Top 10 Renaissance Composers

Monday, March 28, 2022

The 16th century witnessed four major musical phenomena: the polyphonic school reached its zenith, the tradition of instrumental music was founded, the first opera was produced and music began to be printed for the first time. Here's our beginner's guide to the greatest composers of the Renaissance period

Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474)
Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474)

By the middle of the 15th century, the royal palaces and the great houses of the noblemen had usurped the Church as the single most important influence on the course of music (in 1416, Henry V of England employed more than 30 voices in the Chapel Royal while the Papal Chapel had only nine). One by-product was the closer relationship between secular music and the music of the Church, a cross-pollination which benefited the development of both. The musicians who passed through the Burgundian court disseminated its style and learning to all points of the European compass.

The most noticeable advances during this period were the increased freedom composers gave to their vocal lines and the difference in the treatment of the texts they set. Previously, words had to fit the music; now the reverse was the case and this is no better illustrated than by the work of one of the next generation of composers to become renowned throughout Europe, Josquin Desprez. His music incorporates a greater variety of expression than any previously – there are even flashes of quirky humour – and includes attempts at symbolism where the musical ideas match those of the text. With various voices singing in polyphony, it is difficult to follow the words; where the subject called for the words to be heard clearly, Josquin wrote music that had the different voices singing different notes but the same words at the same time – chordal music, in other words. Not surprisingly, Josquin has been called ‘the first composer whose music appeals to our modern sense of art’. After him, it is easy for our ears to follow the development of music into the language which is familiar to us today through the works of the great classical composers of two centuries later.

The 16th century witnessed four major musical phenomena: the polyphonic school reached its zenith, the tradition of instrumental music was founded, the first opera was produced and music began to be printed for the first time. For most people, the opportunity to see and read music had simply not been there; musicians could now, for the first time, stand around a score printed in a book and sing or play their part. Limited and expensive though it was, music was now available. No wonder it flourished so rapidly.

It’s hard to conceive now of the central importance of the Christian Church at this time. The buildings which the men of the Renaissance erected with such splendour and confidence symbolised the age of ‘re-birth’ and the music of the time rose to fill the naves of the great European cathedrals. Palestrina in Italy, Lassus in the Netherlands and Byrd in England carried on from where Josquin had left off to produce complex and richly expressive works which took the art of polyphonic writing for the voice to new heights and demonstrated man’s ability to express his faith with a glory and fervour that no previous century had matched.


John Dunstaple (1390-1453)

Dunstaple is generally acknowledged as the first great English composer, one with an influence that stretched into mainland Europe: Dufay certainly knew his music. Not much is known of his life but he is known to have served Queen Joan of Navarre, second wife of Henry IV, and was part of the household of Henry, Duke of Gloucester, in 1438. In the late 1430s he held lands in northern France. It has been suggested too that he was also an astronomer. His epitaph (at St Stephen’s, Walbrook) describes him as ‘prince of music’.

Recommended Recording

Sacred Choral Works

Orlando Consort (Metronome)

Gramophone Award winner – Early Music category (1996)

Read the review


Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474)

As the central figure of the Burgundian School, Dufay was the most famous and influential composer in Europe in the mid-15th century. He trained as a chorister at Cambrai Cathedral, and later appears to have entered the service of the Malatesta family in Pesaro. After a brief return to Cambrai, he was back in Italy – in Bologna and Rome. During this period Dufay also began his long association with the Este family in Ferrara, some of the most important musical patrons of the Renaissance, with whom he had probably become acquainted during the days of his association with the Malatesta family; Rimini and Ferrara are not only geographically close but the two families were related by marriage, and Dufay composed at least one ballade for Niccolò III, Marquis of Ferrara. He spent his later years back at Cambrai, where he was visited – such was his fame – by such musicians as Binchois, Tinctoris and Ockeghem.

Dufay wrote in most of the common forms of the day, including Masses, motets, Magnificats and hymns. None of his surviving music is specifically instrumental, although instruments were certainly used for some of his secular music, especially for the lower parts; all of his sacred music is vocal.

Recommended Recording

Lament for Constantinople & other songs

The Orlando Consort (Hyperion)

Gramophone Awards shortlist – Earl Music category (2019); Editor's Choice (May 2019)

Read the review


Johannes Ockeghem (1410-1497)

The earliest reference to Ockeghem as a singer shows that he was a vicaire-chanteur at Notre Dame, Antwerp, for a year from June 24, 1443. His déploration on Binchois’s death (1460) suggests a connection with the Burgundian ducal chapel where Busnois and Dufay worked. He entered the service of Charles I, Duke of Bourbon, in Moulins in the mid-1440s and was a member of the chapel in 1446-48. In the year ending September 30, 1453, he is cited in the French court archives ‘nouveau en 1451’. This service continued during Louis XI’s reign, though he held other offices, including a canonry at Notre Dame, Paris (1463-70). In 1470 he visited Spain, in 1484 Bruges and Dammes. After Louis’s death he remained premier chapelain and was still on the payroll in 1488. He enjoyed an enviable personal and professional reputation. His most imposing works are his Mass settings. Several are based on pre-existing material, sacred or secular. The level of contrapuntal skill and artistic excellence of his music laid a foundation for the achievements of Josquin’s generation.

Recommended Recording

Les chansons

Cut Circle / Jesse Rodin (Musique en Wallonie)

Gramophone Awards shortlist – Earl Music category (2021); Editor's Choice (January 2021)

Read the review


Josquin Desprez (c1440-1521)

All other composers of the late 15th century are eclipsed by Josquin. Considering how famous he was, it’s strange that no one is sure when or where he was born, although we do know that during his lifetime he was always referred to by his first name, which itself is a pet name for Josse or Joseph; hence reference books always put him under ‘J’.

What little is certain about his early life suggests that he may have sung in the French Royal Chapel. In 1459 he moved to Italy and joined the private choir of the Duke Galeazzo Sforza in Milan before service in the Papal Chapel between 1487 and 1494. Why this life devoted to church music? In common with many others at this time, Josquin believed that artistic gifts were a divine loan to be repaid to God in the form of loyal service.

Unlike others, he was fond of the good things in life, liked hunting, fine food and wine and, most unusually, had a sense of fun and humour. This breaks into some of his music, a combination of the formal Italian and the boisterous Flemish; a musician who, in painting terms, could produce a Raphael Madonna with the same ease as a Bruegel peasant.

After 1502 Josquin’s connections were with the chapels and courts of Duke Hercules I at Ferrara, Louis XII, the Archduchess Margaret of Austria and the Emperor Maximilian I – you can see how in demand he was! – ending his life as Provost (religious overseer) of Notre Dame church in Condé-sur-l’Escaut in Hainault. The epitaph on his tomb is preserved in a manuscript at Lille, though both the tomb itself and his church were destroyed during the French Revolution.

Recommended Recording

Masses: Hercules Dux Ferrarie, D'ung aultre amer & Missa Faysant regretz

The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips (Gimell)

Gramophone Award winner – Earl Music category (2021); Editor's Choice (November 2020)

Read the review


John Taverner (c1490-1545)

Little is known about the life of Taverner. In 1524-25 he was a lay clerk at the collegiate church of Tatershall. In 1526 he accepted the post of instructor of the choristers at Cardinal College (now Christ Church), Oxford, and in about 1530 he became a lay clerk (and probably instructor of the choristers) at the parish church of St Botolph, Boston. By 1537 he had retired from full-time employment as a church musician. Most of his extant works, which include eight Masses, three Magnificats, numerous motets and votive antiphons and a few consort pieces and fragmentary secular part-songs, probably date from the 1520s. His Western Wynde Mass is based on a secular tune and is in a less expansive, more Lutheran style. His four-voice In nomine, the prototype of this English genre, is simply a transcription of the ‘In nomine Domine’ section of his Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. It created something of a vogue among English composers of Taverner’s and later generations.

Recommended Recording

Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas & Magnificats

The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips (Gimell)

Gramophone Awards shortlist – Earl Music category (2014); Editor's Choice (November 2013)

Read the review


Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585)

Tallis can fairly be said to be the first important English composer, though little is known of his life. He held a succession of posts as organist, most notably at Waltham Abbey in Essex (until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540) before joining the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal from about 1543. He remained there for the rest of his life, serving under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I. In 1572 William Byrd (40 years his junior) joined Tallis in the Chapel Royal, forming one of music’s earliest great partnerships: they became joint organists of the Chapel and, in 1575, were granted the sole right to print music in England. Their first publication was a joint venture – a volume of Cantiones sacrae to which each contributed 17 motets. Tallis spent the last years of his life in Greenwich, described in 1577 as ‘verie aged’. His epitaph reads: ‘As he did live, so also did he die, in mild and happy sort (O! happy man)’.

Most of Tallis’s music is, not surprisingly, for the church and his historic importance is in being one of the first composers to write for the Anglican service, the composer who bridged the transition from the Roman rite. Why important? Because the English church-music tradition is among the richest in music history. Though most of the texts Tallis chose to set are in Latin, as a Catholic one may guess that after Queen Mary’s reign pragmatism took precedence over belief as he adapted to Thomas Cranmer’s English and his requirement of a ‘playn and distincte note for every sillable’.

Tallis composed in the whole range of styles and forms then in use. We can marvel at his handling of choral sonority and his technical assurance of grand polyphonic textures, as well as in the simplicity of four-part hymn tunes. ‘Tallis in D’ is still in use today (No 78 in Hymns Ancient & Modern Revised). This first appeared in Archbishop Parker’s Psalter of 1567 in which can also be found the tune on which Vaughan Williams based his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

Recommended Recording

Gaude gloriosa and other choral music

The Cardinall’s Musick / Andrew Carwood (Hyperion)

Gramophone Award winner – Earl Music category (2006)


Giovanni Palestrina (c1525-1594)

Beginning as a boy chorister in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Palestrina’s first job was as organist at the Cathedral in Palestrina. In 1551 he was back in Rome as maestro di cappella of the Julian Chapel, having married and produced two sons in the meantime. After dedicating a book of Masses (the first of over 100) to Pope Julian III, Palestrina was rewarded with a place in the papal choir – without having to take the usual audition. This caused some annoyance to his fellow choristers as he was said not to have a good voice. Shortly afterwards under the new Pope, Paul V, he was dismissed on the grounds that he was a married man. After a string of appointments, he found himself back in the Julian Chapel, as maestro under Pope Gregory XIII, where he remained until his death. In 1580 the plague took Palestrina’s wife and sons and, in despair, he took the first steps to enter the priesthood. He was persuaded to do otherwise by the wealthy widow of a furrier and, combining music with his new wife’s business and a new-found talent for real estate, prospered.

Palestrina is acknowledged as the greatest composer of the Catholic Church and one of the finest masters of classical polyphonic writing. He is still held up as a model for students. He was working for the Vatican at the time of the Counter-Reformation when the Roman Church was doing all in its power to strike back at the Protestant movement. This called for music which avoided elaborate contrapuntal settings (these tended to obscure the words) and Palestrina knew exactly what was wanted – an ethereal cloud of sound to fill St Peter’s.

Recommended Recording

Masses

The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips (Gimell)

Gramophone Award winner – Earl Music category (1991)

Read the review


Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)

Lassus was born in Mons (now in modern Belgium), but at the age of 12 he travelled south, spending many years in Italy and Sicily. He was maestro di cappella of St John Lateran, Rome, in 1553. He returned to the Low Countries and in 1556 became a member of he court chapel of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich. He took over the court chapel in 1563 and served the duke and his heir, Wilhelm V, for over 30 years, until his death.

He was an enormously prolific composer across most genres – his total output numbers over 2000 works. Most of his Masses are ‘parody Masses’, using existing motets, chansons or madrigals as the musical germ for the entire work. He published five volumes of sacred music as Patrocinium musices and after his death his sons assembled another (Magnum opus musicum, 1604). He remains one of the most versatile composers of the Renaissance, and one of the greatest.

Recommended Recording

Lagrime di San Pietro

Gallicantus / Gabriel Crouch (Signum)

Gramophone Awards shortlist – Earl Music category (2014); Editor's Choice (December 2013)

Read the review


William Byrd (1543-1623)

If Tallis was the first important English composer, Byrd was the first English composer of genius, unquestionably the greatest of the Elizabethan era. He, more than anyone – even Purcell – can claim to be the father of British music.

Byrd may have studied under Tallis as a young man. What is certain is that at the age of only 20 he was appointed organist of Lincoln Cathedral and in 1572 he moved to London to become joint organist of the Chapel Royal with Tallis. The two of them obtained the exclusive licence to publish music in England, in effect an early attempt to establish copyright. After Tallis’s death, the licence passed wholly into Byrd’s hands: he was an astute businessman and well able to look after himself during protracted litigation over ownership of the property in Essex to which he moved in 1593 with his second wife.

Like Tallis, Byrd was an ardent Catholic as well as being a royal musician and wrote for both the Roman and English Churches (which says something for the state of religious tolerance under Elizabeth I, though it must be said that much of his Latin music was written for private worship). Byrd’s range was far wider than Tallis’s, however, and his liturgical music, motets, madrigals, chamber and keyboard works show him to be among the most complete musicians of the age.

What exactly did he add to the musical language? Just as JS Bach was to do, Byrd combined the passionate with the intellectual. He was adventurous in his harmony and experiments with structure, the music had great rhythmic variety and complex syncopation to an unprecedented degree, and he was more free in his melodic ideas than his contemporaries. Listening to Byrd’s music you can hear many apparently ‘wrong notes’ (discords) where the independent intertwining melodic parts clash harmonically in passing before being resolved. Such collisions seem totally logical – and nothing out of the ordinary to our modern ears – but Byrd was at the cutting edge of new music. ‘What I have written are not misprints,’ he once said. Obviously he felt a need to make this clear!

Recommended Recording

Byrd Edition, Volume 13 – Infelix ego

The Cardinall's Musick / Andrew Carwood (Hyperion)

Gramophone's Recording of the Year (2010); Editor's Choice (April 2010)

Read the review


Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

Victoria sang as a choirboy at Ávila Cathedral. When his voice broke he was sent to Rome, where he may have studied under Palestrina. He remained in Italy until the 1580s, during which time he served as singer and organist at various churches and colleges. He was also ordained as a priest while in Italy. He returned to Spain as chaplain to Philip II’s sister, the Dowager Empress Maria, at the Descalzas Reales convent, Madrid, from 1587 until her death in 1603; he remained there as organist until his death, apart from a visit to Rome in 1594, when he attended Palestrina’s funeral.

The greatest composer of Renaissance Spain, his reputation extended throughout Europe in his day. Much of music – all written to sacred Latin texts – was published, and the bulk of his output was Mass and motet settings.

Recommended Recording

Missa Ave Maris Stella

Westminster Cathedral Choir / David Hill (Hyperion)

Gramophone Award winner – Early Music (1985)

Read the review


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