Renaissance Polyphony: the Franco-Flemish School

Near the beginning of the pandemic I heard a conversation where Brian Eno said that he’d been listening to a radio station on the internet, based somewhere deep in rural Russia, that plays nothing but Eastern Orthodox chants 24 hours a day, with no announcements. He said that this sort of music appealed to him while locked down at home.

Somehow this led to me listening to a lot of early music on YouTube. I started with some Baroque composers I’d never paid attention to before, like Corelli and Albinoni. Previously my interest in classical music started around Beethoven and focused on the 20th century, with Bach and Vivaldi as brilliant pearls surrounded by darkness. As I began listening to more Baroque music I became very happy, like someone who’d been locked in a room for years and suddenly found a key to another room. There was so much to explore.

The Baroque period lasted from about 1580 to 1750: that’s almost two centuries of music! By getting to know it, I’ve been starting to understand the birth of common practice tonality—that is, the language of chord progressions that dominates classical music, and also, to some extent, lots of modern pop music. And I can finally start thinking clearly about what makes Bach great.

Imagine listening to just one rock group, or one jazz band. Practically nobody does that, of course, but imagine it: it would be impossible to distinguish what’s special to the artist you love from what’s common to the style as a whole. So you’d think they were more creative than they really are—but you also wouldn’t know what was truly creative about their work.

I’m still in the midst of this project, which also includes listening to Bach more thoroughly. But I got a bit distracted. I got pulled back further in time—back into Renaissance polyphony. This gave me access to another two centuries of rich, complicated music, roughly 1400 to 1600. And it let me understand the roots of Bach’s music. Bach’s music looks back to polyphony just as much as it looks forward into the future. For this he was considered a bit old-fashioned during his day; only later did people realize his greatness.

The best of Renaissance polyphony is arguably just as complex and interesting as Bach’s counterpoint: it’s just less immediately gripping. The reason is that it doesn’t follow ‘common practice’, with its familiar strategies of building and releasing tension, and its repetitive rhythmic pulse. The vocal lines are often very smooth, flowing like water. So it’s less exciting, but it’s wonderfully entrancing.

I went back even further, into the medieval—but at a certain point I ‘hit bottom’, at least when it comes to the art of harmony and juggling multiple independent melodic lines, which is what I like so much about Baroque counterpoint and Renaissance polyphony. Gregorian chant is great, but it has a single vocal line. The practice of using chords was first documented around 895: in a style called the organum, Gregorian chant was supplemented by either a supporting bass line, two parallel voices singing the melody, or both. But the ‘Big Bang’ of polyphony happened around 1170 when Léonin introduced two independent melody lines. Around 1200 his follower Pérotin went ahead and started using three or four! Imagine the dizzying sense of freedom these guys must have felt, with no precedents to guide them.

Medieval polyphony should be fascinating, and again it’s a huge territory: roughly two centuries, from 1200 to 1400. But right now I seem to be focusing on Renaissance polyphony—and especially the so-called Franco-Flemish school, which is an incredibly rich vein of music.

I’d like to say a lot about the Franco-Flemish school, but for now I just want to list a few of their best-known composers. In fact, I’ll only mention one of each ‘generation’, and give you a sample of their music.

Guillaume Dufay (1397 – 1497)

Dufay is the most famous of the first generation of the Franco-Flemish school. (This first generation is also called the Burgundian School.) He is often considered a transitional figure from the medieval to the Renaissance. His isorhythmic motets illustrate that—their tonality is dissonant and dramatic compared to typical Renaissance polyphony:

Johannes Ockeghem (1410/1425 – 1495)

Ockeghem is the most famous of the second generation of the Franco-Flemish school. His innovations firmly moved this school out of the medieval into the world of Renaissance polyphony. Some of his compositions are almost avant-garde in their structure—a mass that asks you to sing it in any of four modes, a mass where the different vocal lines are sung at different rates and drift out of synch—but they’re carried off so smoothly you might not notice. People tend to call Ockeghem “the Bach of the 1400s”, which is sort of ridiculous because there’s just one J. S. Bach, but it gives a hint of his importance. He was not a prolific composer, but he was also an honored singer, choirmaster, and teacher.

Josquin de Prez (~1450 – 1521)

Josquin, of the third generation, is the real superstar of the Franco-Flemish school. Luther wrote that “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.” He was influenced by Ockeghem, and composed a motet in commemoration of Ockeghem’s death. But he polished Ockeghem’s ideas and in some ways simplified them, making music that was easier to understand and more popular. Despite being prolific and very influential, nothing is known of his personality, and the only known writing that may be in his own hand is a piece of graffiti on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.

Nicholas Gombert (1495 – 1460)

Gombert is probably the most famous of the fourth generation of the Franco-Flemish school. He wrote polyphonic masses and motets with as many as 6 separate melody lines, and sometimes with one voice imitating another after a very short time interval. His work marks the height of complexity of the Franco-Flemish school.

Orlande de Lassus (1530 – 1594)

Lassus, of the fifth generation of the Franco-Flemish school, is one of the composers of a style known as musica reservata—roughly, sophisticated and highly chromatic music. But he also wrote drinking songs in German, and one of his motets satirizes poor singers. He wrote over 2,000 pieces of music, all vocal—none purely instrumental! In the “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” Sherlock Holmes said he was working on a monograph about the polyphonic motets of Lassus.

So there you are: a microscopic overview of a musical tradition lasting over 200 years.

Maybe listing one just composer of each generation was a bad idea: I feel I’m doing an injustice to Gilles Binchois of the first generation, often considered the finest melodist of the 1400s, and Jacob Obrecht of the third generation, who was the most famous composer of masses in the late 1400s before Josquin came along. Obrecht was very adventurous: he often played melodies backwards (in retrograde), and once he even took the notes from a melody and played them in order of duration, long to short, to get a new melody.

There is also a lot going on in Renaissance polyphony outside the Franco-Flemish school! There’s the British tradition, including great composers such as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. And I haven’t even mentioned the most famous of all polyphonists: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina! Or the most dissonant and in some ways the most intriguing of the lot: Carlo Gesualdo.

But it’s easy to get lost in unfamiliar territory, so I just wanted to give a quick outline of the Franco-Flemish school. At the very least, listening to their music should be fun.

5 Responses to Renaissance Polyphony: the Franco-Flemish School

  1. John Baez says:

    By coincidence, an article on Josquin today:

    • Zachary Woolfe, The Renaissance’s most influential composer, 500 years later, New York Times, 29 April 2021.

    The 500th anniversary of Josquin’s death will be in August this year, and here Zachary Woolfe interviews the leader of the Tallis Scholars about Josquin’s music.

    A quote:

    He did take some very good tunes, that’s the first thing. So, in addition to his own good tunes, he was basing his music on very good past material. But then he felt it was his job to disguise the borrowing—embedding the original material in the counterpoint, which can make it quite hard or even impossible to hear. And sometimes he elongates the note lengths so, again, you can’t really follow them. And sometimes he writes wacky canons so that the material gets all jumbled up. I mean, he’s a mathematician at heart. A magician-mathematician.

  2. Brian Eno said that he’d been listening to a radio station on the internet, based somewhere deep in rural Russia, that plays nothing but Eastern Orthodox chants 24 hours a day, with no announcements. He said that this sort of music appealed to him while locked down at home.

    Reminds me of an interview in which he said that the most interesting application of electronic computers were screen savers.

  3. jb says:

    Thanks so much for this! I saw something you wrote a week ago about Ockeghem, who at the time I had never heard of. After listening to him on youtube for a bit, the algorithm in its mysterious wisdom decided to play some Josquin for me, who I also had never heard of. They both have “Deploration” pieces, and now I’m obsessed with both of them.

    And then today the NY Times had something about Josquin. Now he’s everywhere!

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