Renaissance Art and Music

: the space between

‘A Musical Renaissance’ at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

The Queen’s Gallery really is lovely. Sumptuous, jewel-coloured rooms filled with the most astonishing collection of art works that you just want to stick some furniture in and call home. Last week’s ‘Musical Renaissance’ evening, held as part of the current Dürer to Holbein exhibition, was the best kind of excuse to visit both the gallery and the fabulous exhibition. Especially without the crowds/with a glass of wine. But was it anything more than that? And does that matter?

Image Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Without question the singing was incredibly beautiful. Unaccompanied voices, especially of Stile Antico’s exemplary standard, are a rare joy. Their purity and intensity was such that the ruby gallery seemed to glow from within. Four pieces were performed during the c.35 minute concert, to a seated audience of c.50 people:

  1. William Cornysh (d.1523), Woefully Arrayed, text by John Skelton (later tutor to Edward VI)
  2. Cristobal de Morales (d.1553), Jubilate Deo (1538), marking the peace treaty between Charles V and Francis I
  3. Josquin des Prez (d.1521), Chanson – I cant remember anything more specific… (only four singers for this one)
  4. Heinrich Isaac, music for Maximiliaan I’s confirmation as Holy Roman Emperor

The evening’s emphasis was unsurprisingly given to music with royal associations. It hardly needs justifying in a collection and exhibition of this type, and it certainly facilitated closer engagement between the paintings and music. During the third piece, a Chanson by Josquin, the group was stripped back to just four singers and you were able to look directly at the paintings on the wall behind them without the obstruction brought about by a flank of singers. Finally we could see the whites of the sitters’ eyes, which brought about a rather intoxicating sense that these figures were listening along with us.


I must admit to questioning whether there was anything more than the loosest historically contextual point to the evening. Singing in the gallery evidently gave great pleasure to the curators and the singers alike, but I did not feel that it said anything new about a relationship between the works exhibited or the songs sung. The standard concert-style seating arrangement and the static nature of the evening meant it was unmistakably a concert, just in a different place. And on the whole you were lucky to have one or two paintings in your eyeline. It was lovely to see the twelve singers who were performing so beautifully, but I found myself rather guiltily wishing they were standing behind us instead of in front of the paintings. However forced a construct our ‘pairings’ of a painting and a piece of music can be, at least it allows you to consider the works and their relationship on their own terms.


Talking to some of the singers afterwards was really worthwhile. I was surprised to learn that the pieces had been chosen because they were ones that the choir already knew as part of their repertoire, not because of any considered link to the paintings in the gallery (I’m now not sure why this surprised me, I must admit). This was the first time they’d been asked to perform in a gallery environment, and were delighted by the opportunity to do so, feeling that the surroundings enhanced their historical and performative understanding of the songs. They agreed however that, if feasible, the ideal for this sort of exercise would be much closer collaboration with individual paintings, and more interaction with the curators on introducing the music and the related art. This type of concert, itself a magical aural and museological experience, merely scratches the surface of interaction between Renaissance art and music.

Through research, discussion and experimentation we aim to explore different ways of doing this and look forward to hearing your contributions at our upcoming discussion groups and seminar.

–        Monthly discussion groups: bringing art historians and musicologists together to explore the relationship between the two disciplines and mediums. First session THIS WEDNESDAY 13th March, 2pm, Courtauld Institute of Art: seminar room

–        Professional Panel Seminars: discussing the presentation of interdisciplinary research with professional art historians, curators, musicologists and musicians. First seminar: Monday 15th April, 6pm, Courtauld Institute of Art: Research Forum south room


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This entry was posted on March 11, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

Mouton Ave Maria Gemma Virginum

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