Renaissance Music: Sacred vs. Secular

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  • 1:03 Motet
  • 2:34 Mass
  • 3:48 Madrigal
  • 5:06 Instrumental Music
  • 6:20 Dance
  • 7:03 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 Renaissance Era (ca. 1450-1600) brought about great change in both sacred and secular music. In this lesson, you'll learn about the most significant types of sacred and secular music in the Renaissance Era and their characteristics.

Renaissance Music

For most of the Medieval Era (ca. 500-1450), music was primarily reserved for the Church and for some lucky members of the elite class. Advancements and societal changes in the Renaissance Era (ca. 1450-1600) allowed music to flourish in both of these venues while also branching out into more secular roles within the educated society. Despite all the hullabaloo with the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, there was continuous musical growth happening in both the Catholic and the Protestant Churches.

While the Churches were busy fighting, greater use of music for secular purposes was being developed for the rest of the educated society. Sacred music was primarily in the form of the motet or the Mass, while secular music included madrigals and the rise of both instrumental music and dance music.

Sacred Music: Motet

One of the significant genres of sacred Renaissance music was the motet. A motet can be defined as an unaccompanied choral composition based on a sacred Latin text. In general, motets used religious texts not used in the Mass, since because by this time, the Mass already had standardized music. Motets were often polyphonic, meaning there were various vocal parts sung at the same time. Though motets started being written in the late Medieval Era (ca. 1200), they developed greatly in and are most associated with the Renaissance Era.

One main characteristic of the Renaissance motet was the use of imitative polyphony, with successive voice parts that echo each other, kind of like a round. We can see and hear this in the text and in the successive adding of vocal parts. The motet was typically in Latin text and was for the ordinary Mass. One important composer of motets during the Renaissance era was Josquin des Prez. One of his most famous motets, Ave Maria, can be heard here.

Sacred Music: Mass

While the Mass had already been set to music in the Medieval Era, composers continued writing new iterations, many of which included elaborate polyphonic sections. To the Catholic Church, this was a problem because it seemed that more focus was being given to musical consideration than to the actual words of the Mass. Thankfully, Italy had a composer of their own, named Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Palestrina's style was conservative and balanced, as he gave careful consideration to both the beauty of the music and the comprehensibility of the words. Palestrina's style also showed importance of simple melodies that are easily sung and gave focus to the words, rather than complicated harmonies. The purity of his Pope Marcellus Mass (Missa Papae Marcelli) was a perfect fit for the needs of the Catholic Church at a time when they supposedly had been considering dismissing of polyphonic music from the service. The Mass remains his most well known composition.

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