Renaissance Polyphony: The Foundation of Modern Western Music Renaissance Polyphony: The Foundation of Modern Western Music The music of the Renaissance was essentially the beginning of all modern musical thought- the first to truly integrate various forms of harmony with definite structure. The music provided rapid and significant advancements in harmony within western music, evolving from the parallel lines of Ars Nova and culminating in the base ingredients for tonality and monodic chord analysis all in a relatively short period of two hundred years.
The evolution of Renaissance polyphony expanded tonal harmony through the use of multiple voices and their interval relationships, established aural and music technicality conventions, and provided the groundwork for all tonality based western music. The foundation of Renaissance polyphony can be found in the organum of the eleventh century and more specifically in the ars nova which came to prominence in the fourteenth century. Organum briefly appeared in the tenth century but was dismissed by the Catholic Church and did not become popular until the eleventh century.
Organum was the first notable use of harmony in the western world and was the first genre to more than one voice part (in this case, two). Composers took melodies from Gregorian chant and extended them harmonically with parallel fifths and especially parallel fourths. The intervals of the perfect fourth, fifth, and octave were considered the only concords during this period and use of other intervals was considered cacophonous. Later organum used stepwise motion within the mode of the composition to reach the concord interval as well as to move in oblique motion to end in a unison.
Organum from the Notre Dame school based out of Paris in the thirteenth century even created the first contrary motion, with one voice moving from unison upward a step and the other downward by a minor third to form a perfect fourth interval (Ferguson, 46-47). From late organum the ideas of Ars Nova were established, becoming standardized and prevalent through the writings of composers and music theorists Marchetto of Padua and Phillip de Vitry. Vitry coined the term Ars Nova, which means “new art”, in a music theory essay in order to separate the concept from Ars Antiqua, a reference to music before harmony (Pirrotta).
Ars Nova was founded upon three new principles, the first two of which are still felt today (in non-serialist music). The first is the concordance of third and sixth intervals, which became the basis for all modern tonal music. It was also during this period, particularly within the writings of Walter Odington, where the harmonious aspects of major and minor thirds were first theorized. The second principle is the minimal use of parallel fifths, fourths, and octaves. This ban on the use of parallel fifths and octaves is still prominent today.
Finally, the third principle of Ars Nova is the allowance of small amounts of discord. Discord was used both for the purpose of creating small amounts of tension and release but mostly for passing motion between consonant intervals. Discord was not encouraged, however, and was permitted on the weaker beats of a piece only (Ferguson, 70-72). As Ars Nova moved forward into the early Renaissance it began to expand harmonically to include more oblique and similar motion.
This new concept is referred to as polyphony, or two or more voices moving in melodic independence. Though Ars Nova also had independent voice movement, the newer polyphony had differed in style and complexity. The new style of polyphony contained both more voices and more variety in its use of harmony between melody lines (more variety in the intervals between voices). The use of modes in music theory was beginning to shift as well, moving from the 12 modes used by the Greeks and in the Middle Ages to the 8 modes considered in modern tonality (Reese, 185).
These were further expanded with the formal introduction of the accidental in the late fourteenth century into the early Renaissance. The accidental had been used sparingly for centuries, either lower the seventh scale degree a half step to avoid the tritone with the fourth degree or to accent the third and sixth scale degrees’ tendency to resolve to a perfect interval, but found universal use and acceptance only in the (Pirrotta). The early Renaissance polyphonic music was the first true overlap of secular music into uses in sacred music.
It became common for composers to use secular tunes as a basis for their melodies, often not even altering them. Composers then layered their compositions with contrapuncture, often with those second melodies chopping and splicing the original melody. Secular tunes even became the basis for many sixteenth century masses.. The practice of using folk melodies continued on after the Renaissance (though theoretically banned with the Council of Trent), especially in nationalist and traditionalist composers in the twentieth century.
The undeniable master of involving secular music in sacred polyphony was Josquin des Pres, who based almost all his sacred music compositions on secular tunes. Josquin was born around the year 1450 and was culturally French, though originally of Flemish decent. He was a member of the Papal Choir for 8 years and served as maestro to various cathedrals throughout Milan and Cologne, among others. Notably works included his 16 masses, which were composed in a paraphrase mass style, and his 61 motets. Musically Josquin is inarguably considered the finest composer of the middle Renaissance (Reece, 235).
The early Renaissance polyphony was the first to utilize many other concepts of tonal music theory. The music of the early period was the first to place emphasis on the cadence at the end of a composition. This was usually done either with the use of stepwise motion downward in the tenor voice or with the leading tone (raised 7th step) in the highest voice going to tonic, with all voices ending in unison or octaves. Rhythmic innovations included the first use of tuplets, which used abnormal divisions of the beat contrary to the key signature.
The most common combination was using triplet rhythms into simple meter, such as three notes divided into two beats. The most significant form of composition for the majority of the Renaissance was the Mass, a sacred choral composition which bases around six main sections as well as smaller vocal bits. Many of the masses of the day were composed around a lead tenor who sung a cantus firmus, the melody and most often a tune taken from Gregorian chant, with polyphonic harmonies independent of the melody provided by the choir.
By the middle of the fifteenth century cyclic masses, which had a unified cantus firmus through each of the main six movements, became popular. By the middle of the sixteenth century the mass had been surpassed by the motet, which was a multiple voiced choral composition but with reliance on a central cantus firmus. Moving into the sixteenth century the melodic lines of the counterpoint began to become more isorhythmic and the polyphony more complex. Composers began to experiment with multiple melodies layered isorhythmically and having more independence between the voices.
The modal system continued to decline due to the expanded use of accidentals and modulation. The Ionian mode (now considered major) and Aeolian mode (now considered natural minor) took what would become permanent dominance in this period, with the other 6 modes falling into the background. The music of the middle and later Renaissance was greatly impacted by the advancement of new printing technology, which allowed mass produced, accurate copies of music to be sold and distributed throughout civilized Europe (Furgeson, 123).
This allowed new musical ideas to be accurately transported and shared throughout the European continent. Additionally the use of printed music led to a standardized music notation technique, such as the introduction of standard oval notes for music as compared to square shaped noteheads and standard clef designs (Reese, 289). Coinciding with the advancement of printing technology came a rise in the prominence of the patronage system in music. This increased the impact of individual composers, giving them more value and power in the music market.
This also lead to a slight variance away from the secularly based music of composers like Josquin as composers no longer needed to find approval from the general population but instead from small groups of associates, contemporaries, and patrons (Ferguson, 118). Both the system of patronage and the growing division of secular and sacred music would culminate in the later Renaissance with the Council of Trent and the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent had tremendous impact on the music of the middle and late Renaissance.
The Protestant Reformation divided the realm of sacred music, allowing music in the Protestant north (particularly England) and Catholic south to take separate directions. A meeting of church officials known as the Council of Trent was formed to discuss grievances within the church. The Council of Trent was essentially a Counter-Reformation effort from the Catholic Church to fix problems within the church and hinder the growth of Protestantism. The Council had both positive and negative effects on composers of Catholic sacred music in the era.
Artistic integrity was diminished greatly by the Council since the delegation found the new, more complex polyphony being composed was taking away emphasis from the text and banned the practice (Reese, 448-451). However, the Council of Trent also led to an increase in Catholic patronage in music, though composers were slightly censored by the restraints of the new polyphonic laws of the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent unintentionally caused the sacred music of the late Renaissance to have a stronger focus on melody instead of contrapuncture.
As composers emphasized less complex rhythm, the music of the late Renaissance became more homophonic, a trend that would continue after the Renaissance with counterpoint. Additionally dissonances were approached more methodically, only allowed in quarter note sequences on off beats. Suspensions and other ornamentations were strictly bound with rules not common in earlier Renaissance music (Reese, 460). This strict use of rules and resolutions of dissonances would later become the foundation to strict counterpoint and the music of the Baroque period.
These changes in music impacted mostly Catholic populated areas such as Italy and Spain, but had minor impacts on Protestant Europe. These rules had the largest impact in the Roman school of composition, which was mastered by and molded around the works of Giovanni Palestrina. Giovanni Palestrina was the pinnacle of a Renaissance period composer. He was born just outside of Rome, music capital of the later Renaissance, around the year 1525 and was studying music at the Papal Basilica by the age of 12. At age 26 he was appointed maestro di cappella of the Pope’s choir t St. Peter’s Basilica and both led and composed for the choir. His music was the ideal product of the Council of Trent and not only had many pieces commissioned to “justify” the Council’s statements but was given the task of cleansing all of the Church’s music of impurities. Inarguably his greatest works are his 105 masses, which are textbook examples of the aforementioned late Renaissance composition standards (Reese, 469). His death in 1594 seemingly heralded the end of Renaissance music into the beginnings of the Baroque period.
From the last music of the Renaissance a compositional revolution took place that shook all know structure in music theory. The monodic revolution, as it is called, recreated the way music was analyzed. Instead of examining music from the contrapunctal multiple melodies of polyphony, monodic music theory analyzed compositions as a series of consecutive chords, or a combination of pitches related harmonically (Fergusun, 154-55). This paradigm shift took many years to full integrate, particularly in areas where polyphony flourished, such as Rome.
Other cities which had never had a particularly strong school of polyphonic composition, such as Florence, adapted quickly to the monodic style (Gray, 124-125). The first practical integration of the chord based system came in the emerging new frontier of opera, a genre which would eventually grow to become the largest source of entertainment in Europe. Furthermore the monodic system has made polyphony essentially obsolete, with the exception of a few cases of traditional revivalism.
This monodic chord system became the basis for the concept of tonalized music, which became dominant in orchestral music through the middle of the twentieth century and still continues to be dominant today in popular music. Twentieth century modern music and music theory differentiated itself from its predecessors in the dichotomy between the music theory of classical works (or “modernist”) and that of the emerged mainstream popular music. Even within modern orchestral music a separation occurred between the post-Romantic and neoclassical against a new compositional technique known as serialism.
Post-Romantic and neoclassical music, which found its basis in the tonal music of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, maintained strong ties to the intervals of thirds and sixths as well as retaining much of the monodic format from the late Renaissance and early Baroque, though much more experimental. A more experimental compositional technique called serialism came into prominence in the middle 20th century. Serialism emphasized chromaticism by using either all twelve tones or a non-tonal series of notes in a matrix and arranging them almost mathematically in different series.
However, since serialist composers had theory training in traditional tonality, often works had traditionalist influences (coming from the late Renaissance) along with their modern serialist and experimental elements (Born 293-295). The impact of late Renaissance music is even more noticeable in modern popularized music. Popular music, also known as commercial music, combines Afro-rhythmic syncopation with the third based tonal or monodic system. The chords used in the popular music genre of jazz are completely based around the interval of the third, specifically compounding multiple thirds to create 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.
The eight modes standardized in the Renaissance reemerged in middle to late twentieth century modal jazz, particularly the Dorian mode built on the second scale degree. Popular music, with the exception of more experimental jazz music, almost exclusively follows the series of chord relationships and rules perfected by Palestrina and the late Renaissance composers. The impact of the patronage system which began in the middle and late Renaissance can be seen in the rise of modern popular music.
Composers during and after the Renaissance earned a significant amount of their income from private patronage, which held the composers accountable to their financiers more than to the attitude of the general public. This separation from public opinion paved the way for a new commercial and “popular music” that came into prominence in the twentieth century. Popular music found its base in capitalism rather than patronage and provided a music for the common person disregarded in the patronage system.
The music composed during the Renaissance and particularly the late Renaissance laid down the foundation for the development of the vertical, chord based system of music theory and music composition as well as brought tonality to western music which is still at the base for much of modern music. The compositions of the Renaissance not only touched millions of listeners during its popularity but continues to affect millions around the world today with its reach into the modern world. Works Cited Born, Georgina. “Modern Music Culture: On Shock, Pop, and Synthesis. ” Ed. Simon Frith. Popular Music.
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