Music Periods: Medieval & Renaissance
By Nina Pinzarrone
During the medieval period (650–1450), most music was used for church rituals. Monophonic (unaccompanied single-line) melodies known as Gregorian chants were developed for church use.
In the 11th century, music theorist Guido d’Arezzo developed the solfège (“do, re, mi”) system and named the pitches by letters. These pitches were subsequently organized into scales called modes. From 850 to 1150, polyphony (playing or singing more than one melody line at a time) emerged, as did time signatures and rhythmic notation.
Dance forms such as the saltarello, basse dance, and estampie emerged. The music was monophonic, and improvised or played from memory. The saltarello is an Italian folk dance in 6/8 meter with hopping movements and a lively melody. Similar to a tarantella, it is danced to an allegro tempo.
The estampie, either in triple (French version) or duple (Italian version) meter, consists of sliding steps and has a series of repeated melodic phrases, each with a first and second ending.
The basse dance is slow and stately, with gliding steps in which the feet never leave the floor. In 3/2 or 6/4 meter, the dance begins and/or ends with a réverénce.
During the Renaissance (1450–1600), new printing techniques allowed music to be distributed and preserved. In sacred music, the motet was developed—a religious-themed composition alternating between homophonic (using chords) and polyphonic styles.
Instrumental music was on the rise due to the perfection of the lute, the invention of the violin, and development of the clavichord, harpsichord, and virginal. Music could now have a wider melodic range than voice alone allowed.
The pavane, a 16th-century court dance of Italian origin, was one of the dances that emerged in this period. Typically a processional at weddings, funerals, coronations, and other dignified events, it is in duple meter (4/4, 2/2) played at an adagio tempo. The galliard, in 6/4 meter, is a spirited dance characterized by leaps, jumps, and hops. Queen Elizabeth I danced it as her morning exercise. The anthem, “God Save the Queen” is in the galliard rhythm.
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.