10. Carlo Gesualdo
This man proves it is essential to separate the art from the artist. Gesualdo, an insane sadistic murderer, wrote some of the most interesting and thought provoking music of all time. His music blew everyone out of the water at the time in terms of harmonic experimentation, using a plethora of chromaticism and unprepared dissonance to the point of starting an entire new era of music. All previous chromatic explorations in music are quite miniscule compared to his motets and madrigals. No musician ever wrote anything with as much dissonance until the second half of the 19th century. Of course, it isn’t enough to just do something different and sound dissonant; Gesualdo’s true mastery lies in his cadences where, after seemingly endless chromatic unraveling and non-sensible chord patterns, the music resolves with a huge sigh at a surprising and satisfying consonant chord. After a while, the listener begins to expect that this will happen, yet the actual arrival and the journey to get there still surprises every time. Beauty holds many forms, and Gesualdo’s music is incredibly beautiful in its own unique, unprecedented way.
For hundreds of years, monophonic chant was the only real form that music took, at least as far as we know. While it can still be appreciated, it never amounted to anything hugely important or emotionally vital aside from one musician until secondary voice parts were added. Pérotin revolutionized music forever around the turn of the 13th century with his four voice textures. It is incredibly difficult to write four independent parts and put them together at the same time to create something as pleasing and understandable as a single voice. Not only did he do that, but in his compositional style he also found endless beauty and tranquility. He had a perfect knack for melodic shape and repose within tension and energy. The fact that he created such beautiful textures while being restricted to only certain rhythms, pitches, and voices is what truly makes him great. He surpassed every living musician at his time in every possible way and, while using nothing but the conventions of the day, proved to humanity that beauty is timeless.
8. Guillaume Dufay
Dufay was the man who effectively bridged the gap between the medieval and the renaissance styles, doing so with incredible brilliance and intuition. He took the complex forms of the ars nova and made them sound completely under control, bringing out a particular beauty of those rather precise, intellectual tactics that were never heard before. Who knew that isorhythms could be so beautiful? He achieved this first and foremost though putting melody in the forefront as his highest priority, creating memorable and enjoyable music within these mysterious structures. His motet Nuper Rosarum Flores shattered boundaries and gave a new definition to glorious and beautiful composition to musicians around the world, and is still widely beloved today. He continued to shatter barriers and find never-ending amounts of intriguing passages within everything he wrote, mostly his sacred works. He was the first ever musician with transcendent fame. He provided the template for musicians moving forward in how to manipulate familiar methods and find a unique yet worthwhile voice. After all this time, few have ended up surpassing him.
7. Johannes Ockeghem
Despite all of the technical progress that music made in this era, Ockeghem was perhaps the only composer who was successful in favoring the technical process over the resulted emotion. During the 15th and 16th centuries, it was clear that musicians wrote their best stuff when becoming simpler, understandable, and more genuine. Ockeghem was the exception, as he truly harnessed intellectualism and difficulty into something monumental and gorgeous. He is perhaps second only to J.S. Bach in the entire history of music in doing so. Sadly, not a whole lot of works from Ockeghem survive today. What we do have from him, though, still sounds revolutionary. He was by far the most intricate composer of counterpoint in his day, leading future generations to discover more about the relationships between different voices. That eventually led to a pristine and perfect sounding choir, which Ockeghem never quite reached. He was perfect in his own style, though, with every piece of his containing great excitement, interesting techniques, and brilliant results.
6. Hildegard von Bingen
She is the oldest musician in history who has music worth attributing to, listening to, and preserving. She was the only musician before the 13th century, when revolutions in organum and musical notation occurred, to produce absolute magnificence with everything she touched. Monophonic chant was the sole musical genre with any traction for hundreds of years, and although musicians in different regions of the globe had their own little styles, no one ever mastered it to the point of extreme emotional attachment; that is, until Hildegard. She took the same notes, modes, and vocal textures that everyone else was using and found actual intriguing melody through certain tendencies of voice leading and pitch centricity, as well as daring melismas. How she was able to take something so simple and create a seemingly endless output of tranquility and brilliance is nothing short of divine. Her musicality also matured beyond chant, and she wrote the first substantial work of music put to drama, Ordo Virtutum. With her incredible innovation, the music world became multidimensional, and unexplainable emotion through the art was truly born. It’s worth noting as well that females were not given a second thought in the music discipline until at least the 18th century, so for a female to have her output and reputation preserved like this, her music must’ve been exceptionally captivating to people at the time.
5. Tomás Luis de Victoria
The second half of the 16th century was a true golden age in music, with many sacred musicians during the Counter Reformation achieving a strong level of perfection in techniques that were slowly developing for years. It can be argued that the most important musician in this generation of perfection was Victoria. Not only did he find true beauty within every second of his music, but he also brought out the importance of the text in subtle yet amazing ways, giving his music a dash of uniqueness and strong emotional flare. I would argue that his strong attention to text actually caused him to lose a bit of ground to the two Italian and English leaders at the time in terms of actual musical execution, but that is basically just splitting hairs. The fact is that he was one who honed the craft of polyphony to such a degree of brilliance that there is not a single dent in his music; everything from the melodic arcs to the texture shifts are meant to be there and truly build a gorgeous piece from beginning to end. That is why his music is still widely performed today. He is the greatest Spanish musician to ever live, and his devotion to his craft was quite unrivaled. He was one of the few in history to fully connect music to spirituality; he was not only a musician, but also a prophet.
4. Thomas Tallis
Tallis is perhaps the most performed and most well known musician from this era today. His music is simple and eloquent, reserved and beautiful. He is a great example of how music truly reached a truly powerful height with more clarity and the simplification and straightforwardness in structure. Along with his mastery of polyphony, he was always focused on the linear motion, writing incredible melodies to drive the music forward and create true meaning within the beautiful sound. Everything is wonderfully sensible and has the perfect shape in terms of sitting down at the ends of phrases and picking a new idea back up, which also makes his final cadences so rich and sweet. He used a little more homorhythm in his music than most sacred musicians of the time, which is interesting considering the fact that flashy counterpoint was the cornerstone of this age of perfection. Tallis was really the only one who could find a consistent level of beauty and perfection with every textural style. It’s no wonder why so much of his music has survived and is still being revered. Above all of that, perhaps his most important contribution to the music world was teaching his pupil everything he knew.
3. William Byrd
A pupil of Thomas Tallis, Byrd went toe to toe with his teacher on his proficiency of polyphony and finding eloquent beauty. He slightly surpasses his mentor, as well as most everyone achieving this style of perfection at the time, with a few distinct motets that demonstrate an incredible amount of energy, buoyancy, and happiness. These motets, examples being “Heac Dies”, “Sing Joyfully”, and “Vigilate”, have an excitement level beyond explanation with their great melodies and wonderful organization of entrances and differing sections that thrust Byrd to the forefront of the entire era. Overall, Byrd was perhaps the most successful ever at one specific musical aspect: cadences. The way in which he ends phrases with such grace, sensibility, and flawlessness is always worth the listens alone. He had a little bit better of a command over choral styling and writing for multiple voices over his compositions for the Virginal or instrumental ensembles, just in terms of cleanliness and perfection in textures. The overall variety of compositional tactics and intent within his output, though, certainly makes him one of the most important musicians of his generation, and all the better that there aren’t any noticeable blemishes or downfalls in his techniques across the board. It’s obvious to see why he’s one of the most performed and beloved musicians of this era.
2. Josquin des Prez
He was the undoubted leader of the music world in his time, and the undoubtedly biggest influence on musicians for years after his time. Until Josquin, styles slowly came and went, and different musicians took turns being prominent forces for a short time in their geographic location. Then Josquin completely rocked the entire music world, which was perhaps the first time that had happened, with incredibly mature, imaginative, and delightful music which made him world famous. To become world renowned in that era was nothing short of an amazing feat, which was thanks in part to his many travels and his command of every popular and sacred style that people could have wanted. Another fantastic feat of his is that a huge amount of his work has been preserved and survives today. He has the most surviving music from anyone born before 1500. It was not yet a practice at the time to make sure music survived with the correct attributed composer, so the fact that people made the effort to do so for Josquin shows just how important his music was to them. His works aren’t so much of an example of how existing techniques were perfected, which he still did, but rather of the many new ideas he brought to the table that were immensely successful. He was the first, and still one of the most successful, to showcase the importance of the text in his music and compose specifically around that. As a result, his music has so much deeper meaning than typical motets and chansons. He really had to stretch his imagination in order to find ways to highlight the meaning of the text while remaining accessible enough to the ears. His developments within music here were not just successful, but they ushered in an entirely new musical period that lasted about 100 years. He accomplished his weighty goals through wonderful vocal stratification, great transitions through homophony and polyphony, and innovative, surprising harmonic shifts that make his music the most colorful and dramatic than anyone of the era. His output ranges from delightful ear candy to deep, emotional waves. The only way to improve upon this is to obtain absolute perfection in a fully consistent manner, which only one person could.
1. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
For the human race, perfection is nothing but an abstract idea. It is important to us but cannot necessarily be described. If one were to ask me for an example of perfection that exists, the first thing I would show them is the music of Palestrina. His music is quite a paradox. The tactics he uses within the polyphonic choral style, from the counterpoint to vocal stratification to the form of the pieces, can be easily analyzed and are able to be understood by anyone. The result of these tactics, though, is something so beautiful and soul-enriching that there’s no way to fully describe it except to call it perfection. The incredible and uncanny thing about this is people have dissected every inch of Palestrina’s music and have studied every detail with little difficulty, yet no one has ever been able to recreate its absolute beauty. While Palestrina did use obvious compositional tactics that are quite exposed on the surface, it was his ability to make the exact right decisions regarding direction and expression at the exact right time down to every beat that resonate to a degree of complete awe to the listener, which ultimately connects us to an unexplainable power. His is the music you don’t know you need until you experience it. Since the 13th century, choral polyphony was constantly developing and becoming more and more refined as time went on. Looking back, it is easy to see the culmination of this development with Palestrina, being the one who finally achieved the absolute pinnacle of this style. His lasting achievement at the time was taking sophisticated, interesting musical elements and making the sacred text of the piece come off more crystal clear than they ever had been. Today, that is seen as just one of his many amazing achievements. The fact that his music is indeed rather easy to understand and void of any anxiety or true surprise has led some people, namely musicians who perform early music from what I’ve experienced, to describe Palestrina as being too plain. I can understand how performing his music can make one think that way, as everything is extremely smooth, consonant, and sensible. It’s all about what the listener receives, though. Drama and surprise is only one way to try and achieve alluring music, and that isn’t even anything that strictly has to do with musicality. Surprise in music is especially overrated; if every single aspect of the music is working like clockwork and creating a constant string of jaw-dropping beauty, I don’t want to be surprised with anything different. Rather, I want to anticipate everything and in turn feel satisfied when it arrives. I’ve happened to experience that strong musicality based on successful decisions in linear melodic motion, background harmonic foundations, and timbral presentation is the absolute most important thing in determining musical quality. Palestrina, as I said, made every single decision with incredible, unexplainable accuracy that nothing else from a listener’s desire is needed for him to be called the greatest musician who lived before 1600. For someone to not be enthralled by his music, I think they’re either listening to their inner desires more than the music itself, or their desires in the first place are simply out of whack. As hard as it may seem to some, Palestrina alone can make you believe in God. If you let the music of Palestrina, especially any of his Masses, take control of everything for just a little while, I guarantee you will find greater meaning or quality in your life. The more I listen to him, the more I feel like life is worth living. That is why we listen to music.