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
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
version of the motet.
These could be divided into two categories; the ensemble ricercar and the
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.
An important type of instrumental music of the 16th and 17th
centuries that developed from the Franco-Flemish
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
led to the sonata da chiesa
of the 17th century, and in keyboard music,
paved the way for the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
(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
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.
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.