd (1543-1623, right). The two composers were fortunate to have been granted a monopoly on printed sheet music by Elizabeth I, going on to produce some of the very finest writing of the renaissance.
Both composers gained thier status by expertly navigating the Tudor court, currying the favour of wealthy patrons and managing the rapid religious oscillations of the time. Tallis infamously even composed a piece for eight choirs especially for Elizabeth’s birthday, Spem in Alium (C.1570, listen here). It is a true masterpiece, interweaving 40 voices in a stunning sonic tapestry. It has, quite bizarrely, enjoyed a popular revival due to being featured in the 2015 film Fifty Shades of Grey – a haphazard (perhaps absurd) collision of kitsch and high art.
Tallis’s most enduring piece is the far simpler If ye love me (1565), performed with pristine clarity (below) by the King’s singers during the current Covid lockdown. Set to an English (rather than Latin) text, it is an example of Tallis writing protestant music as part of the diplomatic tighrope walk familiar to all high-profile Catholics of the period.
Byrd’s Mass in four voices (1592-3) is one of the most celebrated masses written by an English composer. The Kyrie (below) is Byrd at his very best: the yearning emotional qualities are utterly suited to the text ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy’, whilst the imitative writing is exceptionally balanced. Listen out for a technique called suspension, used especially after 1:00: a dissonant note is set up, held on to, then resolved to consonance.
Non-musicians often assume that dissonance and beauty are somehow opposed, but (arguably) beaty arises from a well-integrated balance of both consonance and dissonance. In this piece, they have a profoundly melancholic effect, the kind which, unusually, drew Sting (of the Police) to record some renaissance lute songs (listen here). I’m not the only one to question Sting’s performance (though we share impeccable taste in football clubs); but his choice nevertheless speaks of the universality of this special period in European musical history.