Renaissance Composers: Josquin, Palestrina, & Dufay

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  • 0:05 Renaissance Composers
  • 1:00 Guillaume Dufay
  • 3:41 Josquin des Prez
  • 5:48 Giovanni Pierluigi da…
  • 7:22 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.

While there were many composers that brought new ideas, changes and influences to Renaissance Era music, there are three composers that clearly exemplify the styles and progressions made at the time. In this lesson, learn about these three composers and their contributions.

Renaissance Composers

The Renaissance: the artistic frontier. These are the voyages of the master composers of the Renaissance (1450-1600). Their 150-year mission: to explore strange new music; to seek out new styles and new rhythmic and harmonic applications; to boldly go where no composer had gone before. And they succeeded! Each composer built on existing musical constructs, while bringing their own new ideas to advance the richness and purpose of music. Most wrote sacred music, like masses and motets, which are unaccompanied choral compositions based on a sacred Latin text. Others also wrote secular music, like chansons, which are choral compositions with French text and are usually based on a set form, like verse-chorus-verse.

Guillaume Dufay

Much like the original captain, Guillaume Dufay (c. 1400-1474) was a leader of new things and a world traveler. He is nearly synonymous with the music of the early Renaissance. Dufay was born in France, one of the key capitals of development during the Renaissance. He served in the clergy as a canon, where he wrote sacred and secular music. Much of his music was written for four voices, which was becoming a characteristic of early Renaissance music. After learning the ranks a bit, Dufay traveled to Italy, where he spent a good portion of his life. Later, he returned to his native France, but continued to travel throughout the European continent, particularly in Burgundy, now known as the area in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Despite being a clergy member, Dufay wrote both sacred and secular styles. He wrote everything from hymns, masses and motets to secular chansons. In each case, the influence of the diverse French and Italian musical centers shaped Dufay's compositions. The French influence pushed Dufay to write with rhythmic complexity, specifically in his motets. Dufay used a technique called isorhythm, which occurs when a rhythmic idea repeats throughout the song, but the melody changes. This was a departure point from the late Medieval Era, just previous to the Renaissance Era, when isorhythmic motets were common.

He also picked up some compositional tricks while in Italy, infusing the characteristic Italian-style smooth melodies. Dufay enhanced his flowing melodies with simple harmony, usually in four voices. This included using new and richer combinations of notes typically not used in the Medieval period. So, instead of a somewhat hollow sound like this, the four-voice texture would sound more rich and balanced, like this. Also, Dufay integrated secular and sacred music in his masses. One of his most famous pieces, Se La Face Ay Pale, is about unrequited love, yet it was used for the setting of a sacred mass. It may be one of the earliest examples of a mass based on a secular theme. Dufay's early Renaissance developments set the tone for the next generation of Renaissance composers.

Josquin des Prez

Like any good leader, Dufay left a wealth of good ideas from which to expand upon. The next composer in line was Josquin des Prez (c. 1440-1521). Known simply as Josquin, he was one of the most important composers of the mid-Renaissance period, around 1500. He was of Flemish descent, which is in the area now known as the Netherlands. You may recall that Dufay traveled and composed here, and his influence on Josquin is clear. The similarities are striking; like Dufay, Josquin traveled to Italy and wrote sacred masses and motets, and wrote secular songs in French and Italian. Also like Dufay, Josquin wrote for four voices. However, Josquin took a different approach.

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