Introduction

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20. Heinrich Isaac

(c. 1450-1517)

The most influential musician working in Germany at the time, Isaac was prolific in both sacred and secular output, as well as being one of the first musicians to rely heavily on writing for instruments as well as voices. He was a pioneer in the development of polyphonic choral music in Germany, using intricate counterpoint while still maintaining a sense of forward motion and organization. His sacred choral pieces he wrote in this style are some of the best examples of chant-based polyphony in history, although soon after they couldn’t quite withstand the even stronger development in future generations. However, it’s his melodies, especially in his music with smaller textures and instrumentation, which makes him significant. His famous song Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen, has one of the greatest melodies ever written; J.S. Bach himself said it was the greatest he had ever heard. He was successful across the board at writing succinct, stand out melodies that could be sung or played. He was overshadowed quite a bit by his cotemporary over in Italy, but in his region, he was very influential and came to be important in the development of polyphony and instrumental music across Europe.

19. Cristóbal de Morales

(c. 1500-1553)

The second most influential Spanish musician before 1600, Cristóbal de Morales gained attention and fame long past his death with his beautiful scared choral music. He stuck to writing masses and motets in his life, being quite religiously devoted. He fully embraced the style of polyphony being developed at the time, which exclusively used consonant intervals with recognizable tonality. His music was quite rhythmically free, emphasizing flow of the words over using any strict metric patterns, which resulted in gorgeous, spacious music that came to be quite well received and important. He may not have a stand out mass setting or one remarkable stand alone piece, but he fully succeeded with this style of writing and gave us lots of it, making his music nothing short of beautiful.

18. Giovanni Gabrieli

(c.1554-1612)

Gabrieli was the most important composer of instrumental music before the 17th century instrumental revolution, being the only musician of his era to consistently write for instruments at a very high level that could rival the best vocal music of the day. His glorious combinations of large vocal and instrumental ensembles gave “big sound” a new definition at his time. This not only was hugely influential for musicians going forward to develop bigger thinking with their compositions, but his music is connected through wonderful melodic shapes and ideas that never fail to excite. He did very well to develop tonality and discover the basics of functional harmony, although that sometimes made his music dwell on tonic too much or not include the most interesting of harmonic progressions. That is well in the background, though. His melodic prominence with gorgeous and powerful choruses, as well as his use of organ and brass, made for some very impressive output, including his In ecclesiis, still one of the best and most performed choral/instrumental combined works ever.

17. Hans Leo Hassler

(1564-1612)

Hassler may be one of the least performed musicians out of the very best of his era, but his music undoubtedly stands comparable to the greats. Writing in both his vernacular German language and Latin for multiple purposes, he is remembered as the musician who brought in the refined polyphonic style of Italy into Germany and fully succeeded in it, also bringing about new genres in the instrumental music realm. His combinations of Italian influence with his own traditions created some charismatic music with wonderful touches of delicacy, flow, and intrigue. His harmonic movement is especially impressive and always an interesting journey. He may not have had a prolific amount of output and lacks one grasping, recognizable work, but with all that we have from him, there are absolutely no gaps in quality.

16. Antoine Busnoys

(c. 1430-1492)

Busnoys was the second greatest musician to come from the musical cultivation occurring from the Court of Burgundy in the 15th century. He rose above his contemporaries with a polished style that sat between the simple homophony of the time and the complex polyphony that would soon come about. His biggest achievement was in his secular chansons, creating many of the popular tunes of the day. His melodic writing was excellent, being the reason why his music has lived on for so long and why musicians of his day and beyond borrowed so much of his music into their own. On top of that, he took great care of being idiomatic and congenial with vocal parts, using good range and space that allows the singers to find true beauty. His music is not widely performed anymore, with his specific tactics having been improved by subsequent generation leaders, but it’s still very worthwhile music, especially his In hydraulis and Missa L’homme Arme.

15. Guillaume de Machaut

(c.1300-1377)

Machaut was the greatest composer of the ars nova era. Not only that, but he was also an extremely successful poet, being the last of his kind that could consistently write words to his own music until the 20th century. His output is incredibly remarkable in volume and in creativity. He mostly wrote in secular French forms, either with a single monophonic line or polyphonic setting, each with great melodic shape and distinction. As was the style of the century, his music was complex in its composition, with constantly changing meters and rather difficult singing parts interwoven with each other in unique ways. The result, though, is nothing too muddled or convoluted. His elaborate compositions come together beautifully, always tied together with strong melodies, that turn into something gorgeous and contemplative. For basically an entire century, he was the man, and rightfully so.

14. Jacob Obrecht

(c. 1457-1505)

Although pure musical perfection didn’t reach a height until the counter-reformation, there was one man who tapped into it before hardly anyone: Jacob Obrecht. Combining older ideas of stretched phrases and arching melodies with newfound freedoms in compositional form, Obrecht created some impenetrable, beautiful choral music. He found the most freedom in writing Masses, to which he found the most success and fame in doing so. The few who reached greater levels of quality in their work before 1600 either perfected these techniques through simplicity and clarity, or achieved incredible perfection in their own unique style. Obrecht was quite forward looking for his time and has his own uniqueness in style with the complicated and creative usages of melody being paired with gorgeous space, harmonic repose and great vocal writing. It’s a little unfortunate that there were powerhouses who came right after him that somehow improved upon just about everything, but Obrecht’s music should still be highly praised with what it is, and it gave the world a true glimpse at perfection doing what so many others wished they could have done before him.

13. John Taverner

(c. 1490-1545)

When learning about music history from a book, John Taverner is simply one of the many thrown into the pool of musicians that helped develop the beautiful music of the Catholic Church in the 16th century. That is no light statement; this century became the pinnacle of musical perfection using nothing but human voices, and Taverner was one of the very best at it. His haunting and delightful melodies within exquisite texture changes that thin out at just the right time create some incredible beauty. His Western Wynde mass may be the best representation of his musical successes, but I’ve never heard a Taverner piece that fails to find beauty through melodic shape and great care for each texture. On top of that, he was very smart with his free drawn out form and how the music would circle back to conclusion. To listen to musicians such as Taverner only to discover that it’s just the tip of the iceberg as to what music of the High Renaissance brought, and you begin to realize why music is essential to humanity.

12. Thomas Morley

(c. 1557-1602)

The English madrigal had few but incredibly strong champions, and none was as accomplished and noteworthy as Thomas Morley. In England, the madrigal blossomed rather late and came to be a bit stale and self-serving in the 17th century. Not so for Morley’s era, though. As being one of the first musicians on his side of Europe to experiment with the playful, everyday, simple secular styles brought over from Italy, he became instantly innovative and wrote some of the most memorable and beloved tunes ever for chamber choir. Absolutely everything I’ve heard from him is exceptional, from the quick spurts of delightful energy to the melodic arcs to the brilliant repose created within phrases by tonic and dominant chords. He was less prolific is his other musical endeavors, such as big sacred music or lute songs, but no one remembers him for anything but his madrigals. He had one form, one style, one way of doing things, and it was consistently incredible beyond belief.

11. Orlande de Lassus

(1532-1594)

At long last, polyphony was achieving a sort of perfection in the second half of the 16th century, and lots of musicians had their hands in making this happen. While just another one of the many, Lassus was also one of the most successful at consistently achieving this level of perfection in his output. His sacred work during the height of the counter-reformation contributed greatly to the most bountiful era of beautiful music in all of history. Those motets are where his greatest worth as a musician lies, but he was also very versatile, writing many different secular songs in many languages. Despite the pristine sound of his work, he was not one to shy away from chromaticism or experimentation, which always produced great moments of interest. However, the most fruitful of his works were the simpler, more refined choral pieces meant for the church. Perfection was certainly achieved at times, yet he was still just the worst of the best.

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