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Schools of Renaissance Composers: English and Italian

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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.

Three major schools of music contributed significantly to changes in music during the Renaissance period. Discover and explore the influences of the Flemish School, the Virginalists, and the Venetian School, and some of the major composers of the era. Updated: 09/18/2021

Renaissance Schools of Music

There is a saying that 'all good things come in threes,' and that was certainly the case for the musical schools of thought in Renaissance music. The Flemish, Virginalist and Venetian schools were no exception to the rule of threes, and their contributions from roughly 1450-1600 significantly changed music. In the thick of the Renaissance period, these schools brought new ideas that would quickly advance music to the next level melodically, instrumentally and harmonically.

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  • 0:07 Renaissance Schools of Music
  • 0:40 Flemish School
  • 4:25 Virginalists
  • 6:26 The Venetian School
  • 8:23 Lesson Summary
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Flemish School

The Flemish school was centered in the 'low countries,' now known as the Netherlands and Belgium. This was the first hot spot of new musical thought since the late Medieval Period. We can think of the Flemish school like the game Pac-Man. One of the first things you might notice when playing the game is how your little yellow circle is audibly chomping at a regular pace. The Flemish composers did this, too - not literally, of course.

In contrast to the late medieval style, where each word had very long melodic lines for each syllable, the composers opted to write melodies that mirrored the natural rhythm of spoken text. Like many Renaissance authors and painters, the Flemish composers turned to Greek and Roman influences, which inspired a focus on the emotional side of music. In order to achieve this, there was a marrying of words and music, where poets wrote more lyrically and composers wrote melodies specifically to imitate the words, following the rhythm of the words.

Like the increasingly complex levels of the game, the Flemish composers made increasingly complex music. The idea that each voice part was equally important was becoming a significant factor in creating new music. No longer would a single voice part dominate the music.

Instead, the melodies of each singing part would be weighted equally as concurrent melodies instead of just one melody and a few background parts. Namely, their use of imitative counterpoint, which is when you have simultaneous interlocking melodies that echo each other, heightened the intricacy of the songs. In counterpoint, each melody is independent, but together, they create harmony.

For example, a level one use of imitative counterpoint might sound like this, but as the songs developed, they became more and more complicated. With all of these crossing lines of music, tight rules developed of what was acceptable and what was unacceptable. This was particularly the case with harmony, especially with the addition of new notes and newly established theoretical ideas.

The rules kept everyone in line, kind of like the walls of the Pac-Man game. No one floats through the walls, and no composer was going to get away with too many unacceptable note combinations that lacked harmony, referred to as dissonant. They were careful to alternate the dissonances with more harmonically pleasing combinations of notes, which are referred to as consonant. While this sounds like an obvious choice, it was paramount to Renaissance development, as the equality of voices was a new idea for the time period.

Two notable composers of this school are Josquin des Prez and Johannes Ockeghem. Josquin was known for his brilliant use of imitative counterpoint and emotional sacred choral music. Ockeghem was known for his unique masses, in which he blended old and new styles. Some of his innovative compositional techniques included having singers sing the same music, but with a twist, such as a delay between the parts, or turning the notes upside down or backwards.

The Virginalists

The two other schools of musical thought brought change to instrumental music. While instrumental music existed before this period, much of it was forgotten, as the music was usually played from memory or improvised instead of being written down. With the advancements made in printing and in music notation, more music was preserved and distributed throughout the educated public. During the Renaissance, music was educationally valued, and an educated person was likely to use music in their own homes.

This brings us to the Virginal. The virginal is an ancestor of the piano that used a quill to pluck the strings inside the instrument. It was small and quiet enough to play in one's home and became quite popular during the Renaissance. The school of composers who wrote music for the virginal are referred to as Virginalists.

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