Crumhorns, and Racketts, and Shawms, oh my!

I want to begin this post with the video below by the Canadian Brass playing a period piece by Gabrieli. They crack me up:

I’ve played the same arrangement a few times.. of course it’s NEVER sounded as good as CB on their worst day!

Today’s journey through YouTube-land brings us to the Renaissance period. Last night when I was completing the Middle Ages post, I wasn’t able to utilize the Petrucci library due to site maintenance, so hopefully today I can add a score excerpt or two. Tonight, we have a lot less ground to cover – only 150 years.

The themes of this time period are courtships, beautiful clothing for the rich and powerful, a rebirth of classical learning, the change from a feudal society to a modern one, and development in people’s views of the earth and beyond.

People dug up ancient writings of the Greeks and Romans. That led to a rebirth in thinking (hence the name ‘renaissance’). The feudal to modern change was a wave that began in Italy and swept through Europe.

During this time, Columbus & Magellan were sailing the ocean blue, Copernicus studied outer space, and baby Galileo was looking up at the stars wondering if the earth really was the center of the universe. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were nailed to a door in northern Germany, Henry VIII was in power, and Shakespeare was writing his masterpieces. Donatello, da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo were expressing themselves through visual art. In other words, people were thinking, exploring, expressing, and questioning.

Every time we bring out the Greek and Roman texts, we’re reminded that the arts indeed are important (isn’t now a good time?). It’s for this reason that the arts became an important measure of culture in the Renaissance period. Music, which was previously thought of as a science, gradually became an expressive art form more akin to poetry and visual art. Music printing was allowing manuscripts and treatises to spread across Europe.

Yesterday we spoke about the patronage system being dominated by the church, but at the end of the Middle Ages we saw a shift in the patronage system that brought music to the aristocracy (specifically in France). Well, now the courts and civic governments had a bigger impact on music composition and commissions – they were supporting music more than ever. European cities became wealthier, and increased ability to travel meant that music was spreading, and genres were being fused together and expanded.

Composers had both sacred and secular music to work with. It’s important though, to remember that people of the time thought that the human voice was an instrument created by God, so most of the sacred music was vocal. Some sects even banned instrumental music from their congregations.

“Older” sacred forms such as the motet and Mass were still prominent. Castrati emerged in the Roman Catholic Church. Dissonant intervals were still not allowed – except the occasional passing tone, neighboring tone, or suspension. Theory developed as chromaticism began to appear. Over in Germany, Lutheran music consisted of mostly chorales which would dominate Christian music until.. oh.. today.

Meanwhile in the world of secular composition, we see the emergence of madrigals from Italy and chansons from France.

Instruments developed, too. The lute was as popular as the electric guitar is today. At ‘Ren Fairs’ everywhere, you can see people playing the lute and attempting Renaissance style. Check it out:

Also, reed instruments were developing – crumhorns, and racketts, and shawms, oh my! More importantly (okay, only because I’m a brass player), the sackbut (an early trombone) and valveless trumpet were born. String instruments evolved, also. The viol family included the viola da braccio and viola da gamba. The keyboard family had begun its ascent and early harpsichords were being played as well as organs, and the portable virginal (see pic on the left).

Notably, in the Middle Ages (see previous post) we saw that instruments were used for accompaniment for voice. By the end of the Renaissance era, instrumental music held its own. People were composing instrumental music for the sake of composing instrumental music. Then, music had a purpose as entertainment with amateur performers. Instrumental chamber ensembles popped up.

So let’s theorize..

In England, homophonic polyphony was used as a compositional technique. In France, standardization of 4-part writing (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) occurred. French composers were developing theory even more intensely by using augmentation, diminution, retrograde, and inversion. They were using authentic and plagal cadences (as opposed to the English Landini cadence).
Click To Find Out About Cadences

Meanwhile, four-voice choirs were common and vocal works were dominant at this time. Below is an example of a 4-voice motet by our man of the era, Josquin Desprez:

Larger groups of instrumental chamber music were called consorts. Imitative textures arose and were placed against simple rhythms. Harmony now included full triads. Major/minor tonality was gaining importance (as opposed to the church modes), and dissonances were used, prepared, and resolved without anyone getting hurt (usually). Dances became popular – they were based on simple binary forms.

New and popular genres were polyphonic chansons, canzones, preludes, fugues, the suite, toccata, variations, madrigals, chorales, and anthems.

Here is a 3-part madrigal by Palestrina. You can follow along with the notation in the video:

Some composers of the time include the following. Note that they’re starting to live longer!

Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1474)
Josquin Desprez (1440-1521)
Giovanni Palestrina (1525-1594)
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Johannes Ockegham (1410-1496)
Jacob Obrecht (1450-1505)
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)
Orlando Lassus (1532-1594)
Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612)
William Byrd (1540-1623)

I’ll end with a piece by William Byrd, below:



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