Church Music 4: Burgandy etc, 1445-1600

During a period of just over 150 years, the radical music of Burgundy which set off a period of explosive change throughout Europe became the conservative music of imperial Spain and Reformation England. By 1450 the dense network of religious administration generated by a centralising Church (in spite of nationalist sentiment in France and England), the creation of surplus wealth based on expanding trade, the intellectual energy of the Renaissance, first in Italy and then in France and Burgundy, and the development of music notation printing, created a market in church composition, based on the stable elements of the Mass and monastic offices, which reached as far North as Norway and as far east as Poland.

Dufay (1397-1474) was the first major Burgundian composer and the last major composer before music printing. His reputation rested on his tight control of form and structure, his introduction of melody (largely borrowed from the secular) as an integral element of sacred works and, almost certainly, works on music theory which have not survived.

Ockeghem (c1415-1497) was massively influential in spite of his small output. It is difficult to assign dates to his work but it is reasonable to surmise that his early works featured a 'head motif' at the beginning of Mass movements but that he later moved towards the 'Parody Mass' technique' where the foundation of the composition is a complete (usually secular) song text but his greatest musical contribution was his pioneering of original composition as the basis for religious texts and his expansion of the role of rhythmic variation and the importance of expressiveness, not least in the bass line which had until then been confined to the Cantus Firmus.

Obrecht (1457-1505) was the most famous composer of Masses at the end of the 15th Century. He extended musical lines ever longer but also began to 'chop up' those lines into short motifs which he played upon; but he steadily moved away from Ockeghem's traditional forms and expanded the number of voices in his works from three to seven; but fashion moved from the complex of his period to the renewed simplicity of Josquin.

Josquin Des Prez (c1450-1521) is the most important composer between Dufay and Palestrina, exemplifying the zenith of Renaissance polyphony. He combined a previously unparalleled commitment to melody with a contemporary obsession with solving musico/mathematical problems (cf Dunstaple), and so he varies from the musically austere to the decorative, aided by the fusion of Northern European styles with colourful Italian Renaissance sources and techniques, so that Burgundian polyphony and Italian folk music created a new synthesis which led to the new, simplified, international standard of Lassus and Palestrina. He moved from the Cantus Firmus motif melody solely in the base with other parts moving freely, to all parts moving freely, sometimes using the parody mass technique, sometimes using his own motif phrase; he was particularly fond of the canon which came to play a great part in baroque music.

By the end of the 15th Century there was a recognisable European musical milieu and market, still based on the Mass and the monastic offices; but this was reinforced by the dynastic accident of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V being ruler of the musically developed 'low Countries', including part of Burgundy, and the King of Spain. The flowering of Spanish polyphony began with Morales (1500-1553) who is best known for his rhythmic complexity; his work spanned the very traditional Gregorian chant and very new five-voice arrangements; and he became influential in Latin American Christian music.

Of all the Spanish composers, Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) was both the most individualistic and the least influential but his Battle Mass is a remarkable piece of writing which reflects his highly individualistic style and no survey of the period is complete without it.

Of all the Spanish composers, the most lauded in his time was Victoria (1548-1611) but, because he marked the zenith of a musical trend which then gave way to radical new forms, he represents the culmination of polyphony but had very little influence on what came after. With Palestrina and Lassus, he was a leading composer of the post Tridentine Counter Reformation but, in musical terms, that movement was short-lived and gave way to early Baroque. His music is intensely and personally spiritual, a departure from the complex workings of earlier polyphony.

Although renaissance polyphony oscillated in style between the conservative and simple and the radical and complex, there is a definite movement away from formalist structures and a small repertoire of melodies and motifs to a more complex harmonic structure, a more varied rhythmic strategy and a much richer melodic range, including an increased emphasis on original composition. But the development of polyphony over 300 years was to leave only anachronistic vestiges as the wave of Baroque music swept over Europe.

Further Listening:

Dufay: Music for Saint James The Greater, Binchois Consort, Hyperion CDA 66997

Josquin: Missa La Sol Fa Re Mi, Capella Antiqua Munchen, Seon SBK 60362

Victoria: Sacred Works, Ensemble Plus Ultra, Archiv 477 9747

KC XI/12

Track List


1.  The Virgin and the Temple 447 773-2 Archiv

Track 8: Gabriel archangelus (4’28)

2. Missa de St Antony of Padua CDA66854 Hyperion

Track 3: Gloria (8’06)


1.  Missa Caput, Naxos, 8.554297

Track 4: L’homme arme (Mode 7) (0.39)

Track 5: Kyrie (2’19)

Track 6: Gloria (5’14)

2.  Missa Caput, ASV CD GAU 186

Track 8: Kyrie (3’05)


Missa Caput, Naxos, 8.553210

Track 3: Kyrie (4’38)


Motets, Archiv,463 473-2

Track 8: Sancta dei genitrix (2’13)

Missa ‘la sol fa re mi’ Sony SBK60362

Track 4: Sanctus (5’45)

Track 5: Agnus (3’49)

Missa L’homme arme, Naxos, 8.553428

Track 3: Kyrie (4’22)


Signum SIGCD019

Missa L’homme arme,

Track 3, Kyrie (3’30)


Hyperion, CDA67075

Missa de la batalla escoutez

Track 4: Credo (8’25)


Decca, 433 914-2

Misa de Requiem en 6 partes,

Track 8: Libera me (9’28)