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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations

Music of the Lutheran Church; Venetian Cathedral Music

CHAPTER 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


What we now call the Protestant Reformation was in fact a series of revolts against Roman Catholic orthodoxy and the authority of the hierarchical church with roots going back to the fourteenth century (John Wyclif in England, Jan Hus in Bohemia, both successfully suppressed). They took radically different forms in different places. (The one sixteenth-century Reformation movement with which we are already familiar, the English, was the most “radically different” of all, since it was, uniquely, led by the Crown.) They did, however, reach a joint peak in the first half of the sixteenth century and achieved a lasting rupture in the history of European Christendom, for which reason they now appear in retrospect to have been a concerted movement, which they were not.

What the continental reform movements had in common was an antifeudal, antihierarchical individualism; a zeal to return to the original revealed word of scripture (a by-product of humanism, which encouraged the learning of Greek and Hebrew, the original scriptural languages); and confidence that every believer could find a personal path to truth based on scripture. They shared a disdain for formulaic liturgical ritual or the “caking up” of scripture with scholastic commentary; they reviled the worldliness of the professionalized Catholic clergy and its collusion with temporal authority, especially that of the supranational Holy Roman Empire, the very existence of which testified to that collusion.

What is now thought of as the first overt act of the sixteenth-century religious revolution took place in Germany in 1517, when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed 95 “theses” or points of difference with Roman Catholic authority to the door of the castle church in the town of Wittenberg, as a challenge for debate. The precipitating cause of this bold act was Luther’s horror at what he considered the venal abuse by the local church authorities of what were known as indulgences: the buying of “time off” from purgatory for one’s ancestors or oneself by making contributions to the church coffers.

Among underlying factors that brought things to a head in the sixteenth century was the steady growth of mercantilism—that is, of economic enterprise and money-based trade. Protestantism, capitalism, and nationalism went hand in hand, it has often been observed, and renewed Europe in ways that ultimately went far beyond religion. Their mutual interactions were extremely various. One manifestation of mercantilism, as we know from the previous chapter, was the growth of the printing industry. This not only facilitated the dissemination of humanistic learning and secular music; it also allowed the rapid spread of Protestant ideas. In return, the Reformation provided a big new market for printers (and, as we shall see, for music printers).

Chapter 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations

fig. 18-1 The beginning of the Reformation: Martin Luther posts his ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg.

It cannot be said that music ranked very high on the Reformation agenda, but the effects of the Reformation were felt very keenly in the musical sphere. For it was a revolt within the very stronghold of cultivated music, the source of much or most of its richest patronage. Just think how much of the music we have considered up to now has been bound up with the liturgy that was now coming under attack, and how much the now-suspect opulence of the Roman church hierarchy had meant to the material support of musicians, especially those whose work, committed to writing, forms the basis of music-with-a-history. Under particularly ascetic “reform” conditions, one could imagine music leaving history again. And in some of the reformed churches, it did just that.

For nowhere do the differences among the reformed churches show up more clearly than in their attitudes toward music. What they shared was a hostility to the pope’s music: rich, professionalized, out of touch with ordinary life—just like the hierarchical clergy itself. What they hated, in other words, was the ars perfecta, whose very perfection now came under moral suspicion. But musical agreement among the reformers ended there. They had no united positive vision of music’s place in religion.

Most negative of all was John Calvin (1504–64), the Geneva reformer, whose emphasis on austerity and complete rejection of the sacraments left very little room for music in his services, and none at all for professional music. The only musical artifact of the Calvinist or Huguenot Church was the Geneva Psalter, a book of psalms put into metrical verse (partly by the famous poet Clément Marot) for singing to the tunes (or timbres) of popular songs. It was first published in 1543 and reissued three times thereafter with various harmonizations by the one-time chanson composer (and eventual Huguenot martyr) Claude Goudimel (ca. 1514–72).

These psalm settings were similar in concept to Jacobus Clemen’s Souterliedekens, briefly discussed and sampled in chapter 15, but far simpler. Goudimel’s preface to the last edition, published in 1565, strongly implies that even the simplest polyphonic psalm harmonizations were rejected as frills in Calvinist services, to be allowed only in home devotions. For all practical purposes, then, the Calvinist Church turned its back on music as an art. To the extent that music was cultivated as an art, it had no place in church; to the extent it had a place in church, it was to be “uncultivated” and unlettered. The same could be said for the Swiss German reformed church of Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), which was of all the Protestant churches the most hostile to liturgy, and which sponsored public burnings of organs and liturgical music-books.

The great exception to this pervasive music-hatred was the largest and most successful of the Reformed churches, the Lutheran; and as Luther was quick to point out, there was a lesson in that. Although he was by far the most spectacular and histrionic of the reformers, Luther was in some ways the most conservative, retaining a far more regular and organized liturgy than his counterparts, and in particular keeping the sacrament of the Mass (renamed the Lord’s Supper in its modified Lutheran form). Unlike his counterparts, moreover, Luther was personally a fervent music lover, who played several instruments, loved to sing and even composed a bit, and who did not fear the seductiveness of melody the way Calvin or Zwingli (following St. Augustine) did, but instead wished to harness and exploit it for his own purposes. His most widely quoted remark on music—“Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?”—speaks directly to this wish.1 Even more unlike the Swiss reformers, Luther urged the cultivation of polyphonic or “figural” music in churches and schools as well as homes.

But the polyphonic church music he favored was still of a different order from anything we have seen up to now. It was not totally divorced from the music of the ars perfecta, since Luther wanted the music of his church modeled after that of Josquin des Prez, which (like many Germans) he treasured; and Josquin had been a great figure for the ars perfecta, too. But still, Luther opposed professionalization and hierarchy, seeing his church (in accord with his conception of the original Christian church) as a universal priesthood of all believers.

The music he wanted for it was not the music of a professional choir, but a music of a Gemeinschaft—a congregational community. He described his musical ideals in the preface to a schoolbook called Symphoniae jucundae (“Pleasant polyphonic pieces”), issued in 1538. All men are naturally musical, he begins by observing, which means that the Creator wished them to make music. “But,” he continued, “what is natural should still be developed into what is artful.” With the addition of learning and artifice,

which corrects, develops, and refines the natural music, then at last it is possible to taste with wonder (yet still not comprehend) God’s absolute and perfect wisdom in his wondrous work of music. Here it is most remarkable that one single voice continues to sing the tenor, while at the same time many other voices trip lustily around it, exulting and adorning it in exuberant strains and, as it were, leading it forth in a divine dance, so that those who are the least bit moved know nothing more amazing in the world. But any who remain unaffected are clodhoppers indeed and are fit to hear only the words of dung-poets and the music of pigs.2

From the previous chapter we recognize the kind of music that Luther is praising here with characteristic delicacy. It is the Tenorlied, or as Luther would have called it, the Kernweise, the peculiarly German song genre in which traditional cantus-firmus writing, increasingly outmoded in other European centers, was given a new lease on life by the growth of the printing trade. Luther was a great devotee of the genre, and of its foremost practitioner. Next to the divine Josquin he worshiped Ludwig Sennfl, just the sort of composer the other continental reformers despised. “I could never compose a motet like Sennfl’s, even were I to tear myself to pieces in the attempt,” Luther marveled; “but on the other hand,” he could not resist adding, “Sennfl could never preach as well as I.”3

He said this after receiving an actual musical tribute from Sennfl, with whom he corresponded, and who, while never declaring himself a “Lutheran” or breaking with the religion of the Holy Roman Empire, his employer, sympathized sufficiently with Luther the man to egg him on at a low point in his career (his confinement under arms at Coburg in 1530) with a motet based on Psalm 118, verse 17—“I shall not die, but live, and I shall declare the works of the Lord”—based on the traditional Mode 7 psalm tone as sung in Germany. Luther took the verse forever afterward as his motto, and even tried to make a setting of it himself, as if vying with Sennfl (though never seriously) in the ars perfecta.

Chapter 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations

ex. 18-1a Non moriar sed vivam (Ps. 118:7) as set by Martin Luther

Chapter 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations

ex. 18-1b Non moriar sed vivam (Ps. 118:7) as set by Ludwig Sennfl

In Ex. 18-1a Luther’s tiny setting, in traditional tenor cantus-firmus style, is set alongside the portion of Sennfl’s motet in which the tenor gets the tune. They make a touching contrast. Luther’s is a musically amateurish but eloquent shout of faith and endurance: there are no actual errors, but the outer voices move uninterestingly in parallel tenths (a technique much used in “supra librum” or improvised polyphony, and taught to composition students as a quick fix) and the altus is all too clearly a filler, with little melodic profile. Sennfl’s setting is the suave work of a professional, full of subtle stylistic felicities: “Vorimitation” in the soprano, the lilting metric displacement in the outer voices (on “sed vivam”) to bridge the gap between tenor phrases, and so on and on.


(1) This remark is reliably attributed to the English Methodist preacher Rowland Hill (1744–1833; see The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 3rd ed. [New York: Oxford University Press, 1979]), only by tradition to Luther. It is resisted by many modern Lutherans. In the January 1997 issue of Concordia Theological Journal, Dr. James L. Brauer offered a $25 reward to any Luther scholar who could find the quote about the devil’s tunes in Luther’s works (see James Tiefel, “The Devil’s Tavern Tunes,” Commission on Worship website, www.wels.net/worship/art-104.html).

(2) Trans. Ulrich S. Leupold, in Luther’s Works, LIII (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), pp. 323–24.

(3) D. Martin Luthers Werke: Tischreden, ed. E. Kroker (Weimar, 1912–21), no. 968 (table conversation recorded 17 December 1538).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 20 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-018.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 20 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-018.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 20 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-018.xml