Instrumental Music of the Renaissance

Instrumental music throughout the Renaissance was closely associated with vocal music.  Only at the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and at a few other chapels with choirs of competent singers, was polyphonic church music consistently sung unaccompanied.  Elsewhere the organ, lute, viols, or other instruments accompanied, doubled, or substituted for voices, and organists developed a huge repertory of music for use in church services, including preludes, interludes, and arrangements of liturgical melodies.  In secular music, the lute remained popular both for solos and in ensembles; clavier instruments were coming into wider use, and hundreds of pieces were written for chamber music ensembles.
One sign of the 16th century's growing regard for instrumental music was the publication of books which describe instruments or give instructions for playing them.  The first such publication was in 1511.  Others followed in increasing numbers throughout the century.  It is significant to note that they were written in the vernacular, instead of Latin, and were addressed to practical musicians and not to theorists.
16th-century music can be divided into four basic categories:  compositions derived from vocal models, dances, improvisatory pieces, and variations.  These classifications aren't perfect, for a piece may easily belong to more than one category.  For example, a dance piece could be written in a variation form.


Italian terms that, during the 16th and 17th centuries, were used for various types of instrumental music that differ considerably in style and purpose.  By far the most important of these is the imitative (countrapuntal) ricercar.  This is, to a certain extent, the instrumental version of the motet.  These could be divided into two categories; the ensemble ricercar and the organ ricercar.
The nonimitative ricercar is quite different from the type above.  In a way, they may be characterized as "studies" in technique and instruction rather than counterpoint.  These were written for lute, organ and viols.

Canzona; canzone

An important type of instrumental music of the 16th and 17th centuries that developed from the Franco-Flemish chansons of Josquin, Janequin, Sermisy, and others.  The immense popularity of these chansons is reflected in the numerous arrangements found in nearly all 16th-century sources of lute and keyboard music, French as well as Spanish, German, and Italian.  In Italy, composers went even further, writing original compositions in the style and form of the French models, either for organ or for instrumental ensembles.  This procedure marks the beginning of a long and interesting development, which, in the instrumental field eventually led to the sonata da chiesa of the 17th century, and in keyboard music, paved the way for the fugue.

In Nomine

Title of a large number of English instrumental pieces (for viols, lute, or keyboard) based on a cantus firmus:  d f d d d c f g f g a.  This cantus firmus has nothing to do with the Introit "In nomine Jesu" but is quite similar to the melody of the Vespers antiphon of Trinity Sunday "Gloria tibi Trinitas."  The seemingly wrong designation is explained by the fact that the species originated with and developed from the "In nomine Domini" section from the Sanctus of Taverner's "Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas."  This section, like many others of this mass, employs the melody of "Gloria tibi Trinitas" as a cantus firmus.
The "In nomine" was the most favored type of cantus firmus composition in England after c. 1550.


A keyboard (organ, harpsichord) composition in free, idiomatic keyboard style, employing full chords and running passages, with or without the inclusion of sections in imitative style (fugues).  This was the chief form of keyboard music in improvisatory style in the latter half of the century.  The earliest toccatas, by A. Gabrieli, consist of full chords and interlacing scale passages only.  To consider them merely virtuoso pieces (as many writers have) is scarcely appropriate, since the passages are decidedly expressive, particularly if played in the free tempo typical of the toccata.  The toccata was a specialty of the Venetian organ composers.
About 1600, the name toccata was also used for a festive brass fanfare, e.g., in the introduction of Monteverdi's "Orfeo" (1607).  The reason for using the name for pieces so different from the keyboard toccata is not clear.  Possibly the latter connotation is bound up with the use of kettle drums for the bass part (typically found in the Toccato form).


In the 16th and 17th centuries, a term for instrumental music that was sometimes used interchangeably with ricercar.  These were written for the lute, for keyboard instruments, and for instrumental ensembles.  This title was given to various type of works, such as toccatas, that were of an improvisatory nature.


A piece of music designed to be played as an introduction, e.g., to a liturgical ceremony or, more usually, to another composition, such as a fugue or suite.  This connotation, which prevails throughout the entire early history of the prelude, was lost in the 19th century, when Chopin, Scriabin, and Debussy used the word as one of numerous noncommittal titles for piano pieces.  With few exceptions, the prelude has always been restricted to instrumental solo music, that is, to keyboard instruments and the lute.

Variation; Theme and Variation

A musical form resulting from the consistent application of variation techniques so that a musical theme is followed by a number of modified restatements, each being a "variation."
There are four basic kinds of variation:
1)  A variation that preserves both melody (though perhaps with new ornamentation) and harmony of the theme
2)  One that preserves the essential harmony of the theme
3)  One in which the harmonies deviate but the over-all structure, such as the number of measures, the structure of sections and phrases, and cadential endings, is preserved
4)  The entirely free variations of modern composers in which even the structural outlines of the theme are no longer recognizable.
Historically,  category 1 prevails throughout the 16th and 17th centuries; category 2 throughout the Classical period; category 3 is common among Romantic composers;  and 4 is characteristic of the most recent style.

English Virginal Music

The extraordinary flowering of the variation form in the late 16th century was due primarily to a school of English keyboard composers called the virginalists from the name of the principal keyboard instrument of the time.  The leading composer in the group was William Byrd; important among his colleagues were Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tomkins.  Of the many manuscript collections of keyboard music which were made in England in this period, the most comprehensive is the "Fitzwilliam Virginal Book," which contains nearly 300 compositions.  Most of the variations in the "Fitzwilliam..." are on slow dance tunes or familiar songs.  Many folk tunes of the time served as subjects for variations.  The tunes, in general, were short, simple, and song-like, regular in phrasing, with a clear binary or ternary pattern set off by distinct cadences.

16th Century Dance Forms

The increasingly diverse repertory of dances in the 16th century is reflected in the large variety of dance compositions in the collections of lute, keyboard, and ensemble music of the time.  As in the 15th century, the starting point was usually a twin arrangement of a slow-moving main dance followed by a lively jumping dance.  Among such pairs are the Italian bassadanza-saltarello and the Franco-Burgundian basse danse-pas de breban, and the later Italian passamezzo-saltarello, as well as the suite-like combinations such as basse danse-recoupe-tourdion and pavana-saltarello-piva.
The allemande or alman, a dance in moderate duple meter, came into favor about the middle of the century, and was retained, in stylized form, as a regular item in the dance suites of later times.  The courante (fast, triple meter), another regular constituent of the later suites, also appeared in the the 16th century.
At the end of the 16th century, the pairing of dances and the grouping of several dances indicated a desire to write instrumental works of larger scope.  These combinations are among the first example of the instrumental suite, which became a standard form in the Baroque period.
The practice of pairing dances goes back at least to the 14th century, but the earliest known groups called 'suite' are "suyttes de bransles" by Estienne du Tertre (1557). These, however, constitute the raw material for a dance sequence rather than a sequence that would actually be played. Most dance groups from the 1540s to the end of the century are pairs, a pavan or passamezzo with a galliard or saltarello. The impulse towards suite-like groupings seems to have emanated from England at the turn of the century.