13 Chapter 13: Music in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Music of the Middle Ages

This section contains all the reading materials having to do with medieval music. This section includes the following pages:

  • Slideshow: Music in the Middle Ages
  • Medieval Music Overview
  • Gregorian Chant
  • Hildegard of Bingen
  • Organum
  • Perotin
  • Cantus Firmus
  • Secular Music Troubadours
  • Beatriz, Countess of Dia
  • Guillaume de Machaut
  • Examples of Medieval Music


Music in the Middle Ages from Lumen Learning

Please begin your reading on the music of the Middle Ages with this web summary of some of the most important developments of this period. We will have more detailed reading assignments on the terms and composers discussed on this page, but this provides a good sense of the historical flow of this period of music history, which is considerably longer than most other periods.

You’ll notice that the author makes reference to a number of pieces of music in this text. While these pieces mentioned are good examples, they do not always align with our listening assignments. Be sure you focus your listening study on the pieces on the playlist for this module.

Now it’s time to dig into some specifics of the oldest genre we study: Gregorian chant. This Encyclopedia Britannica article provides a good summary of plainchant and its use in the Catholic Church, which was the dominant force in society, and therefore music, for most of the Middle Ages.

Now let’s learn about one of the truly fascinating figures from this period, Hildegard of Bingen. While most plainchant was composed anonymously, Hildegard was an exception. She also authored texts on various subjects ranging from medicine to spiritual revelations that were later approved by church authorities. Hildegard is a fascinating historical figure, so the bulk of the Wikipedia article on the medieval composer and abbess is presented below, and a careful reading of the entire article is recommended. That said, the most important sections for your study are Introduction and Music.


Saint Hildegard of Bingen, OSB (1098–17 September 1179) also known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath.

Hildegard was elected magistra by her fellow nuns in 1136; she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165. One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play. She wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, and poems, while supervising miniature illuminations in the Rupertsberg manuscript of her first work, Scivias.

Although the history of her formal consideration is complicated, she has been recognized as a saint by branches of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. On 7 October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Church.


Hildegard’s exact date of birth is uncertain. She was born around the year 1098 to Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, a family of the free lower nobility in the service of the Count Meginhard of Sponheim. Sickly from birth, Hildegard is traditionally considered their youngest and 10th child, although there are records of seven older siblings. In her Vita, Hildegard states that from a very young age she had experienced visions.

Monastic Life

Perhaps due to Hildegard’s visions, or as a method of political positioning, Hildegard’s parents offered her as an oblate to the church. The date of Hildegard’s enclosure in the church is the subject of a contentious debate. Her Vita says she was enclosed with an older nun, Jutta, at the age of eight. However, Jutta’s enclosure date is known to be in 1112, when Hildegard would have been 14. Some scholars speculate that Hildegard was placed in the care of Jutta, the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim, at the age of 8, and the two women were enclosed together six years later. The written record of the Life of Jutta indicates that Hildegard probably assisted her in reciting the Psalms, working in the garden, and tending to the sick.

In any case, Hildegard and Jutta were enclosed at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest in what is now Germany. Jutta was also a visionary and thus attracted many followers who came to visit her at the enclosure. Hildegard tells us that Jutta taught her to read and write but that she was unlearned and therefore incapable of teaching Hildegard biblical interpretation. Hildegard and Jutta most likely prayed, meditated, read scriptures such as the psalter, and did handwork during the hours of the Divine Office. This might have been a time when Hildegard learned how to play the ten-stringed psaltery. Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard simple psalm notation. The time she studied music could have been the beginning of the compositions she would later create.

Upon Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected as “magistra” of the community by her fellow nuns. Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg asked Hildegard to be Prioress, which would be under his authority. Hildegard, however, wanted more independence for herself and her nuns and asked Abbot Kuno to allow them to move to Rupertsberg. This was to be a move toward poverty, from a stone complex that was well established to a temporary dwelling place. When the abbot declined Hildegard’s proposition, Hildegard went over his head and received the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz. Abbot Kuno did not relent until Hildegard was stricken by an illness that kept her paralyzed and unable to move from her bed, an event that she attributed to God’s unhappiness at her not following his orders to move her nuns to Rupertsberg. It was only when the Abbot himself could not move Hildegard that he decided to grant the nuns their own monastery. Hildegard and about 20 nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150, where Volmar served as provost, as well as Hildegard’s confessor and scribe. In 1165 Hildegard founded a second monastery for her nuns at Eibingen.


Hildegard says that she first saw “The Shade of the Living Light” at the age of three, and by the age of five, she began to understand that she was experiencing visions. She used the term visio for this feature of her experience, and recognized that it was a gift that she could not explain to others. Hildegard explained that she saw all things in the light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Hildegard was hesitant to share her visions, confiding only to Jutta, who in turn told Volmar, Hildegard’s tutor and, later, secretary. Throughout her life, she continued to have many visions, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard received a vision she believed to be an instruction from God to “write down that which you see and hear.” Still hesitant to record her visions, Hildegard became physically ill. The illustrations recorded in the book of Scivias were visions that Hildegard experienced, causing her great suffering and tribulations. In her first theological text, Scivias (“Know the Ways”), Hildegard describes her struggle within:

But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close—though just barely—in ten years. (…) And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, “Cry out therefore, and write thus!”

It was between November 1147 and February 1148 at the synod in Trier that Pope Eugenus heard about Hildegard’s writings. It was from this that she received Papal approval to document her visions as revelations from the Holy Spirit, giving her instant credence.

On 17 September 1179, when Hildegard died, her sisters claimed they saw two streams of light appear in the skies and cross over the room where she was dying.


Attention in recent decades to women of the medieval church has led to a great deal of popular interest in Hildegard’s music. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, 69 musical compositions, each with its own original poetic text, survive, and at least 4 other texts are known, though their musical notation has been lost. This is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers. Listen to O frondens virga from Ordo Virtutum.

In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, Hildegard composed many liturgical songs that were collected into a cycle called the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. The songs from the Symphonia are set to Hildegard’s own text and range from antiphons, hymns, and sequences to responsories. Her music is described as monophonic—that is, consisting of exactly one melodic line. Its style is characterized by soaring melodies that can push the boundaries of the more staid ranges of traditional Gregorian chant. Though Hildegard’s music is often thought to stand outside the normal practices of monophonic monastic chant, current researchers are also exploring ways in which it may be viewed in comparison with her contemporaries, such as Hermannus Contractus. Another feature of Hildegard’s music is that it is highly melismatic, often with recurrent melodic units. Scholars also note the intimate relationship between music and text in Hildegard’s compositions, whose rhetorical features are often more distinct than is common in 12th-century chant. As with all medieval chant notation, Hildegard’s music lacks any indication of tempo or rhythm; the surviving manuscripts employ late German-style notation, which uses very ornamental neumes. The reverence for the Virgin Mary reflected in music shows how deeply influenced and inspired Hildegard of Bingen and her community were by the Virgin Mary and the saints. One of her better known works, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is a morality play. It is uncertain when some of Hildegard’s compositions were composed, though the Ordo Virtutum is thought to have been composed as early as 1151. The morality play consists of monophonic melodies for the Anima (human soul) and 16 Virtues. There is also one speaking part for the Devil. Scholars assert that the role of the Devil would have been played by Volmar, while Hildegard’s nuns would have played the parts of Anima and the Virtues.

The definition of viriditas or greenessâ is an earthly expression of the heavenly in an integrity that overcomes dualisms. This â greenessâ or power of life appears frequently in Hildegard’s works.


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This article summarizes one of the most significant developments in Western music history: the rise of polyphonic texture in the composition of sacred music. The earliest forms of polyphony in Europe were called organum. Organum reached its height at the hands of the composers at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Leonin and his successor Perotin perfected a style of florid or melismatic organum that must have been astonishing to the people of their day. You’ll often see the French version of those composers’ names: Leonin and Perotin.

Perotinus (Pérotin)

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The example of organum on our listening list is one of Perotinus’s best known works: Viderunt Omnes. This page discusses the composer that perfected the Notre Dame style of organum. Please pay close attention to the description of the Notre Dame–style organum that Perotin wrote.


Perotin (fl. c. 1200), also called Perotin the Great, was a European composer, believed to be French, who lived around the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century. He was the most famous member of the Notre Dame school of polyphony and the ars antiqua style. He was one of very few composers of his day whose name has been preserved and can be reliably attached to individual compositions; this is due to the testimony of an anonymous English student at Notre Dame known as Anonymous IV, who wrote about him and his predecessor Leonin. Anonymous IV called him “Magister Perotinus” (“Perotin the Master”). The title, employed also by Johannes de Garlandia, means that Perotin, like Leonin, earned the degree magister artium, almost certainly in Paris, and that he was licensed to teach. The name Perotin, the Latin diminutive of Petrus, is assumed to be derived from the French name Perotin, diminutive of Pierre. The diminutive was presumably a mark of respect bestowed by his colleagues. He was also designated “magnus” by Anonymous IV, a mark of the esteem in which he was held, even long after his death.

Musical forms and style

Perotin composed organa, the earliest type of polyphonic music; previous European music, such as Gregorian and other types of chant, had been monophonic. Prior to Perotin, organum generally consisted of two voices: organum duplum. He pioneered the styles of organum triplum and organum quadruplum (three- and four-part polyphony); in fact his Sederunt principes and Viderunt Omnes are among only a few organa quadrupla known.

A prominent feature of his compositional style was the tenor. The tenor is based on an existing melody from the liturgical repertoire. In the various forms of organum that were developed in Paris, the tenor holds the melody (from the Latin tenere, meaning “to hold”) of the Gregorian chant. This part will be sung in long, held-out syllables, laying an organ-point or harmonic basis for the additional lines, which will have many notes to each note of the tenor.

Organa exist for two to four voices. That for two voices, organum duplum, has the most freedom in performance, as it will invariably have many sections of organum purum, where the upper voice is rhapsodic and not bound by strict modal rhythm. In three- or four-part organa, all the upper voices need to be organized rhythmically, even over a long static tenor.


Anonymous IV attributed four compositions to Perotin: the four-voice Viderunt omnes and Sederunt principes, and the three-voice Alleluia “Posui adiutorium” and Alleluia “Nativitas.” Nine other works are attributed to him by contemporary scholars on stylistic grounds, all in the organum style, as well as the two-voice Dum sigillum summi Patris and the monophonic Beata viscera in the conductus style. (The conductus sets a rhymed Latin poem called a sequence to a repeated melody, much like a contemporary hymn.)

Perotin’s works are preserved in the Magnus Liber, the “Great Book” of early polyphonic church music, which was in the collection of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The Magnus Liber also contains the works of his slightly earlier contemporary Leonin. However, attempts by scholars to place Perotin at Notre Dame have been inconclusive, all evidence being circumstantial, and very little is known of his life. His dates of activity can be approximately established from some late 12th century edicts of the Bishop of Paris, Eudes de Sully, which mention organum triplum and organum quadruplum, and his known collaboration with poet Philip the Chancellor, whose Beata viscera he could not have set before about 1220. The bishop’s edicts are quite specific and suggest that Perotin’s organum quadruplum Viderunt omnes was written for Christmas 1198, and his other organum quadruplum Sederunt Principles was composed for St. Stephen’s Day (26 December) 1199 for the dedication of a new wing of the Notre Dame Cathedral. His music as well as that of Leonin and their anonymous contemporaries have been grouped together as the School of Notre Dame.

Contemporary Critiques

With polyphony, musicians were able to achieve musical feats perceived by many as beautiful, and by others, distasteful. John of Salisbury (1120–1180) taught at the University of Paris during the years of Leonin and Perotin. He attended many services at the Notre Dame Choir School. In De nugis curialiam, he offers a firsthand description of what was happening to music in the high Middle Ages. This philosopher and Bishop of Chartres wrote:

When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of voices…whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. Such is the facility of running up and down the scale; so wonderful the shortening or multiplying of notes, the repetition of the phrases, or their emphatic utterance: the treble and shrill notes are so mingled with tenor and bass, that the ears lost their power of judging. When this goes to excess it is more fitted to excite lust than devotion; but if it is kept in the limits of moderation, it drives away care from the soul and the solicitudes of life, confers joy and peace and exultation in God, and transports the soul to the society of angels.

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Cantus Firmus

Mass as a genre of medieval music is covered well in the page that introduced the music of the Middle Ages and in our slideshow study guide, but the compositional technique used to compose all masses in this period is worth additional study. This content goes a little deeper into the cantus firmus method of composition than necessary for this class, but it serves to illustrate the degree to which medieval composers felt it necessary to build on the past.

Pieces of new music began with a preexisting melody and built everything else around it. Our concept of a composer who creates something entirely original simply wasn’t present in the minds of medieval musicians. You’ll see this attitude begin to change as we get into the later Renaissance. This existing melody was called a “cantus firmus.”


In music, a cantus firmus (“fixed song”) is a preexisting melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition.


The earliest polyphonic compositions almost always involved a cantus firmus, typically a Gregorian chant, although the term itself was not used until the 14th century. The earliest surviving polyphonic compositions, in the Musica enchiriadis (around AD 900), contain the chant in the top voice and the newly composed part underneath; however this usage changed around 1100, after which the cantus firmus typically appeared in the lowest-sounding voice. Later, the cantus firmus appeared in the tenor voice (from the Latin verb tenere, to hold), singing notes of longer duration, around which more florid lines, instrumental and/or vocal, were composed.

Composition using a cantus firmus continued to be the norm through the 13th century: almost all of the music of the St. Martial and Notre Dame schools uses a cantus firmus, as well as most 13th-century motets. Many of these motets were written in several languages, with the cantus firmus in the lowest voice; the lyrics of love poems might be sung in the vernacular above sacred Latin texts in the form of a trope, or the sacred text might be sung to a familiar secular melody.

In the 14th century, the technique continued to be widely used for most sacred vocal music, with considerable regional variation.

The cyclic mass, which became the standard type of mass composition around the middle of the 15th century, used cantus firmus technique as its commonest organizing principle. At first the cantus firmus was almost always drawn from plainchant, but the range of sources gradually widened to include other sacred sources and even sometimes popular songs. The cantus firmus was at first restricted to the tenor, but by the end of the century, many composers experimented with other ways of using it, such as introducing it into each voice as a contrapuntal subject or using it with a variety of rhythms. During the 16th century, the cantus firmus technique began to be abandoned, replaced with the parody (or imitation) technique in which multiple voices of a preexisting source were incorporated into a sacred composition such as a mass.

Probably the most widely set of the secular cantus firmus melodies was “L’homme armé.” Over 40 settings are known, including two by Josquin des Prez, and six by an anonymous composer or composers in Naples that were intended as a cycle. Many composers of the middle and late Renaissance wrote at least one mass based on this melody, and the practice lasted into the 17th century, with a late setting by Carissimi. There are several theories regarding the meaning of the name: one suggests that the “armed man” represents St. Michael the Archangel, while another suggests that it refers to the name of a popular tavern (Maison L’Homme Armé) near Dufay’s rooms in Cambrai. Being that this music arose shortly after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, it is possible that the text “the armed man should be feared” arose from the fear of the Ottoman Turks, who were expanding militarily toward central Europe. There are numerous other examples of secular cantus firmi used for composition of masses; some of the most famous include “Se la face ay pale” (Dufay), “Fortuna desperate” (attributed to Antoine Busnois), “Fors seulement” (Johannes Ockeghem), “Mille Regretz,” “Pange lingua” (Josquin), and “Westron Wynde” (anonymous).

German composers in the Baroque period in Germany, notably Bach, used chorale melodies as cantus firmi. In the opening movement of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the chorale “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig” appears in long notes, sung by a separate choir of boys “in ripieno.” Many of his chorale preludes include a chorale tune in the pedal part.

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Secular Music—Troubadours

For the most part, music for worship was written down, and music outside of worship was not. It is assumed that most secular music in the early Middle Ages was improvised. However, as the era progressed, a tradition of courtly music developed.

Kings and nobles wanted entertainment, certainly, but many also wanted their courts to be known as places of culture. This led to the composition of poetry and songs that were performed in many cases by members of the court themselves rather than by itinerant minstrels. These educated musicians had different names depending on the region in which they lived and worked, but the name we most commonly associate with them is troubadour.


A troubadour was a composer and performer of Old Occitan lyric poetry during the High Middle Ages (1100–1350). Since the word troubadour is etymologically masculine, a female troubadour is usually called a trobairitz.

The troubadour school or tradition began in the late 11th century in Occitania, but it subsequently spread into Italy and Spain. Under the influence of the troubadours, related movements sprang up throughout Europe: the Minnesingers in Germany, Troubadours in Galicia and Portugal, and that of the Trouveres in northern France. Dante Alighieri in his De vulgari eloquentia defined the troubadour lyric as Fictio Rethorica Musicaque Poita: rhetorical, musical, and poetical fiction. After the “classical” period around the turn of the 13th century and a midcentury resurgence, the art of the troubadours declined in the 14th century and eventually died out around the time of the Black Death (1348).

The texts of troubadour songs deal mainly with themes of chivalry and courtly love. Most were metaphysical, intellectual, and formulaic. Many were humorous or vulgar satires. There were many genres, the most popular being the canso, but sirventes and tensos were especially popular in the postclassical period, in Italy and among the female troubadours, the trobairitz.

Who They Were

The 450 or so troubadours known to historians came from a variety of backgrounds. They made their living in a variety of ways, lived and traveled in many different places, and were actors in many types of social context. The troubadours were not wandering entertainers. Typically, they stayed in one place for a lengthy period of time under the patronage of a wealthy nobleman or woman. Many did travel extensively, however, sojourning at one court and then another.


The earliest troubadour, the Duke of Aquitaine, came from the high nobility. He was followed immediately by two poets of unknown origins, known only by their sobriquets, Cercamon and Marcabru, and by a member of the princely class, Jaufre Rudel. Many troubadours are described in their vidas as poor knights. It was one of the most common descriptors of status. Later troubadours especially could belong to lower classes, ranging from the middle class of merchants and “burgers” (persons of urban standing) to tradesmen and others who worked with their hands. Many troubadours also possessed a clerical education. For some, this was their springboard to composition, since their clerical education equipped them with an understanding of musical and poetic forms as well as vocal training.

Troubadours and Jougleurs

The Occitan words Troubadours and Trouveres are relatively rare compared with the verb trobar (compose, invent), which was usually applied to the writing of poetry. It signified that a poem was original to an author (trobador) and was not merely sung or played by one. The term was used mostly for poetry only and in more careful works, like the vidas, is not generally applied to the composition of music or to singing, though the troubadour’s poetry itself is not so careful. Sometime in the middle of the twelfth century, however, a distinction was definitely being made between an inventor of original verse and the performers of others’. These last were called joglars, from the Latin ioculatores, giving rise also to the French jongleur, Castilian juglar, and English juggler, which has come to refer to a more specific breed of performer. The medieval jongleur/joglar is really a minstrel. It is clear, for example from the poetry of Bertran de Born, that jongleurs were performers who did not usually compose. They often performed the troubadour’s songs: singing, playing instruments, dancing, and even doing acrobatics.

Despite the distinctions noted, many troubadours were also known as jongleurs, either before they began composing or alongside. Aimeric de Belenoi, Aimeric de Sarlat, Albertet Cailla, Arnaut de Mareuil, Elias de Barjols, Elias Fonsalada, Falquet de Romans, Guillem Magret, Guiraut de Calanso, Nicoletto da Torino, Peire Raimon de Tolosa, Peire Rogier, Peire de Valeira, Peirol, Pistoleta, Perdigon, Salh d’Escola, Uc de la Bacalaria, Uc Brunet, and Uc de Saint Circ were jongleur-troubadours.


The trobairitz were the female troubadours, the first female composers of secular music in the Western tradition. The word trobairitz was first used in the 13th-century Romance of Flamenca, and its derivation is the same as that of trobaire but in feminine form. There were also female counterparts to the joglars: the joglaresas. The number of trobairitz varies between sources: there were 20 or 21 named trobairitz, plus an additional poetess known only as Domna H. There are several anonymous texts ascribed to women. Out of a total of about 450 troubadours and 2,500 troubadour works, the trobairitz and their corpus form a minor but interesting and informative portion. They are, therefore, quite well studied.

Religious art of Castelloza.
Figure 1. Castelloza.

The trobairitz were in most respects as varied as their male counterparts, with the general exceptions of their poetic style and their provenance. None of the trobairitz were prolific, or if they were, their work has not survived. Only two have left us more than one piece: the Comtessa de Dia, with four, and Castelloza, with three or four. One of the known trobairitz, Gaudairença, wrote a song entitled Coblas e dansas, which has not survived; no other piece of hers has either.

Our listening example from the troubadour tradition comes from the most famous of the female troubadours (trobairitz), Beatriz of Dia. Much uncertainty surrounds the historical records of the troubadours, but here is some brief information to help you get a sense of her place in the world of medieval secular music.


The Comtessa de Dia, probably named Beatritz or Beatriz (fl. ca. 1175), was a trobairitz (female troubadour).

She is only known as the comtessa de Dia in contemporary documents but was almost certainly named Beatriz and likely the daughter of Count Isoard II of Diá (a town northeast of Montelimar in southern France). According to her vida, she was married to William of Poitiers but was in love with and sang about Raimbaut of Orange (1146–1173). It has been hypothesized that she was in fact married to Guillem’s son, Ademar de Peiteus, whose wife’s name was Philippa de Fay, and that her real lover was Raimbaut de Vaqueiras.

Beatriz’s poems were often set to the music of a flute. Five of her works survive, including 4 cansos and 1 tenson. Scholars have debated whether or not Comtessa authored Amics, en greu consirier, a tenso typically attributed to Raimbaut d’Aurenga. One reason for this is due to the similarities between this composition and her own Estat ai en greu consirier. A second reason references the words in her vida, Et enamoret se d’En Rambaut d’ Ashley, e fez de lui mantas bonas cansos (and she fell in love with Sir Raimbaut d’Aurenga, and made about him many good cansos).

Her song A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria in the Occitan language is the only canso by a trobairitz to survive with its music intact. The music to A chantar is found only in Le manuscript di roi, a collection of songs copied around 1270 for Charles of Anjou, the brother of Louis IX.

Her extant poems are:

  • Ab joi et ab joven m’apais
  • A chantar m’er de so qu’ieu non volria
  • Estat ai en greu cossirier
  • Fin ioi me don’alegranssa

Typical subject matter used by Comtessa de Dia in her lyrics includes optimism, praise of herself and her love, as well as betrayal. In A chantar, Comtessa plays the part of a betrayed lover, and despite the fact she has been betrayed, she continues to defend and praise herself. In Fin ioi me don’alegranssa, however, Comtessa makes fun of the lausengier, a person known for gossiping, comparing those who gossip to a “cloud that obscures the sun.” In writing style, Comtessa uses a process known as coblas singulars in A chantar, repeating the same rhyme scheme in each strophe, but changing the a rhyme each time. Ab ioi, on the other hand, uses coblas doblas, with a rhyme scheme of ab’ ab’ b’ aab’. A chantar uses some of the motifs of Idyll II of Theocritus.

Listen: A chantar m’er

The only existing song by a trobairitz that survives with music.

Machaut is an extremely significant composer who was equally comfortable in sacred and secular worlds. His Messe de Nostre Dame is the first complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass by a single composer that has survived. He served as a high-ranking church official in the service of various kings and nobles. He also composed courtly poetry and polyphonic songs that are the clear descendants of the troubadour song of previous centuries.


Machaut (at right) receiving Nature and three of her children. From an illuminated Parisian manuscript of the 1350s
Figure 1. Machaut (at right) receiving Nature and three of her children. From an illuminated Parisian manuscript of the 1350s.

Guillaume de Machaut (sometimes spelled Machault; ca. 1300–April 1377) was a medieval French poet and composer. He is one of the earliest composers on whom significant biographical information is available. According to Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Machaut was “the last great poet who was also a composer.” Well into the 15th century, Machaut’s poetry was greatly admired and imitated by other poets, including Geoffrey Chaucer.

Machaut composed in a wide range of styles and forms. He is a part of the musical movement known as the ars nova. Machaut helped develop the motet and secular song forms (particularly the lai and the formes fixes: rondeau, virelai, and ballade). Machaut wrote the Messe de Nostre Dame, the earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer.


Guillaume de Machaut was born about 1300 and educated in the region around Reims. His surname most likely derives from the nearby town of Machault, 30 km northeast of Reims in the Ardennes region. He was employed as secretary to John I, Count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia from 1323 to 1346, and also became a canon (1337). He often accompanied King John on his various trips, many of them military expeditions around Europe (including Prague). He was named the canon of Verdun in 1330, Arras in 1332, and Reims in 1337. By 1340, Machaut was living in Reims, having relinquished his other canonic posts at the request of Pope Benedict XII. In 1346, King John was killed fighting at the Battle of Crécy, and Machaut, who was famous and much in demand, entered the service of various other aristocrats and rulers, including King John’s daughter Bonne (who died of the Black Death in 1349), her sons Jean de Berry and Charles (later Charles V, Duke of Normandy), and others such as Charles II of Navarre.

Machaut survived the Black Death that devastated Europe, and spent his later years living in Reims composing and supervising the creation of his complete-works manuscripts. His poem Le voir dit (probably 1361–1365) purports to recount a late love affair with a 19-year-old girl, Péronne d’Armentières, although the accuracy of the work as autobiography is contested. When he died in 1377, other composers such as François Andrieu wrote elegies lamenting his death.


Other than his Latin motets of a religious nature and some poems invoking the horrors of war and captivity, the vast majority of Machaut’s lyric poems reflect the conventions of courtly love and involve statements of service to a lady and the poet’s pleasure and pains. In technical terms, Machaut was a master of elaborate rhyme schemes, and this concern makes him a precursor to the Grands Rhétoriqueurs of the 15th century. Guillaume de Machaut’s lyric output comprises around 400 poems, including 235 ballades, 76 rondeaux, 39 virelais, 24 lais, 10 complaintes, and 7 chansons royales, and Machaut did much to perfect and codify these fixed forms. Some of his lyric output is embedded in his narrative poems or “dits,” such as Le remède de fortune (“The Cure of Ill Fortune”), which includes one of each genre of lyric poetry, and Le voir dit (“A True Story”), but most are included in a separate, unordered section entitled Les loanges des dames. That the majority of his lyrics are not set to music (in manuscripts, music and nonmusic sections are separate) suggests that he normally wrote the text before setting some to music.

Guillaume de Machaut’s narrative output is dominated by the “dit” (literally “spoken,” i.e., a poem not meant to be sung). These first-person narrative poems (all but one are written in octosyllabic rhymed couplets, like the romance, or “roman” of the same period) follow many of the conventions of the Roman de la rose, including the use of allegorical dreams (songes), allegorical characters, and the situation of the narrator-lover attempting to return toward or satisfy his lady.

Machaut is also the author of a poetic chronicle of the chivalric deeds of Peter I of Cyprus (the Prise d’Alexandrie) and of poetic works of consolation and moral philosophy. His unusual self-reflective usage of himself (as his lyrical persona) as the narrator of his dits gleans some personal philosophical insights as well.

At the end of his life, Machaut wrote a poetic treatise on his craft (his Prologue). This reflects on his conception of the organization of poetry into set genres and rhyme schemes and the ordering of these genres into distinct sections of manuscripts. This preoccupation with ordering his oeuvre is reflected in an index to MS A entitled “Vesci l’ordonance que G. de Machaut veut qu’il ait en son livre” (“Here is the order that G. de Machaut wants his book to have”).

Machaut’s poetry had a direct effect on the works of Eustache Deschamps, Jean Froissart, Christine de Pizan, René d’Anjou, and Geoffrey Chaucer, among many others.


The poem below, Puis qu’en oubli, is his 18th rondeau.

Puis qu’en oubli sui de vous, dous amis,
Vie amoureuse et joie a Dieu commant.

Mar vi le jour que m’amour en vous mis,
Puis qu’en oubli sui de vous, dous amis.
Mais ce tenray que je vous ay promis,
C’est que ja mais n’aray nul autre amant.
Puis qu’en oubli sui de vous, dous amis,
Vie amoureuse et joie a Dieu commant.


As a composer of the 14th century, Machaut’s secular song output includes monophonic lais and virelais, which continue, in updated forms, some of the tradition of the troubadours. He also worked in the polyphonic forms of the ballade and rondeau and wrote the first complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass that can be attributed to a single composer.

Secular Music

The lyrics of Machaut’s works almost always dealt with courtly love. A few works exist to commemorate a particular event, such as M18, “Bone Pastor/Bone Pastor/Bone Pastor.” Machaut mostly composed in five genres: the lai, the virelai, the motet, the ballade, and the rondeau. In these genres, Machaut retained the basic formes fixes but often utilized creative text setting and cadences. For example, most rondeau phrases end with a long melisma on the penultimate syllable. However, a few of Machaut’s rondeaux, such as R18 “Puis qu’en oubli,” are mostly syllabic in treatment.

Machaut’s motets often contain sacred texts in the tenor, such as in M12 “Corde mesto cantando/Helas! pour quoy virent/Libera me.” The top two voices in these three-part compositions, in contrast, sing secular French texts, creating interesting concordances between the sacred and secular. In his other genres, though, he does not utilize sacred texts.

Sacred Music

Machaut’s cyclic setting of the Mass, identified in one source as the Messe de Nostre Dame (“Mass of Our Lady”), was composed in the early 1360s, probably for Reims Cathedral. While not the first cyclic mass—the Tournai Mass is earlier—it was the first by a single composer and conceived as a unit. Machaut probably was familiar with the Tournai Mass, since Machaut’s Mass shares many stylistic features with it, including textless interludes.

Listen: Kyrie from the Messe de Nostre Dame

By Guillaume de Machaut, midi instrumental version

Whether or not Machaut’s mass is indeed cyclic is contested; after lengthy debate, musicologists are still deeply divided. However, the mass can be said to be stylistically consistent, and certainly the chosen chants are all celebrations of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Also adding weight to the claim that the mass is cyclic is the possibility that the piece was written or assembled for performance at a specific celebration. The possibility that it was for the coronation of Charles V, which was once widely accepted, is thought unlikely in modern scholarship. The composer’s intention that the piece be performed as one entire mass setting makes the Messe de Nostre Dame generally considered a cyclic composition.

It’s possible that I just played a little too much D&D as a kid, but I think these medieval songs are totally cool. These listening examples are just for your enjoyment—they won’t be on any test.

Puis qu’en oubli by Machaut

This is not one of the pieces on the listening exam, but it is a recording of the chanson whose text is referenced in the reading on Machaut: Puis qu’en oubli.

Quant la doulce jouvencelle

Let the two talented musicians of Asteria serve as your own personal time machine and enjoy a song from about 600 years ago.

Music of the Renaissance

This section contains an overview of the music of the Renaissance.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Slideshow: Music in the Renaissance
  • Renaissance Music Overview
  • The Printing Press
  • Imitation
  • Motet
  • Josquin des Prez
  • Protestant Reformation
  • Counter-Reformation
  • Giovannia Pierluigi da Palestrina
  • Italina Madrigal
  • Claudio Monteverdi
  • The English Madrigal
  • Thomas Weelkes
  • Renaissance Dances


Music in the Renaissance from Lumen Learning

This review of some of the major points of the Renaissance era is a good place to begin your study of the music of this period. You’ll notice that different sources list different start dates for the Renaissance; there is no single event that serves as a clear dividing line between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The transition of musical style between the two periods is very gradual, and as a result, scholars do not agree on when the Renaissance begins.

Because the previous review is focused on just a few of the biggest concepts from the period, I’ve also included this short introduction.


Consensus among music historians notable dissent has been to start the musical Renaissance era around 1400, with the end of the medieval era, and to close it around 1600, with the beginning of the Baroque period. The musical Renaissance then starts about a hundred years after the beginning of the Renaissance as understood in other disciplines. As in the other arts, the music of the period was significantly influenced by the developments that define the Early Modern period: the rise of humanistic thought; the recovery of the literary and artistic heritage of ancient Greece and Rome; increased innovation and discovery; the growth of commercial enterprise; the rise of a bourgeois class; and the Protestant Reformation. From this changing society emerged a common, unifying musical language, in particular the polyphonic style of the Franco-Flemish school.

The invention of the Gutenberg press made distribution of music and musical theory possible on a wide scale. Demand for music as entertainment and as an activity for educated amateurs increased with the emergence of a bourgeois class. Dissemination of chansons, motets, and masses throughout Europe coincided with the unification of polyphonic practice into the fluid style, which culminated in the second half of the 16th century in the work of composers such as Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, and William Byrd. Relative political stability and prosperity in the Low Countries, along with a flourishing system of music education in the area’s many churches and cathedrals, allowed the training of hundreds of singers and composers. These musicians were highly sought throughout Europe, particularly in Italy, where churches and aristocratic courts hired them as composers and teachers. By the end of the 16th century, Italy had absorbed the northern influences, with Venice, Rome, and other cities being centers of musical activity, reversing the situation from a hundred years earlier. Opera arose at this time in Florence as a deliberate attempt to resurrect the music of ancient Greece.

Music, increasingly freed from medieval constraints in range, rhythm, harmony, form, and notation, became a vehicle for new personal expression. Composers found ways to make music expressive of the texts they were setting. Secular music absorbed techniques from sacred music and vice versa. Popular secular forms such as the chanson and madrigal spread throughout Europe. Courts employed virtuoso performers, both singers and instrumentalists. Music also became more self-sufficient with its availability in printed form, existing for its own sake. Many familiar modern instruments (including the violin, guitar, lute, and keyboard instruments) developed into new forms during the Renaissance responding to the evolution of musical ideas, presenting further possibilities for composers and musicians to explore. Modern woodwind and brass instruments like the bassoon and trombone also appeared, extending the range of sonic color and power. During the 15th century, the sound of full triads became common, and toward the end of the 16th century, the system of church modes began to break down entirely, giving way to the functional tonality that was to dominate Western art music for the next three centuries.

From the Renaissance era, both secular and sacred music survives in quantity and both vocal and instrumental. An enormous diversity of musical styles and genres flourished during the Renaissance, and can be heard on commercial recordings in the 21st century, including masses, motets, madrigals, chansons, accompanied songs, instrumental dances, and many others. Numerous early music ensembles specializing in music of the period give concert tours and make recordings using a wide range of interpretive styles.

Follow the link if you would like to read the rest of this article on Wikipedia.

Before we dive into a more detailed exploration of musical concepts and composers, I want us to take a closer look at the advent of the printing press. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the significance of the printing press on history in general—and music in particular. While this reading focuses primarily on the printing of books, the same process was applied to music. With the rise of the press, composers had a new opportunity for income, and amateur musicians, many among the rising middle class, provided a new market for their music.

Musicians prior to the advent of the printing press were entirely dependent on either the church or ruling nobles for a living. The printing press didn’t change that system of patronage overnight, but it did provide additional opportunities and freedom for composers. The printing press, by virtue of the volume of copies of musical scores, also greatly enhanced the preservation of the music of this and later periods. As you read about the effect of the printing press on the structure of society, take a moment to reflect on the fact that you are living in a time when a similar leap forward in the distribution of information is happening.

Recreated Gutenberg press at the International Printing Museum, Carson, California
Figure 1. Recreated Gutenberg press at the International Printing Museum, Carson, California.

A printing press is a device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a print medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring the ink. Typically used for texts, the invention of the printing press is widely regarded as one of the most influential events in the second millennium, ushering in the period of modernity.

The printing press was invented in the Holy Roman Empire by Johannes Gutenberg, around 1440. Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, devised a hand mold to create metal movable type and adapted screw presses and other existing technologies to create a printing system. The mechanization of bookmaking led to the first mass production of books in Europe. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday, compared to about 2,000 by typographic block-printing prevalent in East Asia and a few by hand-copying. Books of bestselling authors like Luther or Erasmus were sold by the hundreds of thousands in their lifetime.

Within several decades, the printing press spread to over two hundred cities in a dozen European countries. By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had produced more than 20 million volumes. In the 16th century, with presses spreading farther afield, their output rose to an estimated 150 to 200 million copies. The operation of a printing press became synonymous with the enterprise of printing and lent its name to a new branch of media, the press. In 1620, the English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote of printing as one of three inventions that had changed the world.

In the 19th century, the replacement of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press by steam-powered rotary presses allowed printing on an industrial scale, while Western-style printing was adopted all over the world, becoming practically the sole medium for modern bulk printing, today typically using offset printing techniques.

Follow the link if you would like to read more about the printing press on Wikipedia.

You’ve already studied the compositional technique known as cantus firmus, in which a new composition is built around a preexisting melody. This technique continued into the middle of the Renaissance period. Josquin des Prez certainly used cantus firmus in many of his works, but by Josquin’s time a new compositional technique, imitation, was becoming more popular among composers. Josquin’s own use of imitative counterpoint represents a high point in Renaissance polyphony. Read the first three paragraphs of this webpage for an introduction to imitative composition.

It is often the case throughout history that musical innovation begins in a single genre, then spreads to others. This is the case in the Renaissance with the motet. For understandable reasons, composers were more willing to try out newer compositional styles in the genre of the motet than they were in the mass. For example, the older cantus firmus technique that arose in the Middle Ages was used in masses for much longer than in motets. In motets, composers moved away from the cantus firmus and favored freer, more expressive techniques (including imitative and homophonic textures) far earlier than in the mass. Over time, these newer styles eventually spread to other genres, including the mass.

In classical music, a motet is a highly varied choral musical composition. The motet was one of the preeminent polyphonic forms of Renaissance music.

According to Margaret Bent, “a piece of music in several parts with words” is as precise a definition of the motet as will serve from the 13th to the late 16th century and beyond. This is close to one of the earliest descriptions we have, that of the late 13th-century theorist Johannes de Grocheo, who believed that the motet was “not to be celebrated in the presence of common people, because they do not notice its subtlety, nor are they delighted in hearing it, but in the presence of the educated and of those who are seeking out subtleties in the arts.”


In the early 20th century, it was generally believed the name came from the Latin movere (“to move”), though a derivation from the French mot (“word” or “phrase”) had also been suggested. The medieval Latin for “motet” is motectum, and the Italian mottetto was also used. If the word is from Latin, the name describes the movement of the different voices against one another. Today, however, the French etymology is favored by reference books, as the word “motet” in 13th-century French had the sense of “little word.”

Medieval Motets

The earliest motets arose in the 13th century from the organum tradition exemplified in the Notre Dame school of Leonin and Perotin. The motet probably arose from the addition of text to the long melismatic passages of organum. The motet took a definite rhythm from the words of the verse and as such appeared as a brief rhythmic interlude in the middle of the longer, more chantlike organum.

The practice of discant over a cantus firmus marked the beginnings of counterpoint in Western music. From these first motets arose a medieval tradition of secular motets. These were two- or three-part compositions in which several different texts, sometimes in different vernacular languages, were sung simultaneously over a Latin cantus firmus that once again was usually adapted from a passage of Gregorian chant. It is suspected that, for the sake of intelligibility, in performance, the cantus firmus and one or another of the vocal lines were performed on instruments. Among the trouveres, Robert de Reins La Chievre and Richart de Fournival composed motets.

Renaissance Motets

The motet was preserved in the transition from medieval to Renaissance music, but the character of the composition was entirely changed. While it grew out of the medieval motet, the Renaissance composers of the motet generally abandoned the use of a repeated figure as a cantus firmus. Instead, the Renaissance motet is a polyphonic musical setting, sometimes in imitative counterpoint, for chorus, of a Latin text, usually sacred, not specifically connected to the liturgy of a given day, and therefore suitable for use in any service. The texts of antiphons were frequently used as motet texts. This is the sort of composition that is most familiarly designated by the term “motet,” and the Renaissance period marked the flowering of the form.

In essence, these motets were sacred madrigals. The relationship between the two forms is most obvious in the composers who concentrated on sacred music, especially Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose “motets” setting texts from the Canticum Canticorum, the biblical “Song of Solomon,” are among the most lush and madrigal-like of Palestrina’s compositions, while his “madrigals” that set poems of Petrarch in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary would not be out of place in church. The language of the text was the decisive feature: if it’s Latin, it’s a motet; if the vernacular, a madrigal. Religious compositions in vernacular languages were often called madrigali spirituali, “spiritual madrigals.”

In the latter part of the 16th century, Giovanni Gabrieli and other composers developed a new style, the polychoral motet, in which two or more choirs of singers (or instruments) alternated. This style of motet was sometimes called the Venetian motet to distinguish it from the Netherlands or Flemish motet written elsewhere.

One of the great masters of the Renaissance, Josquin’s music marks the transition from the angular medieval style heard in the early Renaissance to the more serene, flowing style of the late Renaissance.


A 1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime
Figure 1. A 1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime.

Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450/1455–27 August 1521), often referred to simply as Josquin, was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance. His original name is sometimes given as Josquin Lebloitte, and his later name is given under a wide variety of spellings in French, Italian, and Latin, including Josquinus Pratensis and Jodocus a Prato. His motet Illibata Dei virgo nutrix includes an acrostic of his name, where he spelled it “Josquin des Prez.” He was the most famous European composer between Guillaume Dufay and Palestrina and is usually considered to be the central figure of the Franco-Flemish School. Josquin is widely considered by music scholars to be the first master of the high Renaissance style of polyphonic vocal music that was emerging during his lifetime.

During the 16th century, Josquin gradually acquired the reputation as the greatest composer of the age, his mastery of technique and expression universally imitated and admired. Writers as diverse as Baldassare Castiglione and Martin Luther wrote about his reputation and fame; theorists such as Heinrich Glarean and Gioseffo Zarlino held his style as that best representing perfection. He was so admired that many anonymous compositions were attributed to him by copyists, probably to increase their sales. More than 370 works are attributed to him; it was only after the advent of modern analytical scholarship that some of these mistaken attributions have been challenged on the basis of stylistic features and manuscript evidence. Yet in spite of Josquin’s colossal reputation, which endured until the beginning of the Baroque era and was revived in the 20th century, his biography is shadowy, and next to nothing is known about his personality. The only surviving work that may be in his own hand is a graffito on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, and only one contemporary mention of his character is known, in a letter to Duke Ercole I of Ferrara. The lives of dozens of minor composers of the Renaissance are better documented than the life of Josquin.

Josquin wrote both sacred and secular music, and in all of the significant vocal forms of the age, including masses, motets, chansons, and frottole. During the 16th century, he was praised for both his supreme melodic gift and his use of ingenious technical devices. In modern times, scholars have attempted to ascertain the basic details of his biography and have tried to define the key characteristics of his style to correct misattributions, a task that has proved difficult, as Josquin liked to solve compositional problems in different ways in successive compositions—sometimes he wrote in an austere style devoid of ornamentation, and at other times, he wrote music requiring considerable virtuosity. Heinrich Glarean wrote in 1547 that Josquin was not only a “magnificent virtuoso” (the Latin can be translated also as “show-off”) but capable of being a “mocker,” using satire effectively. While the focus of scholarship in recent years has been to remove music from the “Josquin canon” (including some of his most famous pieces) and to reattribute it to his contemporaries, the remaining music represents some of the most famous and enduring of the Renaissance.


Josquin’s motet style varied from almost strictly homophonic settings with block chords and syllabic text declamation, to highly ornate contrapuntal fantasias, to the psalm settings that combined these extremes with the addition of rhetorical figures and text-painting that foreshadowed the later development of the madrigal. He wrote many of his motets for four voices, an ensemble size that had become the compositional norm around 1500, and he also was a considerable innovator in writing motets for five and six voices. No motets of more than six voices have been reliably attributed to Josquin.

Listen: Intervals

Please download and listen to the following audio file to hear a passage from the psalm motet Domine ne in furore (Ps. 37). Three variants of a motive built on a major triad are introduced, each in paired imitation between two voices.

Domine ne in furore

Josquin frequently used imitation, especially paired imitation, in writing his motets, with sections akin to fugal expositions occurring on successive lines of the text he was setting. An example is his setting of Dominus regnavit (Ps. 93) for four voices; each of the lines of the psalm begins with a voice singing a new tune alone, quickly followed by entries of another three voices in imitation.

In writing polyphonic settings of psalms, Josquin was a pioneer, and psalm settings form a large proportion of the motets of his later years. Few composers prior to Josquin had written polyphonic psalm settings. Some of Josquin’s settings include the famous Miserere, written in Ferrara in 1503 or 1504 and most likely inspired by the recent execution of the reformist monk Girolamo Savonarola; Memor esto verbi tui, based on Psalm 119; and two settings of De profundis (Ps. 130), both of which are often considered to be among his most significant accomplishments.

The Reformation and subsequent Counter-Reformation encompass some of the most sweeping religious, social, and political transitions of the Renaissance era. Both movements exert a profound influence on the music of that time. We will actually explore some of the effects of the Protestant Reformation on music, specifically those put forward by Martin Luther, a little later when we study the cantatas of J. S. Bach in the Baroque. For now, an overview of the Reformation will suffice. As you read here, notice the mention of the role of the printing press and the Catholic Church’s response, the Counter-Reformation. The next page will focus on the Counter-Reformation and its effects on Renaissance music, specifically that of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

The Protestant Reformation, often referred to simply as the Reformation, was the schism within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and other early Protestant Reformers.

Although there had been significant earlier attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church before Luther—such as those of Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, and John Wycliffe—it is Martin Luther who is widely acknowledged to have started the Reformation with his 1517 work The Ninety-Five Theses. Luther began by criticizing the selling of indulgences, insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory and that the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the gospel. The attacks widened to cover many of the doctrines and devotional Catholic practices. The new movement within Germany diversified almost immediately, and other reform impulses arose independently of Luther. The largest groupings were the Lutherans and Calvinists, or Reformed. Lutheran churches were founded mostly in Germany, the Baltics, and Scandinavia, while the Reformed ones were founded in France, Switzerland, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Scotland. The new movement influenced the Church of England decisively after 1547 under Edward VI and Elizabeth I, although the national church had been made independent under Henry VIII in the early 1530s for political rather than religious reasons. There were also reformation movements throughout continental Europe known as the Radical Reformation, which gave rise to the Anabaptist, Moravian, and other Pietistic movements.

Although the core motivation behind these changes was theological, many other factors played a part, including the rise of nationalism; the Western Schism, which eroded people’s faith in the Papacy; the corruption of the Curia; and the new learning of the Renaissance, which questioned much traditional thought. On a technological level the spread of the printing press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular.

The Roman Catholic Church responded with a Counter-Reformation initiated by the Council of Trent. Much work in battling Protestantism was done by the well-organized new order of the Jesuits. In general, Northern Europe, with the exception of most of Ireland, came under the influence of Protestantism. Southern Europe remained Roman Catholic, while Central Europe was a site of a fierce conflict, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War, which left it massively devastated.

This page covers the reaction on the part of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation. Notice that this final section on this page (The Savior Legend) leads us to another composer—namely, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Council of Trent

Pope Paul III (1534–1549) is considered to be the first pope of the Counter-Reformation and also initiated the Council of Trent (1545–1563), a commission of cardinals tasked with institutional reform, addressing contentious issues such as corrupt bishops and priests, indulgences, and other financial abuses.

The Council upheld the basic structure of the medieval Church, its sacramental system, religious orders, and doctrine. It rejected all compromise with the Protestants, restating basic tenets of the Roman Catholic faith. The Council upheld salvation appropriated by grace through faith and works of that faith (not just by faith, as the Protestants insisted) because “faith without works is dead,” as the Epistle of St. James states (2:22–26). Transubstantiation, according to which the consecrated bread and wine are held to have been transformed really and substantially into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, was also reaffirmed, as were the traditional seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Other practices that drew the ire of Protestant reformers, such as pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and relics, the use of venerable images and statuary, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, were strongly reaffirmed as spiritually commendable practices. The Council officially accepted the Vulgate listing of the Old Testament Bible, which included the deuterocanonical works (also called the Apocrypha by Protestants) on a par with the 39 books customarily found in the Masoretic Text. This reaffirmed the previous Council of Rome and Synods of Carthage (both held in the 4th century CE), which had affirmed the Deuterocanon as Scripture. The Council also commissioned the Roman Catechism, which still serves as authoritative Church teaching.

While the traditional fundamentals of the Church were reaffirmed, there were noticeable changes to answer complaints that the Counter-Reformers were, tacitly, willing to admit were legitimate. Among the conditions to be corrected by Catholic reformers was the growing divide between the clerics and the laity; many members of the clergy in the rural parishes, after all, had been poorly educated. Often, these rural priests did not know Latin and lacked opportunities for proper theological training (addressing the education of priests had been a fundamental focus of the humanist reformers in the past). Parish priests were to be better educated in matters of theology and apologetics, while Papal authorities sought to educate the faithful about the meaning, nature and value of art and liturgy, particularly in monastic churches (Protestants had criticized them as “distracting”). Notebooks and handbooks became more common, describing how to be good priests and confessors.

Reforms before the Council of Trent

The Council of Trent is believed to be the apex of the Counter-Reformation’s influence on church music in the 16th century. However, the council’s pronouncements on music were not the first attempt at reform. The Catholic Church had spoken out against a perceived abuse of music used in the mass before the Council of Trent ever convened to discuss music in 1562. The manipulation of the Credo and using nonliturgical songs were addressed in 1503, and secular singing and the intelligibility of the text in the delivery of psalmody in 1492. The delegates at the Council were just a link in the long chain of church clergy who had pushed for a reform of the musical liturgy reaching back as far as 1322. Probably the most extreme move at reform came late in 1562 when, instructed by the legates, Egidio Foscarari (bishop of Modena) and Gabriele Paleotti began work on reforming cloisters of nuns and their practices involving the liturgy. In fact, the reforms proscribed to the cloisters, which included omitting the use of an organ, prohibiting professional musicians, and banishing polyphonic singing, were much more strict than any of the Council’s edicts or even those to be found in the Palestrina legend.

Fueling the cry for reform from many ecclesial figures was the compositional technique popular in the 15th and 16th centuries of using musical material and even the accompanying texts from other compositions such as motets, madrigals, and chansons. Several voices singing different texts in different languages made any of the text difficult to distinguish from the mixture of words and notes. The parody mass would then contain melodies (usually the tenor line) and words from songs that could have been, and often were, on sensual subjects. The musical liturgy of the church was being more and more influenced by secular tunes and styles. The Council of Paris, which met in 1528, as well as the Council of Trent were making attempts to restore the sense of sacredness to the church setting and what was appropriate for the mass. The councils were simply responding to issues of their day.

Music in the Church

The idea that the Council called to remove all polyphony from the church is widespread, but there is no documentary evidence to support that claim. It is possible, however, that some of the Fathers had proposed such a measure. The emperor Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, has been attributed to be the “savior of church music” because he said polyphony ought not to be driven out of the church. But Ferdinand was most likely an alarmist and read into the Council the possibility of a total ban on polyphony. The Council of Trent did not focus on the style of music but on attitudes of worship and reverence during the mass.

The Savior Legend

The crises regarding polyphony and intelligibility of the text and the threat that polyphony was to be removed completely, which was assumed to be coming from the Council, has a very dramatic legend of resolution. The legend goes that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525–1594), a church musician and choirmaster in Rome, wrote a mass for the Council delegates in order to demonstrate that a polyphonic composition could set the text in such a way that the words could be clearly understood and that was still pleasing to the ear. Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli (Mass for Pope Marcellus) was performed before the Council and received such a welcoming reception among the delegates that they completely changed their minds and allowed polyphony to stay in use in the musical liturgy. Therefore, Palestrina came to be named the “savior of church polyphony.” This legend, though unfounded, has long been a mainstay of histories of music. The savior-myth was first spread by an account by Aggazzari and Banchieri in 1609 who said that Pope Marcellus was trying to replace all polyphony with plainsong. Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli was, though, in 1564, after the 22nd session, performed for the Pope while reforms were being considered for the Sistine Choir.

The Pope Marcellus Mass, in short, was not important in its own day and did not help save church polyphony. What is undeniable is that despite any solid evidence of his influence during or after the Council of Trent, no figure is more qualified to represent the cause of polyphony in the mass than Palestrina. Pope Pius IV, upon hearing Palestrina’s music, would make Palestrina, by Papal Brief, the model for future generations of Catholic composers of sacred music.

Now we come to one of the most significant composers of the Renaissance period: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. I don’t want to give the impression that Palestrina was the only big name of the late Renaissance; he shares that spotlight with at least one other composer, Orlando de Lassus, who we, unfortunately, won’t study in this course. We focus on Palestrina because his compositional style is considered the epitome of late Renaissance polyphony and is still studied by students of music today.


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Figure 1. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525–2 February 1594) was an Italian Renaissance composer of sacred music and the best-known 16th-century representative of the Roman School of musical composition. 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.


Palestrina was born in the town of Palestrina, near Rome, then part of the Papal States. Documents suggest that he first visited Rome in 1537, when he is listed as a chorister at the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica. He studied with Robin Mallapert and Firmin Lebel. He spent most of his career in the city.

Palestrina came of age as a musician under the influence of the northern European style of polyphony, which owed its dominance in Italy primarily to two influential Netherlandish composers, Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez, who had spent significant portions of their careers there. Italy itself had yet to produce anyone of comparable fame or skill in polyphony.

From 1544 to 1551, Palestrina was organist of the cathedral of St. Agapito, the principal church of his native city. His first published compositions, a book of Masses, had made so favorable an impression with Pope Julius III (previously the Bishop of Palestrina) that in 1551 he appointed Palestrina maestro di cappella or musical director of the Cappella Giulia (Julian Chapel, in the sense of choir), the choir of the chapter of canons at St. Peter’s Basilica. This book of Masses was the first by a native composer, since in the Italian states of Palestrina’s day, most composers of sacred music were from the Low Countries, France, Portugal, or Spain. In fact the book was modeled on one by Cristóbal de Morales: the woodcut in the front is almost an exact copy of the one from the book by the Spanish composer.

Facade of St John Lateran, Rome, where Palestrina was musical director
Figure 2. Facade of St John Lateran, Rome, where Palestrina was musical director.

During the next decade, Palestrina held positions similar to his Julian Chapel appointment at other chapels and churches in Rome, notably St. John Lateran (1555–1560, a post previously held by Lassus) and St. Mary Major (1561–1566). In 1571, he returned to the Julian Chapel and remained at St. Peter’s for the rest of his life. The decade of the 1570s was difficult for him personally: he lost his brother, two of his sons, and his wife in three separate outbreaks of the plague (1572, 1575, and 1580, respectively). He seems to have considered becoming a priest at this time, but instead he remarried, this time to a wealthy widow. This finally gave him financial independence (he was not well paid as choirmaster), and he was able to compose prolifically until his death.

He died in Rome of pleurisy in 1594. As was usual, Palestrina was buried on the same day he died, in a plain coffin with a lead plate on which was inscribed Libera me Domine. A five-part psalm for three choirs was sung at the funeral.

Music and Reputation

Palestrina left hundreds of compositions, including 105 masses, 68 offertories, at least 140 madrigals, and more than 300 motets. In addition, there are at least 72 hymns, 35 magnificats, 11 litanies, and 4 or 5 sets of lamentations. The Gloria melody from a Palestrina magnificat is widely used today in the resurrection hymn tune Victory (The Strife Is O’er).

His attitude toward madrigals was somewhat enigmatic: whereas in the preface to his collection of Canticum canticorum (Song of Songs) motets (1584), he renounced the setting of profane texts, only two years later, he was back in print with Book II of his secular madrigals (some of these being among the finest compositions in the medium). He published just two collections of madrigals with profane texts, one in 1555 and another in 1586. The other two collections were spiritual madrigals, a genre beloved by the proponents of the Counter-Reformation.

Palestrina’s masses show how his compositional style developed over time. His Missa sine nomine seems to have been particularly attractive to Johann Sebastian Bach, who studied and performed it while writing the Mass in B minor. Most of Palestrina’s masses appeared in 13 volumes printed between 1554 and 1601, the last seven published after his death.

One of his most important works, the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), has been historically associated with erroneous information involving the Council of Trent. According to this tale (which forms the basis of Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina), it was composed in order to persuade the Council of Trent that a draconian ban on the polyphonic treatment of text in sacred music (as opposed, that is, to a more directly intelligible homophonic treatment) was unnecessary. However, more recent scholarship shows that this mass was in fact composed before the cardinals convened to discuss the ban (possibly as much as 10 years before). Historical data indicate that the Council of Trent, as an official body, never actually banned any church music and failed to make any ruling or official statement on the subject. These stories originated from the unofficial points of view of some Council attendees who discussed their ideas with those not privy to the Council’s deliberations. Those opinions and rumors have, over centuries, been transmuted into fictional accounts, put into print, and often incorrectly taught as historical fact. While Palestrina’s compositional motivations are not known, he may have been quite conscious of the need for intelligible text; however, this was not to conform with any doctrine of the Counter-Reformation, because no such doctrine exists. His characteristic style remained consistent from the 1560s until the end of his life. Roche’s hypothesis that Palestrina’s seemingly dispassionate approach to expressive or emotive texts could have resulted from his having to produce many to order, or from a deliberate decision that any intensity of expression was unbecoming in church music, has not been confirmed by historians.

One of the hallmarks of Palestrina’s music is that dissonances are typically relegated to the “weak” beats in a measure. This produced a smoother and more consonant type of polyphony that is now considered to be definitive of late Renaissance music, given Palestrina’s position as Europe’s leading composer (along with Lassus) in the wake of Josquin (d. 1521). The “Palestrina style” now serves as a basis for college Renaissance counterpoint classes, thanks in large part to the efforts of the 18th-century composer and theorist Johann Joseph Fux, who, in a book called Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus, 1725), set about codifying Palestrina’s techniques as a pedagogical tool for students of composition. Fux applied the term “species counterpoint,” which entails a series of steps whereby students work out progressively more elaborate combinations of voices while adhering to certain strict rules. Fux did make a number of stylistic errors, however, which have been corrected by later authors (notably Knud Jeppesen and Morris). Palestrina’s own music contains ample instances in which his rules have been followed to the letter, as well as many where they are freely broken.

According to Fux, Palestrina had established and followed these basic guidelines:

  • The flow of music is dynamic, not rigid or static.
  • Melody should contain few leaps between notes. (Jeppesen: “The line is the starting point of Palestrina’s style.”)
  • If a leap occurs, it must be small and immediately countered by stepwise motion in the opposite direction.
  • Dissonances are to be confined to passing notes and weak beats. If one falls on a strong beat, it is to be immediately resolved.

Much research on Palestrina was done in the 19th century by Giuseppe Baini, who published a monograph in 1828 that made Palestrina famous again and reinforced the already existing legend that he was the “Savior of Church Music” during the reforms of the Council of Trent. The 19th-century proclivity for hero-worship is predominant in this monograph, however, and this has remained with the composer to some degree to the present day. Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina shows this attitude at its peak.

It is only recently, with the discovery and publication of a great deal of hitherto unknown or forgotten music by various Renaissance composers, that it has been possible to properly assess Palestrina in a historical context. Though Palestrina represents late Renaissance music well, others such as Orlande de Lassus (a Franco-Flemish composer who also spent some of his early career in Italy) and William Byrd were arguably more versatile. Twentieth- and 21st-century scholarship by and large retains the view that Palestrina was a strong and refined composer whose music represents a summit of technical perfection while emphasizing that some of his contemporaries possessed equally individual voices even within the confines of “smooth polyphony.” As a result, composers like Lassus and Byrd as well as Tomas Luis de Victoria have increasingly come to enjoy comparable reputations.

Palestrina was famous in his day, and if anything, his reputation increased after his death. Conservative music of the Roman school continued to be written in his style (which in the 17th century came to be known as the prima pratica) by such students of his as Giovanni Maria Nanino, Ruggiero Giovanelli, Arcangelo Crivelli, Teofilo Gargari, Francesco Soriano, and Gregorio Allegri. It is also thought that Salvatore Sacco may have been a student of Palestrina, as well as Giovanni Dragoni, who later went on to become choirmaster in the church of S. Giovanni in Laterano.

Palestrina’s music continues to be regularly performed and recorded and to provide models for the study of counterpoint. There are two comprehensive editions of Palestrina’s works: a 33-volume edition published by Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig Germany, between 1862 and 1894, edited by Franz Xaver Haberl, and a 34-volume edition published in the mid-20th century by Fratelli Scalera in Rome, Italy, edited by R. Casimiri and others.

It’s time to move from the sacred music heard in churches and cathedrals to the secular music performed for entertainment at court. Though there were many kinds of secular pieces, we’re going to focus on the genre that became the most popular by the end of the Renaissance, the madrigal. The madrigal not only surpassed the other genres of secular vocal music of the day in popularity; it also contributed to the development of opera in the early Baroque. We’ll learn first about the madrigal in its country of origin: Italy. A later reading assignment will discuss the evolution of the madrigal in England, where the genre changed to suit English tastes.

Read this article on Italian Madrigal. Please read the “Background” section carefully. You can skim through the section on composers until you reach the last paragraph that deals with late Renaissance composers. That last paragraph deals with one of the composers we’ll study in more detail—Claudio Monterverdi—so give that paragraph a careful read. Then finish this reading off by reading “Texture” and “Text” in the section on “Musical Style.”

We will study Claudio Monteverdi in both the Renaissance and Baroque periods. His music, especially his madrigals, demonstrates the transition from late Renaissance to early Baroque style. His first four books of madrigals feature the late Renaissance style that you hear in “Ecco mormorar l’onde.” Starting with the fifth book of madrigals, he adopts the new practices that we’ll come to know as early Baroque style.


Monteverdi by Bernardo Strozzi, c.1630
Figure 1. Monteverdi by Bernardo Strozzi, ca. 1630.

Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi (15 May 1567 [baptized]–29 November 1643) was an Italian composer, gambist, singer and Roman Catholic priest.

Monteverdi’s work, often regarded as revolutionary, marked the change from the Renaissance style of music to that of the Baroque period. He developed two styles of composition—the heritage of Renaissance polyphony and the new basso continuo technique of the Baroque. Monteverdi wrote one of the earliest operas, L’Orfeo, a novel work that is the earliest surviving opera still regularly performed. He is widely recognized as an inventive composer who enjoyed considerable fame in his life-time.


Claudio Monteverdi was born in 1567 in Cremona, Lombardy. His father was Baldassare Monteverdi, a doctor, apothecary, and amateur surgeon. He was the oldest of five children. During his childhood, he was taught by Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, the maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of Cremona. The Maestro’s job was to conduct important worship services in accordance with the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Monteverdi learned about music as a member of the cathedral choir. He also studied at the University of Cremona. His first music was written for publication, including some motets and sacred madrigals, in 1582 and 1583. His first five publications were Sacrae cantiunculae, 1582 (a collection of miniature motets); Madrigali Spirituali, 1583 (a volume of which only the bass part book is extant); Canzonette a tre voci, 1584 (a collection of three-voice canzonettes); and the five-part madrigals Book I, 1587, and Book II, 1590. He worked at the court of Vincenzo I of Gonzaga in Mantua as a vocalist and viol player, then as music director. In 1602, he was working as the court conductor, and Vincenzo appointed him master of music on the death of Benedetto Pallavicino.

In 1599, Monteverdi married the court singer Claudia Cattaneo, who died in September 1607. They had two sons (Francesco and Massimilino) and a daughter (Leonora). Another daughter died shortly after birth. In 1610, he moved to Rome, arriving in secret, hoping to present his music to Pope Paul V. His Vespers were printed the same year, but his planned meeting with the Pope never took place.

In 1612, Vincenzo died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Francesco. Heavily in debt due to the profligacy of his father, Francesco sacked Monteverdi and he spent a year in Mantua without any paid employment. His 1607 opera L’Orfeo was dedicated to Francesco. The title page of the opera bears the dedication “Al serenissimo signor D. Francesco Gonzaga, Prencipe di Mantoua, & di Monferato, &c.”

The only certain portrait of Claudio Monteverdi, from the title page of Fiori poetici, a 1644 book of commemorative poems for his funeral
Figure 2. The only certain portrait of Claudio Monteverdi, from the title page of Fiori poetici, a 1644 book of commemorative poems for his funeral.

By 1613, he had moved to San Marco in Venice, where, as conductor, he quickly restored the musical standard of both the choir and the instrumentalists. The musical standard had declined due to the financial mismanagement of his predecessor, Giulio Cesare Martinengo. The managers of the basilica were relieved to have such a distinguished musician in charge, as the music had been declining since the death of Giovanni Croce in 1609.

In 1632, he became a priest. During the last years of his life, when he was often ill, he composed his two last masterpieces: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses, 1641) and the historic opera L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), based on the life of the Roman emperor Nero. L’incoronazione especially is considered a culminating point of Monteverdi’s work. It contains tragic, romantic, and comic scenes (a new development in opera), a more realistic portrayal of the characters, and warmer melodies than previously heard. It requires a smaller orchestra and has a less prominent role for the choir. For a long period of time, Monteverdi’s operas were merely regarded as a historical or musical interest. Since the 1960s, The Coronation of Poppea has reentered the repertoire of major opera companies worldwide.

Monteverdi died, aged 76, in Venice on 29 November 1643 and was buried at the church of the Frari.


Until the age of forty, Monteverdi worked primarily on madrigals, composing a total of nine books. It took Monteverdi about four years to finish his first book of twenty-one madrigals for five voices. As a whole, the first eight books of madrigals show the enormous development from Renaissance polyphonic music to the monodic style typical of Baroque music.

The titles of his madrigal books are:

  • Book 1, 1587: Madrigali a cinque voci
  • Book 2, 1590: Il secondo libro de madrigali a cinque voci
  • Book 3, 1592: Il terzo libro de madrigali a cinque voci
  • Book 4, 1603: Il quarto libro de madrigali a cinque voci
  • Book 5, 1605: Il quinto libro de madrigali a cinque voci
  • Book 6, 1614: Il sesto libro de madrigali a cinque voci
  • Book 7, 1619: Concerto. Settimo libro di madrigali
  • Book 8, 1638: Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo, che saranno per brevi episodi fra i canti senza gesto.
  • Book 9, 1651: Madrigali e canzonette a due e tre voci

The Fifth Madrigal Book

The Fifth Book of Madrigals shows the shift from the late Renaissance style of music to the early Baroque. The Quinto Libro (Fifth Book), published in 1605, was at the heart of the controversy between Monteverdi and Giovanni Artusi. Artusi attacked the “crudities” and “license” of the modern style of composing, centering his attacks on madrigals (including Cruda Amarilli, composed around 1600; see Fabbri, Monteverdi, p. 60) from the fourth book. Monteverdi made his reply in the introduction to the fifth book with a proposal of the division of musical practice into two streams, which he called prima pratica, and seconda pratica. Prima pratica was described as the previous polyphonic ideal of the 16th century, with flowing strict counterpoint, prepared dissonance, and equality of voices. Seconda pratica used much freer counterpoint with an increasing hierarchy of voices, emphasizing soprano and bass. In Prima pratica, the harmony controls the words. In Seconda pratica the words should be in control of the harmonies. This represented a move toward the new style of monody. The introduction of continuo in many of the madrigals was a further self-consciously modern feature. In addition, the fifth book showed the beginnings of conscious functional tonality.

This reading on the madrigal in England briefly describes how the madrigal spread from Italy to England. It also details some of the best-known composers of English Madrigals. While this genre is not nearly as historically significant as its Italian predecessor, English madrigals are more widely performed today by amateur musicians (school choirs, community ensembles, etc.) because of their lighthearted nature and ease of performance.

The English Madrigal School was the brief but intense flowering of the musical madrigal in England, mostly from 1588 to 1627, along with the composers who produced them. The English madrigals were a cappella, predominantly light in style, and generally began as either copies or direct translations of Italian models. Most were for three to six voices.

Style and Characteristics

Most likely the impetus for writing madrigals came through the influence of Alfonso Ferrabosco, who worked in England in the 1560s and 1570s in Queen Elizabeth’s court; he wrote many works in the form, and not only did they prove popular, but they inspired some imitation by local composers. The development that caused the explosion of madrigal composition in England, however, was the development of native poetry—especially the sonnet—which was conducive to setting to music in the Italian style. When Nicholas Yonge published Musica transalpina in 1588, it proved to be immensely popular, and the vogue for madrigal composition in England can be said to truly have started then.

Musica transalpina was a collection of Italian madrigals, mostly by Ferrabosco and Marenzio, fitted with English words. They were well loved, and several similar anthologies followed immediately after the success of the first. Yonge himself published a second Musica transalpina in 1597, hoping to duplicate the success of the first collection.

While William Byrd, probably the most famous English composer of the time, experimented with the madrigal form, he never actually called his works madrigals and, shortly after writing some secular songs in madrigalian style, returned to writing mostly sacred music.

The most influential composers of madrigals in England, and the ones whose works have survived best to the present day, were Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes, and John Wilbye. Morley is the only composer of the time who set verse by Shakespeare for which the music has survived. His style is melodic, easily singable, and remains popular with a cappella singing groups. Wilbye had a very small compositional output, but his madrigals are distinctive with their expressiveness and chromaticism; they would never be confused with their Italian predecessors.

The last line of Gibbons’s “The Silver Swan” of 1612, “More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise,” is often considered to be a lament for the death of the English tradition.

One of the more notable compilations of English madrigals was The Triumphs of Oriana, a collection of madrigals compiled by Thomas Morley, which contained 25 different madrigals by 23 different composers. Published in 1601 as a tribute to Elizabeth I of England, each madrigal contains a reference to Oriana, a name used to reference the queen.

Madrigals continued to be composed in England through the 1620s, but the air and “recitative music” rendered the style obsolete; somewhat belatedly, characteristics of the Baroque style finally appeared in England. While the music of the English Madrigal School is of generally high quality and has endured in popularity, it is useful to remember that the total output of the composers was relatively small: Luca Marenzio in Italy alone published more books of madrigals than the entire sum of madrigal publications in England, and Philippe de Monte wrote more madrigals (over 1,100) than were written in England during the entire period.


The following list includes almost all of the composers of the English Madrigal School who published works. Many of these were amateur composers, some known only for a single book of madrigals, and some for an even smaller contribution.

  • Thomas Bateson (ca. 1570–1630)
  • John Bennet (ca. 1575–after 1614)
  • John Bull (1562–1628)
  • William Byrd (1543–1623)
  • Thomas Campion (1567–1620)
  • Richard Carlton (ca. 1558–1638)
  • Michael Cavendish (ca. 1565–1628)
  • John Dowland (1563–1626)
  • Michael East (ca. 1580–1648)
  • John Farmer (ca. 1565–1605)
  • Giles Farnaby (ca. 1560–1620)
  • Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543–1588; Italian, but worked in England for two decades)
  • Ellis Gibbons (1573–1603)
  • Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625)
  • Thomas Greaves (fl. ca. 1600)
  • William Holborne (fl. 1597)
  • John Holmes (d. 1629)
  • John Jenkins (1592–1678)
  • Robert Jones (fl. 1597–1615)
  • George Kirbye (c. 1565–1634)
  • Henry Lichfild (fl. 1613, d. after 1620)
  • John Milton (1562–1647)
  • Thomas Morley (1557–1603)
  • John Mundy (ca. 1555–1630)
  • Peter Philips (ca. 1560–1628; lived and published in the Netherlands, but wrote in an English style)
  • Francis Pilkington (ca. 1570–1638)
  • Thomas Tomkins (1572–1656)
  • Thomas Vautor (ca. 1580?)
  • John Ward (1571–1638)
  • Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623)
  • John Wilbye (1574–1638)

This short biographical sketch of Thomas Weelkes summarizes his importance as a composer of English church music and madrigals. It is important to understand that while Weelkes is considered a composer of minor historical significance when compared to the likes of Palestrina or Monteverdi, within the genre of the English madrigal, he is one of the best known composers.

As we’ve studied the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we’ve focused primarily on vocal music. There is no question that in these two eras, vocal music was viewed as a higher art form. But there certainly was instrumental music that was being composed and performed. And often the purpose of that instrumental music was to accompany dancing. Now, the music of the country dances of common folk was likely still improvised by self-taught local musicians. But dancing was also an important social activity of the nobility and the small but growing middle class. The music for dances at this level of society was more likely to be written out, though often not attributed to a particular composer.


During the Renaissance period, there was a distinction between country dances and court dances. Court dances required the dancers to be trained and were often for display and entertainment, whereas country dances could be attempted by anyone. At Court, the formal entertainment would often be followed by many hours of country dances that all present could join in. Dances described as country dances such as Chiarantana or Chiaranzana remained popular over a long period—over two centuries in the case of this dance. A Renaissance dance can be likened to a ball.

Knowledge of court dances has survived better than that of country dances, as they were collected by dancing masters in manuscripts and later in printed books. The earliest surviving manuscripts that provide detailed dance instructions are from 15th-century Italy. The earliest printed dance manuals come from late 16th-century France and Italy. The earliest dance descriptions in England come from the Gresley manuscript, ca. 1500, found in the Derbyshire Record Office, D77 Box 38, pp. 51–79. These have been recently published as Cherwell Thy Wyne (Show Your Joy): Dances of Fifteenth-Century England from the Gresley Manuscript. The first printed English source appeared in 1652, the first edition of Playford.

French painting of the volta, from Penhurst Place, Kent, often wrongly assumed to be of Elizabeth I
Figure 1. French painting of the volta, from Penshurst Place, Kent, often wrongly assumed to be of Elizabeth I.

The dances in these manuals are extremely varied in nature. They range from slow, stately dances (bassa dance, pavane, allemande) to fast, lively dances (galliard, coranto, canario). The former, in which the dancers’ feet did not leave the ground, were styled the dance basse while energetic dances with leaps and lifts were called the haute dance. Some were choreographed; others were improvised on the spot.

One dance for couples, a form of the galliard called lavolta, involved a rather intimate hold between the man and woman, with the woman being lifted into the air while the couple made a 3/4 turn. Other dances, such as branles or bransles, were danced by many people in a circle or line.

Another popular Renaissance dance is the “whip.” This dance is performed by raising one’s leg in the air, bringing it down, and holding one’s arm out to the side. This dance was commonly performed in lines or groups of men and even sometimes women. Many variations of this dance exist, and this dance is still commonly practiced today!

Fifteenth-Century Italian Dance

Our knowledge of 15th-century Italian dances comes mainly from the surviving works of three Italian dance masters: Domenico da Piacenza, Antonio Cornazzano, and Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro. Their work deals with similar steps and dances, though some evolution can be seen. The main types of dances described are bassa danze and balletti. These are the earliest European dances to be well documented, as we have a reasonable knowledge of the choreographies, steps, and music used.

To succeed on listening exams, you need to do more than just listen to the overall sound of a piece. You need to dig down into the music with your ears and hear what is going on in the music. To do this, you should be constantly asking yourself the question, What am I hearing? Can you discern the texture, the instrumentation, the tempo, the form, and the melodic style? Often there will be one single characteristic that will give away the genre or at least enable you to eliminate all but a couple of possibilities. This, of course, assumes that you have done your homework and know what to be listening for. This document is designed to help you train your ear to listen for some of those telltale characteristics.

You will need to study the characteristics of each piece that will enable you to recognize that piece when you hear it. Often it’s best to learn how to identify the genre first. Every genre has certain general characteristics. If you can recognize them, that will often make identification of the specific title and composer much easier.

In most of the periods of history, there is a clear dividing line that will enable you to eliminate around half of the genres you are listening to: vocal vs. instrumental. For example, later in the semester when we study the Classical period, if you hear someone singing, you know the piece cannot be a symphony or string quartet. In the medieval and Renaissance periods, however, there just was not much instrumental music that was written down. Because of that, we don’t have the benefit of grouping our pieces by whether they are instrumental or vocal; all but two of them involve singing. That said, those two strictly instrumental works will stand out so much that they are probably a good place to start.

Remember, the question that should always be in your mind during a listening exam is, “What am I hearing?”

I Hear Instruments Only, No Singing

There are only two pieces you could be listening to. Both are examples of anonymously composed Renaissance dance music, and so only the title will change. I’ve listed the title, composer, and genre information for both pieces. Below that, we’ll delve into what you should listen for in order to tell them apart.

  • Pavane by Anonymous; a renaissance dance
  • Galliard by Anonymous; a renaissance dance

There are two clear characteristics to listen for when trying to tell which one of the dances you’re hearing: meter and instrumentation. Meter refers to the organization of the beats. As you tap your foot to the beat, you’ll notice that some beats are stronger than others—important moments in the music will seem to line up with those stronger beats. Try to determine whether the beats are grouped as strong-weak-strong-weak a (duple meter) or a strong-weak-weak-strong-weak-weak (triple). Pavane is duple and Galliard is triple. Triple meter dances tend to have a more lively and fun quality to them, while duple meter dances tend to be more stately and serious sounding. This is certainly the case with these two pieces, so listen for the emotion of the piece as another clue to the meter. Next, each dance is performed by different instruments. Pavane begins with a hand drum introduction. Then a group of instruments plays through the dance’s melody once. Most of these instruments are relatively loud winds: shawms (early oboes) and sackbuts (early trombones). This makes for a fairly strong sound. Next, the tune is played through again by a vielle (early violin) with lute (early guitar) accompaniment. Then the initial group plays through the piece one more time, the hand drum keeping a steady beat the entire time. By contrast, Galliard is performed entirely by softer flutes, with a tambourine providing an underlying rhythmic accompaniment.

I Hear Singing and Instruments

Once again, there are only two possible pieces you could be listening to. Both are pieces of medieval secular music, and both feature singing and polyphonic texture. However, they are easily distinguished by the instrumentation (the various voices and instruments that perform the piece). Because there is a little more to describe, I’ll list each piece separately.

  • A Chantar M’er by Beatriz, Countess of Dia; a troubadour song. Troubadours and Trouveres were solo artists, so this piece features a single female vocalist and two instruments—namely, a vielle and a lute. This is the only piece on the exam sung entirely by a solo female voice. In the beginning, the vielle and the singer take turns presenting the melody and the lute plays with the singer only. On the final verse of the text, the violin plays the tune simultaneously with the singer. Remember that the Countess was writing around 1175 AD, and polyphony was in its early stages at this time. It is not surprising that the texture of this piece, while polyphonic, is quite simple. The only thing Beatriz wrote down was the melody that was to be sung (and in this performance played by the vielle also). Any additional lines were improvised on the spot, which is one reason they were so simple. This provides a contrast with the later chanson. Chansons evolved as a combination of the tradition of the troubadours’ secular songs and the more complex polyphony that had developed in the composition of sacred masses and motets. It’s also worth mentioning that we really have no idea how these pieces would have been performed in their day. In this performance, the musicians are clearly using a regular beat, though it speeds up and slows down somewhat. However, this is not something indicated in the written music that has survived. It is entirely possible that these pieces would have been performed without a steady pulse, much like a Gregorian chant. I have heard performances of this piece that take that approach. So while you should focus on the specifics of this performance as you prepare for the listening exam, keep in mind that there are many possible ways to perform the piece, since there is no way to know what Beatriz intended.
  • Ce Moys de May by Guillaume Dufay; a chanson. As was just mentioned, this piece was composed much later and roughly 250 years after A Chantar M’er. By this time, polyphonic composition had become more sophisticated. This piece has three composed melodic lines, meaning nothing is improvised, and they are each quite active and involved. This more complex polyphony is one way to recognize this piece as compared to the troubadour song. The lively tempo and active lines will help you distinguish this piece from A Chantar M’er, which again is the only other piece with both instruments and voices. The tambourine is a pretty big clue as well. As with the troubadour song, however, there is a lot we don’t know about the composer’s intent. Did he mean for all three lines to be sung or just the highest part? In our performance, all three lines are both sung and played by instruments, but if you search this piece on Spotify, you’ll find other performances where a solo singer performs the top line and the lower lines are played by instruments.

I Hear Singing Only, No Instruments

We all need to find other ways to narrow down the possibilities: there are nine pieces that are performed by voices alone. I think the best characteristic to zero in on during the medieval and Renaissance periods is texture. In some cases, such as monophony, texture will give you the genre—namely, Gregorian chant. In some others it will greatly narrow down the possible genre choices. Again, ask yourself, What am I hearing?


There are only two monophonic pieces on this exam. If you hear monophonic texture, it can only be one of the two chants. Remember that monophonic texture means that everyone is singing the same melodic line, and there’s nothing else going on in the music. Imagine if we all sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in class. Even though there would be a lot of us singing, we will all be on the same part or line of music. That’s what monophony is, and all chant features this simplest of textures. There are only two chants (and therefore only two examples of monophony) in your listening, so if you can pick up on the texture, you can narrow it down to two pieces: Gradual Viderunt Omnes and O Rubor Sanguinis. From there, listen to who is performing. They are listed below with some characteristics to listen for that will help you tell them apart.

  • Gradual Viderunt Omnes by Anonymous; a Gregorian chant. On our recording, this chant is sung by men. You will recall that in the monasteries, all-male establishments, these chants would have been sung on an almost hourly basis. O Rubor Sanguinis, on the other hand, is sung by women.
  • O Rubor Sanguinis by Hildegard of Bingen; a Gregorian chant. Because Hildegard of Bingen established an abbey, a place where the nuns lived and worked, this chant would have been sung by a female chorus just as it is in the performance on our Spotify playlist. That will also make it easy to distinguish from Viderunt Omnes.


If you hear a piece where some of the lines are held out and other lines are quite active, then the texture you are hearing is polyphony. There are seven pieces on the listening exam that are entirely vocal (no instruments) and polyphonic. Each of these has distinctive characteristics that will enable you to identify the piece on a listening exam if you know what to listen for. Let’s start with two examples of medieval polyphony.

  • Viderunt Omnes by Perotinus; organum. When polyphonic texture first began to be used in sacred music, it was called organum, and it was quite basic. It began with two parallel melodic lines that moved in lockstep with each other. Gradually, composers began to experiment with ways to make this more interesting, and some of the most significant developments took place in Paris at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Viderunt Omnes is Notre Dame school organum, and it has a very distinctive sound. The low part holds out the notes of a preexisting Gregorian chant for a really, really long time. This creates a drone over which higher parts were composed. These upper parts were very active and used a repeated rhythmic pattern. Because the notes of the original chant are being stretched out, that means the text proceeds very slowly. The upper voice is therefore singing lots of pitches on each syllable of text. We call that a melisma. The long melismas in the upper voice of Notre Dame–style organum constitute another really obvious characteristic. No other polyphonic genre from this period has such long melismas.
    I should mention that at about the 7:08 mark, the lower voices become more active. This is a brief exception to what you generally hear in Notre Dame style organum, so I won’t use that portion of the piece on the exam. If you get Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes on your exam, the musical excerpt will feature the long, droning low notes for which Perotin is generally known. Along those same lines, you’ll notice that at times this piece reverts back to the original chant. Organum was the practice of embellishing monophonic Gregorian chant with sections of more musically interesting polyphony. When we use the word organum, we are referring to those polyphonic sections, so on an exam, the organum excerpt won’t be taken from the chant sections of the overall piece. That would be a trick question, and I don’t do trick questions on listening exams. You’ll hear the characteristics you need to make the identification.
  • Kyrie from Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut; mass. Like Viderunt Omnes, this Kyrie from Machaut’s most famous mass features alternating sections of monophony and polyphony. Just as in the organum, any exam excerpt will come from the polyphonic sections, as they are what constitute the most historically significant portions of this composition. Unlike the organum, however, the preexisting chant melody on which this piece is based is not held out to nearly the same degree. For this reason, the melismas in this piece are not nearly as long as the ones in the Notre Dame organum. You can hopefully hear how angular and dissonant medieval polyphony is compared to that of the Renaissance. So if you hear the clashing sounds and irregular rhythms of the Middle Ages without the long drones of organum, you’re hearing this Kyrie.

Next let’s examine two secular pieces from the Renaissance period. Both are madrigals that are clearly meant for entertainment at court, and that makes them stand out. The madrigal genre developed in Italy, and the first piece is an example of the Italian madrigal. The second is from England. The English fell in love with Italian madrigals and then over time adapted the genre into something uniquely English. Both pieces make use of word painting but of course are sung in their respective languages.

  • Ecco Mormorar L’onde by Claudio Monteverdi; a madrigal. The madrigal genre arose out of a desire to more fully express the imagery and emotion found in poetry. In this text, the poet describes a peaceful seaside landscape at sunrise. Monteverdi composed music that enables us to hear the murmuring waves, feel the gentle laughing breezes, and watch the glowing sunrise (represented in the poem by the Roman goddess Aurora). Monteverdi is so skilled at writing expressive music that you’ll almost certainly recognize the piece by the fact that it makes you feel the way you would if you were standing on the peaceful shore at dawn. However, it’s also worth noting that because of this desire for expression, the tempo changes to fit the text. In the beginning, the tempo is moderately slow as we hear the murmuring waters. When the text talks about the laughing breezes, the tempo becomes faster. As the sun rises, the polyphony becomes imitative. Imitation was common in sacred music at the time, so it provides an element of majesty for the arrival of the goddess of the dawn.
  • “As Vesta Was” from Latmos Hill Descending by Thomas Weelkes; an English madrigal. The genre of this piece really stands out. First of all, it’s the only piece in English. I wouldn’t rely too much on that, as it’s easy to get the language confused in a polyphonic texture (everyone sings different words at the same time), but it is a characteristic that sets it apart from all the others. Second, it is the fastest, happiest-sounding piece on the test. That is really what English madrigals were all about: fun and frolic. In case you are worried that you might get this mixed up with the medieval chanson Ce Moys de May, which is also somewhat lively, just remember that our English madrigal is sung a cappella, meaning there is no instrumental accompaniment, while in Ce Moys, instruments play along with the voices.

Now the last three polyphonic pieces are probably the most difficult to distinguish, as they are all examples of the Renaissance a cappella style of sacred music. The good news is that if you hear rich, flowing, serene Renaissance polyphony, it can really only be one of these three, so you’ve narrowed your choices considerably. We’ll start with Josquin’s motet.

  • Ave Maria by Josquin des Prez; motet. Josquin had a taste for very clear sections, each section sounding somewhat different than the one before. Some sections feature imitation, meaning a polyphonic texture in which a melodic idea is repeated in every voice part successively. Other sections feature what I like to call dialogue—an imitative texture in which two parts are woven together in a long phrase that is then imitated by two different parts. Finally, there are sections of the Josquin motet that are homophonic in texture in which all the parts move together. This makes the text very clear, as everyone is singing the same syllable of text at the same time. Josquin liked the contrast and variety that these different sections provided. Palestrina, on the other hand, strove for greater consistency; his music just seems to flow continuously from beginning to end. If you hear serene Renaissance polyphony with contrasting sections, it can’t be one of the Palestrina pieces. It must be Josquin’s motet, Ave Maria.
  • “Gloria” from Missa Papae Marcelli by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina; mass. This movement from the Missa Papae Marcelli (or Pope Marcellus Mass) not only avoids contrasting sections; it almost entirely avoids imitation. While there are six voice parts, each part moves in sync with the others. This means that everyone is, for the most part, singing the same words at the same time. This is called homophonic texture. While the Josquin piece has some short sections of homophony, the fact that the “Gloria” is consistently homophonic provides a clear difference between the two that you can hear.
  • “Agnus Dei” from Missa Papae Marcelli by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina; mass. The Agnus Dei is as consistent in its texture as the Gloria, but the texture is imitative polyphony. However, the imitation in this piece is less obvious than in the Josquin piece because Palestrina made sure that the listener would be able to follow the text. He does this in two ways: the use of long melismas and keeping each phrase of text separate (e.g., the 2nd phrase, qui tollis peccata mundi, doesn’t begin until each voice has completed the 1st phrase, Agnus Dei). This is helpful for us as those long melismas provide a clear contrast with the Gloria, which is much more syllabic. It also means that the Agnus Dei has an even more smooth and flowing quality than the Gloria. So basically, if you have narrowed your choice down to these three pieces, and you hear clearly contrasting sections within the piece, it must be Josquin’s motet. If you hear a fairly consistent texture throughout the piece, then you’re hearing Palestrina’s famous mass, and you need to then figure out which of the two movements it is. At that point, listen for texture (homophony = Gloria; imitative polyphony = Agnus Dei) and overall text setting (syllabic = Gloria; melismatic = Agnus Dei).

I hope this has been helpful in training your ears for what to listen to. Please don’t think that you can read these tips once and then recognize these characteristics during the listening exam without any additional preparation. It takes a lot of practice to hear some of these things, especially some of the details that are not immediately apparent on the surface of the music. You’ll want to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the contents of this sheet so that you’re not wasting time looking things up during the exam. One thing I do suggest you look at during the exam is this final table below. During the exam, double-check this list after you’ve selected your answer (title, composer, and genre) for each question. That won’t cost you much time, but it will help prevent mistakes where you accidentally clicked on the wrong composer or genre for a piece you recognized. Good luck on the test!

Titles, Composers, and Genres for the Medieval and Renaissance Music Exam

Title Composer Genre
Pavane Anonymous Renaissance Dance
Galliard Anonymous Renaissance Dance
A Chantar M’er Beatriz, Countess of Dia Troubadour Song
Ce Moys de May Guillaume Dufay Chanson
Gradual Viderunt Omnes Anonymous Gregorian Chant
O Rubor Sanguinis Hildegard of Bingen Gregorian Chant
Viderunt Omnes Perontinus Organum
Kyrie from Messe de Nostre Dame Perotin Mass
Ecco Mormorar L’onde Claudio Monteverdi Madrigal
“As Vesta Was” from Latmos Hill Descending Thomas Weelkes English Madrigal
Ave Maria Josquin des Prez Motet
“Gloria” from Missa Papae Marcelli Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina Mass
“Agnus Dei” from Missa Papae Marcelli Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina Mass



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