With the start of the Renaissance, festivals began to be used as court propaganda, testaments to the power, wealth and prestige of the ruling houses of Europe. Elaborate festivities were planned in conjunction with events of state such as coronations, weddings, baptisms, ceremonies of allegiance, state visits or entries, peace treaties and funerals. They included processions, competitions such as dramatic tournaments or tilting, pageants, banquets, often with their own dramatic interludes, balls, masquerades, theatrical presentations, regattas and water shows, and fireworks with general illumination. They lasted from a few days to several months, offering innumerable occasions for music-making.
For his coronation in 1377, Richard II was welcomed by all of London. On a stage ‘were many [dressed as] angels, with dyvers melidiez and songe’. When Charles V of France entertained the Holy Roman Emperor in Paris, trumpet fanfares accompanied the march back to the city, where an ensemble of royal musicians played ‘virelais, chansons and other bergerettes’. When in 1461 the newly crowned Louis IX left Reims for Paris, no fewer than 54 trumpeters accompanied him; at one tableau on the route three pretty girls, nude, sang ‘little motets and bergerettes’, and next to them were many performers of bas instrumens. At one pageant for the visit of Charles VIII to Rouen in 1485, seated figures representing the 24 Old Men of the Apocalypse held portative organs, harps, lutes, rebecs, shawms, crumhorns and other instruments, while minstrels did the playing from behind. It was customary for the loud instruments to be placed on a scaffold or balcony, where they performed for banquets and dances such as the lively saltarello or alta danza. They were also featured at tournaments, where fanfares of penetrating sonority were called for. Soft instruments, on the other hand, often played or accompanied the singing of chansons for the slow, stately basse danse.
Renaissance festivals reflected the pervasive influence of classical antiquity in triumphal arches with inscriptions, pageant-wagons and theatre with humanistic or mythological themes. Both vocal and instrumental music encompassed the new style. This was most apparent in the long series of extravagant Medici festivals in Florence. The marriage of Cosimo I and Eleonora of Toledo in 1539 included a huge banquet with a comedy staged in the palace courtyard, its acts interspersed with intermedi featuring madrigals by such composers as Francesco Corteccia and Costanzo Festa. For the wedding celebrations of Cosimo's heir Francesco I and Joanna of Austria in 1566, the artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari designed the costumes and pageant-wagons. The bride was ushered into Florence ‘to the sounds of many trumpets and the roar of drums’. The birth of a daughter to Francesco was celebrated during the carnival season of 1567 with mock combats, masquerades, banquets, an allegorical pageant, a comedy and fireworks. A six-part madrigal by Corteccia was sung with the parts doubled by two cornetts, two crumhorns and two trombones. One of the jousts displayed ‘a great number of trumpets and shawms [as well as] Turkish-style kettledrums, all mounted’. At the second marriage of the duke in 1579, to Bianca Cappello of Venice, one of the six major events was a staged battle, with ‘diverse musicians with many voices and innumerable instruments’. Music by Vincenzo Galilei, Piero Strozzi and Alessandro Striggio were performed; one of the singers was Giulio Caccini.
The courts of northern Europe soon absorbed these new influences, examples including the numerous state visits of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V between 1515 and 1533, the coronation festivities for Anne Boleyn in 1533, ‘garnysshed with mynstralsy & chyldren syngyng’, with pageants featuring Apollo and the Nine Muses and the Judgement of Paris; and the French royal festivals, conceived by humanists ‘in the antique style’, during the reigns of Francois I and Henri II, who had married Catherine de' Medici. When Henri made a triumphal entry into Lyons in 1540, from the top of a classical edifice an ensemble of cornetts, shawms, crumhorns and dulcians was heard. A long series of festive entries (joyeuses entrées or blijde inkomsten) into Flemish cities celebrated the successive imperial governors: when Archduke Ernest arrived in Brussels and Antwerp in 1594, one of the staged tableaux represented the Nine Muses, six playing cornett, buisine, triangle, viola da braccio, flute and gamba, and three singing from partbooks. The elaborate celebrations for the marriage of Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria and Renée of Lorraine in 1568 included processions, feasting, games of skill, dancing, dramatic performances and fireworks. The music was directed, and largely composed, by the Kapellmeister Orlande de Lassus. During the prenuptial banquet winds and strings alternated with vocal music. At the wedding service a six-part mass by Lassus was performed by chorus and instruments, while the banquet which followed included an organ composition by Annibale Padovano, a motet by Lassus played by cornetts and trombones, and all sorts of instrumental and vocal music between the various courses.
At the wedding of Archduke Johann Friedrich of Württemberg and Barbara Sophia of Brandenburg ‘there was a completely glorious musical performance’. Each of the noble guests brought along his own musical establishment, all participating in the dramatic processions and banquets. The skill of the ducal musicians was on display at the baptism of Prince Friedrich in 1616. Sacred works by Ludwig Daser and Gregor Aichinger were performed by voices accompanied by basoons, bombardes, cornetts and trombones. The rulers of Savoy in Turin were known for their lavish festivals. Marco da Gagliano's Dafne was performed at the wedding of Marguerite of Savoy and Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua in 1608. For the wedding of Princess Adelaide and Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria in 1650, an ensemble of 24 violins played throughout the banquet, and a dramatic horse-ballet included the court musical ensemble playing from the logia of a stage set representing the Palace of Love.
At his coronation in 1654 Louis XIV of France ‘was escorted to the cathedral [of Reims] preceded by a dozen trumpeters, drummers, fife players, oboists, flautists, bagpipers and trombonists’. Following the service, as soon as the doors were thrown open, ‘trumpets, fifes, drums and other instruments … blended their agreeable sounds with the voices of the populace, crying “vive le Roy”’. The king entertained his court at Versailles with elaborate festivities including ballets, theatre, banquets and grand balls. Lully's Alceste had its première at a divertissement in 1674 celebrating a military victory. As Charles II of England was welcomed on his way to his coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1660, he passed through four triumphal arches upon which dramatic performances were staged along with music: respectively, trumpets and drums, a wind band, string instruments and a mixed ensemble. Spread out along the route of march, other musicians played as the procession passed by.
Italian opera became a staple feature of these court festivals, especially at the imperial court in Vienna beginning with Ferdinand II. Antonio Cesti's Il pomo d'oro was first performed during birthday celebrations for Queen Margherita in 1668. In the same year, Antonio Draghi's Il fuoco eterno was commissioned for the birth of a daughter to Emperor Leopold I. The combination of opera, masked balls, theatre, ballets, parades and liturgical music with orchestral companiment added to the magnificence of these occasions. The carnival season at the Saxonian court in Dresden in 1695 included as its main event an 11-part dramatic procession of pagan gods and goddesses, the music for which was organized and directed by the Kapellmeister Nicolas Strungk. The entire musical ensemble, as well as those from other invited courts, was integrated into the affair, the choice of instruments being determined by the deity and dramatic context of each segment.
Full-scale, homogeneous instrumental and vocal performances were the norm in 18th-century court festivals. One of the most important political events was the marriage in 1719 of Friedrich August II of Saxony and Princess Maria Josepha of Austria. The famous Dresden court orchestra was on display; the evening's entertainment included work for 64 trumpets and eight timpani and the serenata La gara degli dei by the orchestra's director Johann David Heinichen, while the main feature was the performance of Antonio Lotti's opera, Teofane. Heinichen's serenata Diana sull'Elba was the highlight of an aquatic festival for which a large orchestra performed from a barge shaped like a seashell.
Oaths of allegiance and fidelity were festal occasions as well. When Emperor Charles VI was installed as Duke of Steyer in 1728 the ceremonial banquet included a concert by ensembles of instruments stationed in the various dining chambers. At the homage ceremony made by the Austrian nobles to Maria Theresa as Archduchess of Austria in 1740, the customary trumpets and kettledrums were employed in both sacred and secular music-making as a symbol of imperial power. Louis XV was welcomed by the cities of Strasbourg and Mets in 1744; at one ceremony the festivities included a Te Deum, the voices ‘intermingled with fanfares from trumpets and timpani and [the sounds of] oboes and bassoons’. In both royal and imperial processions throughout Europe, military regiments by then included wind bands or oboes, bassoons and sometimes even horns.
The coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II in 1790 took place in Frankfurt; the music, directed by Vincenzo Righini, Kapellmeister at Mainz, was performed by the archbishop's own ensemble, augmented by 15 members of the imperial orchestra from Vienna. This represented perhaps the apogee of festal performances of the period, combining fully concerted music with works commissioned especially for the occasion.