• Peter J Felice

THE REFORMATION: Church Music in the Renaissance

The following is a research paper I did during my undergrad at Indiana University Southeast. It was completed in December of 2011, and I felt it appropriate to share it with today being the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the protestant reformation. A list of sources and works cited can be found at the bottom of the study.

THE REFORMATION: Church Music in the Renaissance

Church Music has been incessantly changing for centuries. Many events have helped mold music and its use; however the most influential in changing the face of liturgical music was the 16th century Protestant Reformation. What first surfaced as a widespread insurrection against the spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic Church that had been building since the 11th century, ended up fashioning a series of traditional legacies that have sustained through the current 21st century. In fact, most of the liturgical genres, such as the hymn and the chorale, stemmed from the 1500’s as an attempt at involving the congregation more during worship services. Many people contributed to the renovations in music such as John Huss, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Henry VII. This reformation contrived the worship services and hymns as we know them today.

Initially, the insurrections in the 11th century came from within the church. The general public contained only a vague knowledge of the corruption of the papacy and the growing tensions between the popes and the emperors. They relied heavily on church officials, who were aggravated with the worldliness of the Church to generate their voice of chagrin against the spiritual authority. They wanted changes to be made and wanted the congregation to gain involvement with the services; especially the uneducated. The reformers would push their innovations upon the church and in many instances the priests complied with their requests.[1]

The first great innovation during this time by priests was the use of familiar airs and setting them to biblical texts. This practice was the first real attempt at involving the congregation in the worship service. They encouraged the revisions of the worship to the vernacular. These reformers strongly assailed formalism within the Roman Catholic Church. The stout frustration brought on by the Latin texts helped lead the way due to the unfamiliarity of the Latin Language. It was believed that learning worship songs to familiar tunes was easier for the general public to understand. This opened the door for many further instances where sacred texts were combined with secular or non-liturgical music sung outside the church. [2]

The trend of changing sacred music continued for centuries leading up to the reformation in the 1500’s. A composer and philosopher by the name of John Huss was already making significant changes to the worship service. It was through Huss and his followers, which were called Hussites, later Moravians, that the first collection of hymns was published in 1501.[3] The most popular polyphonic secular music of the time was reserved for use with these hymns, indicating these songs were modal and contained very irregular rhythms. The original forms have been difficult to establish with certainty even with today’s modern harmonization.[4]

Despite the efforts made on changes in the liturgical music and the clergyman who pushed for renovations within the church for centuries, they lacked a collective voice in which to impress the church toward the necessary changes. The changes that would give the worship service to the congregation. In the early 1500’s, an Augustine Monk by the name of Martin Luther began to emerge as a prominent figure of the looming reformation. Luther’s plan was to eliminate the corruptions that had plagued the papacy for centuries. He hoped to elongate the congressional involvement of the worship service past individual institutions and surfacing through all the Catholic Church. Despite the fact that Luther’s belief that music was, “an essential ingredient of life of the spirit and the soul” made him a strong candidate for liturgical changes, it was never his intention to develop a new church. [5]

His intentions were strong, however the corruptions in the Roman Catholic Church burned deeper into Luther’s ideals when Friar John Tetzel came to Germany and began selling indulgences, or remission of temporal punishment. Tetzel quickly became Luther’s nemesis, and essentially his actions are what prompted Luther to post his Ninety Five Theses on the doors of the Schlosskirche cathedral in 1517. This action marked the beginning the Protestant Reformation.[6] .He continued the tradition of setting religious texts to popular secular tunes of the area. It is commonly believed that Luther even went into taverns; places once deprecated by the Church, and took themes sung by the patrons of the establishments setting them to sacred texts to be used in the service. [7]

Aside from reforms regarding the confession, it was also Luther’s objectives to translate the liturgy from Latin into German. Despite being excommunicated in 1521 for refusing to recant the Ninety Five Theses, Luther began organizing a new church. In 1526, Luther completed his first Deutsche Mess, or German Mass which was a translation of his Latin Mass (1523) into the vernacular for the less educated and experienced. [8] It was never an objective of his to replace the traditional Latin mass; however he felt that it should be in a language that was more commonly understood by the general public. In addition to the translation of the Latin Mass, he also translated the Bible. [9]

The original notation of Luther’s “Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott”, translated “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Unlike many of the borrowed airs Luther used for his music, this popular chorale was actually based on original music written by him.

The marrying of these sacred texts and secular songs, combined with religious inspiration, plainsong melodies, and Luther’s original harmonies developed into one of the most common musical genres called the chorale. The chorale of the 1500’s, particularly ones borrowed from a Latin liturgy, used a lot more duple and triple rhythms than the modern chorale that is used today. Today’s chorale music finds much more even rhythms and alignment. Chorales became influential in the worship service because it changed the role of church choirs entirely. Whereas once they were only meant to sing on behalf of the congregation and assist in leading the worship with the minister, the chorales made it easier for the congregation to participate with the choir. [10]

Luther’s ideals began to spread outside of Germany into other European countries following his excommunication. John Calvin, an influential French theologian of the Reformation Era, emerged as a prominent figure during the Reformation after his separation during from the Roman Catholic Church in 1530. Opposed to the corruptions that still existed within the papal society, Calvin began working on what became his most famous work, Institutes of Christian Religion. Particularly important in this book, was his opposition to theological imagery in which he states, “We believe it wrong that God should be represented by a visible appearance, because he himself has forbidden it (Ex. 20:4)” In addition to these restrictions, Calvin prohibited the use of musical instruments in his worship services. This stance was backed by the Westminster Assembly in 1644.[11]

In addition to his expulsion of musical instruments, Calvin took a strong position against the singing of non-biblical texts. While Luther attempted to combine scripture as closely as possible to borrowed melodies, Calvin instead, made claims that the psalms were of the most importance and should be the only texts put to song. However, he was also a strong proponent of congregational participation of the worship service. In 1539 he published the first edition of the Genevan Psalter, which was a collection of newly arranged metrical psalms. In 1962, Calvin became the pastor of a French-speaking congregation and as a result the Psalter was completely translated into French. It was then known as the French Psalter. [12]

Tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the reformers reached all the way to England, during which time King Henry VIII was denied an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In the midst of his frustrations, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England, and separated from the Roman Catholic Church entirely. [13] Even though Pope Clemente VII excommunicated Henry and all citizens of England for his later divorce with Catherine, the majority of England remained Catholic though under the rule of King Henry as the Church of England. Following Henry’s death in 1547 however, many churchmen, inspired by the Calvinism of France and Switzerland, pushed against the Roman Catholic Liturgy completely, and argued for a much more incomplex worship service. From this movement broke three religious organizations: The Church of Rome, the Anglican Church and the Puritans, a group of Protestants dedicated to reform. [14] King Henry VII’s most famous work. The lively rhythms indicate that he was a fan of the dance.

Despite his contention with the church, King Henry was a prolific composer, musician, and enthusiast of the dance. He excelled in performing the organ, the lute, and the harpsichord. He was also highly skilled in musical theory. [15] However, unlike other reformers such as Luther and Calvin, he is primarily known for his secular works, composing approximately 35 pieces. His most famous work was Pastyme with Good Companye. This upbeat English part-song[16] was a perfect depiction of Henry’s vibrant personality. It also became a good indication of his affinity for the dance.[17]

The metamorphosis in worship made by the reformers along with the separated Church in England, the Lutheran Church of Germany, and the Calvinism that spread through Switzerland and France, proved to be a distressing realization of the breakdown in spiritual discipline in Western Europe that was once governed by the Roman Catholic Church. It was evident that people were extremely unhappy with the papal reign in Rome and the Reformation paved the way for a new order: The Counter-Reformation.

With the realization of the many changes that were being made more reformers emerged. Following the death of Pope Clemente VII, a man named Alessandro Farnese took control of the papacy under the title Pope Paul III. With the reformation trends and the growing movements of Calvinism in Switzerland and France, Lutheranism in Germany, and the Anglican Church in England it was clear to Paul that actions would need to be taken to prevent the diminution of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1545, he organized the Council of Trent with the intentions of reforming the Roman Catholic Church from within, as a response to Protestant heresies that had spread through most of Western Europe. Among these proclaimed heresies was the alleged abuse of worship music. Previously addressed in 1503, the Council argued against the use of non-liturgical music set to sacred texts. They met again in 1562 to discuss the issue. The council declared that nothing profane should be intermingled with the masses, with the exception of hymns and divine praises. Delegates of the Council felt that complicating the music with excessive polyphony would prevent the words from being clearly understood by the congregation.[18] Their ambitions to remove polyphony from the Church wasn’t only due to the style of these secular songs that they opposed, but rather the profane attitudes of the implications of the origins of the music, contrary what many scholars may argue.[19]

The debate promoted a popular legend, which suggests that what initially eased the tensions regarding the polyphony debate was the premiere performance of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s (ca. 1526-1594) Missa Papae Marcelli for the Council in 1564. Palestrina’s efforts were to show that a polyphonic composition could be set to clear text and would still sound pleasing to the ear. According to the legend, the delegates of the Council were pleasantly astonished, and their pending decisions to remove polyphony were eliminated, therefor earning Palestrina the title ‘The Savior of Church Polyphony.’ Palestrina would then go on to become the central figure for Catholic composers of sacred music.[20]

The Council continued to seek out other composers to assist in the reform process. Using the texts of Pedro de Soto, The Flemish composer, Jacobus de Kerle, wrote Preces Speciales for the Council to influence their intentions for sacred music and to initiate the reconciliation of the Catholic Church with the hopes of ending religious wars.[21] Orlande de Lassus, one of the most highly prized composers in Europe, rose to the ranks of Kapellmeister of the Court dictated by the Council with the intention of composing new chansons, motets, and masses for the church. Lassus became an important figure in the development of parody, using original sacred or secular works as the theme for a composition.[22]

On Friday, December 3, 1563 the Council of Trent met for the final time, ending with a sermon preached by Bishop Nazianzen. The meeting was optimistic, and the Bishop had declared the restoration of the Catholic Church. The one casualty of the reformation Nazianzen spoke of was that the Protestant reformers had declined a supposed invite by the Council to abandon their ritual manipulations and conform back to the Roman Catholic Church.[23]

Though some Christians argue that the Reformation was a failure because of the division of the Christian faith brought on by the rebellious actions of Luther and Calvin, it managed to break up the malfeasances that existed within the Catholic Church and it opened the door to allow new innovations in the format of the musical liturgy. In modern Catholic masses, it is common to find a wide variety of music instruments accompanying the choir, some of which may include guitar and piano. Ironically, Lutheran’s typically utilize a more traditional array of instruments, usually the organ and bells. Southern Baptists are known for incorporating active participating that includes dancing, clapping of hands, and upbeat more exciting songs. Church Music on the whole has abandoned the customary directives that once inundated the Roman Catholic Church, and today it has taken a much more liberal course. Luther’s plans for reforming the Catholic Church were not entirely successful as he had never planned on being repudiated and starting a new church, however his diligent persistence tied with his musical abilities changed the foundations of church music forever.


[1] Charles A. Etherington, Protestant Worship Music (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962), 91

[2] Charles A. Etherington, Protestant Worship Music (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962), 92

[3] John Barber. 2006. Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship. Reformed Perspectives Magazine 8(26) 1.

[4] Charles A. Etherington, Protestant Worship Music (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962), 93

[5] Friedrich Blume, Protestant Church Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1974), 6

[6] Williston Walker, The Reformation. (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1873), 92-93

[7] Evangelical Lutheran Church of America: FAQ. 2011. (Accessed December 2, 2011)

[8] Friedrich Blume, Protestant Church Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1974), 7

[9] Williston Walker, The Reformation. (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1873), 94

[10] Dwight Steere, Music in Protestant Worship(Richmond, Va: John Knox Press, 1960), 33

[11] John Barber. 2006. Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship. Reformed Perspectives Magazine 8(26) 6.

[12] John Barber. 2006. Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship. Reformed Perspectives Magazine 8(26) 7.

[13] Frederick Albert Pollard. Henry VIII. (London: Longmans, 1919), 173

[14] Bryan Simms and Craig Wright. Music in Western Civilization. (Boston, Ma: Schirmer, Cengage Learning, 2006.) 211

[15] Frederick Albert Pollard. Henry VIII. (London: Longmans, 1919), 26

[16] According to Craig Wright and Bryan Simms in their Music in Western Civilizations, an English Partsong is a strophic song with English text intended to be sung by three or four voices in a predominantly homophonic musical style.

[17] Bryan Simms and Craig Wright. Music in Western Civilization. (Boston, Ma: Schirmer, Cengage Learning, 2006.) 210

[18] Bryan Simms and Craig Wright. Music in Western Civilizations. (Boston: Schirmer Cengage Learning 2006)

[19] K.G. Feller and Moses Hadas. 1953. Church Music and the Council of Trent. (The Musical Quarterly. 39(4)). 580-581.

[20] Henry Davey. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 25th Sess. (London: Taylor and Fracis, LTd, 1898-1899), 53.

[21] Wilfriend Brenneck. 2007. Kerl, Jacobus de. Oxford Music Online. (Accessed December 2, 2011)

[22] James Harr. 2007Lassus, Orlande de. Oxford Music Online. (Accessed December 2, 2011)

[23] Thomas Rhys Evans. The Council of Trent. (London: Religious Tact Society, 1888), 183


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