Middle Ages and the Renaissance
During the Middle Ages in Europe, it became fashionable among royalty to have groups of musicians play to entertain the court of lesser nobles, visiting dignitaries, and various hangers-on surrounding them.
As these performing ensembles became larger and more organized, the nobility began retaining conductors and composers, the same person often filling both roles, to direct the players and provide new music. The fortunate outcome of this was that songwriters were subsidized to devote significant amounts of time to composing.
The Age of Rebirth
More musical changes would come with the dawn of the Renaissance, a word that means “rebirth”, because of the revival of older artistic styles in music as well as in other arts and sciences, which had been largely stagnant since the fall of the Roman Empire.
The Renaissance began in Italy in the fourteenth century and lasted until the sixteenth century. This period brought about an enormous shift in the fortunes of composers. As independence and creativity gained value, composers ventured beyond the restrictive forms of medieval music and developed more individual styles.
The introduction of the moveable-type printing press to Europe was another big change. Printed sheet music became relatively inexpensive and could be shipped to more places than a composer could possibly hope to travel. Taken together, these changes meant that, for the first time, it was possible for composers of music to become world renowned in their own lifetimes.
The lute, a guitar-like instrument, was one of the most popular instruments of the Renaissance period. Too quiet for large-ensemble music, the lute was often used by singers to accompany themselves in cozier settings, often to impress members of the opposite sex. Evidently, some things never change.
Ballet was a Renaissance innovation that combined court music with dance. Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx staged what many consider to be the first ballet in 1581. Originally, ballet used sung or spoken interludes to fill in the plot. As the art form developed, composers used music and dance to tell the story and stopped using lyrics. The earliest ballet dancers were French nobility, including King Louis XIV.
Another musical innovation of the Renaissance, the opera originated in Italy in the late-sixteenth century. The 1597 opera Dafne, by Italian composer Jacopo Peri, is considered by many to have been the first true opera. While no copies of Dafne exist, two complete operas from the year 1600 — one of them by Peri — have survived intact. Part of opera's importance is that it put emphasis on individual singers.