The compositions of the Italian composer Palestrina, and the reforms he was able to effect in Church music, may be said to mark the culmination of the early ages of Christian music. The next chapter in musical history could be said to be the birth of Renaissance music, but before going further, it will be useful to take a rapid survey of the period we are leaving behind. The great outstanding feature of musical history is the tremendous influence on music art by the Church.
In the early ages of musical history, knowledge was almost exclusively the property of the Church, and many centuries passed before musical art began to separate from the Churches influence. In music, this religious influence was stronger than in any other department of art or letters. With the institution of the Church modes, music was separated from the other concerns of life. Just as literature and science had Latin for their special language. What we might call art music had its own code of expression in the Church modes.
From the time of the earliest enactments concerning Church music, the limits within which any composition must be kept were very clearly defined. The nature of the restrictions thus placed upon composers is illustrated by the following extract from Dr. Hubert Parry's Art of Music:- "As each complete piece of music was subject to the rule of some special mode, all the sentiments were restricted by its characteristics.
If it was what a modern musician would call minor in character, the musical expression for the "Gloria" had to be got out of it as much as that for the "Miserere". And though the use of accidentals modified modal restrictions to a certain extent, it was not sufficient to obviate the fact that in detail a piece of music had to follow the rule and character of the mode, rather than the sentiment of the words." Thus far, history displays the progress of music within these limitations. We see its development in the advance from the earliest forms of Christian hymnology.
Through the crude attempts at part writing of Hucbald and his successors. The constantly increasing acquirements of the different schools, to the works of Palestrina and his contemporaries, in which we have the scholarship of the greater among the Netherland masters combined with that innate melodiousness peculiar to the Italian in all ages. With Palestrina, we see music perfect and beautiful in some few things, largely, because so many other things were shut out from its reach.
We come now to a period when the barriers surrounding music were to be broken down, and when musicians, tired of being the limited by purely religious compositions and trapped by the requirements of the Church modes, turned from somewhat monotonous beauty within a limited area, to grapple with fresh problems in a wider field. The period, which we have now to consider may, for the sake of convenience, is styled that of the Renaissance. It is true that, chronologically, this musical Renaissance does not quite tally with the Renaissance proper; but still, inasmuch as we have to deal with the fundamental principles of Renaissance art, manifesting themselves in music at a time later than in painting, sculpture, architecture, or literature, the term is apt enough. The Renaissance was that intellectual movement or impulse, generated in Europe through the dissemination of the treasures of classical literature by savants and philosophers. Greeks for the most part, and subjects of the Byzantine empire, who fled from Constantinople when that city, the last stronghold of the Caesars, and refuge of the learning of the ancient world, was sacked by its Mohammedan conquerors in 1453, and with the Emperor Constantine Palaeologus, the long line of the Emperors of the East came to an end.
The first country with which these refugees visited in their travel westward was Italy, where the Renaissance movement had its origin.
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