In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Renaissance

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Festschrifts
  • Theoretical Sources
  • Letters
  • Composers and Musicians
  • Court Ballet and Theatrical Music
  • Instrumental Music, Performance Practice, and Improvisation
  • Iconography
  • Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Religious Identity
  • Confraternities
  • Theory
  • Composition
  • Education
  • Musical Humanism
  • Sensuality, Gender, and Sexuality

Music Renaissance
Kate van Orden
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0064


In the scholarship of Western art music, the Renaissance is understood to comprise the period from approximately 1430 to 1600, with the beginning defined by the use of triadic harmonies on the continent (the “sweet style,” described by Martin Le Franc c. 1440 as the “contenance angloise”), and the end marked by the first performances of operas and the first publications of monody around 1600, after which time preferences for more soloistic genres and basso continuo practice displaced the hegemony of polyphonic composition for multiple independent voices. While these stylistic attributes do delineate a more or less coherent period of musical production, during which cantus firmus procedures, canonic writing, and imitative polyphony were explored with considerable intensity and—during the 16th century—vernacular genres of polyphonic song multiplied quite dramatically, it is nonetheless unclear how appropriate it is to label this period as a “Renaissance,” “rebirth,” or “rediscovery” of classical culture in the same way that the term is employed in other disciplines. The extent to which music, too, participated in the “Renaissance” has primarily been examined in conjunction with music theory, natural philosophy, and musical humanism. Most scholarship on this period, however, has traditionally been oriented toward source studies, both manuscript and print. Full-scale general overviews of individual genres, and even the biographies of individual composers, are surprisingly rare by comparison—to take but one dramatic example, the first English-language biography of Josquin des Prez appeared only in 2009, and it is but the second biography of the composer in any language, despite the centrality of his works to the canon. More common are contextual studies of music that focus on a specific court, city, or religious institution (the Papal Chapel, El Escorial, confraternities, and so forth); many studies have also considered the role of music in the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and educational programs of the time.

General Overviews

A number of overviews of the period are designed to serve as college textbooks on Renaissance music, including Atlas 1998, Brown and Stein 1999, Ongaro 2003, Perkins 1999, and the first volume of Taruskin 2005. Atlas 1998 and Perkins 1999 include musical anthologies. Strohm 1993 has great coverage of the 15th century, but is too concentrated for college classroom use. Encyclopedic collections of essays that cover a broad range of topics include Strohm and Blackburn 2001, Fenlon 1989, and Haar 2006.

  • Atlas, Allan W. Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400–1600. New York: Norton, 1998.

    Part of the Norton Introduction to Music History series, this nicely illustrated textbook is considerably brightened by Atlas’s engaging voice and a series of “intermedi” that treat context and provide insights into the particulars of archival documents, music printing, patronage, liturgy, and music theory. Other diversionary chapters introduce archival materials and teach students how to edit a chanson. The anthology is well balanced in terms of geography, genres, and composers (familiar and lesser-known), with some textbook standards and other more unique selections, most available in commercial recordings.

  • Brown, Howard Mayer, and Louise K. Stein. Music in the Renaissance. 2d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

    Published initially in 1976, Brown’s volume in the Prentice-Hall History of Music series was the first English-language textbook on Renaissance music to challenge the dominance of Gustave Reese’s book of the same title (rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1959) as the classroom text of choice. Written by one of the great historians and connoisseurs of early music, Brown’s text provides insight into the period 1420–1600 largely via the works of a succession of composers. Despite the limitations of such a traditional approach, Brown’s sensitivity to cultural context, the importance of patronage, and unwritten traditions shines through. In Stein’s revised edition, recent scholarship is presented in updated bibliographies, though not consistently reflected in the text.

  • Fenlon, Iain, ed. Man and Music: The Renaissance: From the 1470s to the End of the 16th Century. London: Macmillan, 1989.

    This set of historical essays by distinguished scholars concentrates on institutional, civic, and cultural contexts. It is organized geographically by place (Venice, Rome, Lyon, London, Antwerp, etc.) or court (French court, Aragonese Naples, etc.) with an additional chapter on the Reformation. In scope, it covers only the westernmost portion of Europe, excluding related cultures of art music in Hungary, Poland, Silesia, and Bohemia.

  • Haar, James, ed. European Music, 1520–1640. Woodbridge, UK, and Rochester, NY: Boydell, 2006.

    This edited collection was initially designed to replace volume 4 of the New Oxford History of Music series, The Age of Humanism, 1540–1630, edited by Gerald Abraham (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), but ultimately was published as a freestanding volume of essays. Chapters survey music by country and genre, with additional chapters on music theory, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, instrumental music, and music printing. The collection opens with excellent chapters on Renaissance humanism, the concept of the Renaissance, and the concept of the Baroque.

  • Ongaro, Giulio Maria. Music of the Renaissance. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003.

    A concise introduction to music between 1425 and 1600 prepared with particular attention to matters of performance, the lives of musicians, the social importance of dance and music printing, and instrumental performance. Good discussions of the sound of the music that are not too technically challenging make this an excellent entry-level text.

  • Perkins, Leeman L. Music in the Age of the Renaissance. New York: Norton, 1999.

    At over one thousand pages, this text provides a lengthy and thoughtful but sometimes forbiddingly detailed treatment of music from c. 1450 to 1600. Chapters cover principal institutions, styles, countries, and genres, with a helpful appendix on hexachords, modes, counterpoint, and notation. The chapters on French secular music are particular standouts.

  • Strohm, Reinhard. The Rise of European Music, 1380–1500. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    A “long” history of the 15th century taking the first layer of the Old Hall manuscript and the Great Schism as its starting point. Strohm argues that the 15th century saw a perfection of the musical art that created lasting values, and he explains the social and artistic reasons why this transformation came to pass in Europe at that time. The book is unrivalled for its erudition, geographical scope, and sheer historical imagination.

  • Strohm, Reinhard, and Bonnie J. Blackburn, eds. Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A volume in the New Oxford History of Music series that takes an innovative multicultural approach, with essays on typically underrepresented topics such as Jewish and Muslim music, music in central Europe, and dance music.

  • Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. 6 vols. New York: Oxford, 2005.

    Volume 1 of this set, The Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, includes some wonderfully accessible syntheses of scholarship on the period and good analyses of standard textbook repertory.

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