Voices that rise and fall like cathedral arches, subtle interweaving of vocal lines, language expressive of faith and torment, of love and penitence – this is the world of the sacred music of the Renaissance. But the music-loving public hears the great pre-Baroque composers relatively rarely, and knows far less about them than about Mozart or Beethoven. For many people classical music starts with Monteverdi, Bach and Vivaldi.
Of course there are concert and radio performances of works from the older repertoire, and pieces such as Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium or Allegri's Miserere have become quite well-known popular favourites. Yet creative giants such as Josquin des Prez, Lassus and Palestrina were similar in stature and influence in their own day to the leading composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. And their music to those who do know it is as rich and rewarding as any that came later. This website aims to guide the listener through it.
While the origins of polyphony itself date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, it is commonly agreed that the first flowering of the Renaissance style can be attributed to English composers in the early fifteenth century, and in particular John Dunstable. In his hands, the highly improvisatory style of the late mediaeval period crystallises into something more refined. At the centre of this shift is of course plainchant - the traditional melodies of the church around which Dunstable and his contemporaries shaped their compositions. The transformative development though is the use of triadic harmony - chords constructed of three different notes - which was widely remarked upon in England, and crucially on the continent.
The music of the 15th and 16th centuries is very varied – vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular. This site only covers the sacred writing. Trying to cover all the madrigals, songs and instrumental music as well would either be unwieldy or superficial. The sacred music is vast enough. Some of the composers were as prolific as any who came later. Lassus left over 2,000 works (including his secular music); he set the Magnificat a hundred-and-one times. Palestrina wrote over a hundred Masses.
And they were international figures. Dunstable, born in about 1390, was the first well-known English composer, and his music was studied all over Europe; it survives in manuscript collections in France and Italy as well as England. Many of the great composers came from Flanders or Northern France, but worked in Italy or Germany. Lassus, though Flemish by birth, was widely known as Orlando di Lasso because of his time in Italy, though he spent the last thirty years of his life in Munich. The Italian composers moved around rather less; there were so many wealthy churches in Rome and Venice, and the Popes were great patrons. Italy was the main source of patronage of the sacred music of the 16th and early 17th centuries, as the Franco-Flemish region had been before it – though of course both England and Spain were major centres too. More details can be found in the biographies on the Composers page.
Gradually musical taste and musical invention changed, and with Monteverdi the age of composing sacred music in the two-centuries-old polyphonic style neared its end. But it continued to be heard well into the 17th century. And it was studied and known by many later composers. A notable survival was the 15th century song ‘Mille regretz’ by Josquin, which became the basis for a Mass by the Spanish composer Morales in the 16th century, and has an echo in the aria ‘Es Tut mich verlangen’ of Bach’s St Matthew Passion – we do not know whether Bach knew the music from a text, or the song was just in the air like many popular melodies. Mozart seems not to have found the music of the old days to his taste, despite the efforts of one of his early teachers, Padre Martini, to interest him in it.
But Beethoven and many who came after him studied Palestrina and other masters of polyphony; the influence of Palestrina can be heard in the ‘Et incarnatus est’ of the Missa Solemnis, and in Bruckner’s E minor Mass – Bruckner may have been influenced by the Cecilians, a movement of 19th century churchmen who sought the re-emergence of the purity of the polyphonic tradition, Palestrina in particular. Stravinsky too harked back to that tradition; he said his own Mass was partly prompted by a reading of some of Mozart’s, which he described as ‘rococo-operatic sweets of sin’...
On this website you can find recordings from the ‘selected composers’ below and others, from Du Fay to Victoria, and links to various other recordings. Their historical time can be seen in the following chart – though as noted in the individual biographies, the birth dates are often uncertain.
NB The photo on the homepage is of Lincoln Cathedral, with grateful thanks to the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln. Lincoln is chosen for its association with WIlliam Byrd.
The illustration above is from Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece.
The biographies on the Composers page were principally written by Prof R.H.Cassen, drawing on the sources quoted. Where not captioned or attributed, photos are by the same author. Website design is by Sun Sichong.
Brown, H.M. (1976) Music in the Renaissance, Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall
Knighton, T. and D. Fallows (eds.) (2003) Medieval and Renaissance Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Perkins, L.L. (1999) Music in the Age of the Renaissance, London/New York: Norton
Taruskin, R. (2005) The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. 1: The Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press