Pre-Reformation church music: plainchant, polyphony and popular songs

A passionate debate about liturgical music raged at the beginning of the 16th century.
Chiara Bertoglio | Feb 20 2017 | comment  




This is the second of an occasional series by Italian musician and theologian Chiara Bertoglio on the musical history of the Reformation which began with Martin Luther in 1517.

Music was an essential component of life in the early-modern era, at all levels of culture, wealth or literacy. In this article I will briefly discuss how music entered into and impacted the daily, cultural and social life of the time. In particular, it will be necessary – in order to frame the discussion which will follow in the subsequent articles – to understand the intellectual and cultural view of music, and how it dovetailed with the spiritual concerns which will eventually give momentum to the Reformations.

In church, plainchant constituted a red thread, since it was sung in the rural parish churches as well as in the most important cathedrals. In the greatest abbeys or basilicas, however, professional choirs regularly offered performances of the polyphonic masterpieces written by the great Franco-Flemish composers, such as Josquin Des Prez, or by those who had mastered the technique and style perfected within that context.

The uneducated -- the peasants, but also the illiterate inhabitants of the cities – for their part would sing religious or devotional songs in the vernacular. These formed the soundtrack of daily life: while easing the fatigue of manual labour, of repetitive tasks, of long journeys frequently undertaken by foot, these pious songs also gave a deeply religious – indeed, theological -- meaning to the dull, tiring or painful aspects of life.

Of course, while these songs expressed in a genuine fashion the spiritual life of many people throughout Europe, they were frequently less theologically precise and reliable than their liturgical counterparts. This happens also today, when “spiritual songs” may become very popular in the mainstream market, without always finding a space within the framework of Sunday worship, at least in the traditional churches.

The debate regarding what kind of music was suited for the official Catholic worship at the beginning of the 16th century was heated and passionate. Tradition had built a large repertoire of sacred songs, mostly in Latin; some of them had a Biblical source (as Psalms and canticles), others could boast important authorships (as, for example, the hymns written by St Ambrose, some of which are still in use today). Sequences had proliferated almost uncontrollably, and there were so many of them (about 2,000-3,000) that it was virtually impossible to verify their theological soundness and their spiritual quality.

Classical and patristic influences

The early 16th century was also a moment when the harvest of the humanist movement and thought was ripe. Humanism  had also contributed to the rediscovery of both classical (pagan) sources and of the Christian heritage of the Patristic writings. The theories of philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle, who forcefully maintained that music had a fundamental role in the education of a civil and peaceful society, were widely circulated. They were juxtaposed to the writings of Quintilian, who pointed out the rhetorical role of music for persuading and for “moving” the soul.

In turn, these “pagan” writers had been already commented upon by the early Christian essayists: St. Basil, for example, had written at length about the importance of Psalm-singing for creating a loving community of believers, for strengthening the faith of its younger or “weaker” members, and for spreading within society as a whole the good seed of the Gospel.

St. Augustine had expounded his thought on music on a variety of occasions. His stance was complex and controversial, and would be extremely influential for most reformers of the sixteenth century (also because Luther himself had been an Augustinian monk before leaving the Catholic Church).

On the one hand, Augustine celebrated the beauty of music, its capacity to elevate, to enchant, to amaze and to conquer believers’ hearts for God. He maintained that the summit of prayer, the moment when a soul is mystically enraptured with the contemplation of God, cannot be expressed in words: only “jubilation” (i.e. a song without words) could be adequate for such moments of pure joy.

On the other hand, however, and precisely because he was so conscious of the power of music, Augustine was not unconditionally supportive of music. He saw music as similar to love: both are God-given gifts which help the human beings to reach holiness and give them joy, but both can also become dangerous, negative and pernicious, when they are wrongly oriented.

In more recent times, Aquinas had discussed the role of (liturgical) music in his Summa Theologiae among other places. Here he had summarised the main pros and cons of church music, and he had started to raise a problem which would become more and more crucial as time went by. Was it licit, he asked, for the celebrating priests to sing? While some present-day churchgoers would be tempted to answer “no” (particularly when their pastors’ singing seems to become a divinely inflicted penance…), Thomas Aquinas argued that singing was a form of prayer which was suited for all believers.

Professional vs popular

This problem, in its artistic and social, but also in its theological and pastoral aspects was to resurface in the 16th century: as I wrote before, the beauty and complexity of the polyphonic masterpieces sung in the Renaissance era made it almost impossible for non-professionals to sing them. Thus, a double separation arose in the sung worship of the great churches: the celebrating priests did not sing (except plainchant when needed), the choir was made up of professional musicians who “performed” music rather than “prayed with song”, and the assembly or congregation simply “assisted” in a sung rite in which they did not participate vocally.

On most of these issues, the great philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam had his personal views. He had a high concept of music, though he complained about its excessive professionalisation: “In college or monastery”, he wrote, “it is still the same: music, nothing but music…”. On the other hand, however, he did not favour too much vocal participation by the congregation: in the early Church, he maintained, when all joined in singing, worship became a “thunderous noise and [a] ridiculous confusion”. Much better, he thought, if the non-musical laypeople simply sang “in their hearts”.

Erasmus was particularly critical of the English singers, who practised “ornamental neighings” with their “agile throats”, thus indulging “the whims of the foolish and […] their baser appetites”. In spite of this, he advocated a more widespread knowledge of Scripture, also by means of music: “would that […] the farmer sing some portion of [it] at the plough, the weaver hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveller lighten the weariness of the journey with stories of this kind!”.

We will see in subsequent articles how Erasmus’ wish was translated into reality by many religious reformers, and how his perplexities and criticism would be shared by others: if the Church was going to be deeply shaken in the following years, its music was going to experience drastic and troubling changes in turn, together with a fascinating blossoming of new artistic and spiritual works.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Her new book, Reforming Music: Music and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century, is due to be published in April by De Gruyter. Visit her website

Earlier article: Reforming music: harmony and discord in the 16th century

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