Musical symbolism in early Renaissance music

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Beginning in the Renaissance, composers developed a system where expressive gestures could stimulate specific responses to the listener. Expressive gesturers were tied to a specific phrase of text. If the words of a motet or madrigal said "he ascended on high" the music would rise in pitch and become lighter in texture. Conversely, if the text read "and he fell into the flaming pits of Hell," the music would descend, become denser in texture and filled with painful dissonance. Composers from Vivaldi to Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky all used this method of expression in purely instrumental music.

Early music however did not work this way. Before 1530, the 3 religious works such as the compassionate Virgin Mary, a piece mourning the dead, and a song commemorating a militant warrior all sounded the same: an indistinguishable stream of polyphony. They were unable to identify the subject matter or spiritual message of the individual works unless they knew these particular compositions.

The most overt musical symbolism appeared in symbolic scores, music manuscripts in which the layout on the page suggested the composer's intent. For example, a song regarding a funeral might be composed entirely in black notes or a love song might be disposed to form a heart. Musical symbolism could also occur by means of number. Notes within a motet could be arranged of thirty, for example, to represent Juda's betrayal of Christ for 30 pieces of silver.

Also, the most perfect form of the medieval church labyrinth possesses a double retrograding rhythm. Similarly, Christ's journey from Heaven to Hell and back involved a recursive progress, a reversal. Two early motets reveal how retrograde motion might be used for symbolic purposes in music. In the Motet Queen of Mercy, four voices sing of the virtues of the Virgin Mary and contrast...