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  • Writer's pictureNaomi Leila🌸

Late Renaissance Composers

The Late Renaissance period spanned from about 1534 until around 1600. In this period a polychoral style was developed, composers often used multiple choirs and more brass and string instruments. There were two key styles during this period; the prima pratica (older polyphonic Renaissance style) and Seconda pratica (music in the new style). There was also, two main contrasting schools of composers; the Roman School (composers of mainly church music, who had connections to the Vatican and the Papal chapel) and the Venetian School (whose composers were more progressive and secular).

The key composers during this period are listed below, along with a snapshot into their lives.

William Byrd - 1539-1623 English Composer of the Shakespearean age

Brief History: William Byrd was a pupil of Thomas Tallis and studied organ and composition with him. He was a devout catholic in a Protestant time-period and risked his life by writing catholic music (which he performed in secret). Due to the fact that he was a favourite of Elizabeth I and a member of her Chapel Royal, Byrd escaped severe punishment for failing to attend Protestant church services, which was a crime under the Act of Uniformity. Instead he received an indictment.

Musical Style: He was best known for his development of the English madrigal. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard, and consort music. He is said to have elevated the English keyboard style and pioneered the development of the freely composed fantasia.

Fun Facts:

  • William Byrd and Tallis became lifelong friends and business associates. He even named one of his children Thomas.

  • In 1575 Elizabeth I gave Byrd and Tallis an exclusive publishing license, which allowed them to have joint monopoly for importing, printing, publishing, and selling music.

  • He wrote extensively for every medium available, except the lute.

Music Recommendation: Lullaby

Tomás Luis de Victoria: 1549-1611 Spanish composer, organist, singer and Catholic Priest.

Brief History: Victoria is known to be the most famous composer in 16th century Spain. He was born near Avila, as the 7th child (out of 11) and spent several years as a choirboy in Ávila Cathedral. He was granted a scholarship to study in Rome, where he eventually succeeded Palestrina, as the director of music at the Roman Seminary. In 1578 he met the pious dowager empress Maria, widow of the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian II, and became her chaplain (priest), teacher and organist for over 17 years. His last work Requiem is in memory of Maria. In 1594 he settled in Madrid for the remainder of his days.

Musical Style: He was the most renowned Spanish Renaissance polyphonist and harmonically his music foreshadowed the major-minor style of the Baroque era. He mainly composed religious hymns, which he dedicated to the church. They include: 21 masses and 44 motets as well as hymns, Magnificats and 4 offices for the dead. His style is often depicted by his use of tonal contrast, parody and canon, where he reused his own and other musicians music.

Fun Facts: He is known as the, 'Spanish Palestrina' and it is rumoured that he studied with Palestrina.

Music Recommendation: Duo Seraphim

Giovanni Gabrieli: 1554-1612 Italian Composer, preeminent teacher & organist

Brief History: He was born in Venice and studied music with his uncle Andrea Gabrieli. He followed in his uncle's footsteps and worked at the Munich court of Albert V, under Orlando di Lasso. He returned to Venice in 1584 and became the organist at St. Mark's Cathedral for the rest of his life,

Musical Style: Giovanni Gabrieli was the leading figure in Venetian music and influenced the development of 17th century music. He was one of the first composers to dictate the use of instrumentation and dynamics in his compositions. His music is mostly sacred and ceremonial but stylistically grand. He composed pieces in a San Marco style where both the choirs and the instruments were divided. This was due to St Mark's cathedral having two lofts and two organs, so they separated out the choirs and instruments, which allowed them to create antiphonal exchanges. Sackbut's (early trombone), violins and cornettos (a brass kind of recorder) were some of the instruments he composed with.

Fun Facts:

  • At the start of his career Giovanni was known merely as 'Ser Giovanni Gabrieli'; but by the end of his career he was addressed as 'Il Magnifico signor'. 

  • Giovanni became a famous teacher and taught the famous German composer Heinrich Schütz.

  • He won a competition in 1585 which allowed him to stay in a permanent position as the organist at St. Mark's

  • It's noted that once Gabrieli hired seven organs, which means he probably conducted 7 choirs at one event.

John Dowland: 1563-1626 English Renaissance composer, lutenist & singer

Brief History: Born in Westminster, London. His childhood is a mystery but it is known that in 1580 he went to Paris as a “servant” to Sir Henry Cobham, the ambassador to the French court. In 1588 he received a bachelor of music from the University of Oxford. He travelled many different places including Nürnberg, Genoa, Florence, and Venice, where he studied and worked in various courts. But his strongest desire was to obtain a post as a lutenist in the English court. In 1612 He managed to get a position and he stayed there till his death.

Musical Style: Dowland wrote 88 lute songs. His early lute songs have beautiful melodies with very few chromaticisms. They were composed mostly in dance forms with simple strophic settings (where the music repeated every stanza). Later he introduced chromaticisms and dissonances harking to the Italian declamatory style e.g. in his piece, 'In Darkness let me dwell'

Fun Facts:

  • In 1598 Dowland became lutenist to Christian IV of Denmark, but he was dismissed for unsatisfactory conduct in 1606.

  • In 1612 he was appointed one of the “musicians for the lutes” to James I, whose funeral he performed at. He died himself a year later.

  • Dowland created a fun pun on his name—‘Dowland, semper dolens’ (‘Dowland, always grieving’) but ironically he was known as being a cheerful man.

Prince of Darkness, Don Carlo Gesualdo: 1566-1613

Brief History: Born in Naples the Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. He was known for his savageness and musical genius. He composed avant-garde pieces and killed his wife and her lover. He was never prosecuted for murder, as revenge was seen to be within the aristocratic social codes of those times. He married again and was abusive and unfaithful. In the decades after his death, he became a semi-mythical, slightly vampiric figure, about whom dark tales are still told.

Musical Style: He published six books of madrigals and three books of sacred pieces. His musical style followed a Mannerist style & could be said to have had Vicentine tendencies (the Vicentino system encouraged free movement from one chord to another and had 31 notes in an octave). Freedom & bending harmony rules were his hallmark and his use of chromatic language was not heard again until the late 19th century.

Fun Facts:

  • Igor Stravinsky was a fan of Gesualdo and composed a piece called “Monumentum pro Gesualdo, in 1960."

  • There have been about eleven operatic works on the subject of Gesualdo’s life and in 1995 a pseudo-documentary, by Werner Herzog, called “Death for Five Voices" was made.

I hope you enjoyed this read and learnt something new.

Much Love

Naomi Leila Xx

P.s. Watch out for my next blog instalment on Renaissance-Baroque Crossover 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 :)

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