What if We All Sang Together?
A Simplified History of Choral Music in the Renaissance
est 1450 to 1650 CE
Perhaps a brief history of Renaissance music is beyond me. Perhaps I’ll end up being fair to the Renaissance and not to the Medieval period because the seeds of the music of the Renaissance lie in the Medieval period. The sketch presented below is a simplification as most summaries of musical periods must be. I trust any professional musicologists specializing in Renaissance or Medieval music who might read this will forgive me since I’m not claiming to write an academic treatise.
In so far as we think of Gregorian chant when we think of the medieval music we also think of a lot of “fa la la la la” and other fancy singing when we think of the Renaissance. With my apology in advance, the entire Renaissance can be defined as a revolution in Western music founded on the idea that lots of people singing together can sing independent parts and that a keyboard can be used to play more than one tune simultaneously. With such a revolution, of course, was the obligatory debate as to whether and how things out to be done.
This isn’t about singing something like “kyrie eleison dona eis requiem” in parallel fifths while bringing out the Holy Hand Grenade (that’s not how Medieval “organum” actually worked anyway, never mind that Monty Python & the Holy Grail was funny). This is about a fiery time in the history of Church politics and Church music. The Church splintered off into many directions in the West and people spent time trying to determine what true Christianity was and to defend it. Naturally everyone else was supposed to look bad in the process. This period saw the reemergence of the city-state and as these spread their power over provinces they sought to extend their newfound power even further. The world seemed to be looking bigger all the time and many people in Europe started getting the faintest idea that it would be nice to have more of that world. The Renaissance and Reformation are roughly parallel so I’ll touch briefly on the Reformation. Much of the changes in this period happened within church music as much as anywhere else..
Between the 1450s and the 1650s Luther and various other reformers within the Roman church began to break from Rome over doctrinal and liturgical disputes. Among these concerns were the authority of the papacy and priests, the desire for vernacular worship, translation of the Bible and literacy, political independence of state rulers from Roman church authorities and, perhaps as always, concerns about the links between the Church, political leaders, and organized crime (after all, crime and sin aren’t always so different).
Another famous concern just prior the Reformation was the selling of indulgences. If I don’t get this right I’ll be nailed for it and will make any needed corrections later so here I go: Suppose the performance of a set of actions in church was considered effective as a pleasing sacrifice to God, a repentance of sin and an offering of thanks (Mass, for instance), in short a sanctifying grace. Suppose then that during this time you would pay your regular tithe, tax, whatever you wish to call it. Suppose further that you want to do something the Roman church considered sin or blasphemy (say you’re married and you like oral sex, for instance). Perhaps this thing is so fun you fail to attend church or a friend or loved one does this stuff regularly and you want to preserve them from being sent to Hell.
The indulgence served as a kind of absentee vote, a way to get absolution without having to actually go through the motions in the cathedral or the confessional booth or where ever all that was done. This was also something you could do on behalf of the degenerate cousin of yours on the other side of the village. Indulgences could also be obtained for already departed souls thought to be in purgatory and the sale of indulgences in this case especially became lucrative.
Keep in mind all these “absentee votes” were for confessions and for rituals done in Latin, a language very few people used in daily life. In the sale of indulgences all the social, political, and religious controversies of the day came to a head. Through this you could end up paying a lot of money for people to pretend your cousin was better than he was by having ceremonies paid for (but not done as such) that were held in a language you didn’t necessarily understand; and this might fund a building project you had no influence on. And while the promise was that an indulgence would count as saving the soul of your degenerate cousin from limbo you never saw that cousin getting better. In fact, it sure looked as if rich people were the only people to benefit from this. It was this institute that came under fire from Luther and other Reformers.
In response to this and other issues the Reformation emphasized vernacular worship (if you’re German you worship in German) and promoted the idea that if people could read Scripture for themselves they could discern what true Christianity was supposed to be. It was a period defined by the beginning of what we may call anticlericalism. This simply meant that established church authority and organized religion (if only in their existing form) were considered suspicious. It also sowed seeds for nationalism. If you weren’t all members of the Roman Church you could be members of tribes like the Swabians or the Prussians or the Saxons (not that it wasn’t this way already).
Parallel to this development of anticlericalism and the independent political state was the rise of humanism (not the kind you hear about from the likes of Tim LaHaye as such, since that form of humanism is a short hand for secular humanism or logical positivism). Defined broadly humanism was the idea that the individual human being mattered. Humanism also included an interest in the humanities (the fine and performing arts and the natural sciences in contrast to theology). Where art and music were concerned this meant that secular work came to receive as much promotion and patronage as church music.
Why was all of this significant? Guilt by association. Into all this came people singing either for the Church or for other patrons. By now the political climate was so tumultuous the musical climate couldn’t help changing. Up until the Renaissance and Reformation liturgical music didn’t have much harmony. After centuries of everyone singing the same melody or a melody in lockstep with another melody (organum, more or less) people wanted some change. A lot of change.
The truth is that most of these changes had begun to happen in the Medieval period with Leonin and Perotin and Guilliame Machaut. The first two composers wrote a lot of two-part chants where one started the chant and another followed, and Machaut wrote music in which people sang harmonizing parts. People already wanted to sing independent parts. It wasn’t that people didn’t want to sing something like “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. They wanted to sing the melody in something besides unison. What if one person sang the melody first and another person sang the melody but started singing it a little bit later? Yes, that’s a great idea. They weren’t singing that song by any means but I’m just illustrating the kind of thing that started happening all over Europe during the Renaissance. Where before it was somewhat rare in the Renaissance it started to become the rule.
But as people started running with this idea of different people singing different tunes came the need to get these tunes to work together. It had to all sound like one piece of music, not just a bunch of people singing different parts that didn’t relate. With the advent of this powerful idea, of setting different notes in motion at the same time, there quickly arose the need for some kind of order. The modes inherited from Gregorian chant still sounded good but how could four people wanting to sing different parts still sing in the same mode and not have everything sound bad? The answer was to tinker with individual parts of a musical work until the whole thing sounded like it was being sung in a mode. After two centuries of this kind of experimentation the result was voice leading. The rules were summed up in one general principle: don’t write music that people can’t sing or music that people can’t sing well.
In practice this is immensely complicated because the human voice, for all its expressive power, has more and more profound limitations than any other instrument. There are certain intervals two people can’t sing together without having a ruinous tendency to screw up. There are melodies boys can sing that men can’t sing except in a lower range (there was little chance of women singing in this era). You start getting the idea. Quickly people had to make a note of every musical experiment people kept wanting to try that never yielded pleasing results. After a few centuries of never getting something to work it was considered a general rule that you didn’t want to do that thing.
The Renaissance is defined chiefly by choral music because instruments were generally too expensive to have in large supply. Yet when instruments became cheaper and had better quality control courts and churches began to build small orchestras of brass and string instruments. The question was then how to write for these new ensembles? The Renaissance answer was this: If it works for the motorcycle it works for the car. Everybody drives on the road in exactly the same way. More or less, that was how it worked. Vocal writing and instrumental writing was done pretty much the same way. Put on a recording of a piece of brass music by Gabrieli and a choral work by Orlando de Lassus and you still get that Renaissance vibe.
But there was more afoot in this era than musical revolution. There were the nagging questions of what to do with all this new stuff and some old controversies showed up, too. The debates on church music are a great case in point. A controversy over the use of secular music in church settings had raged off and on for some time.
Many people know the talk about how Martin Luther used drinking songs as melodies for hymns (there are some scholars of early Western music who contest this) but Luther was just one case in point. Some of the followers of the Reformer John Calvin banned this idea of corporate singing in which everyone got different parts. Once again the principle was guilt by association. If the Catholics did it you couldn’t do it because the Catholic Church is full of antichrists and you can’t sing music that sounds like their music. The Roman church had these fat castrated men singing all these fancy melodies using just a single phrase like “quoniam tu solus sanctus”. By the time that fat man was done singing that single line it was practically time to get out of church and go home. As if that weren’t enough there were five or six of these guys (some of them weren’t castrated) all doing the same thing at different times and it could last forever! Why spend forever listening to fat castrated men and men with their testicles who weren’t much better? What’s more those castrated men were certainly man-whores for some perverted dukes and cardinals! And they were all singing for a heretic church at that. Talk about pretense! Nope, none of that! Not while I’m around!
Then you had the Catholics looking at folks like the Calvinists singing “church” music in the vulgar tongues of the ordinary people (no respect for the sacred); perverting the Bible by translating it according to their own whims; singing trash music only fit to be sung by whores and gamblers and murderers with the thinnest possible musical substance; and this twaddle was accompanied by nothing more than the terrible singing of a bunch of Church hating heretics who couldn’t sing and who surely didn’t comprehend the awesome and centuries-old heritage of the one true Church. They were just toadies for those usurping landowners who wanted to be free of the influence of the Church. Real Christian music shouldn’t sound anything like the worthless contemporary sound these numbskulls had. They might have one or two legitimate complaints but by and large their music wasn’t the proper alternative. The Reformers were all antichrists and haters of Scripture so you couldn’t make music that sounded like their music.
It’s not much of a surprise that people spent a lot of time burning each other’s music and trying to kill each other. Just try being a church musician in a climate like this. Some folks, like the English composer William Byrd, had to write for the Church of England (recently separated from Rome) while trying to find a way to preserve his own Catholic faith and write Catholic music. Other composers, like Palestrina, were settled with titanic restrictions in musical expression in the post-Council of Trent Counter Reformation, in which the idea of groups of people singing together with independent parts was greatly limited.
It might be an exaggeration but Christian music at this time was an enterprise almost as risky as writing music in the Soviet Union under Stalinism! You might not get killed but, who knew, you might get excommunicated which in the eternal scheme of things looked a lot worse. The other side might suddenly take over and have you sacked, to put it nicely. Still, there were a number of composers who rose to the challenge and managed to stay sort of happy. The secular composers didn’t face precisely the same restraints so when they followed their muse, as the Genoan composer Carlo Gesualdo did, only the sanity of a normal man with tempered taste was your limit. If you were insane, as Gesualdo most likely was, there was no telling what you could write.
The only thing that would limit you were the singers. If the singers couldn’t do it then you couldn’t make them. That was the most important musical discovery of Renaissance choral music and it has laid the foundation for musical aesthetics in the West in both harmony and melody ever since. For Eastern ears this was the end of the end for Western music (Gregorian chant was already going too far for them). Harmony became the dominant force in Western music and harmony was defined by the choir. For better and worse the choir was often defined by the Church.
Postscript: A short list of Renaissance composers
There are several excellent choral groups that specialize in “Early Music”. Among the ensembles that have done excellent recordings of all the composers below are the Tallis Scholars, The Cambridge Singers, and the Hilliard Ensemble (who also record a lot by the modern composer Arvo Part). The Tallis Scholars record on Gimmell, their own label. The Hilliard Ensemble seems to do a lot of recording on the ECM label. Most of the recordings aren’t especially cheap but they’re always excellent.
The Renaissance composers consistently wrote very high quality choral music and were often prolific so you can start with virtually anything. Usually only the most influential works by these composers are regularly recorded and performed. Byrd wrote a great deal of English and Latin music for Catholic and Anglican liturgies.
“Absalom Absalom” is his most famous work. The Tallis Scholars have a great recording of this piece.
Piere de Luigi Palestrina
Virtually anything Palestrina wrote is worth checking out and only the most important of his numerous works get regularly recorded. Again, go with the Tallis Scholars for a recording of this work.
This man became as famous for killing his cheating wife as for the music he wrote. He wrote his own texts (they’re terrible!) and set them in such a maudlin way it’s hard to believe his music is as important as it is. But he, perhaps by dint of insanity, pushed the harmonic boundaries of Renaissance music out so far it took J. S. Bach’s monstrous output to be so far-reaching. Do yourself a favor and avoid his keyboard music!
Spem in Alleum is the apotheosis of academic counterpoint in this period. It doesn’t get more complex than this. Tallils was one of the great English choral composers during the Renaissance. There were actually a lot of great English composers during this period but Tallis is a good place to start.
Probably the most important of the English Renaissance composers. Byrd wrote Catholic and Anglican church music (the Catholic music was circulated underground since it was officially banned). Byrd’s Masses and The Great Service are good examples of his art. The Tallis Scholars have fantastic recordings of Byrd. Byrd also wrote a mountain of keyboard music which has been committed to CD in the last year or so. I haven’t had the chance to hear it yet but I hope it’s more interesting than Gesualdo’s keyboard music!