The Correlation of Music and Political Fragmentation During the Renaissance
Different periods in history are marked, characterized and distinguished from each other by significant developments in terms of their intellectual, political, economic, social and artistic underpinnings. In Western thought, what we usually call as the Renaissance period, refers to a particular period and place in history, that is, 16th Century Italy. Jacob Burckhardt, offers this view and years later, literary and art critics refer to this view as the orthodox view about the renaissance.
Burckhardt’s characterizations of the Renaissance period emphasize the dominant themes of the period which sets it apart from its predecessor. “He described the achievement of this period in the arts, literature, and scholarship, and stressed such general characteristics as individualism, the revival of antiquity, and the discovery of the world and of man” (Kristeller, 1990, p. 20). In this particular period, artists and thinkers put premium on the human being, the individual and the exaltation of human freedom in thought and action. For the aforementioned reasons, the renaissance period is characterized as a period of enlightenment: the triumph of reason over blind dogmatism. Although this characterization of the renaissance in the context of literature and the arts is significant in the context of music, especially in terms of its theory and evolution, one must be careful with the nuances that it entails. For one, the renaissance period in music is not as clear-cut as the renaissance period in literature and the arts. Second, renaissance music is not restricted to Italy but it sprung and flourished in Europe in general. With these delicate distinctions in mind, it is possible to arrive at a coherent picture of renaissance music and its proper place in its theory and evolution.
Music, as an art form, is a reflection of the artist’s intellectual, political, social, artistic and cultural contexts. An analysis of the development of Renaissance music thereby should take into account these aforementioned factors. In lieu of this, this paper is concerned with the implications of the evolution of Renaissance music in relation to its political, social, and cultural context.
The varied composition of Renaissance performance groups was generally characterized by works created in terms of specific instrumental or vocal colors (Karp, 1983, p. 44). In order to obtain such an effect, the Renaissance composer thereby divided his group in order to obtain the contrast of texture within a particular musical piece. According to Karp (1983), this is evident in the employment of various groups in polychoral combinations which enabled the contrast of color within the musical pieces (p. 144). Despite such a division, Renaissance music was governed by an even pulse which proceeded at a moderate pace. The prevalence of this musical style is evident in the madrigal and motet. For the purpose of showing the correlation between the development of musical style and political fragmentation, I will take into account the development of the madrigal.
The madrigal stands as the most prominent musical style from the 1530’s up to the 1600’s. The madrigal stands as an example of the convergence of the different musical forms. The emergence of the madrigal stands in direct contrast to the popular music during that period. An example of this is evident in the objection of the Church against the use of secular melodies in the sacred music along with the use of elaborate polyphony that led to the incomprehensibility of words in the liturgy (Vaubel, 2005, p.280). Such an opposition can be seen as a result of the political fragmentation which occurred in Italy and Germany during the 1600’s.
Political fragmentation in Italy and Germany enabled the rise of music in several ways. According to Vaubel (2005) this may be traced to the “increase in demand of musical competition and performance” (p. 280). Increase in demand can be traced to the competition amongst the princes for the composers and musicians. This enabled more freedom of innovation. The Church’s opposition against polyphonic choral compositions led the musicians and composers to gain novelty and prestige through the competition enabled by the Baroque princes. In the fragmented political society, competition led to numerous independent experiments. Competition, in this sense, led to the discovery procedure of the different musical forms that were fully developed during the Baroque period. This discovery procedure can be seen as enabling another aspect of dynamic competition within the aforementioned society since the diversity of fragmented worlds enabled the comparison of the different musical styles and compositions during this period. It is important to note that such a comparison was further enabled by the development of musical theory during this period.
Within this context, the evolution and development of Renaissance music may thereby be traced and understood within the context of the cultural and political conditions within Italy and Germany during that period. Development of musical styles may be seen as a result of the competition amongst the competing courts and churches for the different musical compositions. Music in those days may be seen as a public rather than private good. It was only through the development of the musical notation that music became a private good. Such a shift led to the commodification of music since the compositions of well-known composers began to enable the rise of both the income of prestige of individuals within this society. The evolution of Renaissance musical forms may thereby be seen as the initial beginning of the commodification of musical forms.
Karp, T. (1983). Dictionary of Music. Np: Northwestern U.P.
Kristeller, P. (1990). Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays. Princeton: Princeton U. P.
Vaubel. R. (2005). “The Role of Competition in the Rise of Baroque and Renaissance Music.” Journal of Cultural Economics, 29: 277-297.