Renaissance – 1400 to 1600

This period of music can also be called the “ELIZABETHAN PERIOD” and includes the period of history called the “Reformation”. The Renaissance is a fascinating mix of musical styles, instruments and cultures. Set against the political and religious turmoil of the period, music evolved rapidly with the effects still being felt today.


Thomas Tallis 1505 – 1585. Considered one of England’s greatest early composers. He was the first composer to compose Anthems using English, rather than Latin, text. He composed a 40-part motet, Spem in alium, for eight Choirs, each with 5 parts.

John Taverner 1490 – 1545. Taverner was the leading English composer of his generation, and one of the most influential of English composers. Much of Taverner’s music was apparently composed early in his life, before the effects of the Reformation could be fully felt in England and before continental compositional practice would have its full influence. He is best known for his large-scale sacred choral music: several masses, votive antiphons, and Magnificats.

 William Byrd 1540 – 1623. English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard (the so-called Virginalist school) and consort music.

Thomas Morley 1557- 1602. He was the most famous composer of secular music in Elizabethan England and was an organist at St Paul’s Cathedral.

John Downland 1563- 1626. He influenced popular consort songs, and the dance music of the day. Most of his music is for the lute. It includes several books of solo lute works, lute songs (for one voice and lute), part-songs with lute accompaniment, and several pieces for viol consort with lute.

Giovanni Palestrina 1525 – 1594. He has had a lasting influence on the development of church music, and his work has often been seen as the culmination of Renaissance polyphony (Mass and Motet).

Orlando di Lasso 1532–1594. Lasso was no doubt the greatest Renaissance composer, fluent in any style of the time: Villanella, Chanson, Motet, Madrigal, Hymns, Lamentations,… And he was fluent in French, Italian, German and Latin, too. Over 2000 secular and spiritual works have survived to this day. Many another composer would envy both his productivity and the care with which his works were kept for posterity. Along with Palestrina, he is today considered to be the chief representative of the mature polyphonic style of the Renaissance,

Orlando Gibbons 1582 – 1625. One of the most versatile English composers of his time, He wrote a quantity of keyboard works, around thirty fantasias for viols, a number of madrigals (the best-known being “The Silver Swan”), and many popular verse anthems. His choral music is distinguished by his complete mastery of counterpoint, combined with his wonderful gift for melody.

Gregorio Allegri 1582 –  1652. An Italian composer of the Roman School. He was also a priest and a singer. He lived mainly in Rome, where he would later die. Listen to his piece, Crucifixus.

Keyboard Instruments

Click photo for more Renaissance Instruments

Harpsichord, Clavichord, Spinnet, Organ, Virginal

Stringed Instruments

Viol family, Lute

Wind Instruments

Recorders, Sackbut, Schaum, Rackett

Vocal Music

1. Secular Music – Songs often accompanied by the lute e.g. glees, catches, rounds, Madrigals

2. Sacred Music: – Anthem (English) Mass and Motet (Latin). Listen to Crucifixus by Gregorio Allegri.

The Sang Schule tradition in Scotland.

Dances – Pavane (slow); Galliard (fast)

One of my favourite composers of the Renaissance period is Giovanni Gabrieli. He was the first composer to put dynamic markings into his compositions! However, his music is wonderful. Another fantastic album of Renaissance pieces is My Delyt by the Kincorth Waits. Have a listen to this…. wow!

Click here for information on the Reformation and its effects in Europe and Britain.

Anthem, Antiphonal, Ballett, Chant, Consort, Counter-tenor, Galliard, Madrial, Mass, Modal, Mode, Motet, Pavan, Plainchant and Recorder.

Anthem – Short sacred choral piece sung in English. Sometimes sung by a choir unaccompanied (A cappella) and sometimes accompanied by organ and featuring solo parts. The anthem is the Protestant equivalent of the Motet.
Antiphonal – Dialogue between voices or instruments – one group of voices or instruments answers the other.
Ballett – A type of madrigal in strophic form that was originally danced to. It features a fa-la-la refrain at the end of each verse. See Madrigal and Strophic.
Chant – A series of chords to which the words of psalms are sung in the Church of England.
Consort – A small group of instruments of the same family playing together, e.g. a consort of viols. The term usually applies to music from the Renaissance period.
Countertenor – A male adult voice whose range is higher than a tenor’s. The strong and pure tone is produced by resonances mainly in the head. This type of voice was very popular until the end of the 18th century. See Tenor.
Galliard – A Renaissance court dance that follows the Pavan. A galliard is quick and lively with three beats in a bar.
Madrigal – In the Renaissance era, this was a non-religious work, polyphonic in style, using imitation. Features of madrigal include text in English, use of word painting, through-composed music, usually sung A cappella. See Ballett and Word painting. (Extended definition. An ayre (air or song) is a madrigal that can be performed by a solo voice with lute accompaniment; by solo voice accompanied by other instruments; or with all parts sung by voices with or without accompaniment.)
Mass – In the Renaissance era the Mass was a sacred choral work using the five main sections of the Roman Catholic church liturgy. Features of the Mass include Latin text and polyphonic texture, and it is usually sung a capella. Originally used in church worship, but in later years the Mass became a large-scale work for chorus, soloists and orchestra. See Anthem, Motet, Polyphony and A cappella.
Modal – Term used to describe music based on a mode, a type of early scale used before major and minor keys were developed. Modes are used in jazz and pop music for improvising.
Mode – Usually refers to any of the early scales called modes, e.g. Dorian mode. It can also be used more generally as a reference to major mode (in a major key) or minor mode (in a minor key). See Modal.
Motet – In the Renaissance era this was a sacred choral work with Latin text and polyphonic texture. It was usually sung A cappella. See Anthem and Mass.
Pavan – Also pavane. A Renaissance court dance linked with the Galliard. The pavan is slow and stately with two beats in the bar
Plainchant – Also known as Plainsong and Gregorian chant. Unaccompanied melody set to words of the Roman Catholic liturgy, such as the Mass. Plainchants are modal and have no regular metre. They follow the rhythm of the Latin words.
Recorder – There are four main types of this wind instrument: descant, treble, tenor and bass.
Renaissance – Rebirth of interest in classical times of the distant past. In music, the word refers to the style of music from the period from about 1450 to 1600, i.e. between Medieval and Baroque.
Suite – A set of dances or a collection of pieces that are part of a larger scale work.

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