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The History of Early Music

“Early music” refers to western European music created until the mid 18th century. It includes the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque period. Although the chronological boundaries of these periods are not clearly defined, the end of “Early music” and the beginning of the “Classical music” period is marked by J. S. Bach’s death, in 1750. Other researchers consider the Baroque to be a separate period and define “Early music” as western European music created until 1600.


The Middle Ages

The definition of the chronological boundaries of the Middle Ages is extremely difficult. The beginning of this period can be placed around the 6th century, when Pope Gregory I reformed Roman rite and tried to collect and classify liturgies. Other scholars place the beginning of the Middle Ages in the 9th century, the date of the first written music record, the “Musica Enchiriadis”, an anonymous music treatise from Northern France. The end of the Middle Ages is easier to define and it is placed around the 15th century when the Renaissance began.

The music created in the Middle Ages can be distinguished into three main categories:

  •  The Notre Dame period: 1163 until mid 13th century
  • The Ars Antiqua period: 1240 - 50 until 1310 - 20
  • The Ars Nova period: 1320 until 1380


The Notre Dame Period

The Notre Dame period coincides with the erection of the homonymous church in Paris, from 1163 until the mid 13th century, and constitutes the first significant standing point in the history of polyphony. The compositions are still anonymous. However, the English scholar Anonymous IV refers to the names of Leonin (1180) and Perotin (1200), with the late stated as the most important composer of this period.



The Ars Antiqua Period

The Notre Dame period was followed by the Ars Antiqua period, which spans from 1240-50 until 1310-20. There are small differences between the two periods mainly because they produced the same types of compositions. Petrus de Cruce is considered as the main representative of the Ars Antiqua.


The Ars Nova Period

The Ars Nova period lasted from 1320 until 1380 and was marked by significant developments. The period was named after the title of the “Ars Nova” treatise by Philippe de Vitry (1322). Philippe de Vitry and Guillaume de Machaut are the main representatives of this period.


The Renaissance

The Renaissance period is placed in the 15th and 16th century. Just like in the Middle Ages, there are no specific chronological boundaries for this period. Many scholars place its beginning around 1420 with Guillaume Dufay and the generalization of the use of resonates in third and sixth interval, while others place it around 1500 with Josquin and the humanitarian manipulation of text, according to the Renaissance general ideals.

During the 15th and 16th century, periods marked by French - Flemish vocal polyphony, there is a continuous evolution in composition techniques and music perception. Polyphonic music is still the centre of interest, with Orlando di Lasso and Giovani Pierluigi da Palestrina driving it to its peak. At the same time, instrumental music develops a relevant autonomy and constitutes a counter-weight for the dominant vocal music.

The centre of creativity moves from to the French - Flemish area, Burgundy and , with the late gaining importance during the 16th century.

The Renaissance period can be separated into five main periods:

  • 1st  period: 1420 - 1460. Main representatives: Gilles Binchois (1400 - 1460), Guillaume Dufay (1400 - 1474 approx.)
  • 2nd period: 1460 - 1490. Main representative: Joh. Ockeghem (1420 - 1495) and theorist Ramon de Parena (1440 - 1491)
  • 3rd period: 1490 - 1520. Main representatives: Jacob Obrecht (1450 - 1505) and Josquin Desprez (1450 - 1521)
  • 4th period: 1520 - 1560. Main representatives: Nicolas Gombert (1500 - 1560 approx.), Jacobus Clemens non Papa (approx. 1512 - 1555/6), Adrian Willaert (1480 - 1562 approx.)
  • 5th period: 1560 - 1600. Main representative: Orlando di Lasso (1532 - 1594)



The first period of French – Flemish vocal music started in 1420 and lasted until 1460. The change from the late French era to the new music of the Renaissance was accomplished by John Dunstable (1380 - 1453 approx.) in and Guillaume Dufay (1400 - 1474 approx.) in the French – Flemish regions. The structural element of composition is imitation and the dominant type is the French and Burgundy “chanson”. The most significant representative of this type of music was Gilles Binchois (1400 - 1460). Burgundy had become a new political and cultural center. 



The second period of French – Flemish vocal music lasted from 1460 until 1490. The types of composition were similar to those of the previous period with the only difference being that the liturgy is now performed by four voices. The period’s main composer is J. Ockeghem (1420 - 1495).



The third period extends from 1490 until 1520. Compositions aimed for clarity, simplicity and transparency. The most significant composer of this period was Josquin Desprez (1450), who wrote mainly liturgies, motets and chansons and by preserving the purity and transparency of the form attributed the power of expression to the text. The first published works also originate in this period, mainly consisting of lute and pipe - organ tablatures.



The forth period of the French – Flemish vocal music started in 1520 and lasted until 1560. New types emerge, sound volume increases and the use of five or six voices is now the general practice. The structural element of composition is still imitation. The most significant representatives of this period are Nicolas Gombert (1500 - 1560 approx.), Jacobus Clemens non Papa (approx. 1512 - 1555/6) and Adrian Willaert (1480 - 1562 approx.).



The last period began in 1560 and ended in 1600, thus ending the Renaissance period. French – Flemish polyphonic music reached its peak, especially due to the works of Orlando di Lasso (1532 - 1594). Music now serves text expression and reproduces its emotional content. Music creation in this period is marked by the influence of the Ecumenical Council of Trent. The anti – reform spirit of the time reflects in the several redemption psalms and grandiose motets based on biblical texts.


The School of Rome – Palestrina

The School of Rome that emerged in Papal Rome realized the demands of the Church set in the anti-reform Council of Trent. The Council allowed polyphonic music to be preformed in church and demanded the reform of the Gregorian part and the enhancement of its part.

Palestrina is the main representative of the School of Rome and his work is considered to be the best of what vocal polyphonic music had to offer.


 The Baroque

The period between 1600 and 1750 is the Baroque and constitutes, in terms of music style, is a single period in music history. Its chronological boundaries, contrary to the previous two periods of early music, are clearly defined because of the change in style that occurred in 1600 due to the appearance of the opera, the main form of Baroque music. For the first time, two kinds of styles coexist as polyphony is still used.

The change in style near the end of this period, around 1750, is less clear. New tendencies like simplicity, sentimentality and naturalness, characteristics of the Classical period, appear for the first time in 1730 and lead to a prominence of classicism from 1780. However, the end of the Baroque period is considered to be the year of death of Baroque’s greatest composer, J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750).

The opera, Baroque’s main music style, appeared around 1600 in Florence and evolved throughout its first period. The vast diffusion of the opera was mainly due to the foundation of the first opera house in Venice in 1637. The first opera known to us was Daphne (1598) written by Rinuccini and orchestrated by Jacopo Peri.

held the leading part in the evolution of operas by establishing many schools on theatrical music that had an immediate effect on other European countries. The most significant schools created were:

  • The Venetian Opera School: The main representatives of the venetian opera, besides Monteverdi, were Pier Francesco Caletti - Brunni, also known as Cavalli, and Antonio Cesti.
  • The Opera School of Rome: In this school the religious opera, the oratorio and opera buffa (comedy opera) were independently created.
  • The Napolitano Opera School: The school promoted rich and carefully orchestrated operas. Its major composer was Francesco Provenzale.

Baroque music was considered to be harmonically confused, full of contradictions, melodically difficult, unnatural and clumsy until the 19th century when it was reassessed.