15 Of The Greatest Renaissance Era Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
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The Renaissance era (1400-1600) was a hotbed of musical innovation, blending complexity with expressiveness. Amidst significant strides like the printing press and a rising middle class, music reached more ears than ever.

This period, a bridge between Medieval and Baroque times, saw composers break free from strictly church-focused music to embrace secular themes, championing the “art for art’s sake” philosophy.

That’s why, in this post, we’re going to take a look at 15 of the greatest Renaissance-era composers who helped champion this period of music. Read on!

1. John Dunstable

John Dunstable — “Agnus Dei”

First on our list is Dunstable (sometimes spelled Dunstaple). He was an English composer whose music spans the transition from the Medieval era to the Renaissance period.

The biographical details we have are limited, although we know that he was an educated man who was also a well-regarded astrologer, astronomer, and mathematician.

As a composer, Dunstable wrote mostly religious music under the patronage of various noble households. His compositional style was highly influential, and many important composers from continental Europe, including Guillaume Dufay, were impacted by his work.

One of the distinguishing features of his writing is his use of thirds as an interval — previously considered a dissonance — and triadic harmony, comprising the three-note chords that underpin much of Western harmony today.

2. Guillame Du Fay

“Nuper Rosarum Flores” by Guillaume Dufay

Next, we have Guillaume Du Fay (also sometimes written Dufay). He was a Franco-Flemish composer who was considered one of the most important and influential artists of his day.

Born in Brussels, he moved to Cambrai as a child, receiving musical training at the Cathedral there. He would later live in Rimini, Rome, and Savoy.

He wrote both religious music — including Masses, Magnificats, and hymns — and more than 70 secular chansons, where he put texts to the popular forms of the time, such as rondeau, virelai, and Italian ballate. He also wrote at least two books on music theory, although the contents of these do not survive.

Noted for his melodic and memorable melodies, one of his most famous works is the Nuper Rosarum Flores. This motet perfectly encapsulates the complex polyphonic style (music with multiple independent, interweaving parts), which is now popular. It is considered a masterpiece of its time.

3. Johannes Ockeghem

“Missa Prolationum” by Johannes Ockeghem

Born in 1497 in Saint-Ghislain, Belgium, Johannes Ockeghem was a chorister in Antwerp before joining the households of various French noblemen and royals.

He left behind a relatively small number of compositions, but his Masses, motets, and secular chansons that survive are praised for their balance of technical prowess and expressiveness. His later Masses are considered particularly innovative.

While previously the cantus firmus (a pre-existing melody that forms the basis of a polyphonic composition) would stay within the tenor part, Ockeghem shared it between the different voices to produce a texture that is impressively rich and complex.

He was, by all accounts, a generous and popular man; and his death was widely mourned by musicians, including Josquin, whom he influenced significantly (and we’ll discuss next).

4. Josquin Des Prez

Josquin des Prez — “Agnus Dei”

Often referred to simply as Josquin Des Prez, this Franco-Flemish composer was so admired that numerous anonymous pieces were attributed to him to increase their value. However, it has since been discovered that many of these attributions were incorrect.

Still, the music that he did write — both religious and secular — remains popular and has been recorded extensively since the 20th century. He helped usher in a stripped-back, simpler style of polyphonic composition, with a focus on smooth movement in each individual part.

Significantly, his rise to prominence coincided with the invention of the printing press, and when the influential printer Ottaviano Petrucci produced a series of anthologies of motets, it was Josquin’s work that lay at the front of each one. One of Petrucci’s productions was Misse Josquin, the first-ever collection devoted to a single composer.

5. Thomas Tallis

“Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis

Up next is Thomas Tallis, an English composer. He who worked as a chorister and organist before being appointed to the Royal Court. Here, he performed and composed for four successive monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I.

His job required great versatility, with each king or queen demanding very different compositional styles.

While working in the Chapel Royal, he taught William Byrd (1539–1623), who would also go on to be regarded as one of England’s greatest composers. In an unprecedented move, Elizabeth I gave the pair a 21-year monopoly on printing music and music paper in England from 1575.

6. Giovanni Pierluigi Da Palestrina

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina — “Stabat Mater”

Next, we have Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose religious music was a hallmark of the late Renaissance style. He was known for his grand and complex choral polyphony with intricately interwoven parts.

Born near Rome, Palestrina held musical roles in various chapels and churches, drawing early inspiration from Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez, who worked in Italy.

His compositions significantly influenced Baroque composers, notably Johann Sebastian Bach. However, Palestrina’s personal life was marred by tragedy in the 1570s when the plague took his wife, brother, and two sons.

Palestrina’s legacy is anchored in his prolific output, with his most celebrated works epitomizing the essence of Renaissance polyphony. His “Pope Marcellus Mass” is particularly renowned, hailed for its clarity and balance in blending spiritual reverence with musical sophistication.

7. Orlande De Lassus

“Missa Super Osceletur Me” by Orlande de Lassus

Together with Tomás Luis de Victoria and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Orlande de Lassus (sometimes called Orlando de Lasso) was one of the leading composers of the later Renaissance era.

He lived in various cities, including Milan, Rome, and Munich, which helped him develop a remarkable range and versatility: his songs included Italian madrigals, French chansons, and German lieder.

An incredibly prolific composer, he left behind over 2,000 compositions, many of which are characterized by a rich, polyphonic style. One of his notable works is “Prophetiae Sibyllarum,” a collection of 12 motets, each dedicated to a different sibyl from ancient mythology.

8. Tomás Luis De Victoria

Tomás Luis de Victoria — “O Vos Omnes”

Along with de Lassus and Palestrina, Tomás Luis de Victoria was one of the most famous composers of the Counter-Reformation (the resurgence of Catholicism, following the Protestant Reformation).

Not only was he a celebrated composer, but he also served as a priest, dedicating his entire compositional output to sacred music.

The Spaniard was also a proficient organist and featured the instrument prominently in many of his choral pieces in a way that anticipated the Baroque continuo.

Today, Victoria’s music, deeply spiritual and emotive, continues to be revered for its intricate melodic lines and profound expressivity.

9. Jacopo Peri

Jacopo Peri — Euridice

The Italian composer Jacopo Peri’s great claim to fame is that he is often called the inventor of opera, a fusion of theater, vocal, staging, and sometimes dance, which would become incredibly popular over the following centuries.

Peri, who sometimes goes by the pseudonym Il Zazzerino, wrote Dafne, which is considered the very first opera, at the end of the Renaissance era (around 1597). Sadly, the music is now mostly lost.

It was scored for harpsichord, lute, viol, archlute, and triple flute, making a much smaller ensemble than the ones used in later operas, such as the early Baroque works of Claudio Monteverdi.

A few years later, in 1600, he wrote Euridice, which is the first opera to have survived in its entirety.

10. Gregorio Allegri

Gregorio Allegri — Misiere

Influenced heavily by Palestrina, Gregorio Allegri was another notable composer during this period. Like Palestrina, Allegri was also based in Rome, where he served as a priest and was a member of the prestigious Papal Choir that performed in the Sistine Chapel.

His most famous work is the Misiere, a setting of a psalm for two choirs — one of four voices and one of four. The piece had gradually become so popular that the Pope would not allow it to be performed outside of the Sistine Chapel to enhance the reputation of the choir.

In 1770, long after Allegri’s death, a 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard the Misiere twice on a visit to Rome with his father, before transcribing the piece accurately from memory and thus creating the first unauthorized copy of the work. The Misiere is now a popular favorite at choral concerts around the world.

11. Philippe Verdelot

French composer Philippe Verdelot played a significant role in the Renaissance era. Despite his French roots, he spent most of his adult life in Italy, becoming a significant figure in the Italian music scene.

One of the highlights of Verdelot’s career was his time as maestro di cappella at the Baptisterium San Giovanni in Florence, where he served from 1523 to 1525. This role marked him as a leading figure in the church’s musical activities.

Verdelot is best known for his contributions to the Italian madrigal, a form of secular vocal music composition. He was considered the most important composer in that genre before the mid-16th century.

12. Claude Le Jeune

Up next is Claude Le Jeune, a Franco-Flemish composer born in the mid-16th century, in Valenciennes, a city in present-day France. His music career spanned the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, making his compositions a blend of different musical styles.

Le Jeune was well-known for his work in musique mesurée, a style of composition where the length of the notes corresponded to the syllable length in French poetry. This style was quite groundbreaking at the time and made Le Jeune’s compositions distinct.

He spent much of his career in Paris, where he composed a variety of works including chansons, psalms, and instrumental music. His collection of Protestant psalms, called “Pseaumes en Vers Mesurez,” is widely regarded as one of his most significant works.

13. Antonio De Cabezón

Born in 1510 in Castrillo Matajudíos, Spain, Antonio de Cabezón was a prominent Spanish composer and organist. He was unique in that he was blind from childhood, yet his exceptional musical talent shone through from an early age.

Cabezón’s career took off when he became the organist for the royal chapel of Queen Isabella of Portugal. This position allowed him to showcase his skills on a grand stage.

His compositions mainly focused on keyboard music, including tientos, diferencias, and glosas. In 1557, Cabezón published a collection of his works titled Obras de Música. This collection, published posthumously by his son Hernando, is a testament to his life’s work and has become a significant resource for understanding Renaissance keyboard music.

14. Michael Praetorius

German composer, organist, and music theorist Michael Praetorius is particularly known for his contributions to the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods of music.

One of Praetorius’s most significant contributions to music is his extensive musical treatise Syntagma Musicum. This work, published in three volumes from 1614 to 1620, covers a wide range of topics, from contemporary musical practices to detailed descriptions of musical instruments.

As a composer, Praetorius was prolific. His compositions ranged from simple hymns for church congregations to more complex polychoral arrangements. His Musae Sioniae comprises hundreds of Lutheran chorale settings, while Terpsichore is a compilation of over 300 instrumental dances.

15. Thomas Morley

Closing this list is Thomas Morley, best known for his significant contributions to the Elizabethan era of music, primarily during the late Renaissance period.

Morley was a student of William Byrd, one of the most respected composers of the time. He later obtained the degree of Bachelor of Music from the University of Oxford.

In 1592, Morley became the organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London — a position that further cemented his reputation as a leading composer and performer of his time. He was also appointed as one of the Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a prestigious group of musicians who served the royal household.

Aside from his work as a composer, Morley made a significant contribution to music theory with his treatise A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597). The book was designed as an instructional guide for those wishing to learn about music composition and remains a valuable resource for understanding the musical techniques of the period.

Summing Up Our List Of Great Renaissance Composers

That brings us to the end of our look at some of the most important composers of the Renaissance period.

We’ve gone from an Englishman to the Franco-Flemish composers who dominated the middle part of the era before finishing with the Italians who were at the forefront of the major stylistic developments towards the end of the 16th Century.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the diverse selection of music that came out of the Renaissance period from these brilliant composers.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.