top of page
  • Writer's pictureNaomi Leila🌸

Early Renaissance Composers

Renaissance is a french term which means rebirth. During the Renaissance period between 1400 and 1600 composers spent time exploring, discovering and innovating music. Music at this time was part of civic, religious and courtly life. It was often polyphonic and composed in Latin, for churches and court chapels. The Renaissance period was split between 3 different periods; Early, Middle and Late Renaissance.

The Early renaissance music period spanned from 1400-1467. Composers in this time focused on limpid and flowing melodies, rhythmic vitality and a drive to the cadence.

The top composers in this period were Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez and John Taverner.

Below is a snapshot into their lives and musical styles.

Guillaume Dufay: 1397- 1474 - Franco-Flemish, leading composer of his day

Brief History: Born in Beersel, near Brussels (now Belgium) Dufay became a chorister at the age of 9 in the Cambrai cathedral (now in France) where he received music and religious education. He entered the service of Carlo Malatesta of Rimini and for awhile travelled back and forth between France and Rome, where he served as a musician for various households. In 1436 he became a canon of Cambrai and worked in the service of the duke of Savoy.

Musical Style: Dufay composed in every genre of his time, both church music and secular chansons (mostly for 3 voices). His surviving works include: 87 motets, 59 French chansons, 7 Italian chansons, 7 complete masses (for 4 voices), and 35 mass sections. Most of his pieces were choral but occasionally some of his works were accompanied, or written for instruments. He used and may have been the inventor of the compositional technique Fauxbourdon – (French for false drone) which is created by three voices mainly moving in parallel motion, in intervals corresponding to the first inversion of the triad. His music was refined, restrained, and perfectly executed, marked by graceful melodies and a compelling sense of direction. His travels allowed him to mix his Franco-flemmish music education with Italian influences which allowed him to create a style which combined graceful melodies with more complex textures from Italy. This style influenced many Renaissance composers.

Fun Facts:

  • He was the illegitimate child of Marie Du Fayt and a priest.

  • He became a central composer at the Burgundian School. In the mid 15th century he was considered the most famous and influential composer in Europe.

  • Before he died he asked for his motet, 'Ave regina celorum' to be sung to him. However, there was not enough time, so this did not happen.

  • He was such a prominent figure that his portrait was carved onto his tombstone. The cathedral St. Etienne of Cambrai, where he was buried, was destroyed and his tombstone was lost until 1859 where someone found it covering a well. Now it is displayed in a museum in Lille.

Music recommendation: Vergene Bella

Josquin Des Prez : c.1440-1521 - French composer and central figure of the Franco-Flemish School

Brief History: Not much is known about the history of Josquin. But from the late 1470s to early 1480s he sang for the courts of René I of Anjou and Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan. From around 1486 - 1494 he performed for the papal chapel ( the papal chapel assists the pope in his functions as spiritual head of the church). Around 1499 he was the choirmaster to Duke Ercole I of Ferrara.

Musical Style: Josquin's style is hard to define as he liked to approach composing in various ways. Sometimes he wrote in a stark manner without ornamentation but other times he wrote music that had much ornamentation and required virtuosity. He composed in every style, both secular and sacred of that time. In his early writing he used the cantus firmus style and developed the motet(a style which characterised the 16th century). Later on he discarded the cantus firmus technique and used parody and paraphrase as well as canon and melodic imitation. His music shows an approach to the modern sense of tonality. A great quote by the Swiss theorist, poet and humanist Heinrich Glarean encapsulates Josquin's style by saying 'He was not only a "magnificent virtuoso" (the Latin can be translated as "show-off") but capable of being a "mocker", using satire effectively.'

Fun Facts:

  • Martin Luther admired Josquin’s music greatly, calling him “master of the notes, which must do as he wishes; other composers must do as the notes wish.'

  • He was seen as somewhat of a perfectionist. Heinrich Glarean's quote emphasises this by saying that Josquin 'published his works after much deliberation and with manifold corrections; neither did he release a song to the public unless he had kept it to himself for some years’.

Music recommendation: El grillo

John Taverner : 1490-1545 - English composer and organist

Brief History: Taverner was born in Lincolnshire. In 1526 he went to the University of Oxford to become master of the choir in the chapel of Cardinal College (later called Christ Church). He left Oxford in 1530 to serve as a lay clerk in St. Boltoph choir in Boston, England. Taverner's music was apparently composed early in his life, before the effects of the Reformation could be fully felt in England and before continental compositional practice influenced English composers.

Musical Style: Mainly known for his large-scale sacred choral works: several masses, votive antiphons, and Magnificats . His church music shows a variety, skill and range that represent the climax of pre-Reformation English music. Many of his compositions are based on elaborate free counterpoint and extended melismatic climaxes for virtuosic soloists.

Fun Facts:

  • There is an unverified but interesting allegation that Taverner was a paid agent of Thomas Cromwell and helped assist him in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

  • Taverner is buried with his wife beneath the bell tower at Boston Parish Church.

  • There are some existing copies of Taverner's signature and he actually spelled his last name, 'Tavernor'.

  • The 20th century composer, Sir John Tavener claims that he is a direct descendant of his.

Music recommendation: Kyrie, "Leroy"

I hope you enjoyed this read and found some new musical gems.

Much Love

Naomi Leila Xx

P.s. Watch out for my next blog instalment on Middle Renaissance Composers

P.p.s This work is mainly from a lot of research I've done on the internet. If anything is inaccurate please let me know and I will update it.

P.p.p.s If you liked this please press the heart button :)

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page