Composers of the Renaissance Period: Instrumental Music of Byrd & Gabrieli

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  • 0:05 Rise of the Instrumental Music
  • 1:29 William Byrd
  • 2:49 Giovanni Gabrieli
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

The rise of printed media during the Renaissance period helped instrumental music move to the forefront of musical development. In this lesson, learn about William Byrd and Giovanni Gabrieli, two significant instrumental composers of the time.

Rise of Instrumental Music

Instrumental music has been around for what seems like forever. Even Ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures immortalized instrumental music in their art. So why does it seem that we know so much more about vocal music than instrumental music from the medieval and Renaissance periods? In two words, music notation.

Music notation is the symbolic representation of musical pitches and rhythms, and having written music makes it a lot easier to remember what to play. Vocal music was written down first, and it took a little while for the instrumental genre to catch up. In the medieval and Renaissance periods, instrumental musicians usually played from memory or improvised. So even though it looks like there was a big rise in the instrumental music genre during the 1500s, it was really just better documented. This is not to say that it wasn't important, though.

The advancements made in printing and music notation during the Renaissance allowed more instrumental music to be distributed throughout the educated public class, and this created more demand for the genre. As instrumental music notation improved, composers began writing specifically for instruments.

William Byrd

One remarkable instrumental composer was William Byrd (c.1540-1623). Byrd was somewhat of an anomaly for his time. Like the rest of the continent, England was having its own internal religious wars, and though the Protestants won with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I, Byrd remained staunchly Catholic.

Strangely, in a time of such religious persecution, Byrd was hired to serve Queen Elizabeth as a court composer and organist. He was really just that good. Part of what made him special was his versatility. He wrote many motets, dance pieces and consorts, which were instrumental pieces for a small group of musicians. He also wrote sacred Latin masses, which were probably only performed at secret Catholic prayer services.

Along with these, Byrd is recognized for composing and printing some of the first significant keyboard music. Keyboard instruments were just starting to become available, such as the organ and the virginal. Also, Byrd was savvy enough to get a printing license, and he printed many of his keyboard pieces. The virginal was played by amateurs, so Byrd's keyboard music was highly utilized by the public.

Giovanni Gabrieli

Another noteworthy composer was Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1553-1612). Gabrieli was composing around the same time as Byrd but held a different style. Gabrieli was Italian and was known for being a composer of the High Renaissance Venetian school of musical thought. Like Byrd, Gabrieli was a church organist. But the similarities stop there. Gabrieli continued serving the church as principal composer, where he wrote both vocal and instrumental sacred music.

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