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In the renaissance, music changed in almost all aspects. Like the renaissance in painting, sculpture, literature, and science, music experienced dramatic changes as reformist artists attempted to break away from the rigidity of the past rules of the profession. There were progressive attempts to focus on modernity and modern ideas, which resulted in a complete change of music styles, themes, and meaning. However, perhaps the most important aspect of a renaissance in music is the shift from sacred to secular. How is this shift illustrated in renaissance music? The purpose of this paper is to describe how the shift of musical themes from sacred to secular was illustrated in renaissance music.
Characteristics of sacred music of the Renaissance
In the renaissance era, motet and mass became the most popular musical styles.
Unlike the previous forms of music that were largely based on such music traditions of the catholic church as the presence of slow tone and in praise of God, the new renaissance sacred tunes changed significantly. The renaissance motet is exemplified in the works of Josquin Deprez and others. The shift from the rigid to free musical forms is represented in Deprez’s piece “Ave Maria… Virgo Serena…” It translates to “…Hail, Mary… serene virgin…” written in 1475. The song is a Latin prayer to the Virgin Mary. In the opening line, the song has a polyphonic imitation. In fact, this is a technique typical of the period (Atlas, 2008).
However, it indicates signs of a shift from the old sacred to the renaissance sacred music. For instance, after opening with a polyphonic imitation, the song changes in the consequent phrases. In this case, the ‘Ave Maria’ was performed using a soprano voice. However, the voice would then shift to alto, bass, and tenor. In addition, the consequent phrase “gratia plena” (which means “full of grace”), assumes a relatively different melody that shifts from one voice to another (Fenlon, 2009). It is worth noting that the shift in musical style was illustrated by overlapping of voices because one voice would enter the tune before the end of the preceding one (Atlas, 2008). The overlapping style was used to create a feeling of continuous flow, an aspect that was not common in the previous sacred music before the renaissance.
The renaissance mass also illustrates a number of changing aspects of music from the medieval sacred to a new sacred that was more harmonious and lively than the preceding styles (Atlas, 2008). For instance, Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina was a catholic musician but contributed to the development of renaissance music. Noteworthy, his music was modernized as a means of countering the accusations of catholic by Protestants and reformists. For instance, his song “Pope Marcellus Mass” was written between 1562 and 1563. This song was relatively new to Catholicism and played an important role in shifting from sacred to secular style. For example, unlike traditional music, this song had six voices instead of one or four (Brown, 2007). The first section was known as the Kyrie, which was a rich polyphonic section of the mass. The six voices were set to imitate each other. For example, the opening stanza reads “Kyrie eleison, Christie eleison, Kyrie eleison…” It allows the performers to use short words and repeat them with different melodic lines, which expresses calmness (Atlas, 2008). Noteworthy, the main aim of the song was not to praise the Lord or Christ, but to pray for and dedicate the pope, as the title suggests.
The Renaissance Secular music
Therefore, the new aspects of renaissance sacred music gave way to secular music. Vocal music was the initial secular style in the renaissance. It was set in the form of a poem, but ignored the previous traditions that emphasized on the use of Latin language. Throughout Europe, music was composed in various languages (Brown, 2007). The madrigal is one of the best examples of the early vocal music. Noteworthy, the themes in the new renaissance music changed from sacred to other social issues. For example, the song “As Vestas was Descending”, composed and printed in 1601 by Thomas Weekes is an example of renaissance madrigal in England. Unlike the sacred themes in the previous songs, this piece was written in honor of Queen Elizabeth I of England (Brown, 2007). The context allowed the composers to decorate some words such as “descending”, which was done in downward and upward scales, creating momentum. The phrase “first two by two… leaving the queen alone” starts with two voices before moving to four and six and finally ending with a solo (Atlas, 2008).
In addition, the Lute song was an important example of the renaissance secular music. It allowed the composers to borrow from foreign cultures. For instance, it borrows from the ‘ud’, an instrument popular in the Arab culture (Brown, 2007). A good example can be seen in John Dowland’s song “Flow my tears”, whose main theme was love. The song breaks the traditions of sticking to a single mood (Fenlon, 2009). It creates the moods of a person whose happiness has been shattered. For instance, words such as despair, tears, fear, woes, and groans create different moods in the song. In addition, it had a quick pace and was vigorous in some instances.
It is evident that the major aspect of music in the Renaissance era is the shift from sacred to secular forms. This phenomenon is illustrated by changes in the use of words, tones, tunes, inclusion of multiple voices and instruments. More important, the change of musical themes from sacred to secular provides evidence of the renaissance shift.
Atlas, A. W. (2008). Renaissance Music. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Brown, H. M. (2007). Music in the Renaissance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Fenlon, I. (2009). The Renaissance: from the 1470s to the End of the 16th Century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.