Introduction

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30. Jean Mouton

(c. 1459-1522)

This French composer and teacher is known well for his sacred choral motets, and although not many exist, they seem to still be widely performed. His music flows gracefully through slow, drawn-out tempos, being like a trudge through mud rather than a quick swim in clear water. Not many musicians are able to write such effective music at a slow pace as consistently as Mouton. Pairing this with understandable and straightforward harmony, although normally not incredibly directional or daring, delivers some gorgeous moments. His “Ave Maria” remains a staple for choirs today. What may be a bit missed in melodic development and harmonic exploration compared to those around him is more than made up for in the incredibly beautiful, spatial textures that his music lends itself to.

29. Cipriano de Rore

(c. 1515-1565)

Perhaps one of the most important Franco-Flemish musicians of his generation, coming right after a boom in creativity and development from the previous generation, Rore made a name for himself by continuing to shatter boundaries and develop important trends in secular music. At his time, sacred choral music was the dominant genre, but Rore’s experimentation and unique harmonic style contributed greatly to the most prominent secular genre being born; the madrigal. While other musicians in this circle of forward thinkers in Italy surpassed him a bit in terms of strength in melody and vocal appeal, Rore’s clear counterpoint and inventive setting of serious vernacular texts laid the foundation for the Italian madrigal to thrive. His music was poetic and his creative expressions come across quite neatly, which gave rise to new, experimental voices that propelled the music world into the future.

28. Jacques Arcadelt

(c. 1507 – 1568)

The Franco-Flemish school had many stars who brought secular music to new heights of importance, and one of the brightest stars of them all was Arcadelt. Being a prominent force with both his Italian madrigals and French chansons, he was one of the most popular musicians of the time with his command of text painting, expression, and congenial writing for multiple voices. He excelled melodically, with his tunes being very singable and recognizable. He may often be remembered as a one-hit wonder with his popular madrigal “Il bianco e dolce cigno”, which is still widely known today. Although prolific in surviving output, that may be a rather appropriate label for him, as nothing else I’ve heard from him ever reached that same combination of melodic beauty, graceful flow, and satisfying cadences. Still, all of his work is surely at a level of greatness that doesn’t falter in bravery and satisfaction.

27. Philippe Verdelot

(c. 1480 – c.1530)

A Frenchmen who is widely regarded as the father of the Italian madrigal, Verdelot was one of the first known musicians to combine existing song forms with immense expressionism, vernacular Italian text, and important significance and connection to everyday life. He did it while keeping vocals idiomatic and standard with what, at the time, produced the most beauty. He constantly used nice vocal stratification and had strength in his choral textures, using timely block chords rather than a multitude of polyphony, which was not very forward looking of him but still did it quite well. He was not the most daring or expressive, leaving the next generations to handle that, but his work in integrating sophisticated musical elements into music that could affect everyday life was surely profound.

26. Luca Marenzio

(c. 1553-1599)

Marenzio has my vote for the most prolific Italian madrigal composer before Monteverdi. That’s not to say he was the best of his era out of everyone who happened to write madrigals, but in terms of devotion to the genre and application of technique, his output within this realm was the most impressive. While chromaticism and overall harmony was being experimented with, Marenzio always seemed to take it a step further, providing music that was daring and thought provoking on multiple levels, all while staying beautiful and understandable to the ears. The harmonic journeys he takes the listener through are quite remarkable, being a work of intelligence and complete care. His expression of text was unrivaled at the time and has hardly been rivaled since. His ability to shift emotion and tone within brilliant arrival points is exquisite, only sounding a bit too thin in texture and melodic substance overall with regards to his massive expressionism to get him on the same level of the absolute greatest.

25. John Dunstable

(c. 1390 – 1453)

You can thank John Dunstable, leader of the contenance angloise (“the English Countenance”) movement, for popularizing triadic harmony, forever giving weight, color, and emotion to harmonic language. Not only was he the first musician to continually use the intervals of thirds and sixths, which gave music a new expressive dimension, but he also did it so beautifully, providing new meaning to spiritual connection through music. There’s a reason why Dunstable’s radical change in approach to harmony caught on so quickly around the Western world: it sounded more peaceful, tranquil, and clean than anything anyone had ever heard before. While Dunstable may have been a one-trick pony in that sense, this trick was immensely important and influential to everyone. This was the only time in history where an important musical revolution originated in England until The Beatles in the 1960’s, and what an important revolution it was.

24. Francesco Landini

(c.1325-1397)

This musician deserves much more praise than the simple cadence figure that’s named after him. Landini was the most important and popular Italian musician in the 14th century, leading the flourish of experimentation in secular music through new meters, rhythmic interest, and happy themes such as love and springtime. Landini rose above his contemporaries with adding delightful, singable, and memorable melody to this fun and interesting musical structure. His output, both vocal and instrumental, is quite musically diverse all while staying light and enjoyable around every corner.

23. Clement Janequin

(c. 1485-1558)

One of the best storytellers through music, Janequin’s music sticks out like a sore thumb amidst generations upon generations of musicians attempting to find a beautiful sound above anything else. Beauty doesn’t quite seem like Janequin’s biggest motive as a musician, although his music still employs carefully crafted congenial harmony and great independent vocal lines. His music is perhaps the most recognizable of his time because of the oddly wonderful onomatopoeias, stark expressive dynamics, and literal theatrical portrayal of the stories being conveyed. As popular as he was, it’s surprising that these musical tactics never gained ground, making Janequin’s music the only examples of its kind. It’s fun to the point of slapstick; no wonder everyone loves singing some Janequin.

22. Philippe de Vitry

(1291-1361)

This medieval musician from France doesn’t have a whole lot of music that has survived today, but what has survived is some of the best examples in history of beauty through complexity. De Vitry was obviously bored of the sameness that existed in music written prior to him, where musicians were stuck using the same notes and rhythms over and over again because they had no way to express music in any other way. De Vitry changed that forever with his innovations in musical notation, freeing up previous rhythmic confines and setting texts in an extremely woven and intricate way that became a staple for the next 100 years in music, a period known as the ars nova. Not everyone did it well; in fact, only one did it better than de Vitry, which is what prompted 15th century musicians to make some radical changes and begin an entire new era. De Vitry’s music is never complex for the sake of complexity, but rather its freedom finds lots of fun, cool rhythmic feels and great melodic journeys in singular voices. He showed the world that music can be expressed in a multitude of ways and can be as free as you’d like. While his overall style and techniques may not have lasted long, his ideas were essential for all future musicians being able to bring their own unique ideas into music and be as expressive as they’d like.

21. John Dowland

(1563-1626)

No musician has ever expressed so much sadness in music than John Dowland. Sadness and melancholy have almost always existed as themes in music, but no one aside from Dowland has ever made it their prominent subject and done so well with it. This Englishman popularized the lute and constantly showcased it for its moody tone and its ability to portray distress through slow tempos. The lute works perfectly in tandem with solo vocals in his music, with the voice always having a gut-punching, heavy melodic line that is very well shaped in order to portray the peaks and valleys in emotion. These lute songs were his only major contribution to the music world, but they are beautiful, smart, and filled with deep emotion. This was some incredibly consistent quality in his output, with each song having another unique melodic and harmonic idea while staying just as expressive, even if as a whole they sound quite indistinguishable.

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