Music of the Renaissance

The Renaissance period of western music lasted from 1400 to 1600, bridging the Medieval and Baroque periods with its own unique style. This was the era in which polyphonic music – music with multiple, independent melody lines – first began to exert its dominance, and the invention of the printing press made it easier for composers and musicians to share ideas. The first operas premiered during this era, and both sacred and secular music displayed bold new experiments in harmonizing and counterpoint. Several new instruments began to show up during this period as well, such as viols, primitive guitars, and even early trombones, while existing instruments such as the harpsichord and clavichord were refined and improved upon. It was an age of innovation, and the composers, musicians, and instrument makers rose to the occasion.

Here are just a few of the many amazing composers who brought this fascinating period to life:

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (1566-1613)opens a new window is perhaps better remembered for his bloodstained personal life than his music, but he was nevertheless one of the most adventurous and innovative composers of the Renaissance. He utilized a series of almost chaotic chromatic progressions in his works, a stylistic choice which had never been utilized by anyone before and which would not be attempted again until the 19th century.

Josquin des Prez (1450/55-1621)opens a new window is often considered to be one of the greatest Renaissance composers. Extremely versatile, he composed a wide variety of sacred and secular works, fully embraced the developing polyphonic style of vocal music, and dabbled in nearly every mode of composition in existence at the time. Many works initially attributed to him have been reattributed to others in recent years, but he still remains one of the most prolific composers of the period.

John Dowland (1563-1626)opens a new window is one of the best-known English composers from this period. He specialized in madrigals and consort music, and most of his pieces are characterized by a sort of haunting melancholy. Though he drifted into obscurity after his death, his work was thrust back into the spotlight in the early 20th century due to the renewed interest in early music, and his intricate string compositions have found favor with many modern lute players and classical guitarists.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)opens a new window was another extremely versatile composer. Best known for his sacred works, he also produced Terpsichore, a compendium of over 300 secular dance pieces, and many of his compositions represent an effort to reconcile Italian musical themes with the prevailing style of his native Germany. Praetorius’s greatest contribution to music, however, was his meticulous documentation of contemporary music theory which enabled the major early music revivals in the 20th century.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)opens a new window was a representative of the Roman school of music composition. He composed sacred music almost exclusively, and appeared to have a negative opinion on “profane” music in general – though that apparently didn’t stop him from composing two books of secular madrigals! Palestrina’s composition style, which emphasized dynamic flow and keeping dissonance to a minimum, streamlined polyphonic composition technique and left a tremendous impact that lasted well into the Baroque period and beyond.

You can find recordings featuring these composers and many more in our catalogopens a new window!

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of St. Louis Public Library