Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Discovering the Renaissance

I have loved Medieval and Renaissance music since I first heard it in a music history class. The soaring melodies written by composers like Hildegarde of Bingen or Josquin des Prez have a depth and beauty that make this music far more than a historical curiosity. This passionate, gorgeous music is well worth exploring for its own sake. Here are three Medieval or Renaissance composers I'd recommend to anyone who's interested in listening to early music.

1. Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez was one of the greatest composers of the High Renaissance. His music was so wildly popular at the time that unscrupulous printers often put his name on works he didn't write to sell more copies. Very little is known about his personal life, but he wrote hundreds of compositions, including polyphonic (and sometimes homophonic) motets, chansons, and masses. His music is deeply expressive, from the haunting "Milles Regretz" to the light and silly (but lovely) "El Grillo." Josquin is a good composer to start listening to if you're interested in Renaissance music; his music is brilliant, and the chansons in particular are very approachable.

2. Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen was a composer, writer, philosopher, and Christian mystic who lived in the middle ages. She was a Benedictine abbess who eventually founded two independent communities for her fellow nuns, and some parts of the Catholic church recognize her as a saint. Hildegard wrote one of the first surviving musical morality plays, Ordo Virtutum, as well as over sixty other surviving compositions. All her music is monophonic, which means it only has one melodic line, as in Gregorian chants. Her melodies are highly melismatic, which means that each syllable in a line of text is decorated with beautiful and complex melodies. Unlike most Medieval composers, Hildegard paid close attention to the relationship between her music and the text. Her music is so beautiful that it's still popular today, with many wonderful recordings available (One of my favorites is Voice of the Blood).


3. Carlo Gesualdo

Gesualdo was the Prince of Venosa and a brilliant composer with a deeply troubled background that made him as notorious as he was admired. He caught his first wife in bed with her lover when he returned from a hunting trip early, then he murdered them both. Fearing retaliation from the relatives of his murder victims, Gesualdo fled to Ferrara, where he was inspired by the concerto delle donne, a trio of virtuoso female singers. In the end he returned to his castle, where he lived the rest of his life in comparative isolation. He surrounded himself with talented musicians and wrote highly experimental, unusually chromatic music with intensive word painting. His painfully expressive madrigals suggest that he spent his life tortured by guilt and deeply depressed. While Gesualdo's work might not be as approachable as that of Hildegard or Josquin, it's passionate, expressive, and fascinating. 

I'd encourage all classical music lovers to explore Medieval and Renaissance music. While it's easy to stay within our comfort zones, it's important to remember that there are centuries of music from before J.S. Bach was born. Discovering music from different time periods can be exciting and powerful, and it's a testament to the human mind that so much ancient music still speaks to us today.


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