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The Evolution of Classical Music (The Renaissance Era), Pt. 1

Classical music is a broad term that refers to music written in a Western musical tradition, usually following an established form (for example a symphony or sonata), and is typically regarded as serious music of lasting value. Classical music is generally split into 7 eras: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th century and Modern. Today we will be looking at the Renaissance Era.

The Renaissance Era started in 1400 and lasted until 1600, coming after the peak of the Renaissance art era. Both religious and non-religious music thrived during this era, which is split into three phases: Early Renaissance, Middle Renaissance, and Late Renaissance.

The Early Renaissance (1400-1467) was centered around the Burgundian School and dominated by Northern European composers. Early Renaissance music was similar to late Medieval music, but less syncopated and more focused on harmonic cadenzas. Church composers Johannes Ockegem and Jacob Obrecht began to experiment more with polyphony in their masses, making music increasingly more elaborate with many different independent voices weaved together into one texture.

Listen to a composition by Johannes Ockegem here:

The most important composer of this Early Renaissance period was a Franco-Flemish composer, Guillame Dufay (1397-1474). A central figure in the Burgundian school, he served as a key transitional figure between the medieval and Renaissance periods of classical music. He was known for his choral works (he was one of the first composers to experiment with 4-part choral writing), his smooth and flowing melodic style, and his intricate use of polyphony.

Listen to a composition by Guillame Dufay here:

The Middle Renaissance began in the late 15th century and lasted until the early 16th century. During this period, composers started using a printing press to print their music, which allowed them to reach a larger audience for a cheaper price.

This period is generally referred to as “the Golden Age of Polyphony.” However, in the late 16th century, the Council of Trent issued edicts discouraging the use of excessive polyphony in music because they believed that it complicated the understanding of sacred texts. As a result, by the early 16th century, composers began to re-embrace simpler forms of harmony popular in the Medieval Era.

One of the greatest composers from this era was a French composer named Josquin des Prez. He popularized the use of imitation, in which melodic themes are introduced in one voice and imitated in other voices, and he was also a great master of word painting in vocal music, crafting beautiful melodic lines that bring out the meaning of the words rather than emphasizing musical structure like previous composers. Today, his sacred motets are still widely taught in music schools around the world.

Listen to one of his motets here:

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