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Top 10 Renaissance Era CDs and MP3s to Start Your Classical Music Collection

The Renaissance, which comprises roughly the years 1400-1600, was a time of great artistic development in Europe, in music no less than in any of the other arts. Renewed interest in ancient Greek and Roman cultures taught scholars about the power music had to move the listener, and composers of the time adapted their styles in attempts to evoke this power in both sacred and secular music.

Most music composed in the Renaissance was sacred choral music. The Mass, a setting of the five movements sung in church every day, was the most prestigious form, and all the great composers wrote many masses. However, the motet, a shorter work on a sacred text of the composer's choosing, allowed the composer more expressive freedoms. Secular music, both vocal and instrumental, grew in importance over time. The premier secular vocal form was the madrigal, a short piece for three to six voices on a romantic -- and often erotic -- text. The development of keyboard and brass instruments in the sixteenth century brought new instrumental forms into existence, including the pavan, galliard, canzona, and sonata.

Until about 1800 audiences preferred new music to old, and thus most Renaissance music remained unperformed. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century scholars began to rediscover Renaissance music, but it was only in the mid-twentieth century that performances of Renaissance music became widespread. Thus while there are many spectacular Renaissance works, none has established a firm enough place in the canon to be among the first twenty CDs you should own.

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1 Josquin: "Pange Lingua" Mass -- Tallis Scholars
Quiz: Name the greatest Renaissance composer. Review...

2 Monteverdi: Madrigals, Book VIII -- Consort of Musicke
Madrigals of War and Love. Review...

3 Palestrina: "Pope Marcellus" Mass -- Westminster Abbey Choir
The Mass that saved Roman church music. Review...

4 Tallis: Spem in alium -- Tallis Scholars
Forty melodic threads creating a tapestry of sound. Review...

5 Monteverdi: Orfeo -- Emma Kirkby, Nigel Rogers, Charles Medlam
The first great opera. Review...

6 Praetorius: Terpsichore -- David Munrow
Dance music from the French court. Review...

7 Victoria: Motet and Mass, "O quam gloriosum" -- Westminster Cathedral Choir
The pinnacle of music during the Spanish Renaissance. Review...

8 Gabrieli: Canzoni e Sonate -- Eric Crees
Joyous works for brass. Review...

9 Lassus: Motets -- Ex Cathedra Chamber Choir
Motets from the mouth of the master. Review...

10 Byrd: Keyboard Music -- Davitt Moroney
Elegant works from Elizabethan England. Review...


Josquin des Prez: Missa "Pange lingua"
Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips, conductor

Josquin des Prez was the greatest composer of the High Renaissance. Contemporaries hailed him as "the best of the composers of our time" and the "father of musicians." Martin Luther, who made his name in other fields but was no musical slouch (he was a singer and wrote dozens of chorales), declared of Josquin, "He is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will." Josquin's most famous work is the "Pange lingua" mass. Each movement starts with the different voices intoning the melody of the church chant "Pange lingua"; from this common beginning each proceeds with its own individual example of contrapuntal mastery. The Tallis Scholars are today's premier ensemble specializing in Renaissance vocal music, and they give a memorable performance of this Mass on this two-disc set loaded with other great early music.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral

Claudio Monteverdi: Madrigals, Book VIII
Consort of Musicke, Anthony Rooley, conductor

At the time they were written, Claudio Monteverdi's nine books of madrigals set a new standard for expressiveness in music. Mondeverdi's madrigal music brings to life the poetry it underlies, and none does so better than the eighth book, published in 1638. The book, entitled "Madrigals of War and Love," is split into two halves. The first half contains fierce war poetry, highlighted by "Il Combattimento de Tancredi et Clorinda," the story of two warriors in love with each other. Monteverdi's music depicts horses galloping and armies clashing. The second half consists of love poems, the most famous of which is the "Lamento della ninfa." The collection illustrates Monteverdi's innovative style in instrumental as well as vocal writing. This super-bargain set (2 CDs for less than one full-priced CD) is a must-have for anyone's collection.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Missa "Papae Marcelli"
Westminster Abbey Choir, Simon Preston, conductor

Legend has it that in this Mass saved vocal polyphony from condemnation by the Catholic Church. The 1560s were a trying time for the Church, which was defending itself from the Protestant Reformation, and its music was being attacked as being an unintelligible jumble of different melodies sung at the same time. Then along came Palestrina, whose Mass was so masterfully written that listeners could understand every single word, and Renaissance music as we know it was saved. This legend is almost certainly untrue, but after listening to this masterpiece you will think the story quite believable. The Tallis Scholars give a remarkable performance of the Pope Marcellus Mass on their "Best of the Renaissance" set, but Simon Preston's recording with the Westminster Abbey Choir is just as compelling.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
Thomas Tallis: Spem in Alium
Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips, conductor

Bach's four-part conterpoint is certainly complex, but it pales in comparison with this motet, which consists of no less than forty separate melodies, all sung at the same time. The result is a great wash of sound that is one of the all-time highlights of choral music. Queen Elizabeth, for whose fortieth birthday the piece was written, was certainly impressed. The Tallis Scholars give a magnificent interpretation of their namesake's music.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo
Nigel Rogers, tenor (Orfeo); Patrizia Kwella, soprano (Euridice); Emma Kirkby, soprano (La Musica); Chiraoscuro, London Baroque, London Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, Nigel Rogers, Charles Medlam, Theresa Caudle, conductors

In the 1580s and '90s a group of Florentine intellectuals (including Vincenzo Galilei, father of the astronomer) got together and hashed out the ground rules for a new kind of drama set to music, which we now know as opera. Monteverdi's Orfeo was not the first opera written (in fact it was the third), but Monteverdi's lyrical melodies and innovative instrumentation made such a compelling story of the myth of Orpheus and Euridice that opera soon became all the rage across Italy and beyond. Nigel Rogers's splendid recording is a true bargain.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Michael Praetorius: Terpsichore
Early Music Consort of London, David Munrow, conductor

Terpsichore is a collection of some 300 dance tunes played at the court of Henri IV of France in the late sixteenth century. The German composer Michael Praetorius compiled and harmonized the dances and arranged them for four to six parts. However, he did not indicate what instruments the dances should be played on. This interpretation by David Munrow, one of the Early Music movement's pioneers, is perhaps the finest on record.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Tomás Luis de Victoria: Motet and Mass, "O quam gloriosum"
Westminster Cathedral Choir, David Hill, conductor

The last half of the sixteenth century was a golden age for the arts in Spain: El Greco was painting, Cervantes was writing novels, Lope de Vega was creating poetry and plays, and Tolás Luis de Victoria was composing music. Victoria studied in Rome and may even have worked with Palestrina; certainly, his music is quite similar to the Italian master's. Like most of his Masses, "O quam gloriosum" is based on the composer's own motet. This award-winning CD recorded in Westminster Cathedral has recently been re-released at mid-price (available only at ArkivMusic).

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
Giovanni Gabrieli: Canzoni e sonate
London Symphony Orchestra Brass, Eric Crees, conductor

Giovanni Gabrieli, who succeeded his uncle Andrea as the principal composer for the church of San Marco in Venice, was the leading Venetian composer at the end of the sixteenth century. He composed much sacred choral music but is today known primarily for his instrumental works, especially for brass. This CD offers a selection of canzoni, which are instrumental songs for brass ensemble, as well as the great "Sonata pian' e forte" ("Loud and quiet Sonata").

Similar works: None
Orlando de Lassus: Motets
Ex Cathedra Chamber Choir, His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts, Jeffrey Skidmore, conductor

Lassus was one of the most cosmopolitan figures in the history of music; he traveled widely, and by his death he was the most famous composer in Europe. He composed Masses, songs, madrigals and motets, eventually producing more than two thousand works. Lassus was a contemporary of Palestrina, but whereas Palestrina was master of the Mass, Lassus's greatest works are his motets. This CD features a compilation of his greatest motets as well as the seldom-heard Mass "Virum bonum."

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
William Byrd: Keyboard Music
Davitt Moroney, keyboards

The Englishman William Byrd was the last of the great Catholic church composers of the sixteenth century. Since England was in the throes of its Protestant Reformation, Byrd's mass ouptut was relatively small, but he did compose numerous secular pieces for keyboard and strings. Early music expert Davitt Moroney researched and recorded Byrd's complete keyboard music; this disc features a representative sampling of the composer's output, from simple folk dances to the complicated fantasia "Ut re mi fa sol la." The pieces are recorded on a variety of instruments and demonstrate the entire breadth of possibility of the sixteenth-century keyboard.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano Music