The renaissance – meaning rebirth – was the Italian idea that they were reviving old forgotten wisdom in Latin texts by Roman philosophers and historians of the first century B.C., notably Cicero, Livy and Seneca. Excited by this new old learning, they then turned their attention to the revival of ancient Greek literature, its history, oratory and theology, including the New Testament in its original Greek. They had the idea that the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in A.D. 312 was the beginning of a period of cultural darkness that led to the fall of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476, and prevailed for a millennium until they themselves came to the rescue.
Renaissance ideas spread through Italy in the second half of the 14th century and then across Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries – which is why we can’t say exactly when the renaissance began. As a consequence, the middle ages got its name: they are only ‘middle’ because renaissance writers thought of it as the gap between them and the classical antiquity they were restoring. As another consequence, 15th century Italian writers, artists and architects began to describe their own work with phrases like alle romana et alla antica (in the manner of the Romans and the ancients) and modi antichi (in the antique manner). As a third consequence, anything Italian was seen as The Best Thing Since Ancient Rome: Italian musical styles were avidly copied and one English renaissance lutenist, John Cooper, Italianised his name to … Giovanni Coprario.
The renaissance really was a cultural and musical revolution. Lute players started using bare fingers instead of quills and the lute became the most esteemed of all instruments, with the royal courts of Europe engaging lutenists just to play for them. Polyphony flourished in the guise of the madrigal. Music for the masses became popular in the form of printed song books for the wealthy – the songs of John Dowland, Thomas Campion, etc. – and song sheets sold in the street, known as broadside ballads, for everyone.
Musical notation was now much more precise, and tablature became the most popular way of writing music, spreading with the rise of literacy and the invention of the printing press. Tablature is for plucked and bowed instruments, most notably the lute. Tablature lines represent the strings of the instrument, with letters or numbers to show where the fingers should be placed and note values placed above.
Dancing and dance music – ever a popular pastime for rich and poor alike – is something we know much more about in the renaissance compared to the middle ages. We not only have a great many examples of dance music for pavans, galliards, voltas, branles, almains, and corantos, all clearly written out in tablature for specific instruments, but we also have the dance steps, too.
The inventiveness of renaissance musicians was highly prized. The fantasia or fancy became popular on the lute – a musical free-for-all with no specific form or rules which gave rise to 4 minute mini-epic-masterpieces. Both solo and consort musicians were expected to be able to make up divisions on the spot, where you take the tune and add in extra subdivided notes to create a double-speed variation (rather like an early form of improvised jazz). And, in the days well before copyright, musicians were eager to show their skill by taking a tune originally intended for one instrument and making a completely different and original arrangement on another – a practise we happily subscribe to in The Night Watch. And it didn’t matter where the tune came from: John Dowland and many others made virtuoso variations of broadside ballad tunes and popular dance tunes for the lute, and William Byrd did the same for the virginal (a renaissance keyboard).