The Italian music theorist and composer Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590) wrote the most lucid and comprehensive exposition of 16th-century counterpoint.
Born in Chioggia near Venice, Gioseffo Zarlino received his initial training in religion and music from Franciscans, whose order he entered as early as 1537. Although a promising priest and theologian at the age of 24, he nevertheless abandoned this calling in 1541 to study music with the world-famous Adrian Willaert, maestro di cappella of St. Mark's in Venice. Among his fellow students was Cipriano de Rore, who succeeded Willaert at the Cathedral. In 1565 Rore relinquished the post to Zarlino, who held it until his death.
Because of his position in one of the most important churches of Christendom, Zarlino wrote many Masses and motets for liturgical and devotional purposes. But he was also known for his numerous madrigals and secular music to celebrate political events, such as the brilliant naval victory of Lepanto (1571). Zarlino esteemed and emulated Willaert, crediting him with having the restored music to a level previously enjoyed only in classical times. Like his teacher, Zarlino wrote imitative polyphony in diatonic movement, with chromaticism reserved largely for the madrigals.
Although 16th-century opinion considered Zarlino a talented composer, his main significance then and now lies with his three contributions to music theory: Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558), Dimostrationi harmoniche (1571), and Sopplimenti musicali (1588). The first treatise probably contains his most valuable thinking. For the first time among theorists, Zarlino considered the triad rather than the interval as the basic entity of musical composition. His rules for the proper placement of text are still followed by editors of Renaissance music. The prominent place accorded the Ionian mode on C and the Aeolian on A in part IV of the Istitutioni harmoniche not only stressed the importance of these modes but also anticipated their supremacy in the 18th century. While vigorously opposed by his own student Vincenzo Galilei, he favored the Ptolemaic rather than the older Pytheagorean intonation. In his third treatise, Sopplimenti musicali, written in part as a reply to Galilei's attacks, he proposed for the fretted lute a form of equal temperament, commonly accepted only 2 centuries later.
Even while, or perhaps because, Zarlino was a conservative composer, he wrote the best critique of the music of his time and the age that led up to it. His insights and views had far-reaching results in later years, even though he took little part in the musical revolution inaugurated under his eyes by his own student and most formidable opponent, Galilei.
Part III of Zarlino's Le istitutioni harmoniche was translated by Guy A. Marco and Claude V. Palisca as The Art of Counterpoint (1968). Sections from parts III and IV of the same treatise are also translated in William Oliver Strunk, ed., Source Readings in Music History (1950). For a study of Zarlino's position in 16th-century music and music theory see Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959); Hugo Riemann, History of Music Theory, Books I and II (trans. 1962); and Friedrich Blume, Renaissance and Baroque Music (trans. 1967).