Humanism and Renaissance Music

Posted on December 8, 2013

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The word “humanism” first brings in my mind my favourite science fiction writers, Isaac Asimov and Kurt Vonnegut, both having been presidents of the American Humanist Association. With a bit of research one can find other radical thinkers such as Petrarch, Niccolò Machiavelli August Comte, Julian Huxley and many others.

Humanism in the Renaissance went hand in hand with the Christian church, often trying to bring reconciliation between Greek classical texts and Christianity.  However, as the centuries past by with ever increasing accumulation of knowledge challenging ancient worldviews, humanistic thinking was gradually associated with secularism. Contemporary humanism advocates values such as equal rights, fair access to resources, altruism, freedom and responsibility based on knowledge and shared interest of social groups, liberated from supernatural, theistic mythology. Humanism means to most of our contemporaries an alternative to religious thinking by the means of scepticism and rational understanding of the world. It also carries a sense of admiration for the achievements of great human beings and a positivist enterprise that their great ideals could be somehow generalised to the whole of the human species.

There is evidence that some of these ideals existed in ancient times. For example, the Cārvāka philosophy in India that can be traced back to 1500 BC was rejecting religious belief and the idea of an afterlife, and based its worldview on logical thinking and materialism.  In Persia the philosophical current of Zoroastrianism, with its origin likely to be before the 6th century BC, regarded humans as beings empowered with free will to chose between truth (aša) and lie (druj), good and bad deeds and ways of life. In Greece the first recognised philosopher seeking worldly explanations for observable phenomena was Thales of Miletus (624 BC – c. 546 BC), regarded, together with Democritus as “father of science”. He was using deductive reasoning and built mathematical theories that he sought to logically demonstrate. The Greek scholars developed advanced systems of philosophical thinking, formal logic, mathematics, natural studies, ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, the study of human body and mind, biology etc.

The roots of European Humanism go back to Middle Ages, when Scholasticism was the umbrella term for the study of arts, law, medicine and theology. This movement fuelled an interest in ancient writings, collected in large libraries. Classical Greek and Latin texts by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Tacitus etc. informed a cultural revolution and a new freedom of thinking. In the Renaissance period (14th – 17th centuries) scholasticism gained a larger meaning, encouraging a well informed civic attitude and moral, based on the studies of humanities, known as studia humanitatis including philosophy, poetry, grammar, rhetoric and history. This civic attitude was pervading the nobility of the Italian cities such as Florence, Venice, Naples, Rome, Siena, Urbino and Genoa. The focus of interest shifted from a pure adoration of deity and afterlife towards principles of a moral earthly life of humans, their aspirations, needs, abilities and individual talents. Crafts and commerce flourished in Italy and other parts of Europe as well, and the nobility sought to establish prosperity for their cities by building great palaces and collecting artworks. With regards to music, talented singers and instrumentalists were sought in city choirs and orchestras to celebrate prosperity, and music started to be distributed in printed form.

In painting and architecture the link between Renaissance and Classicism is clearly visible in the tendency of idealised realistic representation of the subjects and stylistic elements of Classicism imitated by Renaissance artists. Such a direct, imitative relationship would not have been possible in music, as hardly any music survived from ancient Greece. The influence of classicism to music occurred mainly by reference to music in Greek texts and by applying the principles of artistic creation used in visual arts, such as perspective (representation of 3 dimensional space in 2 dimensions) and chiaroscuro (consistent, logical application of the contrast between light and shade). The guiding ideals are those of clarity, logical structure, symmetry, neat lines and shapes without too much décor.

In music, just the same way as in other arts, revolutionary changes took place, and many of the fundamental characteristics of beautiful music that we take for granted today emerged during the Renaissance. Clarity was considered essential and the compositions with all their details were required to be pleasing to the ear, as the focus of the art shifted towards the experiences of existing human beings. Although humanity was still regarded as part of a universe created by God, the absolute authority of the medieval church started to be eroded. Aesthetic principles gained increasing role in music. Dissonances were avoided or carefully controlled (some chromatic steps may appear as passing notes), compositions were initially built on mathematically simple Pythagorean relationships such as the octave, the fifth and the fourth (2:1, 3:2 and 4:3, respectively). The ideal of realism came through in the way music related to the to the text. Melodic lines were constructed to shape the contours and accents of the spoken word, and the words had to be clearly understandable throughout the composition. Such music was called musica reservata.  The music started to gain an expressive quality, building a relationship with the content of the verses, expressing emotions more directly. This was possible mainly by rhythmic variations and application of modes – Ionian (known today as major scale), Aeolian, Ionian, Phrygian, Myxolydian, Locrian.

Music became more international during the Renaissance, it was a period of glory for English and Franco-Flemish composers who dominated the musical scene, extending their influences to Italy and the Holy Roman Empire (today’s Germany). Perhaps the most influential English composer of the early Renaissance was John Dunstable (ca. 1390-1453), who composed in the genres of motet, hymn and mass.

John Dunstable – Quam pulchra es, motet performed by the Hillard Ensemble
English music was known for its distinctive quality referred to as “contenance angloise” by Martin Le Franc. The most important innovative elements of English music were the consistent use of third and sixth intervals, which gradually became accepted on the continent. Some compositional techniques were characteristic to English music, such as improvised polyphony known as faburden and a specific English genre also evolved – the carol.

English Renaissance was brought to its peak by one of the most versatile and productive composers of his age, William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623). His output in instrumental music was seminal for consort music, largely extending the expressive and technical boundaries of these genres. His variations and fantasias (e.g. Browning, Goodnight Ground) are some of the best-loved pearls of Renaissance instrumentalists. In his religious music apparently he found it difficult to conform to the extreme principles of the Puritan movement in the English Calvinist church, which regarded worldly pleasures being incompatible with the word of God. His music was at times deemed as overly elaborate in this sense.


English consort music performed by the Flanders’ Recorder Quartet

In continental Europe several generations of composers contributed to the development of Renaissance music. Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474) was born in Beersel (currently Belgium), his music is carrying influences from all parts of Western Europe, due to the fact that he lived in several countries throughout his career, including France, Germany and Italy. He was composing church and secular music (masses, motets, hymns, plainchants as well as songs).

The second half of the fifteenth century continued this tradition, with its most prominent composer, Josquin Des Prez (ca. 1450-1521). He was able to bring together in his music all the inventions of his rapidly changing era – rigorous counterpoint, polyphonic music harmonised on 3-5 voices and homophonic music, a rather new invention characterised by the lower voices setting a harmonic background to the more melodic upper lines.


Josquin Des Pres – Ave Maria Virgo serena

Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina (ca. 1525-1594) was a composer of late Renaissance producing mainly religious music for the Catholic Church, in the spirit of Counter-Reformation, the revival of Catholicism in its battle with Reformation. He composed madrigals, which he published in two collections (in 1555 and 1586). Palestrina was born in Italy and spent most of his career in positions linked to the famous chapels of Rome. His music is considered representative to Renaissance as it neatly represents the characteristics of this period. He composed music that contains mainly conjunct melodic lines, moving stepwise, without large leaps. If such leaps occur they are immediately counteracted by stepwise motion in the contrary sense. He rigorously restricted dissonances to weak beats and passing notes, and was very skilled in composing vocal polyphonic music where the words of the superposed lines are clearly understandable. His counterpoint technique served as model for centuries of teaching, and Johann Joseph Fux built his counterpoint theory published in his influential book Gradus ad Parnassum (1725) in large part on Palestrina’s methods.

Performed by Concerto Italiano & Rinaldo Alessandrini

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Posted in: Part 5