Discovering Classical Music
Discovering Classical Music

Chapter 4

Western Art Music to 1600

Chapter Ancillaries The Mass Translation

Medieval Music

The Middle Ages is the longest of the chronological style periods. The traditional date for the beginning of the Middle Ages is the fall of Rome in 479 AD. Medieval music then, includes the music of the 6th through the 14th centuries.

Although music was indisputably an important part of life during the so-called Dark Ages, it is the music of the Gothic era that we know most about. The simple reason for this is that pitch-specific musical notation only dates from around the milenium.

Guido's Hand

Developed by Guido d'Arezzo, the "Guidonian Hand" was a visual tool used in teaching sight-singing to singers.

The invention of staff notationInformationA staff is the five lines and the four spaces in between them that serves as a backdrop for musical notation. is usually attributed to an Italian theorist named Guido d'Arezzo, who lived near Rome in the 11th century. Guido is also credited with inventing solmization, the method of sight-singing using syllables like re, mi, fa, sol, la. He devised a clever song a bit like "Do, a Deer, a Female Deer" to help the choirboys learn how to sing chant melodies at sight. Having them do that saved a lot of time in rehearsal because it was no longer necessary to teach singers every song by rote.

The first notated repertoire of music in Western culture is plainsong, also called Gregorian chant after Pope Gregory I, who legend tells us composed many of these liturgical songs. In truth, the pope did not compose plainsong; the lack of a pitch-specific notation would preclude that. More likely, he initiated and supervised an effort to collate the large body of liturgical song that had already accumulated by the 7th century.

For the sake of clarification, plainsong is a broader term than Gregorian chant. It encompasses Ambrosian chant from Milan, Gallican chant from France, Coptic chant from Egypt, and Mozarabic chant from moorish Spain. Chant scholars investigate all these sources, but Gregorian chant is the classic liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church in most areas of the world, including America.

Where in America does one go to hear Gregorian chant sung? Certainly not in your local parish church. Since Vatican II (1962-65), most congregations have moved in the direction of American popular styles for their liturgical music. With the exception of monasteries, a few large churches, like cathedrals and basilicas in major cities like Chicago and New York with paid choirs, plainsong is no longer used in worship.

Although it is hard to find live performances of chant, there are many recordings available. The music is very relaxing to listen to, even if you don't understand the Latin text. Generally, it's not the words people are interested in, it's the music. The Dies Irae ("Day of Wrath"), from the Mass for the Dead (Requiem) is a good example. The text is not a very soothing one; it speaks of the Day of Judgment when the earth will be consumed by God's anger. It's a musical (but not chronological) analogue to Michelangelo's famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But the music is still serene. What makes it so? What are the characteristics of chant?

Chant Characteristics Monophonic: There is no harmony or counterpointInformation"Point against point." Polyphony. The relationship between musical voices that are harmonically related, but melodically independent., only melody. The melodic lines are carefully constructed to avoid large leaps and awkward intervals so they can be sung unaccompanied in unison.

Modal: The available pitch set from which the melodies are taken is a seven-note series that resembles our modern major and minor scales. The eight modes used for chant form the basis of medieval music theory and are still used today.

Non-metric: The rhythm of the song is entirely based on the text. It's a phrase rhythm rather than a metric rhythm. There is nothing in the notation to tell the singers precisely how long to hold each note or syllable. There is no feeling of a beat, much less of consistently recurring patterns of long/short or strong/weak.

Texted: The sacred Latin text is either Biblical or liturgical. Many of the texts are taken directly from the Mass.
Pope Gregory

A famous and beautiful myth about the origin of plainsong tells us that a dove came down from heaven and sang into the ear of Pope Gregory the Great. These sacred melodies, dictated by the Holy Spirit, were written down by Pope Gregory's scribe and became known as Gregorian Chant.

painting: St. Gregory by Matthias Stomm (1600-1652)

While this music is arcane, it is not abstruse. It still has an appeal, both as functional liturgical music and as pleasant facilitator to relaxation. It also has scholastic value, because the principles of melody established in plainsong continue to influence composition through the 19th century. Composers of the Renaissance often borrowed and paraphrased plainsong melodies in their masses and motets. We'll investigate this more later.

Secular Music

If you stop reading here, you'll have the impression that the only music heard in the Middle Ages was plainsong. Of course, that is not the case. Secular music played an important role in medieval life. People sang and danced and played instruments, just as they do today. Of course, not very many people were trained to read and write notation, so most of the musicians played by ear or memory. There are no scores of this popular music that allow us to reconstruct the sound with any certainty, the way we do in the Renaissance. But we know from contemporary accounts that music was present at all kinds of secular events from weddings to jousting tournaments to coronations. There were even bands of peripatetic musicians and actors known jongleurs who traveled from village to town entertaining the common and well-born alike.

There is a repertoire of secular monophony that we know a lot about, largely because the composers and performers came from a social class that taught and encouraged them to write down their music. They were theTroubadours, and their relatives the Trouveres and the Minnesingers. These are the 12th century composers of chivalric song who glorified the women they loved and immortalized them in verse. The art of courtly love certainly included music.


Also in the Gothic era, notably in England, Spain and France, examples of polyphony begin to appear. Polyphonic music features the combination of two or more melodies to form musical texture (fabric). Early polyphony, known as organum, is very simple with one voice simply shadowing the other at a predetermined interval, usually a perfect fourth or fifth. It sounds hollow. There is very little rhythmic interest or contrast between the voices. As the practice became more advanced, composers attained a very high level of proficiency, combining an active, florid melody with a more static one. To do that, they required a more advanced system of rhythmic notation.

Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Biographical Sketch
Hildegard was the abbess of the Benedictine convent of Rupertsberg in the Rhine valley near the German city of Trier. She is known for her mystic and literary works, including recorded visions, medical and scientific treatises, hagiography, letters and lyrical and dramatic poetry, much of which has survived with monophonic music notation. In her lifetime she was famous for her prophecies and miracles (she was known as the "Sybil of the Rhine") and was consulted by and corresponded with popes, kings and emperors on diplomatic, political and religious issues of the day.

Hildegard's lyrical poetry is collected under the title Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum [symphony of the harmony of heavenly revelations]. In this work she expresses a mystical, visionary concept of faith that contrasts to the rational mainstream views of her scholastic contemporaries. The music consists of liturgical monophonic chants, primarily sequences, and a play with music called Ordo virtutum [The enactment of the virtues]. In it the Devil and the sixteen virtues battle for a Christian soul. It is by far the oldest example that exists of a "morality play," an allegorical drama that became extremely popular in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Though filled with repeated melodic patterns, Hildegard's plainchants are highly elaborate, with unusually wide ranges that reflect the visionary imagery of the texts.

The 13th century is notable for a great creative flourish at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Sacred music there under the direction of two famous musicians, Leonin and Perotin, became more sophisticated, especially in the area of rhythm. They developed a system that permitted accurate notation of fairly complex rhythmic patterns. Early polyphony flourished alongside plainsong rather than replacing it. The second half of the century brought about the genre called the motet, which combined secular French texts with sacred Latin words in the same song. The Gothic motet is different from the Renaissance motet, which is discussed in the next lecture.

In the 14th century, art music takes on an even greater sophistication. Composers like Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) exploit developments in rhythmic notation to produce extremely complex sacred and secular works. Mathematical proportions, which had figured into the calculation of pitch since ancient Greece, began to dominate the structure of music, permitting composers to produce much longer works.

The most famous of these was Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame, a complete musical setting of the Mass Ordinary. The Ordinary is the text of the Mass that remains constant throughout the liturgical year. For example, the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) is the same for Christmas or Easter or the Feast of Corpus Christi. This is in contrast to the Proper texts, which vary according to the liturgical occasion. The obvious advantage for a composer in setting the Ordinary is that the music can be used at any time during the church year rather than being reserved for a particular season or feast day. The Mass will become the most important musical genre of the Renaissance. We will examine that in more depth in the next lecture.

Renaissance Music

When speaking of music, the Renaissance is generally understood to refer to the 15th and 16th centuries. It is a classic period in that it seeks the goals of classic art. The word ORB is a useful mnemonic aid for these characteristics. Classic art is:Objective. It deals more with ideas than ideals, more with thought than feeling, more with the cognitive than the affective creative impulse.Restrained. Classic art is never extravagant, exaggerated, or hyperbolic.Balanced. The emphasis is on form, symmetry, and structure rather than on the expression of feeling at the expense of those things.Classic studies center around classical languages and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome. The academies of the Renaissance sought the rebirth of this perspective.

Romantic art is, by contrast, subjective, extravagant, and expressive or emotive in nature. The Middle Ages represent the romantic point of view, especially the Gothic era.


Objective: Art focuses on ideas and thoughts. It rejects subjective elements such as feelings and affective creative impluses.

Restrained: Art is never extravagant, exaggerated, or hyperbolic.

Balanced: Art is form/structurally centric.

The field of Renaissance music is one that has inspired much scholarly investigation. A very famous book on the subject by Gustav ReeseInformationGustav Reese (1899-1977) was a founding member of the American Musicological Society. Musicology literally means the "study of music." In an academic sense, musicology is generally thought of as the study of music history of the Western world; however, musicologists will often incorporate a wide range of topics into their research from music aesthetics to psychoacoustics. goes on for some 700 pages, and many subsequent volumes have followed. It is during the 15th century that composers begin to achieve international status. The quantity of surviving art music from the period is staggering.

Most of this music is vocal and much of it is sacred, but there is also much secular music, and more surviving instrumental (mainly dance) music than you might imagine. Nearly every major European library contains impressive collections of part books and scores in manuscript. Another important aspect is the beginning of music printing around the year 1500,InformationJohanness Gutenberg (c. 1435-1468) created the first movable type printing press. The "Gutenburg Bible," the first majorpublication was printed around 1450. The ability to print and distribute music and books had a profound impact on the world and led to a greater standardization of liturgies. which disseminated editions of famous composers all over Europe.

The Mass

The principal sacred genres of this time were the Mass and the motet.InformationEven though motets written during Renaissance are in Latin, the word motet is actually derived from the French word mot which means "word." Musically, motet is a rather general term used to label sacred choral compositions, which are not masses, that were written during Renaissance era. Unlike many other musical labels, motet does not indicate a specific musical form or structure, but simply that the composition is a sacred work for choir. The Renaissance motet is discussed further below. As you know from the last lecture, complete settings of the Mass Ordinary started to appear in the 14th century, but the Mass really came into its prime in the 15th century. A Mass typically has six movements: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. These movements (pieces that make up a larger work) are often unified by the use of a melody borrowed from plainsong or even from a secular song, and the titles of Masses reflect this: Missa Pange Lingua or Missa l'homme arme are famous examples that come to mind. If you buy a CD of Masses by Palestrina or Josquin des Prez, you'll see such titles used to distinguish one Mass setting from the other. The polyphonic Mass really is the most important genre of the Renaissance and major composers often wrote many of them.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Palestrina (c.1525-1594)

Biographical Sketch
Palestrina ranks as one of the greatest musical figures of the second half of the Sixteenth Century. No composer is more closely identified with the Catholic Church than Palestrina. For more than forty years he served either as the Pope's composer (he worked for ten different Popes) or as the musical director of one of the principal Roman churches. He was primarily a composer of sacred, liturgical music (104 polyphonic mass settings are attributed to Palestrina) and motets, but also wrote about 140 secular madrigals.

Palestrina perfected the art of musical counterpoint and placed it in the service of the Church. He worked during a period of Catholic Church history called the Counter Reformation, when the Church struggled to justify itself against the threat of the northern European reformist churches. Catholic leaders demanded clear musical textures and purity in polyphony so that sacred texts could be understandable. Palestrina's genius lay in his ability to combine textural clarity with a sensual melodic style and an evenly flowing rhythmic pulse that fulfilled the Church's needs while making the sound of the music satisfying and beautiful. To the present day Palestrina's compositional style is considered the classic model for contrapuntal music, the perfect musical offering to God.

Although he wrote some secular music, Palestrina is primarily celebrated for the sacred music he composed which include 104 Masses, over 250 motets, and over 200 other liturgical pieces (psalms, MagnificatsInformationMeaning "My soul magnifies", a canticle frequently sung at Catholic services using the words of Mary., LamentationsInformationRenaissance composers took interest in Jeremiah's Lamentations, Jeremiah 1:1-14, and settings are presented during Holy Week in the Catholic church., hymns, etc.). These works are written for a cappella voices, and the majority contain 4 to 8 independent voice parts (a handful of motets are written for 12 voice parts).

Some of Palestrina's best known compositions include:

The Motet

Like the Mass, the Renaissance Motet is a polyphonic sacred work in Latin meant to be sung by a choir of 4-8 parts, a cappella. That means, literally, the way they do it in the chapel; and chapels of this period usually had no organs, so it means unaccompanied. Although the musical style of Mass and Motet are the same, the Motet differs from the Mass in that it is a single piece rather than a set of six. Motets are used mainly for the items of the Proper, the part of the Mass that varies in text according to the liturgical occasion. For instance, the Introit for Christmas is "A child to us is born," while the one for Easter is "He is risen!" These texts are always in Latin and usually taken from Scripture or the prayer book.

This music is not easy to sing and definitely requires trained musicians and ample rehearsal time. In the Renaissance, all-male choirs were maintained by wealthy aristocrats in their private chapels and by a few cathedrals and basilicas. Often the composers were singers in the choirs or even the directors. Masses and Motets were not music that the congregation could participate in, and this is exactly what reformers like Martin Luther objected to. Oddly enough, Luther was a musician and a great admirer of the greatest composer of the 15th century, Josquin des Prez, who, incidentally, was a contemporary of Christopher Columbus (In 1492. . .). Josquin was from the area now known as the Netherlands but, like most great musicians of the period, worked in Italy for a good portion of his career.


The greatest composer of the late Renaissance is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who flourished in Rome during the period often referred to as the Counter-reformation, the second half of the 16th century. Palestrina composed over a hundred Mass settings and as many Motets and served all four of the most important churches in Rome. His influence on succeeding generations of musicians cannot be overstated because his style later came to be a paradigm for composition of polyphonic vocal music.

By the 18th century, all composers were trained in the contrapuntal practice deduced from studying the works of Palestrina. Mozart studied it with Padre Martini, Beethoven studied it with Haydn, and so forth. It is still taught today in every college and conservatory in the Western world. This makes Palestrina one of the most influential composers in the history of music.

Secular Music

While Josquin wrote both sacred and secular music, Palestrina wrote primarily sacred polyphony. But there was a thriving culture of secular art music throughout Europe and England. The most important genres are the madrigal and the chanson. If you were in a really good choral program in high school, you probably sang some madrigals by composers like Thomas Morley. English madrigals were all the rage around 1600. They are also polyphonic but usually were sung by one singer on a part, rather than by a choir. The texts were in the vernacular and dealt mainly with love, often unrequited. Madrigals were usually copied or printed in part books and sung sitting around a table at home, mainly for the amusement of the singers.

Madrigals were very popular in Italy even before they were brought to England, and the Italian texts of these songs were sometimes the work of great poets, like Petrarch. The art of part singing was cultivated among the cultured people of cities like Florence, and men and women sang them together in contrast to the all-male ensembles of the churches. Composers like Luca Marenzio wrote some little masterpieces in this genre. A popular example of this is Scendi dal paradiso, Venere.

Secular polyphonic music was also very popular in France, where the chanson flourished. It was much like the madrigal although generally more homophonicInformationA musical texture occuring when two or more voices sing in the same rhythm on different pitches, creating chords. in style. The Spanish equivalent is the villancico.


The recording industry has done a great service to the revival of Renaissance music. Although the classical segment of the market is only about 1% and early music a small corner of that, there are now available recorded examples of all the major composers in all the genres of the period. Unless one seeks out live performances of early music in major cities or attends a university with a thriving collegium musicum, recorded performances are likely to be the only ones heard.

So where can you go to hear live Renaissance music performed? Besides the two places just mentioned, there are few. Modern churches don't use polyphonic sacred music. It requires a professional choir and lots of rehearsal; and besides, modern tastes don't call for it. In fact, the function of this music has now changed. No longer functional worship music, it has become concert music presented to a select taste by groups of specialists.

The market niche may be small, but the aesthetic value of the music remains great, and its historical importance to Western culture cannot be overestimated.

Renaissance Summary
General Characteristics
  • The Renaissance lasted from approximately 1400 to 1600.

  • Renaissance literally means "rebirth". Musically, it began in the Netherlands and spread to the rest of Europe.

  • Renaissance aesthetic included a humanist element that placed a greater emphasis on the dignity of man and the possibilities of human life in this world.

  • The Protestant Reformation,InformationThe Protestant Reformation is a major Christian schism in the Western world. It led to the creation of churches and liturgy that is independent of the Roman Catholic Church. The movement began in 1517 when one of its leaders, Martin Luther, posted on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. occurred during the Renaissance

  • O.R.B.: The art and music of this period is Objective, Restrained, and Balanced.

  • Unlike pop culture today, melodrama and showmanship were not celebrated during the Renaissance.

  • Much of the music is highly imitative.InformationImitation is a compositional device where one melodic idea appears in another part a measure or two later. All canons, or rounds (like "row row row your boat"), for example, are simply imitative on a larger scale.

  • Many composers borrowed plainchant melodies to base their music around. Often times, a work would get its name from the chant, or cantus firmus, that the piece was based upon. For example, Josquin Des Pres (sometimes just referred to as "Josquin") wrote a Pange lingua Mass which uses motivic fragments and melodies from the Gregorian Hymn, Pange lingua."

  • Most sacred music is now sunga cappella; however, during the Renaissance voices were often doubled by a few instruments.

  • Most Renaissance sacresd music is highly polyphonic.Information Polyphony is a standard texture in music where two or more voices or parts, each with an independent melody, operate harmonically as well. HomophonicInformation Homophony is also a standard texture in music, but unlike polyphony, homophony occurs when the voices or parts move together. moments are often reserved to punctuate important text.

  • HarmonicInformationMusical sonorities consisting of pitches sounded simultaneously; chords. changes are more subtle than in other periods of music. One does not have a strong sense of harmonic progression.

  • Melodic lines are very singable and rarely include large leaps up or down. The melodies are reserved and conjunct.

  • Major Composers
    Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594)
    Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
    Pietro Vinci (c. 15351584)

    Josquin Des Prez (1440-1521)
    Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474)
    Orlando de Lassus (1530-1594)
    Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410-1497)
    Johannes Tinctoris (c. 1435-1511)

    Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)
    Cristóbal de Morales (c. 15001553)
    Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)

    Thomas Tallis (1510-1585)
    Thomas Morley (1557-1603)
    William Byrd (1543-1623)

    Heinrich Schtz (1585-1672)

    Chapter 4 Music for Listening