The Renaissance (1400-1600): an overview

Sistine Chapel | History, Paintings, & Facts | Britannica
The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo (from the Sistine Chapel, 1508-12)

This post is a brief introduction to the first major era of European music: the renaissance. If you would like something more substantial, please see my three posts on the era: an introduction (1400-1500), Elizabethan England (Tallis and Byrd, 1500-1600), and the Roman School (Palestrina and Allegri, 1550-1640).


Dates: 1400-1600

Quick features: largely a cappella sacred choral music, instruments used more in secular music. Significant for the development of polyphonic writing.

Key historical factors:

  • The widespread flourishing of intellectual and cultural life throughout Europe as part of an attempt to revive the spirit of the classics (ancient Greece and Rome).
  • The reformation (led by Martin Luther in the early 16th century) caused many Europeans to adopt Protestantism, thus significantly weakening the influence of the Catholic church.

Key developments:

  • C.1400: John Dunstable starts using triads (i.e. major and minor chords) building on the innovations of the Notre Damme school of 12th/13th-century Paris who first composed for multiple voice parts (polyphony).
  • This extraordinarily important development: triads would go on to influence all subsequent western music and the music of other cultures.
  • 15th Century: this richer approach to harmony was taken up by the Burgundian school (composers in what we now call France, Belgium and the Netherlands). The best-known composer of this initial movement was Guillaume Dufay.
Guillaume Dufay - Home | Facebook
Guillaume Dufay
  • Late 15th Century: the Franco Flemish composers start using a technique called imitation, in which parts copy a melody at different times, creating a unified effect. This helps the voices to move independently yet remain related.
  • Josquin des Prez was the leading composer of this period.
Josquin Des Prez - Classical Music Composers
Josquin des Prez
  • 16th Century: in England, Thomas Tallis and his pupil William Byrd build on the developments of the Franco-Flemish composers and produce stunning music for the church.
Tallis (left) and Byrd (Right)
  • Late 16th/early 17th-century: Catholic composers attempt to display the superiority of their faith over Protestantism by producing the most refined work of the era. Key composers include Palestrina in Rome and Victoria in Spain.
Classical Music: Top 50 Composers - Palestrina
Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina
  • C.1630: Gregoria Allegri composers his Miserere in a renaissance style. The Vatican confines its performance to the Sistine chapel. It is widely considered to be the most beautiful piece of choral music ever composed.


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