Music History Assignments for 12.1.2107

Hey Music History scholars! The WordPress site is not cooperating with me, and so we’ll go another route. Info is posted here for the material on the early Renaissance from class on November 17th. Thanks for your patience!

We discussed the period at the beginning of the Renaissance, roughly 1400-1450. At this time the philosophy of the intellectuals, artists, and musicians, was shifting from a focus on society to a focus on the individual. Some scholarly work that had recently been completed retranslated works by Aristotle and Plato, and newly translated other works from ancient Greece revived interest in the philosophies of these ancient thinkers and influenced the art, music, literature, and even government workings of the early 15th century.

The papal court moved back to Rome in 1377, and that change moved the power center of Europe from France back to Italy. France still maintained influence, though the effects of the 100 Years’ War with England and the defeat at Agincourt in 1415 drastically changed the way France was governed forever. However, French art and music continued to flourish.

The invention of the printing press, and the development of technology that allowed for repeated impressions on a single sheet (for instance, a sheet of music might have the staff printed first, then the press would be reset to add notes, then reset again to add text), made printing much cheaper. Books were available to lay people (non-clergy) and to the middle class where they had not been before. Composers could now print dozens of copies of their works and send them all over Europe. It is in this period that we start to see the first true superstars in music emerge. Composers found international fame in their lifetimes, and their works were used and adapted by other composers.

The Germans, as typical, were doing their own thing. In order to keep them in line and in connection to the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor ostensibly ruled over the whole region, though most of the principalities maintained their autonomy under a local duke or prince. Sons born into a particular family were generally expected to follow their elders and take up the family business. In essence, musicians were born and not made. If your father was a musician, you would be a musician, too. However, something different happening in the German states not happening elsewhere was the strong network of Guilds. Singers in guilds were known as Meistersangers, and the whole guild known as the Meistergesang. Training was provided by the guilds, which led to a way for people to make money at their profession. Remember, guilds were not just for musicians, but for almost every trade, like coppersmithing, printing, and baking. To be denied entrance into a guild meant you could not operate legally in that profession. It was a big deal.

The Germans love solo song, and they developed the Tenorlied (ten-or-leet), which was often a solo voice accompanied by two or more instruments. An example is here. Note the relatively simple melody of the singer and the more elaborate accompaniment in the instruments.

We listened to a couple of things by John Dunstable (Dunstaple), a famous English composer thought to possibly be the first composer to utilize thirds and sixths regularly in his compositions. Recall that 4ths and 5ths were much easier to tune because of mathematical principles derived from Pythagoras. (For more information on this that can amaze your friends at parties, try this cartoon.) This recording of Quam Pulchra Es has a relatively modern sound. Individual lines in his compositions were independent of one another, but had moments of forming triadic chords, such as his arrangement of the hymns Veni Sancte Spiritus/Veni Creator Spiritus.

Guillaume du Fay, a French composer, likely knew Dunstable and was influenced by his use of harmony. He developed a technique called Faux Bourdon that used rather fixed intervals throughout a composition, such as in Ave Maris Stella. Faux Bourdon used some semblance of triads, but unlike Dunstable’s lines that were independent (and created a more horizontal motion), du Fay’s faux bourdon was more vertical in its construction and lines were not independent of one another. Another example is heard in Supremum es mortabilis.

Du Fay also used the “cyclic mass,” which used the same Cantus Firmus (fixed voice, essentially the melody) in each movement. One popular melody used by many composers was the French folk song L’homme armee (the armed man). One of his masses using this melody is here.

Du Fay also liked to use his own melodies as the basis for a cantus firmus, such as Su la face ay pale used in a mass (here the Gloria movement), probably written for a wedding.

For next week, please choose a composer from last week’s list and prepare a two minute presentation on his life and compositions. Please see last week’s website post for more information. Thank you to those who have chosen your composer and let me know. For those of you who have not yet let me know your choice, please do so soon.

Early renaissance: file for download.



Heather R. Nelson, PhD

Singing Voice Specialist

Voice Teacher