Power-hitters of the Renaissance Music Scene

Power-hitters of the Renaissance Music Scene

By Jesse Sample 

The composers of the Renaissance were shaping music and its trends rapidly. I started with a French and then a Flemish composer and then I crossed the channel where the party started late but went even later and was no less game-changing. Here, I featured two English composers who were building a house that, at least in my assessment, would stand for a brand new culture and it’s future. 

Antoine Busnoys (Busnois) (1430-1492) was a great French composer and best known for his secular chansons. Burkhold, Grout and Palisca state that, “Busnoys served Charles the Bold, Mary of Burgundy, and Maximillian of Hapsburg.”(190) He, along with Johannes Okegham, represented a new movement in composition, specifically in counterpoint. Burkholder, Grout and Palisca also state that “The music of Busnoys and Ockeghem marks a transition between the older counterpoint, in which the cantus and the tenor form the essential structure for the other voices, and the approach that emerged by the late fifteenth century, in which all voices play more similar roles and are all essential for the counterpoint”(191-192) One can feel the complexity and balance in the parts. 

A une dame... Busnois - HdlMyAM I – UNC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPTjM-2sSP8 
This is a Chanson, which is secular in nature. Good recordings of these chansons were a bit hard to find. This particular seems very old, but one can hear possibly a violin and also a flute. I chose this because even though he did much work in the realm world of the sacred, he was best known for his secular songs and I thought it prudent to showcase that side of him. 

Jacob Obrecht (1457 or 1458-1505), while not nearly as popular as his contemporary Josquin Desprez, was a brilliant Flemish composer. As I listen to productions of “Beata es, Maria” and some of his other work, I am awestruck by the clarity and melodic choices inherent in his compositions. He was one of the first composers to widely use imitation among the various voices in such a big way. Burkholder, Grout and Palisca state in reference to Obrecht composition, Missa Fortuna Desperata, “The music is remarkable for it’s clarity and comprehensibility. The tonal center on F is clear at the outset and confirmed by a series of cadences. The melodic ideas are relatively short and well-defined.”(197) I find this to be consistent in my research of most of his work that I have encountered. It’s noticeable. 

This is really such an exceptional piece. It is a motet that beautifully employs imitation in the parts. This was my favorite piece in all of my research for this week’s assignment. 

Jacob Obrecht: Beata es, Maria: 


Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was a major player in the English renaissance movement and also a great contributor to the sacred music of the brand new Church of England. I chose to feature him because I was drawn to the juxtaposition of his personal beliefs and the atmosphere of the time. Burkholder, Grout and Palisca state, “While Tallis apparently remained Catholic, his work encompasses Latin masses and hymns, English service music, and other sacred works that reflect the religious and political upheavals in England during his lifetime.”(224) He was a staple in the employ of the Tudor monarchs for over 40 years. 

Thomas Tallis – Magnificat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1gzYztKdFU 
This song is a sacred mass, but specifically what is considered an evening canticle. What I find particularly fascinating about it is the way all of the voices are moving in different directions and weaving a beautiful web in counterpoint. There are different sections in the work, some demonstrating homophonic phrases and then blossoming into complex and florid polyphony. 

William byrd (1540-1623) was the probable student of Tallis and appears to have carried the torch after the death of Tallis. I am very fascinated with this relationship. 

It seems that in history in general, great movements in culture are often attributed to a handful of great men. Even though, it takes millions to make the movement...Well...Move. But this particular case is interesting because it was so fast. Breaking from Rome, epicenter of a roughly 1500 year-old faith, and rebranding the way a huge group of people interact with God in less than 100 years is a huge undertaking. When that new movement, in this case The Church of England, is brought into existence at the behest of a monarch, the people that are under the direct employ of that monarch can really shape the characteristics of that movement’s aspects, in this case, it’s sacred music. Burkholder, Grout and Palisca state, “In 1575, he [William Byrd] and Tallis were granted a twenty-one-year monopoly for the printing of music in England, and Byrd continued publishing music after Tallis’s death in 1585.”(225) 

For better or worse, that is great deal of influence with some huge implications. 

Kyrie - byrd, mass for 4 voices: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yt0kla6dha This song is the first of six parts of a sacred mass. You can feel the use of imitation, especially in the first few bars. What I particularly appreciate in this work is that you can hear all of the parts as distinctive players with powerful harmonic roles to play. 

When you look and evaluate this period in musical history in chronological order and consider the contributions of these great composers, you can see a bigger trend from this bird’s eye view. I am personally starting to harbor a suspicion that these regional musical styles will start to lay the groundwork for what will become national identities. The idea of the nation-state, the way we understand it today, is not present in this period of European history but the roots are starting to show in my humble assessment. When Henry VIII formed the Church of England in 1534 that marked a new level in the concept of nationhood. The music of the church had to be unique to that place and time in order for it to stick. 

Burkholder, J.Peter, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca. A History of western Music, Ninth Edition New York: W.W.Norton and Company, inc.,2014, Print.

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