This article accompanies the exhibition All that Glitters: Life at the Renaissance Court, which features recordings of late medieval and Renaissance-era music to enhance the visual experience of the assembled objects, which range from illuminated manuscripts to luxury textiles. —Ed.
Music was an integral part of the courtly experience. It both complemented and enhanced the visual spectacle of luxury fashions, illuminated manuscripts, tableware of fine polished metals, large and intricate tapestries, and other material trappings of the royal courts of Europe.
Like manuscripts, paintings, and other works of art, musical pieces were often created on commission at the behest of powerful patrons. Just as there were official court artists employed by European monarchs, so were there court musicians, both composers and performers. Musical performance took place before an elite audience in the socially exclusive spaces of the court.
The images above and below of musical performances at court are drawn from late-fifteenth-century copies of the Roman de la Rose, a tale of romance that was extremely popular among courtly readers. They give modern viewers a sense of how music might have been experienced in the exclusive space of the court.
Many of the compositions from this period are preserved in luxury manuscripts that record their musical notation. These manuscripts were very much at home in the book collections of Europe’s elite. One chansonnier, a collection of love songs (chansons), from the late fifteenth century was constructed in the form of a heart and its borders illuminated in a traditionally medieval manner, with scrolling floral decoration populated by mischievous hybrid creatures.
The advent and popularization of print from the middle of the fifteenth century in Europe had a profound effect on musical culture. Musical pieces were printed far more inexpensively than had previously been possible, were distributed far and wide to a much larger audience, and many more people owned and learned to read musical notation, enabling the growth of what might be called a shared popular music culture across Europe.
The first major printed collection of music was published in 1501 by Ottaviano Petrucci in Venice. Other printers, including the Frenchman Pierre Attaingnant, refined the musical printing process. Attaingnant was the first to use single-impression movable type for music printing, making it possible to produce more copies cheaply and quickly than Petrucci and his other predecessors.
Renaissance Pop: Sixteenth-Century Top 40
Renaissance music, which grew from the popular styles of the Middle Ages, has a number of specific characteristics that distinguish it from earlier music. Much of the significant music composed in the late medieval period and early Renaissance was for worship in church. Typical of this fifteenth-century style is the work of the so-called “Burgundian school” of composers, which included Guillaum Du Fay and Johannes Ockegham. The latter started his career in the 1440s at the court of Duke Charles I of Bourbon in Moulins, now in central France. He later served at the French court for Kings Charles VII and Louis XI. Though he is best known for his collection of masses, Ockegham also composed motet-chansons in his characteristic unique rhythmic style. The piece known as “Prenez sur moi” laments the perils of courtly love. The lyrics begin:
Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux
Commencement d’amours est savoureux
et le moyen plain de paine et tristesse
et la fin est d’avoir plaisant maistresse,
mais au saillir sont les pas dangereux.
Take me as your example in love:
the beginning of love is delicious,
in the middle it is full of pain and sadness,
and the outcome is to have a pleasing mistress;
but getting free of it is a dangerous path.
During the late medieval period, polyphonic music (made up of several melodies played at the same time) in the form of masses and motets was performed in Latin for important churches and court chapels. However, over the course of the Renaissance, patronage grew much more varied, and encompassed not only the Catholic church, but also Protestant churches and a variety of secular outlets, including courts and other wealthy households throughout Europe.
One of the most influential European composers of this period was Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450–1521), part of a group of Franco-Flemish figures that dominated the musical scene. He helped to develop an increasingly complex polyphonic style while also creating fluid harmonies based on intervals. Josquin composed both religious and secular music, producing many Latin masses for church, but he also set French poetry that was popular among courtiers to music and arranged instrumental songs that proved extremely popular among elite listeners.
Sixteenth-century composers throughout Europe continued to use the foundational polyphonic idiom popularized by Josquin and other late-fifteenth-century composers while also introducing new features and changing it to suit new purposes. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation directly influenced the character of the sacred music produced during this period, resulting in songs of worship composed in vernacular languages, such as the German chorales performed during Lutheran services. In Italy, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina became a master of Counter-Reformation liturgical music, particularly in the form of polyphonic masses.
The turn of the sixteenth century saw the development of the viola de gamba, a fretted, bowed string instrument. Other stringed instruments, including the lute, harpsichord, the fiddle or violin, and the harp also became more widely used. The recorder and organ also enjoyed popularity among musicians and composers. A 1538 engraving by Heinrich Aldegrever shows two of the most popular instruments of the period, the violin and the lute, in action:
And here, an image of an actual sixteenth-century lute, constructed by Sixtus Rauchwolff, who supplied instruments to the court orchestra in Stuttgart:
In England, the composer William Byrd (1540–1623) worked not only for the Catholic Church, producing works in Latin, but also for Queen Elizabeth I, for whom he created secular songs in English and sacred music for Anglican services. A manuscript dated to 1591 survives that preserves a collection of Byrd’s compositions, entitled My Ladye Nevells Booke. The collection was likely intended as a gift for Elizabeth Bacon, a member of the Neville family whose coat-of-arms can be seen on the title page.
Music for Court Dances
Over the course of the sixteenth century, instrumental music in particular developed into a number of new types, many of which were intended for the dancing that was also a ubiquitous courtly activity and a necessary skill for socially-adept courtiers to cultivate. These pieces were composed for soloists and ensembles alike, and became quite their own genre, separate from vocal music and pieces intended for church.
Working in the style of Josquin, Flemish composer Nicholas Gombert was employed at the court of Emperor Charles V as a singer in his court chapel in 1526, and possibly also as a composer. In 1529 Gombert is documented as master of the singers of the royal chapel; in this position he and the singers traveled throughout Europe, helping to spread the Franco-Flemish tradition to the Iberian Peninsula. By the time of his death, Gombert was one of the most renowned composers in Europe, famous for his masses as well as his secular chansons and instrumental works.
Linked below is a type of song called a ricercare (Italian for “to seek out”), a complex type of instrumental composition in which melodies are repeated in several different permutations, credited to Gombert. The ricercare, a term often used interchangeably with the canzona and fantasia, is an early type of fugue, which would later be popularized in the Baroque music of Johann Sebastian Bach and others.
English Renaissance composer John Dowland (1563–1626), a contemporary of William Byrd (mentioned above), found his early career success at the Danish court Christian IV of Denmark. Dowland eventually returned to England, where he secured a post as one of King James I’s lutenists. Dowland’s most well-known compositions are his melancholy laments of love and loss, including the song “Flow my tears,” the first verse of which reads:
Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
Exil’d for ever let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.
As a court lutenist, though, Dowland, like his contemporaries, was also tasked with composing dance music, particularly the galliards that were one of the most popular Renaissance dance types, performed by courtiers all over Europe from England to Italy. A highly athletic dance comprised of four hopping steps and a fifth leaping one, the galliard (French for “lively”) was accompanied by similarly up-tempo music.
The galliard’s musical notation is as lively and complex as the dance, as can be seen from this handwritten notation for lute of Dowland’s “Frog Galliard”:
To accompany this music, there were also printed dancing manuals with complete instructions on how to perform the most popular dances of the day. One particular example, Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchesographie promised its readers that it would provide “a treatise in the form of a dialogue, so that every person could easily learn and practice the exercise of dance.”
Epilogue: The Music of Versailles
The French court of Versailles under King Louis XIV gained a reputation for its extreme ostentatiousness in all things, and music was no exception. The composer Jean Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), named superintendent of royal music and music master of the royal family when Louis XIV ascended the throne in 1661, helped to shape the sonic character of the court with his lively instrumental arrangements and court ballets. One such ballet, the Ballet des saisons, was performed at the royal palace of Fontainebleau on July 23, 1661, near the beginning of a long career that transformed the style of dance and its great popularity at the French court.
Lully also composed sacred motets for the royal chapel, progressive concert pieces, and collaborated with the French playwright Molière to form a new type of entertainment known as the comédie-ballet that mixed theater, dance, comedy, and music. Lully was one of the most influential figures of the French Baroque, writing a soundtrack that matched the visual splendor of seventeenth-century Versailles. Engraver Jean Le Pautre recorded a performance of one of Lully’s court ballets in the image below, from 1674.
Just as it is today, music was an essential part of life and entertainment in the late medieval and Renaissance periods. Musical accompaniment was ubiquitous when socializing, dancing, praying, and mourning, and exerted considerable influence on its audiences. Next time you queue up a playlist, take a moment to think about the power of music to shape experience.