Chapter 8: Sacred Music in the Era of the Reformation
Prelude. (CHWM 152–53)
The Reformation set in motion a rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church. It brought new types of religious music, including chorales and chorale settings in the Lutheran Church and Psalters in Calvinist churches. The Catholic Church undertook its own internal program of reform, which likewise had important effects on church music.
I. The Music of the Reformation in Germany (CHWM 153–55, NAWM 44)
- Luther’s views
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a professor of biblical theology whose arguments that God offers salvation through faith alone and that religious authority comes from the Bible alone posed a challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church.
- Lutheran church music
Luther gave music a central position in the Lutheran Church, and he wanted the entire congregation to participate in services.
- German Mass
Larger congregations kept much of the Latin liturgy. Smaller churches used the Deudsche Messe (German Mass, 1526), Luther’s German version of the Mass liturgy.
The chorale was a simple, metrical tune with rhyming verses. Many chorales were newly composed, and others were adapted from chant or other existing melodies. Music: NAWM 44c
Contrafacta were created when secular tunes were given religious words.
- Polyphonic chorale settings
Composers used a variety of approaches to write polyphonic settings of chorales. They used the older technique of placing the chorale tune in the tenor with a free-flowing accompaniment of three or four voices; and they developed each phrase of the chorale imitatively, as in a Franco-Flemish motet; they placed the chorale tune in the soprano and accompanied it with simple chords. After 1600, it was customary for the organ to play all the parts while the congregation sang the tune. Music: NAWM 44d
II. Reformation Church Music outside Germany (CHWM 155–58, NAWM 45)
- Calvin’s views
Jean Calvin (1509–1564) led a Protestant movement in France, the Low Countries, and Switzerland that rejected papal authority and accepted predestination. He favored singing psalms to monophonic tunes and rejected elaboration.
- French Psalter
The tunes used for singing psalms in Calvinist worship were published in collections called psalters. Psalm-singing in churches was at first monophonic, but psalm tunes were set polyphonically for devotional use at home. Psalters spread widely and translations were available in many places, including New England. Music: NAWM 45a
- English Protestantism
The Church of England was formed for political reasons under King Henry VIII (r. 1509–47). It adopted Protestant doctrines under Edward VI (r. 1547–53): English replaced Latin in services and the Book of Common Prayer was adopted in 1549. The church blended Catholic and Protestant elements under Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) and her successors.
- English musical style
English composers were relatively isolated in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and only gradually adopted the newer style of imitative counterpoint.
The leading midcentury English composer was Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505– 1585), known for his music for both the Catholic and Anglican liturgies.
- Anglican church music
The two principal forms of Anglican church music were the Service (containing music for parts of the liturgy) and the anthem.
III. The Counter-Reformation (CHWM 158–67, NAWM 46–49)
- Council of Trent
At the Council of Trent (1545–63), Catholic Church officials met to address abuses within the church. Music was only one topic considered, and the Council urged very general reforms designed to ensure that the words of the liturgy were clear and the music was reverent in tone.
Music in the Catholic Church changed relatively little during the sixteenth century. Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490–1562) was affected by the humanist movement, and he carefully matched text to music.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–1594) was the leading Italian composer of church music in the sixteenth century. A legend circulated after Palestrina’s death that his Pope Marcellus Mass saved polyphony in the Catholic Church. Music: NAWM 47
Biography: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Palestrina spent most of his career in Rome as a church musician. He was renowned for his masses but also wrote secular madrigals. After the Council of Trent, Palestrina and a colleague were commissioned to revise the official chant books. He was respected during his lifetime and became an almost legendary figure after his death.
- Palestrina’s style
Palestrina’s sacred polyphony captures the essence of the Catholic response to the Reformation with an expressive musical style, which became the first in music history to be consciously preserved and imitated as a model for later generations.
In his masses, Palestrina used a variety of techniques, including cantus firmus, parody, paraphrase, and free composition.
- Pope Marcellus Mass
Palestrina’s melodies move mostly by step in smooth, flexible arches. Leaps are filled in with stepwise motion in the opposite direction, and chromaticism is avoided. Music: NAWM 47b
Palestrina gives each phrase of text its own musical motive, and each phrase overlaps with the next. He created unity by repeating motives and cadencing on important notes in the mode.
A Closer Look: Palestrina’s Counterpoint
Palestrina’s counterpoint is smooth and mostly consonant, with dissonances restricted to suspensions, passing notes, and cambiatas. The voices move independently within a regular harmonic rhythm, and different combinations of voices create a great variety of sonorities.
- Text declamation
Palestrina strove to accentuate the words correctly and to make them understandable. Music: NAWM 47a
- Palestrina’s Contemporaries
Music by many late-sixteenth-century composers shares characteristics of Palestrina’s style, yet each composer also developed a distinctive style.
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) composed sacred music exclusively. Victoria wrote parody and imitation masses based on his motets. Music: NAWM 48a–b
Orlande de Lassus is considered one of the greatest composers of sacred music in the sixteenth century. His motets often use pictorial and dramatic devices and are written in a variety of styles. One of the most versatile composers of his time, he wrote in all the most significant genres and synthesized national styles. Music: NAWM 47
- Lassus motet
Lassus wrote over seven hundred motets, each of which expresses his interpretation of the text through rhetorical, pictorial, and dramatic devices. Lassus mastered several national styles, as well as every genre of sacred and secular music. Music: NAWM 49
William Byrd (ca. 1540–1623) was the leading English composer of the late Renaissance. He wrote secular music and both Anglican and Latin sacred music. Byrd composed all forms of Anglican music and was the first English composer to fully apply imitative techniques. He composed Latin masses and motets and compiled two books of complete polyphonic Mass Propers for major days of the church year. He was protected by Queen Elizabeth.
Postlude (CHWM 167)
The year 1600 is only an approximate date for the end of the Renaissance. Palestrina’s style continued into the seventeenth century and was known as the stile antico or old style. Reformation music, especially the chorale, had a far-reaching impact on Baroque composers, including J. S. Bach. The Counter-Reformation ideal, which emphasized moving the listener’s emotions, influenced Baroque aesthetics.