Renaissance music 1400–1600

The recordings you can listen to on this page are featured throughout the Museum's Medieval & Renaissance galleries and complement significant objects in the collection. The recordings were made by the Royal College of Music especially for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries thanks to an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Ivory comb with scene of lovers in a garden, Paris, France, 1325-50. Museum no. A.560-1910

Ivory comb with scene of lovers in a garden, Paris, France, 1325-50. Museum no. A.560-1910

O Rosa bella

Songs which reflected the heartbreak and pain of love were extremely popular in the 14th and 15th centuries.This one, O Rosa bella (O Lovely Rose), describes courtly love, a formalised secret passion between aristocrats that was both erotic and spiritual, even morally uplifting. This type of song was first written in the 12th century by the troubadours; aristocratic poets of southwest France.

The music for O Rosa bella was written around 1400 by Johannes Ciconia, a Franco-Flemish composer, who worked mainly in Italy. The original singers were probably soloists from the court chapel or cathedral choir. In this recording the piece is performed with two male voices accompanied by a lute. This recording was made by the Royal College of Music especially for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries thanks to an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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Detail of chancel chapel from Santa Chiara, about 1493–1500. Museum no. 7720-1861

Detail of chancel chapel from Santa Chiara, about 1493–1500. Museum no. 7720-1861


Jesu Corona Virginum

Jesu Corona Virginum was sung by an order of nuns known as the Poor Clares. The chancel chapel illustrated here was once part of one of their convent churches, Santa Chiara (St Clare) in Florence. While the Poor Clares isolated themselves from the outside world, their church was accessible to members of the public. During Mass, the people would have heard the nuns, who were hidden in an enclosed choir, singing. Although the Poor Clares took a vow of silence, their prayers were often sung during Mass and many nuns were also accomplished musicians.

This hymn is called Jesu Corona Virginum and its words praises a virgin, revelling in her spiritual marriage to Jesus and praying for her continued guidance. The hymn is dedicated to virgin martyrs, and is still sung in the Catholic Church. This recording is performed by women, as it would have been in the Santa Chiara chapel.


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Detail from plate design, German. Museum no 14000

Detail from plate design, German. Museum no 14000

D'où vient cela, belle

D'où vient cela, belle (How is it, my love) is one of the most famous works written by one of the greatest masters of the Renaissance chanson, Claudin de Sermisy. A chanson is a lyrical song with French words. This one is the sad lament of a jilted lover, wondering how it is that his beloved no longer wants him.

Sermisy composed for several French monarchs in the early 16th century, including François I and Henri II. His chansons were performed on a variety of instruments, but in this recording, four singers are accompanied only by a lute, a typical set-up of the time. Music like this, involving only a few performers, was probably heard in the private quarters of the palace, an intimate and exclusive experience.


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A Pedlar, woodcut from 'The Book of Trades', Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1568. Museum no. 86.D.46

A Pedlar, woodcut from 'The Book of Trades', Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1568. Museum no. 86.D.46

Fine Knacks for Ladies

Fine Knacks for Ladies is a madrigal - a poetic song. In it the singer presents himself as a humble pedlar. In the 16th century pedlars travelled from town to town selling combs, ribbons, knives, and other small objects, the 'knacks' of the title. This pedlar sings in elegant language that reflects his status as an educated member of court circles. Through the words to the song he argues eloquently that although his wares might seem superficially precious, they're worthless compared to the honesty and loyalty of his heart.

The piece was written in about 1600 by John Dowland, one of the most famous English composers of his day. He was known for his witty songs that could be performed with a variety of different voices and instruments. This one is performed to the accompaniment of a lute.


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Bronze relief, Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Donatello, Florence, Italy, about 1450-60. Museum no. 8552-1863

Cast bronze relief of the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, by Donatello, Florence, Italy, about 1455-60. Museum no. 8552-1863

Se mai per maraviglia

Se mai per maraviglia (If ever in wonder), was written by Franciscus Bossinensis, or Francis of Bosnia. He wrote many pieces for lute and voice, and this is one his most famous and moving compositions. The song focuses on the intense emotions surrounding the death of Jesus and focuses upon the body of Christ hanging on the cross. Many artworks made at this time also focussed on the emotional impact of Christ's death.


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Tapestry showing The Triumph of Chastity over Love, Brussels, Belgium, 1507-10. Museum no. 440-1883

Tapestry showing The Triumph of Chastity over Love, Brussels, Belgium, 1507-10. Museum no. 440-1883

Trionfo di Bacco

Trionfo di Bacco (The Triumph of Bacchus) was written for a Florentine festival and would have been performed in the city's crowded streets. There were three major outdoor festivals each year in Florence. The feast of the patron saint of the city, St John the Baptist, was one of the most important and is still celebrated today. Trionfo di Bacco belongs to the Trionfo genre which focused on events from ancient history and mythology. It is one of the best examples of Florentine festival music written before 1500 to have survived. Trionfo were sometimes performed whilst short dramatic scenes were presented by people on wagons that travelled throughout the streets and squares of the city.

The words for Trionfo di Bacco were written by Lorenzo de' Medici, the de-facto ruler of the Florentine Republic between 1469–92. Under Lorenzo the festivals in Florence became even more spectacular as the city's best craftsmen, artists and artisans were commissioned to make magnificent designs and costumes.

Latin was the language used for music written for the church. However songs like this one were sung in the Italian vernacular and would have been understood by all. Composers took great care to insure the proper accentuation of the text, as the words had to be heard above the commotion of an outdoor festival.

In the recording you can listen to here, the three voices sing to the accompaniment of a lute. The popularity of this song means that it is most likely to have been performed in all sorts of situations: with the accompaniment and reinforcement of many more instruments and voices for outdoor performances or to the accompaniment of lute, as in this recording, for indoor renditions of the song.


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