Philosophy of Humanism & Music of the Renaissance Era Thesis

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Humanism and the Renaissance: An Overview of the Revival

The word 'Renaissance' means 'rebirth.' The formal 'Renaissance' is defined as the European period spanning from the end of the 13th century to approximately 1600. The title given to this epoch reflects the fact that there was a rebirth of interest in classical antiquity and human individualism. Classical forms and an emphasis on symmetry and beauty reappeared in all of the arts. This is perhaps most strikingly manifest in the contrast between the Gothic churches of the high middle ages, with their grotesque gargoyles, and Michelangelo's David, a work which celebrates the human form in all of its glory.

The predominant intellectual philosophy of the Renaissance came to be called humanism, or the placing of the human at the center of the world, rather than faith (Estrella 2009). This philosophy reflected a new ideal of focusing on the earthly world of the 'here and now,' rather than the life to come. However, the musical arts were at a distinct disadvantage in appropriating Greek and Roman culture, compared with the literary and fine arts. In an age before recording, musicians and composers could only guess at what earlier musical styles resembled (Delahoyde 2007). But in the eyes of some scholars, this makes the subsequent innovations of the era even more quintessentially humanist and revitalizing: "Unlike the case with most of the other arts, Renaissance composers could not immerse themselves in Classical tradition: little Greek music survived and probably was not decipherable until a later century. So Renaissance composers were free to explore new innovations" (Delahoyde 2007).

Musical theory is perhaps the most obvious way in which Greek and Roman ideals were made manifest during the era: "Since the Middle Ages, music theorists had been studying proportions, a subject that the Greek mathematician Pythagoras had written about when discussing music. The theorists explained how to make different pitches (sounds) on stringed instruments by lengthening or shortening the strings by different proportions. For example, if a musician were to divide a string in half (the proportion of 2:1), he would create a new tone that is an octave above the original tone. Renaissance musicians carried on this idea in their own music" ("Renaissance," Learner, 2009). But gradually, music came to be separated from mathematics and theology as a discipline and regarded as a branch of the fine arts. The prevalence of highly idealized portraits of musicians in the art of the period reflects the idea that music was said to be the most emotionally revealing and truthful of the arts.

But tracing the relationship between humanism and Renaissance music often seems elusive in terms of actual musical forms. It is not easy to cite musical features that explicitly reflect specific intellectual ideals. "However, the Renaissance spirit is often felt to be reflected in such music as the chansons of Dufay and Binchois, with their smoother, more flowing lines, and particularly in Josquin's music, from the end of the 15th century, in which imitative counterpoint in four or more parts (replacing the predominant three-part writing of the previous generation) came to be the norm, with all parts alike in texture and frequent imitative writing" ("Renaissance, Music Encyclopedia, 2007). Instead of the "rhythmically driven polyphony" of the previous era, "melodic beauty, expressiveness, and unity came to dominate the art (Delahoyde 2007). Overall, the most significant influence of 'humanism' can be seen in the Renaissance embrace of innovation whereby: "humans were seen less as creatures and more as creators. The fierce authority of the cantus firmus was ousted…composers of even cyclic Masses valued aesthetics above liturgical concerns" (Delahoyde 2007).

The Flemish composer Josquin Desprez is the most important figure of the early Renaissance period, most notably because of the imitative counterpoint of his motets "wherein each voice part enters successively using the same note patterns" (Estrella 2009). Josquin and the other musicians of the Flemish school might be said to reflect the values of humanism in their use of artifice. Rather than austere medieval simplicity (as manifested in plainsong), Renaissance music showed the composer's guiding hand proudly, as is notable in the "serene, almost otherworldly choral sound" of the "Gloria" in Josquin's Missa L'homme arme (Sherrane 2008). Composers used the interweaving of melodic lines to create a single melody in a musical technique known as polyphony. "Polyphonic music of the Renaissance could be very complex and intricate, often obscuring the words and the meaning of the text which had been set" (Sherrane 2008).

Flemish composers of the time "often based the cantus firmus" of the Mass "on a popular melody of the day, composing new music for the other voices in counterpoint to the tune" (Sherrane 2008). The willingness to use secular themes in sacred music showed the great shift in philosophy about 'the human' and life on earth that had occurred from the middle ages. Inspired by the Flemish school's sacred music, imitative counterpoint came to be used by French and Burgundian composers in writing chansons, "secular poems set to music for instruments and solo voices" (Estrella 2009).

Josquin was also a notable secular composer and created many dance pieces, such as La Spagna, a pulsating and joyous dance tune (Sherrane 2008). The fact that composers were giving such attention to secular, earthly music also indicates the greater weight given non-sacred life in general during the Renaissance by artists as well as intellectuals. Madrigals, the Italian and later English version of the French chansons, became newly important, reflecting the emphasis on humanism in their use of individual voices singing about personal, secular subjects -- often unrequited love poetry. "By the 1500s the simplicity of earlier madrigals were replaced by more elaborate forms, using 4 to 6 voice parts. Claudio Monteverdi was one of the leading Italian composers of madrigals" (Estrella 2009)

The invention of the printing press further elevated the role of the composer and enabled composers to disseminate their work to a larger audience. Guttenberg popularized the printing press in 1450s for literature, and music was relatively quickly adapted to his invention: "In the 1470s, printing was applied to monophonic music, coinciding with a new blossoming of native composition in Italy. Ottaviano de' Petrucci's anthology of chansons from ca. 1470-1500 called the Odhecaton was the first polyphonic music printed using triple impression…Petrucci, however, occupies a position analogous to Gutenberg as a printer of books, for, though Petrucci was not the first to print music or even the first to do so from movable type, he was the earliest to accomplish printing in an important way with respect to music other than plainsong. Printed music naturally gained wider circulation than manuscripts" (Blood 2009). Standardization of musical notation in print also enabled greater standardization of sounds. "By the early sixteenth century, instrumental tunings were adjusted to make thirds and sixths sound acceptable; as a result, the use of triads became more frequent, even in the final note of cadences. A sharper distinction was made between dissonance and consonance, and the masters of counterpoint invented new rules for controlling dissonance" (Blood 2009).

Although music did not exhibit the direct effects of the resurgence of classicism as directly as the other arts, sacred music clearly showed the influence of the Protestant Reformation and Lutheranism, whose literature was also widely disseminated through the printing press (Estrella 2009). Lutheranism stressed preaching in the vulgate, or language of the common people, and a less adorned musical style. The Protestant Revolution brought forth a new focus on the individual and humanity's private relationship with God, along with an aesthetic of austerity that completely changed the structure of religious services. John Calvin, founder of a later Protestant sect, attempted to eliminate the use of music in services altogether (Estrella 2009). Music in the other Protestant churches was regular and simple, in contrast to Catholic… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Philosophy of Humanism & Music of the Renaissance Era.  (2009, December 17).  Retrieved February 16, 2019, from

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"Philosophy of Humanism & Music of the Renaissance Era."  17 December 2009.  Web.  16 February 2019. <>.

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"Philosophy of Humanism & Music of the Renaissance Era."  December 17, 2009.  Accessed February 16, 2019.