The Renaissance has not ceased to be an age of discussion and debate among historians throughout the recent centuries. The vibrant nature of the era marks it as a most fascinating period of history. The Renaissance can be described as an age carrying the essence of “self-discovery and fulfillment, of recognition of human worth, and a dynamic outpouring of artistic activity.” This new world flourishing with art and creative optimism was also steeped in a spirit of “revolt of the Medievalists.” In an effort of “rebirth,” the previous culture of the Middle Ages was rejected, and even scorned. Foundational principles in all fields were overstepped, and old cultural norms were practically obsolete. It was an era whose humanistic philosophy greatly impacted the lens through which man viewed himself and the world.
The spirit of the Renaissance had a profound effect on every field of study and area of life; religion was certainly not excluded. The Catholic Church was brought face-to-face with modern culture, which necessitated important assessment and decision-making to determine an appropriate response. This paper will examine specifically the changes in sacred music in the Renaissance, and consider the Church’s response.
In order to understand the changes which occurred in music and which affected the Liturgy in the Renaissance period, it is necessary to give a brief sketch of music in earlier times. The first notable aspect of Renaissance music and musical thought is the pace at which it developed. This rapidity stands in contrast to all previous music history. The history of Western art music properly begins with the music of the Christian Church at the end of the ancient world (circa 400AD). This was a world in which music always served a purpose, specifically that of an inseparable part of religious ceremonies. The idea of cultivating music purely for enjoyment as an art was definitely rejected by the early Christian Church. As the Church spread, so did the music which accompanied her ceremonies, until the musical style of the Early Church is synonymous with Western Music as a whole. In the Western world, it is clear that the changes that occurred in music over time were slow and organic. For the first three Christian centuries it seems that there was “no significant evolution from a simple to a more complex musical style.” The first extraordinary development of music occurred in the late sixth and early seventh centuries with Pope St. Gregory the Great. His implementation of what became known as Gregorian Chant would be “a source and inspiration of a large proportion of all Western music up to the sixteenth century.” The Renaissance marks the next remarkable period of musical history, with unprecedented abruptness and degree of change.
Secular music did not begin to take form as truly peculiar and distinct until the Middle Ages; and the unique and diverse nature of secular music was not fully realized until the Renaissance. In the...