Welcome to Concise History of Western Music, 3rd Edition Welcome to Concise History of Western Music, 3rd Edition Welcome to Concise History of Western Music, 3rd Edition
Chapter Navigation
Based on J. Peter Burkholder, Donald J.Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, Seventh Edition

This site requires: Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher / Mozilla-Compatible Browser, & Macromedia Flash player.



Part II: The Age of the Renaissance

Chapter Outline Print This PagePrint This Page
Chapter Outlines

Chapter 8: Sacred Music in the Era of the Reformation



Chapter 8: Sacred Music in the Era of the ReformationThe Reformation began as a theological dispute that was set in motion by Martin Luther in 1517 and mushroomed into a rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church and the spiritual leadership of Rome, the center of Western Christianity. The liturgical changes that eventually ensued naturally brought about musical changes, which differed from country to country according to the degree of reform advocated by the various Protestant leaders: Luther in Germany; Calvin and his followers in France, the Low Countries, and Switzerland; and Henry VIII in England.

At first, the music of the Reformation in Germany, written by Lutheran composers, remained very close to the traditional Catholic sources and styles of plainsong and polyphony. Some music retained the original Latin texts, other works used German translations, and still others had new German texts fitted to the old melodies (this work was called a contrafactum). The Lutheran Church's most distinctive and important musical innovation became the strophic hymn— called Choral or Kirchenlied (church song) in German and chorale in English— intended for congregational singing in unison. Just as plainchant was the basis for musical expansion and elaboration for Catholic composers, so, too, the repertory of chorales became the starting point for a great deal of Lutheran church music from the sixteenth century until the time of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and beyond.

Reformation church music outside Germany developed along similar lines, except that Calvin and leaders of other Protestant sects opposed certain elements of Catholic ceremony much more strongly than Luther had. They distrusted the allure of art in places of worship and in services, and prohibited singing of texts not found in the Bible. As a result, the only notable contributions to music from the Calvinist churches were their Psalters—rhymed metrical translations of the Book of Psalms set to newly composed melodies or, in many cases, to tunes of popular origin or from plainchant. Since the Calvinists discouraged musical elaboration, they seldom expanded the Psalter tunes into larger vocal or instrumental forms. In England, under Henry VIII, the Anglican Church's separation from Rome in 1534 occurred more for political than for religious reasons; so English church music was less affected and remained closer to Catholic musical traditions (except that the English language replaced Latin in the liturgy).

The Catholic Church met the defection of the Protestant reformers by starting its own program of internal reform known as the Catholic Reformation. This movement not only resulted in many liturgical reforms, it also reaffirmed the power of music to affect the hearts and minds of the faithful through an appropriate style of sacred polyphony. At the same time, a broader movement, known as the Counter-Reformation, attempted to win back those who had left the Catholic Church, appealing to their senses through the sheer beauty of its liturgy, religious art, and ceremonial music. Among all the Catholic composers of sacred music to succeed in this strategy, the Roman Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–1594) was the most important. Not only did he capture the essence of the musical Counter-Reformation, but his style also became a model for church-music composition—one that has served teachers and students of counterpoint to this day.

Chapter Outline:

  • Prelude
    • The Reformation was a revolt against the spiritual leadership of Rome.
      1. Martin Luther initiated the movement in Germany (1517).
      2. Calvin and his followers: France, the Low Countries, and Switzerland
      3. Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in England.
      4. Attitudes towards music varied in each of the reform movements.
    • Lutheran Church
      1. The Lutheran Church initially maintained ties to the Catholic service.
        • Some music kept the original Latin texts.
        • Other melodies had Latin texts translated into German.
        • Contrafactum: new texts fitted to old melodies
      2. Chorale
        • Strophic hymn intended to be sung by the congregation in unison
        • Some tunes were borrowed; others were newly composed.
        • Chorales became source material for later Lutheran composers, such as J. S. Bach.
    • Other Protestant Churches
      1. Calvinists distrusted the allure of music (see Figure 8.1).
        • They prohibited the singing of texts not found in the Bible.
        • Only notable contribution: rhymed metrical translations of the Book of Psalms set to music, either newly-composed or borrowed
        • Psalm tunes were rarely expanded into larger musical works.
      2. Anglican Church
        • Created by Henry VIII after separation from Rome in 1534
        • The split was more political than religious.
        • The music retained Catholic traditions, except that English replaced Latin.
    • Counter-Reformation
      1. Movement in Catholic Church to win back those who left
        • Numerous liturgical reforms resulted.
        • The role of polyphonic music in the Church was reaffirmed.
      2. Palestrina (1525/6-1594)
        • He captured the essence of the musical Counter-Reformation.
        • His style became a model for church-music composition and is even used by students of counterpoint even today.
  • The Music of the Reformation in Germany
    • Martin Luther
      1. A singer, composer, and great admirer of Josquin
      2. He believed in the educational and ethical powers of music.
      3. He wanted the congregation to participate in the services.
      4. He retained some aspects of the Catholic liturgy, but altered other.
      5. Much of the service was translated into German, but some portions remained in Latin.
    • Music in the Church
      1. Large churches with trained choirs kept much of the Latin liturgy and its polyphonic music.
      2. Smaller churches adopted a German Mass, published by Luther in 1526.
        • It followed the main outline of the Roman Mass.
        • Most elements of the Proper and Ordinary were replaced with chorales.
    • Chorales
      1. Through chorales (hymns), the congregation learned the tenets of their faith and celebrated religious holidays.
      2. Chorales originally had only a text and a tune.
      3. Characteristics
        • Simple, metrical tunes
        • Rhyming verses
        • Easily memorized
      4. The majority of chorale tunes were adapted from preexisting sources.
        • The Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes (NAWM 5) became Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in the bonds of death).
        • Isaac's Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen (NAWM 38) became O Welt, ich muss dich lassen (O world, I must leave you).
      5. Newly-composed chorales
        • Luther encouraged the composition of new tunes and texts and wrote some himself.
        • Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A sturdy fortress is our God), Luther's best-known chorale, became the anthem of the Reformation. (see Example 8.1 and NAWM 42c)
    • Polyphonic chorale settings
      1. Three types of settings
        • German lied technique: unaltered chorale tune in long notes in the tenor surrounded by three or more parts, as seen in the works of Johann Walter (NAWM 42d)
        • Franco-Flemish motet style: each phrase is treated in imitation
        • Chordal style: tune in soprano; this became the preferred setting
      2. The choir often alternated chorale stanzas in four parts with unaccompanied unison verses sung by the congregation.
      3. Later developments
        • The organ played harmony while the congregation sang all of the verses.
        • Trained choirs sang more elaborate treatments of the chorale.
        • Chorale motets—free polyphonic compositions built on a chorale-appeared by the end of the century.
        • Organists used chorale tunes for improvisations.
        • These tendencies culminate in the music of J. S. Bach.
  • Reformation Church Music outside Germany
    • Calvinism
      1. John Calvin (1509-1564) rejected the Catholic liturgy (see In Context, p. 150 and Figure 8.2).
        • He believed that music might lead people astray.
        • Musical instruments and polyphonic music were forbidden.
        • Psalms sung to monophonic tunes was the only music allowed in church.
      2. The tunes appeared in collections called Psalters.
      3. The principal French Psalter was published in 1562.
        • All 150 psalm texts were translated into strophic, rhyming, and metrical verse.
        • Loys Bourgeois (ca. 1510-ca. 1561) selected or composed the melodies.
        • Melodies move mostly by step.
        • Psalm 134 (see Example 8.2 and NAWM 43a) is known as "Old Hundredth."
      4. Polyphonic psalm settings
        • For devotional use at home, polyphony was allowed.
        • Many had four or more parts, with the tune in the soprano or tenor.
        • Settings were often in chordal style, but some had more elaborate motetlike arrangements.
      5. Leading composers of polyphonic settings
        • Claude Goudimel (ca. 1520-1572), France
        • Claude Le Jeune (ca. 1528-1600), France
        • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Netherlands
      6. Influence of the French Psalter
        • Translations of the Psalter appeared in many countries.
        • Other Reformed Churches, including the Lutheran Church, adapted Psalter melodies for their own services.
        • The French Psalter influenced the English Psalter and the Psalter brought to New England by the Pilgrims in 1620.
    • Anglican Church
      1. Most of the English polyphonic music from this period is sacred.
      2. After the break with Rome, traditional Latin motets and Masses continued to be written.
      3. General qualities of English polyphony
        • Full textures
        • Strong feeling for the harmonic dimension of music
        • Textural variety through contrasting voice groups
        • Long melismas in all voices, resulting in passages of extraordinary beauty and expressiveness
      4. Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585)
        • Leading English composer in the middle of the century
        • Composed Latin masses and hymns
        • Also composed Anglican service music in English
        • His style weds the melody to the natural inflection of speech.
  • . The Counter-Reformation
    • Council of Trent (1545-1563)
      1. Series of meetings held in Trent (Northern Italy) to purge the Church of abuses and laxities
      2. Complaints about music
        • Secular cantus firmi
        • Complicated polyphony that obscured words
        • Bad pronunciation
        • Irreverent musicians
        • Use of instruments
      3. The final decision was vague, leaving it to bishops to regulate music.
    • Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490-1562)
      1. Flemish composers remained prominent throughout Europe.
      2. Willaert was among the best-known composers of his time.
      3. He held several positions in Italy.
        • Director of music at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice for thirty-five years
        • He trained many eminent musicians, including Zarlino, Cipriano de Rore, and Nicola Vicentino.
      4. Willaert carefully molded his music to the pronunciation of the words.
  • . Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6-1594)
    • Reputation (see Biography, p. 153 and Figures 8.4 and 8.5)
      1. Credited with saving polyphony
        • According to legend, his Pope Marcellus Mass (NAWM 45) proved that sacred words could be intelligible in polyphonic music.
        • Palestrina said that the Mass was composed "in a new manner."
        • The six-voice Mass is reverent and attentive to the words.
      2. Palestrina's style is the first in Western music to have been consciously preserved and imitated (see Examples 8.3 and 8.4).
      3. Few composers before Bach are as well-known today.
    • Mass types (see Figure 8.6)
      1. Half of his works are parody Masses.
      2. Several use the old-fashioned cantus-firmus method, including two on the L'homme armé melody.
      3. He composed a small number of canonic Masses.
      4. He wrote six free Masses, including the Pope Marcellus Mass.
    • Pope Marcellus Mass, first Agnus Dei (NAWM 45b)
      1. The melodies are similar to chant
        • Stepwise motion
        • Few repeated notes
        • The range is limited to a ninth.
        • Melodies often form an arch.
        • Leaps are followed by notes in the reverse direction.
      2. Diatonic modes are maintained, and chromaticism is rare.
      3. Each phrase has its own motive that is treated in overlapping points of imitation.
      4. Overall unity
        • Systematic repetition of phrases
        • Cadences on scale degrees that define the mode
    • Pope Marcellus Mass, Credo (NAWM 45a)
      1. Attention to text setting is clear.
      2. Voices often pronounce a phrase together rather than in staggered polyphony.
      3. ariety is achieved by dividing the choir into smaller groups.
      4. Use of the full six voices is reserved for climactic passages or significant words.
  • Palestrina's Contemporaries (see A Closer Look, p. 152)
    • Major figures
      1. Tomás Luís de Victoria (1548-1611), Spanish
      2. Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594), a well-traveled Northerner
      3. William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623), English
      4. All shared techniques with Palestrina but developed distinctive qualities.
    • Victoria
      1. The most famous Spanish composer of the sixteenth century, he composed sacred music exclusively.
      2. Influence of Palestrina
        • Victoria spent two decades in Rome, where he probably knew Palestrina.
        • He was the first Spanish composer to master Palestrina's style.
      3. Differences from Palestrina
        • Greater expressive intensity
        • More chromatic
        • Example: O magnum mysterium (NAWM 46b) often has the sixth degree lowered and the seventh raised (see Figure 8.7)
      4. Missa O magnum mysterium (see Example 8.5 and NAWM 64a)
        • A parody Mass based on his own motet
        • The Kyrie begins with an exact quotation of the motet's imitation.
        • Each movement reworks the original and in a new way.
    • Orlando di Lasso (see Figure 8.8)
      1. The last of the long line of Franco-Flemish composers, he traveled extensively.
      2. Differences from Palestrina
        • He wrote many secular works.
        • Was an advocate of emotional and pictorial text expression
      3. By age twenty-four he had published books of sacred and secular music.
      4. Tristis est anima mea (1565, NAWM 47)
        • The text is based on Jesus' words before his crucifixion.
        • A descending-semitone motive expresses sadness (tristis) at the beginning (see Example 8.6).
        • Suspensions heighten the emotional tension.
        • A running subject repeated eleven times depicts the words "you will take flight," referring to the eleven disciples.
      5. Lasso influenced later German composers.
    • William Byrd
      1. The most important English composer of the Renaissance
      2. Probably studied with Thomas Tallis
      3. Although a Catholic, he served the Church of England as organist and choirmaster and composed in all the Anglican genres.
      4. Sing joyfully unto God (NAWM 44)
        • Anthem for six voices
        • Points of imitation open the work.
        • Homophonic declamation used sparingly (e.g., at "Blow the trumpet")
        • Bass motion a fifth down or a fourth up for cadences
        • Passages in imitation vary the intervals and rhythm.
      5. By the 1590s he was composing for Catholics worshiping in secret.
      6. He composed three masses, one each for three, four, and five voices
      7. Gradualia (1605 and 1607)
        • Two books
        • Polyphonic settings of the complete Mass Proper for the Church year.




This site and the material contained herein © 2006 W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.