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The rise of printed media during the Renaissance period helped instrumental music move to the forefront of musical development. In this lesson, learn about William Byrd and Giovanni Gabrieli, two significant instrumental composers of the time.

Rise of Instrumental Music

Instrumental music has been around for what seems like forever. Even Ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures immortalized instrumental music in their art. So why does it seem that we know so much more about vocal music than instrumental music from the medieval and Renaissance periods? In two words, music notation.

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Music notation is the symbolic representation of musical pitches and rhythms, and having written music makes it a lot easier to remember what to play. Vocal music was written down first, and it took a little while for the instrumental genre to catch up. In the medieval and Renaissance periods, instrumental musicians usually played from memory or improvised. So even though it looks like there was a big rise in the instrumental music genre during the 1500s, it was really just better documented. This is not to say that it wasn’t important, though.The advancements made in printing and music notation during the Renaissance allowed more instrumental music to be distributed throughout the educated public class, and this created more demand for the genre. As instrumental music notation improved, composers began writing specifically for instruments.

William Byrd

One remarkable instrumental composer was William Byrd (c.1540-1623). Byrd was somewhat of an anomaly for his time. Like the rest of the continent, England was having its own internal religious wars, and though the Protestants won with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I, Byrd remained staunchly Catholic.Strangely, in a time of such religious persecution, Byrd was hired to serve Queen Elizabeth as a court composer and organist. He was really just that good.

Part of what made him special was his versatility. He wrote many motets, dance pieces and consorts, which were instrumental pieces for a small group of musicians. He also wrote sacred Latin masses, which were probably only performed at secret Catholic prayer services.Along with these, Byrd is recognized for composing and printing some of the first significant keyboard music.

Keyboard instruments were just starting to become available, such as the organ and the virginal. Also, Byrd was savvy enough to get a printing license, and he printed many of his keyboard pieces. The virginal was played by amateurs, so Byrd’s keyboard music was highly utilized by the public.

Giovanni Gabrieli

Another noteworthy composer was Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1553-1612).

Gabrieli was composing around the same time as Byrd but held a different style. Gabrieli was Italian and was known for being a composer of the High Renaissance Venetian school of musical thought. Like Byrd, Gabrieli was a church organist. But the similarities stop there.

Gabrieli continued serving the church as principal composer, where he wrote both vocal and instrumental sacred music.While he wasn’t as well known as other Renaissance composers, he made two very important musical developments. First was the use of changing volume in a song. Written in 1597, his piece Sonata pian’ e forte was an instrumental piece written with soft and loud dynamics.

It’s very possible that this wasn’t the first time this was ever done, but it’s the first documented use. Gabrieli was also one of the first composers to specify instruments in his compositions.Gabrieli was also a master of the Venetian polychoral style. In this style, a choir is physically separated into two smaller choirs, which sing in alternation, kind of like an echo. It was a style made to accommodate the architecture of the St. Mark’s Basilica, where he was the head composer. Modern conducting hadn’t been developed yet, so it was difficult for the musicians to get the timing just right.

Gabrieli did not invent the style, but he made significant developments, including the addition of instruments into the mix. He was particularly fond of the brass instruments of the time, like cornets and trombones, and incorporated them into several pieces.Later in his career, Gabrieli added sections of solely instrumental music into his compositions, so instead of instruments just accompanying singers, there would be a section purely for instruments.

This was influential to future musical structure and organization.

Lesson Summary

While William Byrd and Giovanni Gabrieli were not the superstar composers of the Renaissance period, they took musical strides that led to momentous musical transition. Future composers throughout the European continent were influenced by Byrd’s keyboard music and Gabrieli’s use of instruments and volume change in church music.

Their innovations and creativity pushed instrumental music to the forefront of compositional interest and experimentation, which would flourish in the Baroque period.

Learning Outcomes

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

  • Define music notation
  • Explain how a greater amount of instrumental music came to be distributed during the Renaissance
  • Identify the importance of William Byrd and his printed keyboard music
  • Describe Giovanni Gabrieli’s musical developments regarding volume and instruments

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