Rise of Renaissance Polyphony: Dufay, des Prez & Palestrina

While not a new concept, polyphony underwent great development during the Renaissance period. In this lesson, learn how music evolved texturally, and how three great composers of the time period influenced this development.

What Is Polyphony?

Hey! I like your shirt! I bet it goes really well with your pants, even though they might be a different color or material. Isn’t it nice how we have choices of colors and materials to wear? This is very similar to the concept of polyphony. Polyphony is when two or more independent melodies are played at the same time. So, rather than everyone singing the same thing, there is harmony. For example, if you and I are singing the same song, we might have different parts, but the combination of our rhythms and pitches play off one another to create some beautiful, intertwining music, like this.

During the Renaissance period of music, roughly 1450-1600, polyphony was widely used. This was in contrast to previous styles of music in the Middle Ages, which often consisted of a single line of music sung by all with little variation. That would be like if we all had to wear black unitards – how boring! Renaissance composers, such as Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, opted for the choice of color and texture, so polyphony was one of the most common musical textures heard at the time.

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Polyphony in the Renaissance

Though polyphony was not a new idea in the Renaissance period, composers of the period made some important developments. This new focus on polyphony was spurred partly from the period’s concentration on ancient Greek and Roman culture, where music was valued as an emotionally powerful entity, able to move the soul. Certain religious leaders thought this would be an excellent tool to drive home the glory of God, as opposed to the typical music of the time. More conservative leaders weren’t so convinced and made sure the polyphony being written was what they deemed appropriate. These events turned out to be some of the most significant factors in the future of polyphonic music, stimulating composers to create new techniques and ideas that would influence composers of future generations.

Stylistic Changes in Polyphony

At the beginning of the period, composers began writing music that specifically differentiated themselves from medieval composers. Much of this stylistic change involved using different types of polyphony than were previously popular. The more modern composers chose to emphasize equal importance of the voices, instead of focusing on a single voice with accompanying parts. There was diverse melodic and rhythmic material for each part, four-part texture by writing for additional vocal parts and use of musical imitation in new ways.

Four Equal Voices

Let’s examine these ideas more closely. We’ll start with the advancements made that are related to singing. The Renaissance is considered the ‘golden era of singing,’ so many of the developments were made in choral pieces. First of all, composers added multiple vocal parts, and the typical arrangement had four vocal parts. This consisted of two female singing parts called soprano and alto and two male singing parts called the tenor and bass.

Five-part and six-part arrangements also became common as the period progressed. These new ranges and additional parts allowed for more harmony. While this may seem simple and insignificant, it made quite an impact in moving music from open-sounding, chant-like harmony to richer, fuller and more expressive music capable of achieving the inspirational movement described in the Greek and Roman texts.

Additionally, the equal importance of all voices made for more variety and layering, or textural possibilities, as opposed to the single important line. This led to greater change in the amount of voices heard at one time, including the switching of textures within one song. The varying of textures also gave a sort of musical special effect at times, for example, when used to emphasize important words of the mass by using all voices to make it seem larger.

Counterpoint

The independence of voices allowed for more diverse rhythm and melody to be sung at one time. So, just as you may not be wearing the same outfit as someone sitting next to you, in counterpoint, you would probably not be singing the same rhythms or pitches as the person standing next to you. One way this was achieved was through a compositional technique called counterpoint. The technique of counterpoint is to write simultaneous, interlocking melodies. In counterpoint, each melody is independent, but together, they create harmony. Music that has this quality is called contrapuntal. See if you can identify all four voice parts in this contrapuntal example. There are very specific rules on what notes can be used, when and how, but they’re quite complicated and not really worth learning unless you plan to write music in this style.

Imitative Polyphony

Lastly, the use of musical imitation was widely used in many ways. Imitative polyphony refers to the use of echoed entrances, similar to a round. This might be like when you wear a particular shirt, and then the next day, your friend is wearing the same shirt, but in a different color. It’s sort of like a round, and sounds like the following example. Listen for four different voices, all singing Ave Maria.

Composer Contributions

Though there were several composers that contributed to the shifts in polyphonic sound, there are three composers who stand out for their individual genius and style: Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Guillaume Dufay

You may recall that the French composer, Guillaume Dufay, composed in the early part of the Renaissance period. He served in the clergy as a canon where he wrote sacred and secular music. Dufay’s compositions exemplify the shifts in transitioning away from late medieval and into early Renaissance polyphony. His compositions were considered unique in that they blended old ideas with the new idea of counterpoint. This was evident early in his career with his motet, Nuper rosarum flores. Written in 1436 for the new Florentine cathedral, the motet combines traditional rhythmic ideas with more modern counterpoint.

Dufay was also known for his four-part, contrapuntal masses, particularly because some of them integrated secular themes into the sacred mass. One of his most famous pieces, Se La Face Ay Pale, is about unrequited love, yet was used for the setting of a contrapuntal mass. It may be one of the earliest examples of a mass based on a secular theme.

Josquin Des Prez

A composer who demonstrated the mid Renaissance polyphony style was Josquin des Prez. Josquin was considered a master of church music by many, including Martin Luther, who proclaimed him as ‘the master of notes.’ The Flemish composer was the king of imitative polyphony and textural variation. One of his most famous motets, Ave Maria, gratia plena, also uses imitation in paired voices, where pairs echo instead of individuals, as is heard here. Also in Ave Maria, Josquin used short musical ideas, rather than the longer, medieval-style musical ideas to make room for more contrapuntal combinations of melody and harmony.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Near the end of Renaissance period, the Italian composer, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, brought even greater use of thick textures and diverse melodies and harmonies. Though similar in technique, Palestrina approached his compositions a bit differently than both Josquin and Dufay. In a more conservative approach, Palestrina strayed from the imitative style so that the words of the mass could be better understood. He also used texture in this way, dividing a slightly larger six-part choir into small groups, which only sang together for particularly significant phrases.

However, Palestrina’s greatest influence on future composers may have been his ability to write counterpoint. He was masterful in creating beauty, while maintaining strict adherence to the rules of counterpoint. In doing this, he epitomized the smooth style of polyphony that became synonymous with Renaissance music. The intertwining melodies flow effortlessly, while avoiding inharmonious instances that were considered faux pas.

Lesson Summary

In all, the stylistic changes made in polyphony during the Renaissance enabled composers to experiment musically, while reflecting their beliefs. Some chose to embrace the Greek and Roman revival of soul-reaching music by using counterpoint and imitation to fill the church with sonority. Others chose to keep it conservative and used texture to emphasize significant text. The departure from earlier forms of polyphony brought diverse uses, which would inspire composers for generations to come.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Acknowledge some of the changes to polyphony during the Renaissance
  • Examine the use of four equal voices and counterpoint
  • Exchange ideas about the individual influences that Dufay, Des Prez and Palestrina had on polyphony
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