Has Renaissance Music Been Forgotten?

Thoughts on inclusion in the “Western canon”

Stephen Amorino
Aug 27, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by Daniel Robert on Unsplash

Lately I’ve been browsing the internet for lists of the “greatest composers of all time.” Like all other clickbaity lists, these lists are subject to various problems. By what standard are we judging the “greatest” composers? By expert opinion? By public opinion? What criteria are we using?

I also recently watched a thought-provoking video by the Youtuber 12tone called “Beethoven sucks at music.” With that kind of title, you can expect to ruffle some feathers. However, 12tone makes the point that what is included in the Western musical canon has always been political.

While I’m not actually going to delve into the politics of why Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are usually unquestionably considered the “greatest composers of all time” (hint: it’s not a coincidence they are all German), I am going to touch upon a subject 12tone did not discuss: the inclusion (or exclusion) of Renaissance music in the Western canon, and a few thoughts about why Renaissance music is normally excluded.

Typically, there is a kind of unthinking attitude of the average person in terms of classical music (typical of a kind of conservatism) that either Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven is the *greatest classical composer of all time.* However, one does not need to resort to feminist critiques, cultural deconstruction, or any other method to look at how subjective this evaluation is.

One can simply use the logic of the Western canon itself to deconstruct the notion of the Western canon as a hierarchy with 17th–19th century German composers given pride of place at the top. Because if Bach was the greatest composer, surely his influences must also have been great?

The idea of Bach as a lone composer living in isolation is a common misconception. Obviously, Bach had many influences and teachers. For example, Bach had the opportunity to be taught by organist Dietrich Buxtehude. In 1705, Bach famously walked more than 400 km to stay with and receive lessons from Buxtehude.

However, beyond this, Bach and his predecessors lived within the musical context of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, which was dominated by the Venetian school. The Venetian school can be said to be the predecessor of the Baroque style as the more inventive of the two dominant schools of Renaissance music: the Venetian and the Roman schools.

The Venetian school pioneered the use of counterpoint, more complex orchestration, and more complex polyphony which the Northern German composers would come to claim as their own. Composers of the Venetian style were not limited to Italians such as Giovanni Gabrieli and Baldassare Donato; indeed, one of the founders of the school was Netherlandish composer Adrian Willaert, hailed by a contemporary as the “new Pythagoras.” And yet, how can someone hailed in his time as a “Pythagoras” (the equivalent of saying Einstein) of music not even be remembered today? Is it simply a matter of forgetting the long-gone past, or is something else at play here?

While it’s hard to imagine, it is only in the latter half of the 20th century that the musical period prior to the Baroque was even considered for inclusion in the Western canon, despite its great influence on Bach. This was previously always considered “early music” despite the fact that the Venetian and Roman schools were highly sophisticated and relatively late Renaissance movements which printed their music in detail.

There is relatively little to “reconstruct” like in the Medieval period. So why is late Renaissance music sometimes still considered “early music” despite the obvious problem in definition? Why is Josquin de Prez, regarded by Martin Luther as the greatest composer of his age, not given his due alongside Bach, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky?

The answer, like many answers to historical questions about European history, lies in the Enlightenment and subsequent 19th century attempts at categorization.

Musical historians, like their 19th century forebears, are eager to point out that Bach, unlike his predecessors, composed sacred as well as secular music (seemingly forgetting he was deeply embedded in the Lutheran German context as a church organist). The emphasis, in terms of what is defined as “classical music”, is given to “innovation” and breaking away from a conservative (and hence restrictive) religious context. In other words, Renaissance music, while it is regarded as the traditional age of the birth of “Reason” in the West, is still too embryonic for the old model of the Western canon.

Because the vast majority of the music composed by the Venetian and Roman schools was choral music, it is safe to assume there is also a bias against “choral church music,” as if that belongs to another realm entirely. And hence there is more likely to be even more bias against the more conservative school of late Renaissance music: the Roman school, championed by composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Now, Palestrina is often confined to the role of “mass music” for the Catholic church.

In short: Renaissance music was still too religious and not “rational” enough for the musicologists of the 19th century.

Although scholarship on the Western canon has long since evolved to include Renaissance and even medieval composers like Perotin, one can still wonder why lists of 100 greatest composers fail to mention a single Renaissance composer despite the short distance in time between Bach and someone like da Palestrina. One misses out on the rich legacy of Western choral music if one does this.

Beyond this, it is easy to put sacred choral music into its own box as either inferior to (or even superior) to orchestral or instrumental classical music. However, one should realize that there never was a clear demarcation in history separating these styles of music. While there were competing schools and distinct movements, the progression of Western classical music is more of a gradual spectrum through time.

So I’d encourage you to check out some composers that you may have never heard of before from eras that are usually forgotten, such as the Renaissance and even the medieval period. I haven’t even begun to talk about the most popular instrument of the Renaissance: the lute, and all of the wonderful composers who wrote for that “instrument of the angels.” So, next time you are extolling the genius of a Mozart or Chopin, consider this: what other geniuses has time forgotten?

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