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Early Music/ Renaissance Music

Colleagues-- I am looking for advice on how one goes about programming early music. I didn't grow up singing much Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Monteverdi, Victoria, Gabrielli, etc... other than the one or two popular ones that always get performed. However, I do enjoy that period of music and would like to become well-versed in it. My issue is that when I look up music of Tallis for instance, I get so overwhelemed by how much music there is, and I don't mean to sound crude about this, but being new to it, it sometimes has that "it all sounds the same" quality. 
 
What are the best ways of approaching the programming and learning aspect of this music. My thoughts are... sticking to a certain composer, going chronologically, by themes (Christmas, Lent, All Saints Day, etc...), or with this kind of music you can set it as anthems, responses, and get into the historical purpose. Again my question, what is the best way to program and simply learn music of this time period and how certain pieces relate to others? I hope this makes sense!  
 
Thanks for your advice! 
 
Kind regards, 
Brennan Michaels 
on January 31, 2014 9:08am
I'd start with the text. Since there are no tempo markings in Renaissance music, it's not self-evident what the mood of a particular piece is supposed to be. But composers then were very particular about suiting the mood of of the music to the text, and suitable tempi will suggest themselves from there. This will help deal with the all-sounds-alike problem. Just like in any other period, Renaissance music can be cheery or hopeful or gloomy or angry or fearful or silly or whatever. Ignore any well-meaning pedant who tries to tell you that all early music has the same "tactus," or basic beat speed.
 
Madrigals (and their close cousins balletti) are the easiest to approach: the contrast between "The Silver Swan" and "My Bonnie Lass She Smileth" is going to be pretty obvious to you, your singers, and your audiences. For sacred music, start with settings of psalms and other "propers" at first; avoid masses, Magnificats, and other routine service music to start with, since their texts are all alike and the differences more subtle.
 
Also, work backwards chronologically. The last generation of Renaissance composers (Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, Gabrieli, Lassus, etc.) wrote music whose harmonic style is closest to later major/minor harmony, and is thus more easily comprehensible today. The style of even one generation back (Josquin, and particularly Tallis) seems much more remote and challenging to modern ears, so save it for a later stage. Monteverdi is in a class by himself, since he wrote in both the Renaissance and Baroque styles.
 
Good luck! It's a big world of great music.
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