Netherlands School

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Netherlands School


in music composition of the 15th and 16th centuries, a creative trend that developed on the historical territory of the Netherlands and spread to other Western European countries. The Netherlands school is also known as the Franco-Flemish school, the Burgundian school, and the Flemish school. The leading Renaissance school of composition, it marked the flowering of vocal and choral polyphony and the culmination of the development of English and French multivoiced vocal music from the ninth to the beginning of the 15th century.

The Netherlands school was an outgrowth of the high professionalism, artistic achievements, and folk traditions of the advanced musical culture of the Netherlands. It is customary to divide it chronologically into three, and sometimes four, schools headed by the great contrapuntal composers G. Binchois, who belonged to the Burgundian school; G. Dufay, who, like the following four composers, belonged to the Flemish school; J. Ockeghem, who served at the French court; J. Obrecht, who worked in the Netherlands, France, and Italy; Josquin des Prez, who lived in Italy and northern France; and O. Lassus, who worked in Italy, France, England, and Bavaria. Among the composers of the school who worked in other countries and founded local schools of polyphony were H. Isaac, A. Willaert, J. Arcadelt, F. le Bel (Palestrina’s teacher), L. Compère, A. Busnois, A. Brumel, N. Gombert, J. Mouton, J. Clemens non Papa, P. Verdelot, F. di Monte, C. de Rore, and P. de La Rue.

The universal principles of polyphonic development, known as continuous imitation and complex counterpoint, which are based on mathematical calculations of intervals and geometric transformations of motifs, were worked out by the Netherlands school. The main “fixed melody” (cantus firmus), which was repeated in various inversions and transformations, imparted wholeness to compositions, thus embodying the idea of “unity in variety,” a philosophical concept of the universe. The Netherlands masters developed vocal polyphony of the strict style, mastering its complex technique with virtuosity. They wrote church and secular music, including Masses, motets, madrigals, and polyphonic songs (chansons, rondeaux, and ballads, for example). In the 16th century they also created instrumental pieces.

The choral Mass a cappella is the school’s greatest achievement. The inspiring philosophical and contemplative character and complex “sound architectures” of the Masses, as well as their sonorous power and impact on listeners, corresponded to the majesty of the Gothic cathedrals in which they were performed. The deep concentration and clear, inspiring character of the music was underscored by the dominance of bright, high registers (choirs of boys, male falsettos), the smooth development and harmonious combination of different melodic lines, and the beauty of the variants of the transparent counterpoint. Thus, the music of the Netherlands school was, in many respects, analogous to the palette of pure colors, the transparent clarity of light, and the strict refinement of lines typical of J. van Eyck and other Flemish painters of the same period.

The emotionality, vividness, and folk sources typical of the school’s secular music expressed the Renaissance’s wealth of human feelings. The school’s achievements were the result of the fruitful combination of the traditions of medieval religious and philosophical art and the humanistic vitality and scientific and empirical constructivism of the artistic thought of the Renaissance. Many of the Netherlands musicians were also mathematicians and philosophers. Undoubtedly, these interests gave rise to the hidden symbolism of their mathematically calculated compositions and their puzzle, or “riddle,” canons, which had obscure inscriptions hinting at their solutions (calculations of the times and intervals at which the various voices enter). The mathematical quality was combined with the new expressiveness and with extensive use of popular folk melodies, even in the Masses.

The laws of polyphony and the new expressive means elaborated by the Netherlands school paved the way for the development of instrumental music. As a stylistic phenomenon the school brought to a close the centuries-old domination of European music by vocal and choral church genres and the religious world view. Many of the artistic principles of the Netherlands school remained important in the subsequent development of European music—not only polyphonic music, but also homophonic and, later, dodecaphonic composition.


Gruber, R. I. Istoriia muzykal’noi kul’tury. vol. 1, part 2. Moscow, 1941. Pages 305–468.
Taneev, S. I. Podvizhnoi kontrapunkt strogogo pis’ma. Moscow, 1959.
Wolff, H. C. Die Musik der alten Niederländer. Leipzig, 1956.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.