The Medieval period lasted a thousand years. And for nine hundred of those years, formality was the key to most things. The social organization meant that people led a subservient village life with a nobleman at their head. Therefore, they rarely interacted with anyone else.
Also, at this time, music was not entertainment. Music was there for religious reasons, and that was insisted upon. This was a time when heresy was punishable by a gruesome death. One way of getting everyone to do what they were told. Composers wrote for the church to maintain favor and, in some cases, their lives.
The Old Ways Wore Thin
But there were some creative minds. During this time, the printing press was invented. People learned to read, and composers began to write for other than religious reasons. People confronted the strictness of the early and middle medieval periods. Music was one way they did it.
Secular music was produced as well as Sacred, but the tide was slowly turning. Some Medieval composers work led us into the Renaissance period. They crossed the boundaries and dragged the rest, kicking and screaming, into a new age. The Renaissance.
There were some great composers in the Renaissance period. Great artists who led the way for Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and what was to come. Without the Renaissance composers, it may never have happened. Let’s look at 10 Important Renaissance Period Composers You Need To Know About.
1 – Guillaume Dufay (born 1397-1474)
Dufay was one of a few composers whose careers started towards the end of the Medieval period and ended in the Renaissance. He was born near Brussels in what we now know as Belgium. In his youth, he moved to Cambrai in France and studied at the cathedral. And he became the most famous European composer of the early Renaissance.
He took inspiration from several composers. One of which was a contemporary, John Dunstable. I shall look at him next.
As Europe developed culturally, so did the music, and Dufay was at the leading edge. Musicians were meeting, listening to each other’s works, and even attending recitals.
Sacred and Secular
He immersed himself in both fields of music. Sacred because it would have been expected of him and was part of his consciousness. But his Secular works created what we know today as ballads.
He was a leader in the “new” form of Polyphonic composing. A major shift from the monophonic chanting he would hear in his youth. His music flourished throughout Europe, and his pieces were widely played. Composers who followed incorporated his styling into their own works.
He may be considered the most important composer of the 15th century. To get a more complete picture, listen to Guillaume Dufay: Complete Secular Music and find out for yourself.
2 – John Dunstable (1390-1453)
Dunstable was one of those composers who, whilst recognized at the time, created musical ideas that are still in use today. Another that spanned the periods that took us from the Medieval period to the Renaissance.
More than a Composer
Born in England, he was a mathematician, astrologer, and astronomer. And although not too much is known about him, he had a reputation as a scholar and a thinker.
But it is his music he is remembered for. He worked for various noblemen under patronage. And as was the style at the time, he had to write mostly religious music. But the way he composed was different from everyone else.
In later studies of his work, we see that he is responsible for the creation of intervals using thirds. Previous to Dunstable, this had been considered dissonant. He made it work. He also was the first to use Triadic harmony. Triadic harmony was the use of three-note chords. If you want to find the roots of modern western harmony used today, here it is.
As an Inspiration
We have already mentioned looking at Dufay and the influence he had on so many others. And Dufay himself took inspiration from his ideas and style.
A great composer that opened the door into a musical world for others to follow. If you would like to listen to some of his works, please check out Music of the Early Renaissance: John Dunstable and His Contemporaries.
3 – Thomas Tallis (1510–1585)
I have included Tallis in this 10 Important Renaissance Period Composers You Need To Know About, not because of an abundance of his Renaissance compositions. Although, he did write a considerable body of work that we know about. His inclusion is based on his impact on the musical world of the time.
Many musicians and composers had Royal and/or Noble patronages, which was not uncommon. It’s how most of them paid the bills. A custom that existed until well after Mozart, hundreds of years later. But not many could count serving under four monarchs of England.
Perhaps the most famous being Queen Elisabeth I, who gave him rights to the Royal printing press to distribute his music.
He wrote in many different styles. Much of it arranged for choirs which gained him favors. Not much is known about his personal life, but he did make another enormous contribution.
He had a pupil, one William Byrd, who carried his mantle forward. And as we shall see in the next section made quite an impact.
4 – William Byrd (1543–1623)
Byrd is considered one of the great British Renaissance composers. His body of work included Sacred work, but he might be best known for his Secular polyphonic compositions and his astounding performances on the keyboard. He is considered one of the first virtuosos on the instrument.
His influence in Europe
He was also known as one of the great composers of the Renaissance period. Influencing not only composers in his homeland but those elsewhere. But he is also known for the variety in his styles. He seemingly mastered all the varying styles existing at the time.
He wrote hundreds of choral and keyboard works. Many of his keyboard pieces can be heard in “My Ladye Nevells Book” and “Parthenia.” The former, played on the harpsichord, was presented to Lady Nevell. It is considered one of the great works of the Renaissance period.
5 – Josquin Des Prez (1440–1521)
Better known informally by his first name, “Josquin.” He was a composer that may have been the first musician to have his name used for financial gain. He was so admired for his compositions that some pieces previously anonymous were attributed to him in an attempt to give them a sale value.
He was one of the most sought-after composers and musicians in his lifetime. This popularity had to do with the various styles of music that he could create. He wrote both Secular and Sacred Music and was able to convey great emotion through his work.
Much of his music survives to this day. Some of it is still recorded today. However, he is not as well-documented as some others.
Another to benefit from the printing press
His rise to fame was undoubtedly helped by getting this work into print. He may well have been the first composer to have a collection based on his work. This was produced by Petrucci, an Italian printer, and called “Misse Josquin.”
His work was known to have created a much simpler version of composing Polyphonic work. At the time, some composers saw complexity as important. Josquin created an easier way to compose and play while keeping the same effect.
6 – Alexander Agricola (1446-1506)
Alexander Agricola was born in what we now know as Holland. After his education, he entered service with Charles VII of France. This was probably an ill-fated and short-lived occupation given Charles’ desperate plight in the 100 Years War.
He soon found himself in Milan, but by 1474 was working for Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. After his Italian sojourn, which influenced him greatly, he returned to the Netherlands.
The Burgundian polyphonic school
This was a group of composers that, over the years, included Dufay and Dunstable. It was maintained by the powerful Dukes of Burgundy and housed a complete array of musicians and composers. Agricola was a member of this esteemed group from 1500 onwards.
His works from this time are found in much of the printed matter of the time and included Masses, Motets, and French chansons.
7 – Pierre de La Rue (1460–1518)
De la Rue was a Franco-Flemish composer but also a noted singer. Like Josquin, he wrote in a variety of styles, but with De La Rue, it was virtually always for voice. His preferred voices that used the lower registers.
The main characteristics that are evident in most of his work are the rhythmic patterns. He was also known for his melodies which were simple but very effective.
He is most remembered for composing one of the earliest Requiem masses that has survived from this period. Simply known as “Requiem,” it concentrates on those lower register voices he loved so much.
8 – Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652)
Allegri was based in Rome. He had quite a reputation there. Not only was he a priest, but he also sang in the papal choir. That meant that he got to perform in the Sistine Chapel. He was heavily influenced by Palestrina, who preceded him by fifty years. Palestrina himself had a high reputation in Rome and was considered one of the best composers of sacred music of his day.
This was Allegri’s most famous work. A piece that was also surrounded by intrigue. It was a psalm written for two choirs, each of four voices. It had a Polyphony of nine parts.
Along comes Wolfgang
Its popularity created a near-hysterical reaction by the pope to prevent people from hearing it outside the Sistine chapel. This, it was claimed, was to enhance the reputation of the choir. Although, it was never explained how it would do that. Likewise, its performance and notation were jealously guarded.
Just over 120 years after his death, Mozart was taken by his father to the Sistine chapel to hear it. They went a second time. Young 14-year-old Wolfgang went out and wrote it down by hand from memory. All the parts. As a result, he created the first copy of this influential work, unauthorized as it may have been.
It is now a very popular piece and played at choral events and concerts all over the world. And one must wonder if this would have been the case except for a young musical genius.
9 – Giovanni Gabrieli (1553–1612)
We started this 10 Important Renaissance Period Composers You Need To Know About by looking at Dufay and Dunstable. Two composers who took us from the Medieval period into the Renaissance. So, let’s close it with two more who took us from the Renaissance to the Baroque.
Gabrieli was one of those. This organist and composer was known for his compositions in the Venetian style. He preferred composing Sacred music. However, the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther had provoked a Catholic backlash. And now, adherents from both sides were ferociously using musical skills to confirm their own beliefs.
The Antiphone style
Today we might consider this creation “Stereo.” Gabrielli created music that used two groups of instruments or choirs. One group on the left and one on the right. One side would play or sing a phrase, and this would be answered by the group on the other side. As a result, this turned out to be the forerunner of some innovative ideas in the years to come.
10 – Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643)
Another Italian composer who took us from Renaissance to Baroque. He was a choirmaster and musician as well as composer. Also, he was what might be called a pioneer in the world of Opera. Furthermore, he is credited with having written “Orfeo,” which was the first dramatic Opera of its kind.
Much of his early work consisted of writing Madrigals. Secular polyphonic vocal music that usually featured between three and six voices. Additionally, his style of writing changed the way many composers thought about their work. In many ways, it was the perfect preparation for what was about to come.
Bach, Handel, Purcell, and Vivaldi were only starting to sharpen their writing pencils. But just as some important composers led us from the Medieval period, the Renaissance composers did the same to the Baroque.
The Renaissance was a time when some of the shackles were thrown off. Music was just one of them. Furthermore, Monteverdi was a composer who took it from one stage to the next. And if you want to, you can listen to Monteverdi’s Madrigals Book 2 to gain a fuller appreciation of his talent.
How Will You Listen to Great Renaissance Composers?
You can listen at home or on the go; all you need are some headphones or speakers. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Bookshelf Speakers Under $500, the Best Wireless Computer Speakers, the Best Floor Standing Speakers, the Loudest Portable Bluetooth Speakers, and the Best Wireless TV Speakers you can buy in 2023.
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And don’t miss our helpful guides on The Romantic Period of Music, some Amazing Facts About JS Bach, or some Amazing Facts About Mozart, plus A Guide to Musical Instruments of the Medieval Period to learn more about our fascinating musical history.
10 Important Renaissance Period Composers You Need To Know About – Final Thoughts
Our journey through the Renaissance period has taken us from an Englishman to the Franco-Flemish and Dutch composers. And it has finished with the Italians. From these composers would come 150 years of the Baroque period.
If you want to read about some of these great composers and their works, pick up a copy of Renaissance Polyphony to get started.
Until next time, let the music play.