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5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Renaissance Music

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the rich and varied music of the Renaissance. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

Thomas Tallis was a great experimenter. He wrote in 40 parts (“Spem in alium”), and in four parts (“If ye love me”). He wrote splendid antiphons for the Catholic rite (“Gaude gloriosa”), and intimate service music for the Anglicans. In everything he did, he led the way, rarely repeating himself.

“Sancte deus” is yet another one-off, scored for high voices only, and praising Jesus, rather than Mary. The high scoring creates a mesmerizing texture, really without parallel. It includes antique-sounding cadences, alongside “harmony of the spheres” sonorities. This is music that instantly breaks down every barrier.

For those new to this period, this is a fantastic place to start. Published in 1547 by a Venetian printing house alongside other madrigals by various composers, “Ancor che col partite” was the most famous work of the 16th century. It’s that good! Well crafted, emotional and sensuous, it can be sung and played in various combinations of voices and instruments, making it ideal for court and home musicians alike. In true Renaissance fashion, virtuosic artists created highly ornamented versions, similar to modern-day jazz standards.

Some of the most sublime encounters between poetry and song come to us from the English Renaissance, works by the likes of John Dowland and Thomas Campion. There is some marvelous frivolity, too, like the madrigal “Come, sirrah Jack, ho,” written for three voices by Thomas Weelkes in 1608. It is the sort of song that Shakespeare’s Falstaff might have called for in the Eastcheap Tavern: a buoyant celebration of drinking and smoking, the singers vouching that the tobacco — which is “very, very good,” as we hear more than once — is “perfect Trinidado.” The song is as intricate and weightless as a twist of smoke, and casts only a shadow of empire as it blows away.

I’ve spent a significant portion of my adulthood living — in my imagination — in the Renaissance, with women from history who are now as much a part of my life as the women in my ensemble, Musica Secreta. By reconstructing their lives and their music, I’ve felt their humanity reaching across the centuries.

This “Tribulationes civitatum audivimus,” which I’ve attributed to Leonora d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, is not only one of the most transcendentally beautiful pieces I know, but also a testament to a community, beset by disaster, that still has faith in the future. I return to it often when I need comfort or hope, to hear my friends’ voices winding tightly in dissonance, each phrase restlessly emerging before the previous one has finished, before their plea for mercy is finally — and gloriously — resolved.

This is a zany Renaissance adventure. Thomas Morley put it in his book of “practical musical education.” Try to imagine poor, innocent Renaissance people sitting around the table starting to sing it, and gradually getting more and more mystified. The main singer recites the alphabet — four times in all — and each time the rhythms underneath get spikier, jazzier, more incomprehensible; the notes, at first chaste, become savagely dissonant. I love this performance of Charles Wuorinen’s rewrite, only slightly tweaked from the original. When you get to the end you feel like you’ve climbed a mountain, and that the Renaissance was a profoundly modern period — in many ways more fluid, free and adventurous than the centuries of Western classical music that followed.

I passed a good part of my early career in Renaissance music, as a member of both the Tallis Scholars and the Consort of Musick, and I’d like to suggest a Consort recording that predates my time in the ensemble. It is the music of a composer who is very little known and yet, I think, not only a genius, but also enormously influential in the development of later Renaissance (or Mannerist) music, toward the explosion of the Baroque.

Giaches de Wert was Claudio Monteverdi’s boss when Monteverdi arrived as a young musician for his first post in Mantua, and de Wert was a deeply important influence on the man who would change music history with his “L’Orfeo.” “Giunto alla tomba” describes Tancredi (from Tasso’s “Gerusalemme Liberata”) arriving at the tomb of Clorinda, the woman he loved and, by error, killed in combat. He places his forehead on the marble of the tomb and weeps for her. De Wert’s setting is a model of expressivity and emotional intensity that leaves me deeply moved at each listening.

This music, by the Slovenian composer Jacobus Handl (1550-91), gripped its listeners from its first performance. The Latin words are wrenching: “Behold how the just one dies and no one feels it in their heart.” I love the way both halves end with the phrase “and his memory will be in peace” — the voices reaching up lovingly before drawing inward to a tender close.

When Catholics in 1590s Prague tried this motet out as part of their Good Friday services, it was scrawled in a diary that it had moved their emotions “in a marvelous way.” They evidently weren’t alone: People continued to perform it long after it was written, an exceptional fate for music composed in the 16th century. In Bach’s Leipzig, it was sung on Good Friday as the “last movement” of the Passion — a context recreated in a recording with the Dunedin Consort, directed by John Butt.

Can there be a more beautiful piece of Tudor music than this? At under four minutes, it is a gem in which the human voice expresses itself in the most personal way. The founding statutes of Magdalen College, Oxford, declared that it should be sung daily on rising and before sleeping. Its slow moving bass underpins six voices who weave the most exquisite tracery, both reflective and sensual. Although composed almost 500 years ago, its sentiments are so pertinent to today’s world: “Free us, save us, defend us.” This is music that warms the heart and gives us hope now and for the future.

John Sheppard’s “Media vita” was the five minutes that got me addicted to Tudor choral music — well, the 25 minutes, I guess. Close to a Mahler slow movement in ambition, and not all that far away in its chromaticism and fathomless anxiety, this profound reflection on death likely dates from the 1550s. Much of its power comes from sheer repetition, but much also comes from the way it contrasts the fearful humanity of single voices against the imposing sound of the full ensemble. The final four minutes begin with high and low voices — the young and the old alike, in a church choir — asking forgiveness for their sins, before ending with a soaring declaration of faith in deliverance from the “bitter pains of eternal death.”

When I’m looking for serenity, this is what I turn to: the celestial sounds of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, one of the great writers of church music in the 16th century. One of his best-known works is the “Missa Papae Marcelli,” dedicated to Pope Marcellus II, who reigned for just 22 days before his death in 1555. Palestrina was a master of weaving together complex polyphonic lines behind an unassuming facade — in part a response to demands from spiritual leaders that the music not overpower the sanctity of religious texts. The Choir of Westminster Abbey breathes life into this masterpiece and its message of hope and forgiveness.

“Civitas sancti tui,” by William Byrd, is a setting of a short passage from Isaiah. The choice of text is encoded with Byrd’s own recusant Catholicism: A lamentation for the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the subsequent Babylonian exile serves as a stand-in for the woeful and chaotic state of Catholicism in his time and the need for clandestine worship.

Using five voices, Byrd begins by creating a meshwork of voices imitating one another — all based on simple and mostly descending material, constantly flowing. Suddenly, the upper voices sing, in hymn-like unison, “Zion is wasted and brought low,” and, in a moment of shocking brilliance, the phrase is repeated by the lower voices. But here, with just a small harmonic modification, it becomes tumescent and yearning.

Out of this arises a poignant and delicate phrase on the repeated word “Jerusalem,” stretching up a fifth and resolving down, as if grasping for something just out of reach. What is extraordinary about this piece is that there are so many layers of expression: the voices singing in imitative counterpoint; singing in unison; hanging out in a single chord for a while; or suddenly blooming into undreamed-of harmonic territory. The repeated word “Jerusalem” has, for me, the emotional power of any phrase in any music from any period, and this motet is an example of Byrd at his most raw and brilliant.

In Renaissance and Baroque Italy, the visual arts, music and poetry were often intertwined aspects of a unified enterprise that ennobled the human spirit. Music has always been a component of my approach as a museum curator, particularly in my research on Evaristo Baschenis, the great 17th-century painter of still lifes of musical instruments, and as a current running through my 2008 Met exhibition “Art and Love in Renaissance Italy.” I particularly love Cecilia Bartoli’s version of Caccini’s song “Amarilli, mia bella.” It may not be the most historically precise performance, but it exquisitely captures the intimacy of the verse.

Here’s a Renaissance twofer: the song “L’Homme Armé,” followed by the beginning of one of the many masses it inspired, Josquin des Prez’s “Missa L’Homme Armé Super Voces Musicales.” Who is the Armed Man? The tune’s history is mysterious, with some origin theories more unsavory than others. But we know it became popular in the mid-15th century, and was in the minds of composers for over 40 mass settings. Josquin, arguably classical music’s first celebrity, wrote two. This is the earlier, which quotes a version of the song in each section on a successively higher pitch — conjuring a rich atmosphere from minimal means, with the contrapuntal brilliance for which Bach would later be known.

A candid observer around the turn of the 16th century, comparing Josquin des Prez and Heinrich Isaac, said that Josquin was the stronger composer, but Isaac was friendlier and more productive. Intensely prolific and well traveled, he was friendly enough, certainly, to ingratiate himself with the ruling Medicis in Florence, and wrote this sublime, serene yet stirring lament — in short order, repurposing some of his earlier music — on the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492.

Watching Catherine Breillat’s unruly romance “The Last Mistress,” I stayed through the end credits, to take notes about the music used in the film. One of the selections was “Faronell’s Division” by John Playford, in a performance led by Jordi Savall. Hunting down Savall’s record “Altre Follie: 1500-1750” was well worth the effort, too, as its program sketched the long history of the Portuguese “folia” dance — with its lively gait and doleful melodic pattern — going back to the Renaissance. While Antonio de Cabezón’s 1557 contribution to the genre, “Pavana con su glosa,” wasn’t used by Breillat, it well might have been; in this arrangement for viols and harpsichord, there is the suggestion of both reckless exultation and subsequent sorrow.

During the Renaissance, it was imagined that ancient Greek drama had been sung. So an artistic group around the composers Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini and Emilio de’ Cavalieri invented, around 1600, a completely new style of music, “recitar cantando” (“sung recitation”), seeking to imitate Greek drama.

Polyphonic music until then had become extremely complex, with up to 54 voices singing together in counterpoint. The new “recitar cantando” used just one voice, accompanied by a lute, theorbo, organ, harpsichord or harp. This type of declamation was a major innovation in enabling the introduction of extended dramatic monologues and dialogues, as opera required; it later developed into recitative. Since de’ Cavalieri’s “Rappresentatione” was fully staged for its first performance, in 1600, with three acts and a spoken prologue, it can be considered the earliest surviving opera — and the beginning of a revolution in music history.

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