Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion


Thesis Director

Robert W. Weidner


The purpose of this paper is to outline some techniques for adapting Renaissance vocal music to fit the needs of a modern SATB vocal ensemble.

General Background. The music selected for this study is the Liber selectarum cantionem, published in 1520 by the firm of Grimm and Wyrsung of Augsburg and edited by Ludwig Senfl. The composers represented include: Josquin, Heinrich Isaac, Jacob Obrecht, Pierre de la Rue, and Senfl. There are a total of 24 motets and a canon in the collection, including three motets by anonymous composers.

The Liber selectarum cantionem contains eight motets in six voices, eight in five voices, eight in four voices and a four-voice canon. The book was printed by the double impression process and is laid out in choirbook format.

Performance Practice. The tempo of music in the Renaissance was linked to human physiology: the pace of walking and the rate of the heartbeat. This yields a tempo of 60 to 80 semibreves per minute, depending on the character of the piece, where it is performed, technical difficulties and so forth. The dynamic level should range between pianissimo and mezzo-forte, and should follow the rise and fall of individual lines. Vibrato in singing is not mentioned until around 1600, 80 years after this choirbook was published. The motets of this period were intended to be performed by a choir of twenty to thirty singers and without instrumental accompaniment.

Editing the Motets. The motets in the Liber selectarum cantionem are written for the combination of one or two descant voices, several tenor voices, and one or two bass voices. In some motets, one of the tenor voices consistently lies in the alto range. Some of these motets are practical for SATB ensembles as they are, the others when transposed.

In the majority of the motets in this choirbook, although one of the tenor voices is usually in the alto range, the voices sometimes cross and another tenor voice takes over the alto range. In order to create an alto part from two tenor voices, the original parts are switched as necessary. This technique also works for other combinations of voices and sometimes for three voices.

Another technique which can be used if the voices cannot be switched is to transpose a portion of one of the tenor voices up an octave. Care must be taken, however, to see that the descant lies high enough so that the middle voice does not rise above the descant; and if the original part is very low, that transposing the part up an octave does not create six-four chords.

Either of these techniques works best when an entire phrase can be switched or transposed. Next best is a cadence point. If neither of these is possible, when switching voices, a common note is a good pivot point as long as it does not result in an unusually long or short phrase in a voice; and in transposing a voice up an octave, a wide skip can be a logical pivot point.

In conclusion, although the music discussed in this paper is from one source, the same techniques can be used with other music from the earlier and especially from the later Renaissance.

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