The Renaissance, lasting from about 1430 to 1600, is a time in European history which saw a great deal of invention, discovery, development and growth. The term literally means ‘rebirth’. Scientists and philosophers came up with new ways to think about our world and explorers discovered new lands and new peoples (it was during this time that Columbus discovered America and Magellan began the first voyage around the globe). Music and art also flourished, and as you might expect, new ways of thinking about and playing music were also developed.
During Medieval times, music had mostly just had one melody without any accompaniment, or a basic accompaniment. In the Renaissance music became polyphonic, that is, it had several different parts played at once. This meant that, rather than one person playing one instrument, groups of instruments were now played together, known as consorts. But, as having just any old instruments playing together wouldn’t work, during the Renaissance families of the same instrument, but made in different sizes, were developed.
The consort arrangement worked very well for playing a main type of non-religious music being written at the time, which was vocal music. The overwhelming majority of notated music was for voices. Most professional musicians at the time could not read music, and instead played a variety of memorised dance music and songs. As the century developed, amateur players who could read music were welcomed to a vast collection of vocal music that they could play in consorts.
During the Renaissance, musical ensembles were divided into two groups: one was called ‘haut’ (meaning ‘loud’ in French) and was made up of all the loud instruments and was mostly used for playing outside, and the other was ‘bas’ (‘soft’), which was quieter and used for playing indoors during quieter occasions. Some instruments though, like the sackbut, cornett, tabor and tambourine could be used in both types of ensemble.