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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations
Richard Taruskin
The ResponseThe Response

ex. 18-8 Benedictus Ducis Ein Lämmlein geht

That response took a turn that could never have been predicted at mid-century, when all that the leading Catholic bishops seemed to want was an intelligible liturgy. That trend, the one associated with Palestrina, could be interpreted as an attempt to meet the Lutheran reform musically on its own ground—grounds of modesty. It did not threaten the ars perfecta; on the contrary, it sought to amend and thus preserve it.

But the Catholic reaction to the Reformation, now called the Counter Reformation, eventually took on a mystical, enthusiastic, and antirationalist character that spelled fundamental theological change—and with that, of course, came musical change. This did fundamentally threaten the ars perfecta, which was if nothing else a rational style. As the “church militant” turned toward pomp and spectacle, and as Catholic preaching turned toward emotional oratory, church music began to turn toward sensuous opulence and inspirational “sublimity,” the instilling of awe. For the late Counter Reformation, church music became a kind of aural incense, an overwhelming, mind-expanding drug.

“To attain the truth in all things,” wrote St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, “we ought always to be ready to believe that what seems to us white is black, if the Hierarchical Church so defines it.”5 God-given though it was, human reason had its limits. To place excessive trust in it was a hubris on which the Devil could play, if it led proud thinkers away from faith. This much of Counter Reformation teaching was in harmony with the spirit of the Reformation that spurred it. To that extent Reformation and Counter Reformation were united in reform. The huge difference was the source of the faith the two churches espoused. The one placed it in the hands of an infallible Hierarchy, the other in the spirituality of the individual believer. It became the job of the Counter Reformation to win souls back from Luther by fostering emotional dependency on the Hierarchy, which (like the feudal hierarchy it supported) viewed itself as God’s own institution among men.

The highest spiritual premium was placed on what was called the ecstasy, or, more loosely, the “religious experience”—a direct and permanently transforming emotional apprehension of the divine presence. The most famous literary description of religious ecstasy, visually immortalized by the seventeenth-century sculptor Giovanni Bernini, is from the Vida (1565), or autobiography, of a Spanish nun, Saint Teresa of Avila, an epileptic, whose seizures were accompanied by visions. In one of them (the one portrayed by Bernini), she was visited by a beautiful angel, who, she wrote,

thrust a long dart of gold, tipped with fire, through my heart several times, so that it reached my very entrails. So real was the pain that I was forced to moan aloud, yet it was so surpassingly sweet that I would not wish to be delivered from it. No delight of life can give more content. As the angel withdrew the dart, he left me all burning with a great love of God.6

There can be little doubt that—paradoxically though it may appear—it was the extravagant sensuality of Saint Teresa’s description that made it a spiritual classic. (At first her visions, so tinged with the erotic, aroused suspicion: the Vida was originally composed as an apologia, at the behest of the Inquisition.) And it is that spiritualized sensuality or sensualized spirituality that Counter Reformation art reflects at its most potent.

In music, that sensuality had two main avenues of expression. One was transfer to the religious domain of the techniques of quasi-pictorial illustration and affective (often highly erotic) connotation that had been developed by the madrigalists. The other was the augmentation of the sheer sound medium and its spectacular deployment, so that sound itself became virtually palpable. Both of these strains can be found at a high level of early development in the Opus musicum, the mammoth, calendrically organized collection of Latin liturgical music published in Prague between 1586 and 1591 by Jacobus Gallus (or Jakob Handl, or Jacov Petelin—in all cases the surname means “rooster”), a composer from Slovenia who worked in Bohemia, both Slavic areas within the Austrian dominion of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Response

fig. 18-4 Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila (1652) at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Compare Bernini’s hectic sensuality with the “perfect” art of Raphael in Fig. 15-1.

Mirabile mysterium (Ex. 18-9), a Christmas motet, is literally mystical. That is, it seeks to portray—give direct apprehension of—a mystery that lay at the very foundation of church dogma: the fleshly incarnation of the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ, God become Man. In it, for the first time, we may observe the chromatic techniques of Lasso, Marenzio, and Gesualdo—techniques involving the direct “irrational” inflection of scale degrees—applied to a liturgical text (that is, a text meant, unlike Lasso’s Sibylline Prophecies, for actual performance in church) as a way of rendering uncanny secrets and imparting uncanny sensation. It is music that seeks to provide a religious experience.

The Response

ex. 18-9a Jacobus Gallus, Mirabile mysterium, mm. 1-11

The opening point of imitation, announcing the “marvelous mystery,” already includes a chromatic inflection that gives rise to marvelously mysterious harmonic progressions (Ex. 18-9a). A suggestion of commixture of opposites is already given at the words innovantur naturae, where sharped notes and flatted notes are combined “vertically” in harmonies that had no theoretical explanation—in terms of the ars perfecta theory books this was indeed an “innovation of nature.” The thesis is stated in terms of a bald opposition: the distance from God to man is dramatized by a precipitous octave descent in all voices, from which, in emphatic violation of the Palestrina ideal, a further descent is made into a region where the singers’ voices will sound weak and helpless, like man before God (Ex. 18-9b). Where the text says that what God was, God remains, the word permansit is stretched out for an “eternity.” And where the text says that what man was not a man shall assume, the word assumpsit is “painted” according to its etymological meaning, by strange rising intervals—an octave in the soprano, a minor sixth in the tenor, and a weird augmented second (normally forbidden by “nature”) in the bass.

The Response

ex. 18-9b Jacobus Gallus, Mirabile mysterium, mm. 16-28

But the most esoteric musical effect is reserved for the moment of mystery: the preternatural passing of the one substance into the other “without mixture” calls forth a possibly unprecedented triple chromatic inflection, disguised by false relations (Ex. 18-9c). On passus the bass’s B is inflected to B♭ both by direct progression and by transfer to the soprano; The alto’s D♯ is inflected to D-natural by transfer to the tenor; and the soprano’s F♯ is inflected to F-natural by transfer to the alto. In the process both soprano and alto sing intervals (diminished fourth and diminished third respectively) that do not exist at all within the rules of the ars perfecta. More “innovations of nature.” Simply “side-slipping” from a B major to a B♭ major triad would not have conveyed the “marvelous mystery.” What makes it marvelous and uncanny is the way in which the voices all exchange their positions in passing between those two mutually exclusive harmonies. That exchange, to quote another mystical Christmas antiphon, is truly an admirabile commercium: a dazzling interchange. To account for the musical effect takes a musician; to discuss the mystery takes a theologian; but the uncanny experience is available to all through sheer sensory perception.

The other mode of Counter Reformation sensuality is well conveyed by Gallus’s setting of the Passion narrative from the Gospel of John, a grandiose Easter motet in three long sections. Music for multiple choirs, pioneered rather tamely by Willaert and some of his Venetian contemporaries for antiphonal Vespers psalms, became a craze (in churches that could afford it) by the end of the century. Both the spatialized effect and the multiplication of voice parts contributed to the “overbowling” or awe-inspiring result, bypassing reason and boosting faith.

The Response

ex. 18-9c Jacobus Gallus, Mirabile mysterium, mm. 43-47

The Passion, the Gospel account of Christ’s suffering and death, is recited at Mass during the Holy Week that precedes Easter: on Palm Sunday it is read from the Book of Matthew, on Wednesday from Luke, on Thursday from Mark, and finally, on Good Friday, it is read from the Book of John. The Passion reading was always specially marked by music: originally by the use of special recitation or “lesson” tones, from the fifteenth century on by the use of polyphony. The earliest polyphonic settings were responsorial. The narrative was chanted; only the lines given to the “crowd” (turba) were multiplied polyphonically for chorus, usually in a simple style like fauxbourdon. Later the words of other characters who speak directly within the narrative were set polyphonically, and finally the words of Christ were also so set, leaving only the voice of the Gospel narrator or evangelist in chant.

The earliest complete polyphonic setting of the Passion text—including the evangelist narration, the exordium or sung title (“The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to…”), and a conclusio or final prayer—dates from the first decade of the sixteenth century. Each of its sources names a different composer; Rhau picked it up in 1538 and issued it in print for the first time, attributing it (surely wrongly) to Obrecht. Its Italian origin (or at least its Italianate orientation; some sources attribute it to a French-born composer named Antoine de Longueval) is evident from its use of falsobordone, a way of setting psalm tones in four-part harmony (triads in what we now call root position) that was developed “by ear” in imitation of fauxbourdon (see Ex. 18-10). This setting already shows a tendency to treat parts of the choir antiphonally for dramatic effect.

In Gallus’s St. John Passion, two four-part choirs, differentiated in range, are treated in antiphony. The low choir is reserved for the vox Christi, the voice of Christ, whose gravity it betokens. The high choir takes the parts of all other characters, such as the thief who speaks to Jesus from the adjoining cross, and also the Evangelist during the narration of the Seven Last Words, when the narrator and the voice of Christ are the only two “characters” in play. The combined choirs represent the turba: at these moments the setting takes on the traditional, impressively thundering, harmonically static but rhythmically active quality of the falsobordone.

The ResponseThe Response

ex. 18-10 From the “Longueval” Passion, mm. 10-21

The full eight-part chorus takes over the Evangelist’s role for the conclusion, encompassing the announcement of Christ’s death and the general prayer (Ex. 18-11), where antiphony seems to strengthen the idea of generality (the lower choir “seconding” and joining in with the pleas of the higher). The triple Amen, mandated by the length of the piece it concludes and the need for an appropriate peroration, shows the composer’s high awareness of himself as orator and rhetorician—that is, a persuader. If such a music proclaims it, we may very well believe that what seems to us white is black.


(5) The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, Article XIII, trans. W. H. Longridge (London: Burns and Oates, 1908), p. 119.

(6) St. Teresa of Avila, Vida (1565), in René Fülöp-Miller, Saints That Moved the World (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1945), p. 375.

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. 9 Dec. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018003.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 9 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018003.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 9 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018003.xml