The two-faced Renaissance

Welcome back to Listening Club for our second installment of the Renaissance. We know after our previous entry about the paramount importance of the Christian church in the development of early Western music, and we discussed what people listened to at church, at least in the Catholic parts of Europe during the Renaissance.

But people did more than attend mass, especially in the Renaissance when hot topics like science, humanism and a revived interest in ancient Greece stirred the church so much that it split. People equated music with light entertainment as much in the Renaissance as they do now, just without the technology to make a playlist out of their favorites! It’s safe to say that for every sacred work being composed during the Renaissance, there was probably a secular madrigal, perhaps an entire book of them, composed as well.

Madrigals versus Motets

A madrigal (or chanson, lied, etc) is a short secular work that is arguably a direct ancestor of the modern pop or folk song. The madrigal is essentially the secular version of the motet, the motet being about sacred material (remember Sicut Cervus?) and the madrigal being about love, loss, comedy and other aspects of daily life.

Most Renaissance composers created both sacred and secular music. I selected our works for today’s entry based on whose secular music sounded most different to their sacred music. It’s no coincidence that they are two of the most celebrated composers: Josquin and Orlande de Lassus.

Josquin des Prez

Known affectionately as Josquin, he is a towering figure in Western music, responsible for an enormous output of both sacred and secular music, vocal and instrumental. The central figure of the Franco-Flemish school of composition, he solidified what Guillaume Du Fay and Orlande de Lassus would continue, and it is with these figures that we can really see a “French” style gaining its own voice separate from the cultures surrounding it. If you enjoy Debussy and Ravel, thank Josquin for starting things off on the right foot for them.

“Sacred” Writing: Miserere Mei, Deus

First, a disclaimer that Josquin’s “Miserere Mei, Deus” is technically based on both sacred and secular text, and it shows the influence of politics even in sacred writing, but we’re talking about secular music today anyway, right? Josquin’s setting of Psalm 51 also uses a meditative text inspired by Psalm 51, written by a fellow composer and reformer, Girolamo Savonarola, during his incarceration and torture. It was in Savonarola’s memory, after his highly controversial execution, that this work was commissioned. Just a few tips to keep in mind as you listen:

  • Savonarola disliked the lack of text clarity in imitative music, so Josquin chose sparse texture for this work. Often, only two or three voices at once will sing long, unified rhythms so the text remains easy to understand and the tone is meditative.
  • The melody given to the title text, “Miserere Mei, Deus” is a slow rhythmic figure that only uses two neighboring pitches, which also keeps the character chantlike and somber.
  • In the first part, each refrain of the title text (Miserere mei, Deus) steps downward in pitch—a clever, subliminal aspect to the music’s depiction of depression.

Secular Writing: El Grillo

After listening to Miserere Mei Deus, prepare for a very jarring change! El Grillo translates to “The Cricket,” which explains this short, sarcastic and silly madrigal better than most analysis can. The tempo is fast, the language is vernacular (Italian) instead of Latin, and the lyrics are:

El grillo è buon cantore
Che tiene longo verso.
Dalle beve grillo canta.
Ma non fa come gli altri uccelli
Come li han cantato un poco,
Van de fatto in altro loco
Sempre el grillo sta pur saldo,
Quando la maggior el caldo
Alhor canta sol per amore.

The cricket is a good singer
Who can hold long notes.
He sings all the time.
But he isn’t like the other birds,
Once they’ve sung a little bit
They go somewhere else,
The cricket stands firm,
When it’s very hot out
He sings for the love of it.

When you listen, you’ll notice lots of “word painting,” just as we discussed with earlier works, but this time for comedic effect. Contemporary urban living dampens this joke since we rarely hear crickets over cars and other modern noises, but in the 15th and 16th centuries, the world was much quieter and crickets probably kept many a person awake.

Some word painting examples:

  • “Longo verso” is part of a drawn-out cadence to illustrate, literally, long notes.
  • “Dalle beve grillo canta” is repeated between duets of voices and then again with “dalle” repeated in all voices to bring attention to just how much the cricket sings!
  • “Quando la maggior el caldo” uses longer note values to illustrate the feeling of being out in the heat, presumably made even worse by having to listen to the cricket.
  • Josquin brings great attention and ornamentation to “amore” since it would get similar attention in a less sarcastic setting. The fact that all of this ornamentation is rushed at the quick tempo adds even more sarcasm.

All silliness aside, this is still crafted with a mastery of harmony and following all necessary “rules” of the time period, and sounds pleasing to the ear even with no attention to the lyrics or the jokes. This is what makes Josquin the celebrated master that he was!

Orlande de Lassus

A generation after Josquin, Lassus continued the work that Josquin started and composed in the “mature” style of Franco-Flemish polyphony. This just means that the listener might hear a more familiar sound to his works; the seven church modes were falling out of fashion and late Renaissance composers tended toward what we know now as Major or minor keys. If you’d like to hear an example of Lassus’ sacred work, I recommend any of his masses or “Tristis et anima mea,” a beautiful motet that explores deep sadness in a similar way to Josquin’s “Miserere.” I will leave that with you since we’ve discussed lots of ways to listen to sacred music.

Secular Music: “Bonjour et puis quelles nouvelles”

This madrigal is all about a near-universal vice, harmless gossip and small talk. You go to the market in the morning, encounter some neighbors and friends (or “friends”), make some conversation and even add in some self-deprecating humor. It’s a timelessly relatable text.

Bon jour, et puis, quelles nouvelles?
N’en sçauroit on de vous avoir?
S’en brief ne m’en faictes sçavoir,
J’en feray de toutes nouvelles.

Puis que vous estes si rebelles,
Bon vespre, bonn nuict, bon soir,
Bon jour!

Mais si vous cueillez des groyselles,
Envoyez m’en; car, pour tout voir,
Je suis gros: mais c’est de vous veoir
Quelcque matin, mes damoyselles;
Bon jour!

Good day, and then, what news?
Would you know any of that?
Make it known to me if you have it,
I will make known to you all news.

As you are so rebellious,
Good dusk, good night, good evening,
Good day!

But if you gather some redcurrants
Send them to me; for, for all to see,
I am fat: but it is to you to see
one morning, my ladies;
Good day!

Like Josquin, Lassus is such a talented composer that, while making this a beautiful, lighthearted piece to listen to even with no knowledge of the lyrics, he commands the musical aspects to work hard, reflecting words and the general tone of the lyrics at every opportunity.

  • The word “Bonjour” is treated with a recurring bell-like quality and repeated many times so that it stands out among the other words. Musically it stays in our ear, but it also makes sense since greetings like “hello” would be heard most over other conversation as people meet in a public place.
  • The “verse” words that follow are said with haste, imitated heavily, and are sung quietly, as if gossiped!
  • The character darkens slightly as singer calls someone “rebelles,” which reflects that word’s significance in a good story.
  • “Bon soir” also has a more meditative quality to reflect its contrasting meaning to the much-repeated “bonjour,” which makes a quick return as the refrain.

More hushed conversation ensues, with a similar quality to that of the first “verse” of gossip. We end with a final greeting which could have comedic intent as well as musical closure. It’s another “bonjour” instead of goodbye, perhaps the singer has simply moved on to the next listener!

Many other Renaissance composers had both sacred and secular music in their output, so the supply of madrigals, chansons and lieder is vast. These silly songs put a smile on our face even now, and show how relatable a time period as far-removed as the Renaissance actually is. I hope you enjoy listening and find this evolution of the folk/pop song as interesting as I do!

1 thought on “The two-faced Renaissance

  1. […] I can’t put off talking about vocal music any longer now that the Romantic period has started, because the early Romantic period was the high point for the lied, or song, which is a simple, short work for solo singer and keyboard accompaniment. The lied’s format goes all the way back to the days of the Renaissance chanson; remember El Grillo and Bonjour, et puis, quelles nouvelles from the Renaissance? If not, give them a refresher read here. […]


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