Early Music and the Renaissance

Welcome to our first installment of Listening Club. As we discussed this concept it became clear that in order to contextualize Western music of any time period, we’ll need to know its basic ingredients. In other words, we’re going to have to go very, very far back. Bear with us.

Generally we say that Western music as we know it began during the Middle Ages in Europe. Its evolution is linked directly to rise of the Christian church. Monks would recite holy text several times daily, and the unified chanting began taking on melodic inflections. This sung chant is called plainchant

If you’d like to listen to some plainchant, we recommend works by Hildegard von Bingen. Her chants use a beautifully wide range of pitch and show that composers were already attempting to express the emotions of the text they were singing. Hildegard is also the earliest known female composer in the West!

Following a natural course, voices began taking on different roles instead of singing one melody in unison. Organum combines a stationary voice with one or more additional voices that move to other pitches. If you’d like to hear how this sounds, we recommend Perotin’s setting of “Viderunt Omnes.” You will hear one low pitch clearly while several others dance around it.

It’s still related to the plainchant that came before, but also shows evidence of the next evolutionary stage…


Polyphony is several voices singing different moving parts at once. Each singer’s part is active, moving between several pitches, and the harmonies formed by the parts singing together are rich with color. 

Polyphony reached its height in the Renaissance, when Medici popes and wealthy kings commissioned lavish, rich settings of masses and biblical texts. After the Protestant Reformation, a rift occurred between the Roman school, setting music to Latin text, and the vernacular settings of text in Protestant-ruled countries. We will look at one masterpiece from each of these sides of Europe.

Palestrina: Sicut Servus

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina represents the culmination of “Roman school” polyphony. Sicut Cervus is a 4-voice setting from his second book of motets. A motet is a short polyphonic piece that sets biblical text to music.

The recording I recommend is the Cambridge Singers.

With any piece of music that has words, the words are of great importance because the great composers of this and any period of music attempt to emulate the mood of the words as they are sung.

Here are the words to Sicut Servus, the beginning of Psalm 42. 

“Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus.”

“As the deer long for the springs of water, so my soul longs for you, oh God.”

As you listen to the music and read the words, notice how the melody rises and peaks at the word “fontes,” or springs. The voices meander up and down significantly as the voices say “aquarum” as well. This is Palestrina’s depiction of cascading water! 

Also take note of the points in which the harmony seems unstable. This disagreement, also known as dissonance, occurs when simultaneous pitches do not agree with one another harmonically, and it is a powerful tool when used deliberately. The word that consistently occurs in dissonance is “desiderat,” or “longing,” which makes sense given the meaning of that word. 

Finally, there is a third word in the latter half of the motet that we hear very clearly for three reasons.

  • It has the same rhythm each time it’s said, so it sticks in our ear
  • It is repeated or imitated between the different voices, at the top of each voice’s range
  • It is always part of a suspension, meaning the harmony changes but the voice in question hangs on to the previous harmony for a moment longer, building and releasing tension. 

This word is “anima,” or soul. Again, one can see why a composer would want to pay special attention, especially since this particular soul is longing!

Finally, we hear Deus, God, only at the very end, as part of a strong and reiterated cadence. Again, makes sense.

We hope you enjoy Sicut Servus and give it a few listens with all this in mind. It’s a stunningly beautiful work even if you don’t know these details, but knowing them adds an entirely new level of appreciation for Palestrina’s craftsmanship.

If you’re excited about Roman polyphony (we sure are), there is an excellent Spotify playlist of Palestrina works filed under their Composer Weekly series. His mass for the coronation of Pope Marcellus is another excellent example of his talent.

Thanks for reading. That was several hundred years of music; let’s have a rest!

%d bloggers like this: