Historians cite changes in intellectual life occurring around 1400 in Florence as the beginning of a cultural “rebirth” in Europe, the Renaissance. The Medici, one of the most powerful families in Tuscany, spearheaded many of these changes. As patrons of the arts, they created an environment where musical creativity flourished.
In music, the Renaissance produced advanced polyphony. Polyphony is defined by the use of independent melodic lines. Initially, polyphony featured only two autonomous melodic lines but soon composers used several (often four or five) independent lines. While there were experiments with polyphony during the High and Late periods of the Middle Ages, it became more complex and common during the Renaissance. Additionally, the interval of the third became more accepted as a harmonic consonance in polyphonic writing. The “third” is important in defining major and minor chords (see Chapter 6).
During this period, composition of sacred music continued, especially in Italy, the seat of Catholicism. However, the motet, the French chanson, and the madrigal (among other forms) became very popular vehicles for secular composition. In some cases, instruments accompanied these songs.
In the Renaissance, pure instrumental music also began to flourish in formal or courtly settings leading to the development of the chamber ensemble. These small groups were called consorts and they featured such instruments as the viol (early stringed instruments of various sizes), cornettos (early cornet), sackbut (early trombone), shawm (early oboe), kortholt (early bassoon), and the recorder. The lute—a guitar-like instrument—was arguably the most popular instrument from this period.
A madrigal is a secular, polyphonic song originally written for two, or occasionally three, voices. Developed in Italy, madrigals were often settings of Petrarch's (1304-1374) poetry. “Word painting” was a key feature of madrigals. When a composer uses word painting, music imitates the literal meaning of the text. For example, notes might ascend on the word “rise.” Later in Italy and in England, the madrigal expanded to five or sometimes six voices.
Key composers from the Renaissance include William Byrd, Guillaume Dufay, Josquin de Prez, Giovanni Gabrielli, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Claudio Monteverdi. The latter's innovations in counterpoint sparked the transition to the Baroque era.