Choral music of the Renaissance can be a challenge for modern listeners, amateur or professional.The musical structures are dense and there are very few melodies to latch on to. Rather, a listener must focus on the relationships that exist between the various voices and only occasionally will there be something one can take to the shower. In most cases reading along with the score is necessary to become intimately familiar with all the twists the music might take. The alternative to this is repeated hearings of the same performance. This luxury was not an option in the fifteenth century when audiences had to take in what they could with little or no musical education and in one performance. Composers at that time wanted to inspire religious awe and demonstrate the symmetrical beauty of the universe. It was not a priority to have a congregation love the music so much as to be awed by it. Luckily with a little effort, modern audiences can appreciate this type of music on many levels.
Polyphony is what gives this music its unique character. A term used to designate various important categories in music: namely, music in more than one part, music in many parts, and the style in which all or several of the musical parts move to some extent independently. This is a term we most often associate the music of J.S. Bach. But in this case the polyphony is presented to us in a bare bones fashion. The forces that are required are very small. Usually no more then three people per part and the instrumental accompaniment, if there is any, consists only of brass instruments and a small organ that is used to give support to the bass. The vocalists never use vibrato, a regular fluctuation of pitch or intensity or both, either more or less pronounced or more or less rapid. Because this technique tends to blur the voices: keeping the voices independent is essential to performing any polyphonic work. Church music up to the nineteenth century was performed exclusively by men and boys. Women were precluded from participating by the church. Boys were used for the soprano parts and countertenors sang the alto parts. (A male high voice, originally and still most commonly of alto range, though the title is increasingly employed generically to describe any adult male voice higher than tenor.) Many of the best performances today use these forces with great success. Unfortunately, boys are only useful until their voice breaks and it has been demonstrated that their voices are breaking earlier then ever. The problem is that you can not expect ten year old boys to sing music that is this difficult. Five hundred years ago boys did not reach puberty until seventeen.
The relationship of the words to the music is a subject with a very long history. The majority of the words in this type of music are the words of the mass in one form or another. Different portions of the mass were used for different occasions and I discus several of them.The issue for the church has always been to what degree they will allow the complexity of the music to override the message of the words. Since music has always been a reason to come to church restricting composers too much would cause a drop off in attendance. On the other hand, the word of god can be difficult to grasp when it comes at you five ways at once. Ultimately polyphony is more show then tell and the words in this type of music always take a back seat to the structure of the music itself.
The motet is the other important form of polyphonic choral music from about 1220 to 1750. No single set of characteristics serves to define it generally, (except in particular historical or regional contexts) the motet has since been defined as a sacred polyphonic composition with Latin text, which may or may not have colla voce or independent instrumental accompaniment. Unlike the mass, motets are rarely heard today with the exception of Bach's. They constituted a musical means by which words other then those in the mass could be expressed. The same composers who wrote masses wrote motets. I will talk at length on both types of compositions.
There are about a dozen names from various parts of Western Europe that constitute the list of first rate composers of this genus. These composers are not household names, but their influence can be directly traced to Bach and throughout the early baroque. The polyphony associated with the mass created a means of unifying its structure and culminated in Bach b minor mass. Bach used polyphonic works of the fifteenth and sixteenth century as models in his youth, as well as making transcriptions for performance. It is the same emphasis on structure in Bach and Byrd that makes this music so easy to come back to and never grow tired of it.