The Transition from Renaissance to Baroque (1575-1625)


In 1605, Monteverdi distinguished between the "prima prattica" and the "seconda prattica", or first and second practices.  By the first, he meant the style of vocal polyphony derived from the Netherlanders, represented in the works of Willaert, codified in the theoretical writings of Zarlino, and perfected in the music of Palestrina.  By the second he meant the style of the modern Italians such as Rore, Marenzio, and himself.  The basis of the distinction for Monteverdi was that in the first practice music dominated the text, whereas in the second, the text dominated the music.  Others called the two practices "stile antico" and "stile moderno" (old and modern style).

A resurgence of interest in the music of the ancient Greeks, especially by the Florentine Camerata, resulted in a new emphasis on the declamation of the text in order to express the meaning and emotional power of the words.  This could only be achieved by abandoning elaborate polyphony and returning to some sort of texture reminiscent of Greek monody, which eventually resulted in the invention of opera and early Baroque monody.

Compositional and Performance Techniques

Two of the most significant developments in this transitional period was, 1) the shift away from the choral vocal style to a soloistic vocal practice and 2) the innovation of basso continuo.  The virtuosity of trained singers and the ability of a soloist to more effectively communicate the emotion of the text led composers away from the choral madrigal toward a type of solo madrigal and eventually to opera.  Soloists, freed from the restraints of an ensemble, were able to add elements of dramatic presentation, such as facial expression, gestures, and vocal styling, to more effectively communicate the meaning, mood, and sentiment of a vocal piece.  Since a soloist, unlike an ensemble, can not generate a harmonic support for his melodic line, the practice of using a basso continuo came into play as a means of accompaniment.

The desire to express the text in straightforward declamation, as proposed by the Florentine Camerata, led to a type of recitative, which also translated very readily into the opera format.  Around the turn of the century, the practice of "figuring" the bass came into common practice, allowing the keyboard, lute, or harp player to improvise the harmonic structure instead of being burdened with reading a cumbersome score written for multiple instruments.  This practice allowed the basso continuo to be the ideal accompaniment for the new recitative-type style.

Musical Style

The characteristic texture of polyphonic voice parts was still the rule in the work of Palestrina, Lasso, Byrd, and Gabrieli, at the end of the 16th century, as it had been in the music of Ockeghem and Josquin.  This texture, more than any other single feature, separates Renaissance music from Baroque. Homophony began to invade all forms of polyphonic writing.  Its dominance in the Venetian school is one sign of the approaching Baroque.

The outlines of major-minor tonality were already taking shape in much of the music of Palestrina, Lasso, Byrd, and Gabrieli.

Rhythm, supported by systematic harmonic progressions within the 16th-century tonal system, had become comparatively steady and predictable by the end of the century, even in the polyphonic style of Palestrina and in such apparently free compositions as the Venetian organ toccatas.  The barline in the modern editions of the works of this era don't seem to be an intrusion.

Pictorial and expressive touches in the madrigal, such as the harmonic chromaticism of Gesualdo, Marenzio and Monteverdi, and the splendorous sonorities of the Venetian massed choruses, are all signs of the 16th-century drive toward vivid outward expression in music.  The Baroque carries this drive to still greater lengths and embodies it in...

Musical Forms

the new forms of cantata and opera.  Initially, though, the solo madrigal became the medium of choice for intense expression, because every significant portion of the text received due attention. Harmonic and melodic dissonances, chromaticism, changes of meter and rhythm are, as in the polyphonic madrigals, the principal compositional resources.    But well-placed ornaments, such as trills, shakes, and runs, accompanied by crescendos and diminuendos, contribute much to incisively convey the feeling when performed by a skillful singer.

Also, with the rise of pure instrumental forms (ricercare, canzona, and toccata), Renaissance music had already begun to transcend words; this line of development also continues without a break through the Baroque and beyond.


Giulio Cesare Monteverdi four time referred to Cipriano de Rore as having set precedents for the liberties his brother took, calling de Rore "the first renovator of the second practice," for this pioneer had made contrapuntal technique "a faithful servant of the text..."  Musically, de Rore was a split personality.  In his church music he continued to write in the traditional way, but in his madrigals, particularly in those he composed in his last years, he was indeed the prophet that the next generation revered.

Some trained, professional singers, grew tired of waiting for the established composers to write in the new vocal style so they became composers themselves and wrote music that suited the new vocal technique.  One such composer was Guilio Caccini.  Not only did he compose for the virtuoso singer, but he was one of the first to put the new "figured bass" technique into practice ("Euridice").

The Italian madrigalists, Wert, Gesualdo, Marenzio, and Monteverdi led the way with innovations in the area of harmony, exploring new chromaticisms in an effort to more effectively express the meaning of the text.  Monteverdi, though, bridged the periods and effectively helped establish the new Baroque monody and the use of basso continuo.

Musical Works/Examples

"O Sonno" by de Rore has been singled out as a good example of the beginnings of the new style.  The elaborate imagery of the poetry is matched by the expressive quality of the music where a phrase, or even a word, is isolated from its context by a distinct musical thought and texture.

Caccini's "Amarilli mia bella" is also a fine example of the new solo madrigal.  Also, his opera, "Euridice," is one of the first works to incorporate the figured bass technique.

The nature of Monteverdi's departures from the established practice is evident in the madrigal "Ohime, se tanto amate," composed around 1600.  In it we see numerous harmonic cross relations such as an F major triad moving to an A major triad or D major moving to B-flat major.  We can also see examples of tone painting; for example "ohime" is represented by a sighing, drooping musical figure.  There are changes in texture, rhythm, and style that give a disjointed impression, but effectively mirror the poet's every image.  Also, his opera, "L'Orfeo," displays the new declamatory style and basso continuo technique.