Ah, the renaissance period. It brought us great artists, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, authors, poets and inventors like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Rene Descartes, and Galileo. Renaissance means, rebirth. It was the period after the dark ages. While the art and science is most remembered from that time, it was also the era of some pretty cool music that’s still played in classical circles today.
If you’ve always secretly thought of yourself as a bard, well, here you go. Listening to and playing this type of music will have you sounding like just that. On the other hand, there are other more stately sounding works from this era if you’re feeling more conservative or pious. Having said that, at the time, all the music of the Renaissance era was considered anything but conservative. It was ground-breaking.
The Renaissance Music Era
The Renaissance period lasted from 1400-1600. During this time, people had new-found freedom to explore art, music, and science, as well as express themselves. The music was more complex and expressive than the medieval era music. It was the first time triad chords were used as well as accidentals (sharps ♯ and flats ♭). While it’s not on the same level complexity as Baroque music, the Baroque era came after the Renaissance, it’s still beautiful to listen to and fun to play.
During this time, more and more people had access to music books and could learn to read music thanks to the invention of the printing press. Before that, all music was written out by hand, so it’s not hard to imagine why there was so little access to it. There were also more instruments and more people had access to those too. It was an exciting time for music and history as a whole.
What’s more is that at one point in history, many of these musical compositions were banned! It seems there’s a long history of banning music for being too provocative. Before this era, music was largely chanting in church and compositions that were created specifically to play in church. Not just that, but there wasn’t much by the way of harmony, chords, or the musical techniques that are common place today.
Musicians were also branching out secularly and that, along with all the new techniques and creativity, is what made the music of this era seem so provocative at the time.
Whether you want to listen to the music of these composers just to feel inspired, get into the Renaissance mood, or you actually want to play the pieces, here are some of the top composers of the era. Where possible, I’ve included tabs for the music too.
Much of this type of classical music was vocal, although a lot of it was also composed for instruments like the violin, lute, flute, and harpsichord. But a lot of this music has been transcribed for the guitar, thankfully for us.
Gillaume Dufay (1397?-1474)
Gillaume Dufay, a.k.a Gillaume Du Fay or Du Fayt, a French composer, composed many pieces during his time and in various different styles (motets, chansons-both French and Italian, masses, and mass sections). It’s thought that he may have been the creator of the fauxbourdon technique which is resonance of the third and sixth notes of the scale.
He composed for the church, for celebrations, and for commemorations of events, whether religious or secular. He was employed by many people, so he had quite the career.
If you can read sheet music, try these eight chansons for three guitars with your friends or use them to practice.
Here are tabs for his Salve Regina.
Orlande de Lassus (1530-1594)
Also known as Orlando di Lassos and Roland De Lassus, he was a Flemish composer with works so popular and prolific, they made up three fifths of the music in print in the late Renaissance era. It’s said that he had a voice so beautiful as a child, that he was kidnapped to perform with three different choirs. We don’t know if there’s any truth to the kidnapping allegations, however. What we do know is that he was knighted (knighthood of the Golden Spur) and that he composed motets, French chansons, German lieder, and madrigals.
Here are the tabs for Come Falda Di Neve.
Josquin des Prez (1450-1521)
Josquin des Prez, also spelled Desprez, des Prés, or Després, was a French-Flemmish composer and worked largely as a singer for various churches. He was called “master of the notes” by Martin Luther. He composed masses, chansons, and motets. His music is a blend of what was traditional at the time with new techniques that would become common place eventually.
Here are the tabs for Mille Regretz, transcribed for guitar.
William Byrd (1539/40-1623)
An English composer, William Byrd was an organist. He was a pupil of Thomas Tallis, another Renaissance composer. Queen Elizabeth I actually gave the two of them a monopoly on printing, publishing and importing music in 1575. He worked in the church as an organist and a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He composed English madrigals, masses, and motets as well as music for various instruments including the organ and virginal for the church and secularly.
Here are the tabs to Pavan to the Earl of Salisbury.
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)
An English composer, Thomas Tallis made music under the patronage of many of the English monarchs, including Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary Tudor. As previously mentioned, he once held a monopoly on polyphonic music along with his student, William Byrd.
As a pioneer of this type of English music, he is one of the most important English composers in history. Many of the techniques he used in his music became common place in the later eras. His music crossed over many styles and was considered true creative exploration.
Here are the tabs for If Ye Love Me.
Giovanni Gabrieli (1556?-1612)
Giovanni Gabrieli was a very influential Italian composer. He made use of improvisation and ornamentation, things that were unheard of in the previous period. He composed motets, madrigals, canzonas, toccatas, fugues, and sonatas, both for the church and secularly. From 15775 to 1579 he served under Orlande de Lassus. Some of his music crossed over from Renaissance to Baroque as the Baroque period began in the last decade and a bit of his life.
Here are the tabs for O Magnum Mysterium.
Johannes Ockeghem (1410?-1497)
Johannes Ockeghem a.k.a Jean de Okeghem was a composer and singer from the Netherlands, but spent most of his career working in the French court. There, from 1450, he served under three kings, Charles VII, Louise XI, and Charles VIII. He held three titles, the premier chapellain, treasurer of the Abbey of St. Martin, and Maistre de la chapelle de chant du roy. He was so popular and talented that at his death, many composed laments, including Josquin de Prez. Johannes Ockeghem composed masses, motets, and chansons.
I couldn’t find any free tabs, but there is some sheet music to buy for Gaudeamus Igitur.
John Dowland (1536?-1626)
John Downland was an English composer and lutenist. We don’t know much about his early life. But of his professional career, we know he served in the French court under Sir Henry Cobham, an ambassador, and Sir Edward Stafford. After failing to secure employment in the English court due to being catholic, according to him anyway, (the English court at the time was protestant), he worked for King Christian IV in his court in Denmark.
He still published music in London however, which got him dismissed from the Danish court due to his frequent travels to London. He finally got his wish and served King James I in the English court in 1612 until his death.
He composed 88 pieces for the lute. His First Book of Songs is considered one of the most important in the history of lute music. He mostly composed traditional lute music as well as lute accompanied by other instruments.
Here are the tabs for Tarletons Resurrection.
Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543)
Francesco da Milano is an Italian composer and lutenist. His musical career consisted mainly of serving popes and cardinals in Rome including Paul III, Leo X, and Clement VII. During his life, his music wasn’t widely published, but after his death, his music was published well into the 17th century. He composed fantasias, ricercari, and transcribed vocal pieces into tablature for lutes.
Here are the tabs for Fantaisie 31.
Thomas Campion (1567-1620)
An English composer and lutenist, Thomas Campion wore many other hats too, including that of a poet, doctor, and lawyer. His creative work consists of poetry put to music. I suppose that would be like the songs of today. One of the things that is most notable about his musical techniques, is that he worked in major and minor keys and not the old modal system that was more popular back then.
Here are the tabs for Never Weather-Beaten Sails.
Pierre de La Rue (1452-1518)
Pierre, a.k.a Perchon, Pierchon, or Pierson de La Rue was a Flemish composer. He worked as a singer and composer in the royal courts of Spain, England, as well as in the Ste Gudule cathedral in Brussels. He also worked in a few other cities, including the mystery city, St Ode. It’s a mystery as no one in the modern world knows where it was, just that it’s marked in the epitaph on his tomb.
He composed chansons, motets, masses, lamentations, and Magnificats. Although his music is somewhat similar to Josquin des Prez, his music is set apart by his use of lower vocal tones and use of the chromatic scale. All in all, his music was some of the most diverse at the time.
I was unable to find guitar tabs for his music, but if you can read sheet music and play it on your guitar, here is Requiem.
Francis Cutting (1550-1603)
The English lutenist and composer, Francis Cutting, is a man of mystery. Not much is known about his life. He’s known mostly by his music that made it to print. 11 of his works appear in the 1596 book New Booke of Tablature by Barnley’s. His name is also the only one printed in full. So he must have enjoyed some popularity during his lifetime.
Here are the tabs for Packington’s Pound.
Vincenzo Capirola (1474-1548)
Vincenzo Capirola was an English lutenist, composer, and teacher. He released a book on lute composing referred to as the Capirola Lutebook which was copied out by one of his students. It not only contains many of his compositions, but transcriptions of some of the popular songs back then. He played in various parts of Italy and took on students to share his knowledge with.
Here are the tabs to Padoana.
Anthony Holborn (1545-1602)
English lutenist and composer Anthony Holborn only enjoyed fame in his last decade or so of his life. After 1590, he had the bulk of his work published and played, and even a dedication (I Saw My Lady Weepe), by John Dowland. It appears he was in the employ of Sir Robert Cecil, and before him, Lady Pembroke. He also worked in the court of Elizabeth I. He had 150 works attributed to his name. He composed for the lute, viol consort, bandora, and mixed consort.
Daniel Bacheler (1572-1619)
Daniel Bacheler was an English lutenist and composer considered to be John Dowland’s equal. He spent most of his career working for important people like the English secretary of state, Francis Walsingham, and the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereaux. He later traveled with the late Earl’s wife to the court of Queen Anne where he did various jobs for the court while still composing music. During his service under the Earl, one of his pieces was played for Queen Elizabeth I. During his career, he composed over 50 pieces.
Here is the sheet music for a few of his most well-known pieces.
There you have it. 15 Renaissace composers to inspire you. Whether it’s by the number of works under their name, who they served under, or the kind of music they made. Maybe it’s the extra work they did while being musicians, the techniques they pioneered or how long they had to wait for their claim to fame.
These were some of the greatest musicians of the time. This list is by no means all the notable composers of that time, but these few can get you started if you’d like a foray into Renaissance music.
May you be inspired to create, push the boundaries of music in a way that’s unique to you, or simply play more.