A History of Music for Singers : The Renaissance

A History of Music for SingersThe Renaissance – a time of grandeur, of experimentation and of scientific progress. For me, the Renaissance (ruh-NAY-sonce) conjures up grand Italian and Spanish courts with explorers and architects lining up to impress the monarchs. (Well, unless you pronounce it REN-ess-ahns, in which case, it’s bad wench costumes and spit roast pig in an American field!) I don’t, generally, think of Britain, or the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland, as having much to do with this flowering of culture.

However, Henry VIII (1507-1547) was considered to be just a much a “Renaissance prince” as any other monarch. Yes, England was a little late to the party, thanks to a long running civil war (the Wars of the Roses) and a dour king who favoured an austerity policy (Henry VII). Scotland didn’t fare much better with the Stuarts getting themselves imprisoned by their own people (James III) and defeated by their old enemies (Battle of Flodden Field 1513). Yet, James V (1513-42) was a keen lutenist, and supported the growth of the arts in his country just as other European monarchs did.

The term Renaissance means “rebirth”. Around this time, there was a rediscovery of lots of Greek and Roman thinking and ideas which is what gave the inspiration for the term “renaissance” (which first appeared in the 19th century – it wasn’t used at the time). Another important element at this time, which matters for our story, is that the landed elites – the rulers of the day – were developing a system called “patronage” for funding the arts. Artists no longer had to either work for the church, or sell their wares. Instead, they were given a commission by a patron to create their work. Some were even paid on a retainer as court musicians, artists, poets and even scientists. Finally, there was also a grand new modern invention – the printing press – which made it easier to distribute music on a mass scale.

At the top of the social scale, music began to branch out beyond the church music that had dominated high art before this time. There were new ideas about composition which flowed from the rediscovered Greek and Roman thinking – music became more complex, and during this time the modern scales we use today were slowly refined. New forms of harmony also developed – polyphony (the weaving of multiple melodies) became more complex and homophony (block chords as used in hymn tunes and contemporary popular music) started to be included.

Renaissance singersSo what did this mean for vocal music? Well, the biggest change was the development of secular song. Traditional secular music had existed for a long time (see last week), but now the printing press allowed mass distribution. For ordinary people, this came in the form of the broadside ballad. Broadside ballads were new lyrics to popular tunes and followed the same themes as our pop music does today. There were political songs about current affairs (“Times, they are a-changing” – Bob Dylan). There were comic songs with lewd lyrics (“Thong song” – Sisqo) and without (“Earnie, the fastest milkman in the west”). Gallows songs, about the fate of criminals were very popular (“03 Bonnie & Clyde” – Beyonce & JayZ), as were the ever popular love songs (uh, everything else?). Broadside ballads were posted up on pub walls where those who could read would share the lyrics with everyone else. Here’s an example:

At the more elite end of music, songs began to be produced. Even Henry VIII wrote a few, with Greensleeves being one of the most famous to be attributed to him. This period saw a flowering of English composition. Works by Dowland, Byrd, Morely and others still appear on singing exam syllabi today. Many of these songs retain the characteristic uneven time signatures and slightly irregular tonality of this period, making them more challenging to sing than music from the classical era, for example. You can hear one of Dowland’s compositions below:

Music also entered into the fledgling world of theatre. Shakespeare’s songs, for example, have no surviving music, so large numbers of composers have set the same lyrics to different tunes. You can hear some selections of settings of “It was a Lover and his Lass” from As You Like It in the playlist below.

So we know that vocal music came in a wide range of different forms (click on each one to go to an example on youtube):

When listening to Renaissance music, here are the key features to listen for:

  • Renaissance musicModal harmony – use of different modal scales (see future post on modes)
  • Acappella singing – limited use of instruments – recorders and lutes were popular
  • Polyphonic sound – interweaving melodies
  • Contrapuntal – use of imitation
  • Word pictures – the music matches the words (the word “flying” might be on the highest note)

Composers to remember:

–> Next week: The Baroque Era

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