If you’re like me, most of your musical education gave you the idea that music pretty much started with Bach. After all, what could sound older than a harpsichord?
Then, as you gradually became aware of the existence of pre-eighteenth-century music, you still assumed it all sounded the same. Monks chanting plaintively about transubstantiation, probably. Well, there is that, but there’s also so much more! I’ve collected ten examples of medieval and Renaissance music here, aiming for maximum accessibility and variety. Take a listen, then comment with your favorite!
1) Veni Creator Spiritus (Gregorian chant, c. ninth century)
We do at least have to start with Gregorian chant. Listen for the arch-like shape of the melody: the first two phrases reaching up toward the third, which then circles through the sky before the fourth falls back to earth. Imagine hearing this at Pentecost mass: a communal prayer for the presence of the Spirit.
2) Spiritus Sanctus (Hildegard von Bingen, twelfth century)
Another celebration of the Holy Spirit, this time written by one of the Middle Ages’ most famous mystics. This too is a monophonic chant (i.e. it has a single melody with no accompaniment), but the melody is expansive and free-flowing, and the syllables stretch over many notes: Hildegard’s religious experience transcends words alone.
3) Bache, bene venies (Anonymous, c. eleventh –thirteenth century)
A drinking song written by goliards—young university students and clergy-in-training who used their spare time and high-falutin Latin to compose bawdy poems about sex, wine, and…well, that’s pretty much it. This one includes a catchy refrain (istud vinum, bonum vinum, vinum generosum: this wine, good wine, noble wine) that’s been known to get stuck in my head. You’ve been warned.
4) Sumer is icumen in (Anonymous, mid thirteenth century)
“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” only dates to the nineteenth century, but the tradition of (surviving) rounds in English begins here. Two pedal patterns repeat over and over as others sing the melody in canon, celebrating the signs of summer returning once again. Fun fact: one of those signs is goats farting (“bucke verteth”).
5) Prendes i garde (Guillaume d’Amiens, late thirteenth century)
This a trouvère song, performed by wandering minstrels in the south of France. Like many such songs, the topic is love: courtly love, secret love, not-so-married love. The simple melody would’ve been easy to memorize, embellish, and adapt to the audience’s preferences.
6) Kyrie from Messe de Nostre Dame (Guillaume de Machaut, mid fourteenth century)
A mass written to be sung in the gorgeous Gothic cathedrals of high medieval France. As with Hildegard, the words dissolve into single vowels held over many notes, but here the texture is dense, with many voices singing different things at once. The pain of confession and forgiveness shows up in a harsh, dissonant cadence at 1:15 in the linked video.
7) Make We Joy (Anonymous, c. 1450)
A Christmas carol with a twist—it’s written in alternating lines of English and Latin that rhyme with each other! This is called “macaronic” verse, because the languages are all mixed together like pieces of the homonymous pasta.
8) El grillo (Josquin des Prez, 1505)
Perhaps the most hilarious pre-Haydn piece of music, this short frottola imitates the sound of a cricket (grillo in Italian). Nothing heavenly or intricate or esoteric here: just fun.
9) Sicut cervus (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, 1608)
The musical equivalent of Michelangelo: Renaissance grace, balance, and elegance have replaced the stark harmonies of Machaut. This gorgeous setting of Psalm 42, with its intricate counterpoint (interlocking melodies), represents the Renaissance conviction that human genius can declare the glory of God.
10) Plorate colles from Jephte (Giacomo Carissimi, 1650)
A heartbreaking lament from an oratorio that tells the story of Jephthah, the Old Testament judge who sacrificed his daughter after striking a deal with the Lord. At this point in the story, the daughter goes to the hills to mourn her virginity and upcoming death. You can hear the hills echo her pained cries (e.g. 0:48 in the video linked above), and the liberal use of the Neapolitan chord (heard on the first syllable of ululate at 0:25 and 0:38) creates a visceral sense of tragedy.