How Historical Choral Music Flourished During The Renaissance

Choral music has a long history, first coming to our attention with the discovery of the notated Delphic Hymns from Ancient Greece, along with several other examples from old Greece and Rome. The choral tradition continued into the Medieval Period where Gregorian chants led to multi-part arrangements of sacred English music, moving into the Renaissance Period, at which time most of the notated music was in choral form. The arrangements of this era, though mostly a cappella, or sung without accompaniment, are still utilized and performed today and is what the current generation most readily identifies as choir music.

During the Renaissance, polyphony, or the use of two or more voices, became more complex and the vocal range and abilities followed suit. While initially heard in sacred music, such as mass or motets, choral arrangements later began to include secular music, with the most well known being sung by madrigal singers.

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The motet was polyphonic music to be used in any religious service, not conforming to a structured ceremony. It usually contains four or five written vocal parts, abandoning the specific beat of the chants and creating a more fluid rhythm with the multiple voices singing independent of one another.

A mass, though similar to a motet by including several vocal parts and written for religious ceremony, followed a strict order, going along with a Catholic service. Every section of the religious celebration had a different type of song that accompanied it, starting with Kyrie, then Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and ending with Agnus Dei.

A style of secular a cappella vocal music during the Renaissance was the madrigal. Usually having between three and six voices, this form of song originally delivered Italian poetry, though it later spread to England and Germany. Madrigal performances were most likely to be heard at private parties or residences and occasionally as an addition to a larger choral production. As more advanced singers began entertaining, the compositions became more dramatic and difficult until the small groups gave way to the powerful soloists singing their arias.

As choral music progressed, the addition of instrumentation brightened and intensified the sounds of many voices. The Baroque period ushered in the organ accompaniment and the Lutheran church began performing cantatas with vocals and instruments of more than one movement. This style is still prevalent in churches today and is especially recognized during celebratory periods, such as Easter and Christmas. While most of the madrigal singing is done at festivals or in schools, the modern choir is alive and well in churches, school choruses, children's choirs, local groups and the military.

Copyright Mary Peters 2007