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Music In The Renaissance Era

Rebirth and Exploration

Peter Kun Frary


The Renaissance Era existed from approximately 1400 to 1600. The Pilgrims hadn't landed in Massachusetts yet and it was the heyday of playwright William Shakespeare (1554-1616), scientist and artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506).

Abduction of the Sabine | Giambologna (1529-1608) | Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence | The influence of the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome is most evident in Renaissance sculpture.

What was the Renaissance about?

The Renaissance is a cultural movement emphasizing a rebirth of classical learning and art, independence of thought and humanist values. Humanism brought to flower the secular tendencies of the Ars Nova: focusing on life on earth rather than afterlife, self-realization through reason and rejection of supernaturalism.

Humanists sought to create citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging the civic and cultural life of their communities. This was accomplished through the study of the humanities: philosophy, grammar, rhetoric (art of effective or persuasive speaking), history, poetry and music. This curriculum forms the basis of the liberal arts core taught at most colleges.

Renaissance Society

The powerful and vast Holy Roman Empire continued to declined in power and influence during the Renaissance. The Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, the capital and stronghold of the eastern region of the Holy Roman Empire. The Empire lost its ties with antiquity and was severed in half. The remaining territory was a mere shadow of its former self: Germany, Austria and parts of the Netherlands.

Luther Making Music in the Circle of His Family | Gustav Adolf Spangenberg (1828-1891) | Luther placed great importance on congregational singing and use of instruments in church | Wikimedia Commons

Another great medieval institution, the Roman Catholic Church, was splintered in 1517 by the Protestant Reformation, initiated by German theologian Martin Luther (1483–1546). Luther preached the doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works and railed against papal authority and the sale of indulgences. Luther also placed importance on congregational singing accompanied by instruments, in contrast to the Catholic ideal of unaccompanied choral works performed by trained cleric musicians. Although Latin was still used in Lutheran services, German was increasingly preferred for singing, preaching and Bible studies. The role Luther granted to music and choral singing greatly enhanced the development of music in Germany and Northern Europe.

Moses | Michelangelo (1475-1564) | San Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy | The Catholic Church was an important arts patron, albeit its influence was beginning to decline.

With the faltering of these two seemingly infallible institutions, the stage was set for a flowering of art and culture. The voyages of discovery by Christopher Columbus (1492), Ferdinand Magellan (1519) and many others resulted in riches and opportunities poring into Europe's port cities. The multitude of merchants and traders needed to man this new economy lead to the growth of a large and powerful merchant class, roughly the Renaissance equivalent of today's middle class. This new class was destine to be the largest consumer of art, music and literature.

The Roman Catholic Church was still an important music patron, but the Protestant Reformation reduced Church resources and influence. Thus, the most significant musical activities and development shifted to royal courts. A typical court employed 10 to 60 musicians for entertainment and chapel duties. Professional musicians were considered servants by noble patrons, but enjoyed a higher status in Renaissance society than they did during the Middle Ages. Renaissance musicians were recognized as creative individuals and normally signed their works.

Printing Press
The Invention of the printing press in 1450 by Johannes Gutenburg (1398-1468) revolutionized production of books and accelerated the spread of culture and learning. Prior to 1450, all books were painstakingly produced by hand, making book ownership and literacy expense. Although the Holy Bible was among the first mass produced texts, musical scores and instruction books soon ensued, bringing music to the burgeoning merchant class.

The new technology of the printing press and a merchant class with leisure time created a demand for education. Education was no longer a monopoly of the Church. Nobles and middle class found pride and status in education. And the ability to perform music was both an essential part of education and being a gentleman or lady.

La Vierge et l'Enfant entourés de saint Benoît et saint Quentin, et deux anges (detail) | Francesco Marmitta (1460-1505) | Musée du Louvre


Renaissance, Humanism, Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, merchant class, Johannes Gutenburg

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