4 Beautiful Pieces of Renaissance Choral Music (and What to Listen For)
Between 1400 and 1600, the Renaissance era saw a great evolution of musical composition styles, especially of choral music. Below I've listed four beautiful pieces composed in this time period, all of which I've performed and adored. You'll find the text of each piece with an English translation, some general comments about the piece or its background, and a listening guide that corresponds to specific places on the embedded YouTube recordings. Listen to as much or as little as you'd like, with or without the guides—the most important part is to take a break from whatever else you're doing and enjoy this wonderful music.
1. Ave Verum Corpus (William Byrd c. 1605)
Text and translation: (source)
Ave verum corpus / natum de Maria virgine / vere passum immolatum / in crucis pro homine. / Cuius latus perforatum / unda fluxit sanguine. / Esto nobis praegustatum / in mortis examine. / O dulcis, o pie / O Jesu Fili Mariae / miserere mei / Amen.
Hail, true body / born of the virgin Mary / who has truly suffered, slaughtered / on the Cross for humanity. / Whose side was pierced / pouring out water and blood. / Be a foretaste for us / during our ordeal of death. / O sweet, o holy / O Jesus Son of Mary / have mercy on me / Amen.
One of my all-time favorites, Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus is filled with beautiful dissonances to highlight the pain of the text about Christ's crucifixion. Consider how fluctuations between major and minor chords (some of which I've pointed out below) illustrate the text. Also notice moments of homophony (when all the voices sing words together in the same rhythm) versus instances when the voice parts have staggered entrances, and what effects this has for conveying the text. The most beautiful moments of the piece are, to me, the suspensions: moments when the notes sung by two or more voice parts are starkly dissonant for a beat or two, before one part moves up or down a note to resolve the tension. This is usually the result of one part staying on a note as the chord changes around it, and then resolving to a note in the new chord.
0:07: Notice how the opening minor chord is homophonic (all voices enter at the same time on the same words and rhythms).
0:23: Notice how the sound brightens into a series of major chords on the words "natum de Maria virginae" or "born of the virgin Mary".
0:57: Listen for the suspension on "homine" (in the alto part); see whether you can hear a sort of satisfying tension and release at this spot.
1:12: Notice how the voice parts enter at different times, overlapping the words "unda fluxit sanguine" or "pouring out water and blood" to represent auditorily the idea of of pouring or flowing.
1:36: Listen for the crescendo (getting louder) on "mortis" or "death"—this is one of the major climaxes of the piece, emphasizing the drama of this word.
1:46: The voices suddenly get softer and sweeter on "o dulcis, o pie" or "o sweet, o holy". The soprano sings alone before the other parts come in, contributing to a sense of lightness and purity.
2:08: Notice the beautiful suspension on "Mariae", this time in the tenor part.
2:15: Voice parts come in at a different times on the text "miserere mei" or "have mercy on me", representing individual voices in this more personal statement
2:43: The music now repeats the section starting with "o dulcis, o pie", even more softly and sweetly to end the piece.
3:47: Savor another juicy dissonance between the tenor note and the alto/bass notes.
2. Ultimi Miei Sospiri (Philippe Verdelot c. 1520s?)
Text and translation:
Ultimi miei sospiri / che mi lassate fredd’et sença vita, / contate i miei martiri / a chi morir’ mi ved’et non m’aita. / Dite, o beltà infinita, / dal tuo fedel’ ne caccia empio martire. / Et se questo gli è grato, / gitene ratt’in ciel’ a miglior’ stato. / Ma se pietà le porg’il vostro dire, / tornat’in me, ch’io non vorrò morire.
My dying breaths / which leave me chill and lifeless, / recount my sufferings to one / who sees me perishing and does not help me. / Speak, O infinite beauty, / that your faithful one may be spared pitiless suffering. / And if this pleases her, / go swiftly to heaven and a better state. / But if your words arouse her pity, / return to me, for I do not want to die.
This piece is a classic example of an early madrigal, a type of secular, unaccompanied choral music originating in Italy. Even non-Italian composers often used text and poetry written in Italian, this piece being an example. One of my favorite things about this piece is the sound of the deep bass entrances (the lowest voice part out of 6), especially in this wonderful King's Singers recording. You'll hear a lot of imitation between the voice parts, which creates an interesting polyphonic texture (the opposite of homophonic: voice parts singing text at different times with different rhythms). Try to listen for repeating lines of text being passed between voices—it happens all over the place throughout the piece.
(Note: there's a spelling error in the title of the YouTube video. It's 'Ultimi', not 'Ultima'.)
0:11: Hear the first low bass entrance reverberate gloriously...
0:23-0:28 and 0:33-0:38: Notice how the singers emphasize the "s" sound of "lassate" to help us hear the repetition of the word in different parts.
0:50: Another satisfying low bass entrance.
1:20: The piece starts to intensify in volume and pitch, accentuating the pleading text "dite, o beltà infinita" or "speak, O infinite beauty".
2:03: Listen for a rare homophonic moment in the upper voices on "gittene ratt'in ciel" or "go swiftly to heaven"; the lightness of the higher voices could represent this upward motion to heaven and the homophonic texture provides a brief contrast to the rest of the piece's constantly overlapping lines.
2:36-2:52: After a softer section, the piece starts to build up again in volume and intensity, landing consistently on minor chords on the word "me" (providing a sort of dark emphasis).
3:07: Hear a beautiful suspension in the alto 1 part.
3. Je me complains piteusement (Guillaume Dufay c. 1423)
Text and Translation:
Je me complains piteusement / a moi tout seul plus qu'a nullui, / de la griesté, paine e tourment, / Que je souffre plus que ne di. / Dangier me tient en tel soussi / Qu'eschever ne puis sa rudesse, / et Fortune le veult aussi, / mais, par ma foy, ce fait Jonesse.
To see an English translation, click here. Essentially, the text is about the pain and suffering of "love"—and quite melodramatic!
This piece should sound notably different than the others; though it was technically written during the early Renaissance era, Dufay's sound is quite medieval. Listen for the hollow-sounding open fifths at the ends of phrases and the way the voice parts overlap, rather than occupying distinct ranges of notes. Also notice the voice parts' rhythmic and textual independence (i.e. they sing the text at slightly different times and with slightly different rhythms). This contributes to a somewhat chaotic (and classic medieval) sound that most of us aren't used to hearing. Another medieval element is the usage of voices for music that isn't overlaid with text; singers use vowel sounds like "ee" or "eu" for these sections.
This version on YouTube is accompanied by instruments; for a fabulous a cappella vocal arrangement, check out Blue Heron's recording on Spotify.
0:11-0:14: Listen to this snippet of melody (sung by the highest voice, the one that sort of pops out of the texture) and see if you can hear it repeated throughout the piece (it comes back several times). I love the way this part sounds!
0:44: This marks the beginning of a text-less section (sung on "ee"). Notice how the voices are emulating musical instruments and how the fast, steady rhythm and overlapping notes create a sort of rippling, wave-like effect.
1:00: Here's an example of a hollow open fifth at the end of a phrase—notice the singers' stylistic choice to decrescendo (get softer) rather than slamming into it.
1:04: Listen for the brief homophony at the beginning of this section, which sounds more like later Renaissance music than other parts of the piece.
1:30: Another example of an open fifth that's a bit easier to hear.
1:32: The second occurrence of the text-less section.
4. Spem in alium (Thomas Tallis c. 1570)
Text and translation: (source)
Spem in alium nunquam habui / praeter in te, Deus Israel, / qui irasceris, et propitius eris, / et omnia peccata hominum / in tribulatione dimittis. / Domine Deus, creator caeli et terrae, / respice humilitatem nostram.
I have never placed my hope / in any other than you, God of Israel, / who can show both anger and graciousness / and absolve all the sins / of suffering man. / Lord God, creator of Heaven and Earth / be mindful of our humiliation.
This incredible piece has the most voice parts of any choral work (40!). The voices are split up into 8 choirs of 5 voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass). Not every choir is singing at every moment (they often trade off sections in groups of two choirs), but there are several amazing sections in which all parts sing at once, creating a dense, rich sound. Obviously, some voices are singing the same notes (there aren't 40 different notes sounding at once), but Tallis varies up the rhythms and note orders of different parts to create a dense texture of notes in the same chord.
I know from experience that it's very easy to get lost when singing or listening to this piece because of the constant overlapping rhythms. Usually a practiced listener can identify by ear the downbeat (the first beat, which usually gets extra emphasis) of each measure of a piece, but it is unusually difficult to do that in this piece after the first 30 seconds or so. The effect of this for the listener is a never-ending mass of sound, with individual lines being difficult to pick out. I've highlighted below a few specific moments to listen for along the way, but mainly just sit back and enjoy the atmosphere of this one!
See if you can hear the individual parts' entrances, as they come in with the text "spem in alium" (from the beginning to 2:12).
2:30: This is the first moment where all the parts are singing at once!
See if you can hear the soprano directly imitate the tenor's melodic line on "qui iraceris" (tenor at 2:54, soprano at 3:00).
4:35: Hear all parts singing together again on "et omnia peccata hominum" (this is one of my favorite moments).
7:19: After a pause, everyone sings (mostly) homophonically the first dramatic statement of "respice".
8:19: Once again, every part comes in on "respice" after a rest: from here it's a slow and steady buildup to the exuberant ending.
Renaissance Music is for Absolutely Everyone
I hope you've enjoyed listening to these pieces and using the guides as a way to feel more engaged with them. But remember: there's no right or wrong way to listen to them. Discover your own favorite parts and describe them however you like; you absolutely do not need to know music theory to describe what you like about a particular piece or section. Music should be enjoyed, danced to, talked about, hummed along with, and used to evoke feelings we can't explain. I hope you'll continue to explore these and other pieces from this beautiful era of choral music.