The Renaissance period (1400-1600) was an exciting time of musical change and growth, as music became more complex and expressive. During this 200-year period, which was sandwiched between the Medieval and Baroque eras, significant social and technological developments occurred, such as the invention of the printing press and the growth of a cultured middle class, which meant that music was accessible to a much bigger range of people.
And while much music was still written for the church, there was an increase in secular music as composers found increasing freedom to write what they pleased, in keeping with the idea of art for art’s sake, which gained credence around this time. This article will look at ten of the Renaissance era’s most important composers, who between them wrote epic choral works, beautiful sacred music, innovative instrumental pieces and the very first opera.
1. John Dunstable
Dunstable (sometimes spelt Dunstaple) 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 he wrote mostly religious music under the patronage of various noble households.
Dunstaple’s compositional style was highly influential, and a number of important composers from continental Europe, including Guillame 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
Du Fay (also sometimes written Dufay) 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 mellifluous and memorable melodies, one of his most famous works is the Nuper Rosarum Flores, a motet that perfectly encapsulates the complex polyphonic style (music with multiple independent, interweaving parts) that was now popular.
It is considered a masterpiece of its time:
3. Johannes Ockeghem
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, who he influenced significantly:
4. Josquin des Prez
Often referred to simply as Josquin, this Franco-Flemish composer was so admired that numerous anonymous pieces were attributed to him to increase their value.
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.
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.
Another of Petrucci’s productions was Misse Josquin, the first ever collection devoted to a single composer.
He helped usher in a stripped-back, simpler style of polyphonic composition, with a focus on smooth movement in each individual part:
5. Thomas Tallis
Tallis was an Englishman who worked as a chorister and organist, before being appointed to the Royal Court, where 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.
Whilst working in the Chapel Royal he taught William Byrd (1539-1623), who would also go on to become regarded as one of England’s greatest ever 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
The religious music composed by Palestrina perfectly exemplifies the style that came to prominence towards the end of the Renaissance period: grand, complex choral polyphony, with numerous interweaving parts.
Palestrina was born near Rome, where he took on musical positions in various chapels and churches.
He was initially influenced by Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez, both of whom spent time working in Italy.
In turn, Palestrina’s own works would prove to be a significant influence upon Baroque-period composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach.
Palestrina’s personal life was blighted by tragedy.
His wife, his brother and two of his sons were all killed by outbreaks of the plague in the 1570s.
He later remarried a wealthy widow, which gave him a greater degree of financial independence, allowing him to compose greater quantities of music in his final years:
7. Orlande de Lassus
Orlande de Lassus (sometimes called Orlando de Lasso) was a Flemish composer who specialised in vocal music.
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 2000 compositions, many of which are characterised by a rich, polyphonic style:
8. Tomás Luis de Victoria
Along with de Lassus and Palestrina, Victoria was one of the most famous composers of the Counter Reformation (the resurgence of Catholicism, following the Protestant Reformation).
He also worked as a priest, and his compositional output was devoted entirely to sacred music.
The Spaniard was a proficient organist himself, and featured the instrument prominently in many of his choral pieces in a way that anticipated the Baroque continuo:
9. Jacopo Peri
Peri’s great claim to fame is that he is often called the inventor of opera, a fusion of theatre, vocal, staging and sometimes dance, which would become incredibly popular over the following centuries.
The Italian, who sometimes goes by the pseudonym Il Zazzerino, wrote Dafne, which is considered the very first opera, at the very end of the Renaissance era (around 1597), although 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 was heavily influenced by Palestrina.
Like him, he was based in Rome, where he was a priest as well as singing in 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, resulting in nine-part polyphony in places – which is also connected to one of classical music’s great legends.
The piece had gradually become so popular that the Pope would not allow it to be performed outside of the Sistine Chapel, in order to enhance the reputation of the choir.
In 1770, long after Allegri’s death, a 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart apparently heard the Misiere twice on a visit to Rome with his father, before transcribing the piece accurately from memory and thus creating the first unauthorised copy of the work.
The Misiere is now a popular favourite at choral concerts around the world.
Allegri’s brother, Domenico, was also a composer and singer.
And 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.
And it was from Italy that the innovations that kickstarted the Baroque period, which covered the next 150 years, would spring.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the diverse selection of music that came out of the Renaissance period from these brilliant composers.