Timeline 012: The Influence Of The Reformation And Counter-Reformation On Music

Jul 13, 2015

In this week’s episode, we’ll explore the influence the reformation and counter-reformation had on the world of music including the work of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

On All Saint’s Day, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. That moment is usually defined as the beginning of the protestant reformation, which changed the church forever. The role of music in worship changed greatly in the protestant church. No longer was music relegated to just the trained musicians and singers of the cathedral, but it was meant to be shared by the entire congregation. The newly formed church introduced new songs for worship called chorales, some written by Luther himself. These were simple, memorable melodies not sung in Latin.

As the protestant church grew and their practices and chorales became more popular, the Catholic Church felt the need to respond, which prompted a period called the counter-reformation. In 1545, the Catholic Church started the council of Trent. Among the many details discussed in this council, over its multiple sessions, it tackled the role of art and especially music within the church. The growing tendency in compositional practice at the time was complexity. The mass had been become a playground for composers to show off how intricate they could make the polyphony and counterpoint. The result was multiple melodies with various lyrics on various topics all sung at once, virtual chaos for the ear. The council proposed a decree that the mass be simplified so that the text is always clear.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was a choir master in Rome and his "Pope Marcellus Mass" stands as model for what 16th century polyphony could achieve.
Credit US-PD / Wikipedia Creative Commons

Legend states that the council was proposing to stop the composition of polyphony all together and return to the plain-song chants which were much closer to the chorales being sung by the Protestants.  That’s where Palestrina comes in. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was a choir master in Rome at the time and took it upon himself to compose a mass that was an example all the advancements made in the study of polyphony yet was clear, accessible and pleasing to the ear. His Pope Marcellus Mass stands as model for what 16th century polyphony could achieve.

Though it is unlikely that this work actually saved the study of polyphony and music, its historical influence is undeniable. Pope Pius IV declared that Palestrina’s music should be emulated by future generations of Catholic composers of sacred music.