Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

1.24: Counter-Reformation

  • Page ID
    72517
  • This page covers the reaction on the part of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation. Notice that this final section on this page (The Saviour Legend) leads us to another composer, namely Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

    Council of Trent

    Pope Paul III (1534–1549) is considered to be the first pope of the Counter-Reformation, and also initiated the Council of Trent (1545–1563), a commission of cardinals tasked with institutional reform, addressing contentious issues such as corrupt bishops and priests, indulgences, and other financial abuses.

    The Council upheld the basic structure of the Medieval Church, its sacramental system, religious orders, and doctrine. It rejected all compromise with the Protestants, restating basic tenets of the Roman Catholic faith. The Council upheld salvation appropriated by grace through faith and works of that faith (not just by faith, as the Protestants insisted) because “faith without works is dead,” as the Epistle of St. James states (2:22–26). Transubstantiation, according to which the consecrated bread and wine are held to have been transformed really and substantially into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, was also reaffirmed, as were the traditional seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Other practices that drew the ire of Protestant reformers, such as pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and relics, the use of venerable images and statuary, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary were strongly reaffirmed as spiritually commendable practices. The Council officially accepted the Vulgate listing of the Old Testament Bible which included the deuterocanonical works (also called the Apocrypha by Protestants) on a par with the 39 books customarily found in the Masoretic Text. This reaffirmed the previous Council of Rome and Synods of Carthage (both held in the fourth century, AD) which had affirmed the Deuterocanon as Scripture. The Council also commissioned the Roman Catechism, which still serves as authoritative Church teaching.

    While the traditional fundamentals of the Church were reaffirmed, there were noticeable changes to answer complaints that the Counter-Reformers were, tacitly, willing to admit were legitimate. Among the conditions to be corrected by Catholic reformers was the growing divide between the clerics and the laity; many members of the clergy in the rural parishes, after all, had been poorly educated. Often, these rural priests did not know Latin and lacked opportunities for proper theological training (addressing the education of priests had been a fundamental focus of the humanist reformers in the past). Parish priests were to be better educated in matters of theology and apologetics, while Papal authorities sought to educate the faithful about the meaning, nature and value of art and liturgy, particularly in monastic churches (Protestants had criticised them as “distracting”). Notebooks and handbooks became more common, describing how to be good priests and confessors.

     

    Reforms Before the Council of Trent

    The Council of Trent is believed to be the apex of the Counter-Reformation’s influence on church music in the 16th century. However, the council’s pronouncements on music were not the first attempt at reform. The Catholic Church had spoken out against a perceived abuse of music used in the mass before the Council of Trent ever convened to discuss music in 1562. The manipulation of the Credo and using non-liturgical songs was addressed in 1503, and secular singing and the intelligibility of the text in the delivery of psalmody in 1492.The delegates at the Council were just a link in the long chain of church clergy who had pushed for a reform of the musical liturgy reaching back as far as 1322. Probably the most extreme move at reform came late in 1562 when, instructed by the legates, Egidio Foscarari (bishop of Modena) and Gabriele Paleotti began work on reforming cloisters of nuns and their practices involving the liturgy. In fact, the reforms proscribed to the cloisters, which included omitting the use of an organ, prohibiting professional musicians, and banishing polyphonic singing, were much more strict than any of the Council’s edicts or even those to be found in the Palestrina legend.

    Fueling the cry for reform from many ecclesial figures was the compositional technique popular in the 15th and 16th centuries of using musical material and even the accompanying texts from other compositions such as motets,madrigals, and chansons. Several voices singing different texts in different languages made any of the text difficult to distinguish from the mixture of words and notes. The parody mass would then contain melodies (usually the tenor line) and words from songs that could have been, and often were, on sensual subjects. The musical liturgy of the church was being more and more influenced by secular tunes and styles. The Council of Paris, which met in 1528, as well as the Council of Trent were making attempts to restore the sense of sacredness to the church setting and what was appropriate for the mass. The councils were simply responding to issues of their day.

    Music in the Church

     

    The idea that the Council called to remove all polyphony from the church is widespread, but there is no documentary evidence to support that claim. It is possible, however, that some of the Fathers had proposed such a measure. The emperor Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor has been attributed to be the “saviour of church music” because he said polyphony ought not to be driven out of the church. But Ferdinand was most likely an alarmist and read into the Council the possibility of a total ban on polyphony. The Council of Trent did not focus on the style of music but on attitudes of worship and reverence during the mass.

    The Saviour Legend

    The crises regarding polyphony and intelligibility of the text and the threat that polyphony was to be removed completely, which was assumed to be coming from the Council, has a very dramatic legend of resolution. The legend goes that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525/26–1594), a church musician and choirmaster in Rome, wrote a mass for the Council delegates in order to demonstrate that a polyphonic composition could set the text in such a way that the words could be clearly understood and that was still pleasing to the ear. Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli(Mass for Pope Marcellus) was performed before the Council and received such a welcoming reception among the delegates that they completely changed their minds and allowed polyphony to stay in use in the musical liturgy. Therefore Palestrina came to be named the “savior of church polyphony.” This legend, though unfounded, has long been a mainstay of histories of music. The saviour-myth was first spread by an account by Aggazzari and Banchieri in 1609 who said that Pope Marcellus was trying to replace all polyphony with plainsong. Palestrina’s “Missa Papae Marcelli” was, though, in 1564, after the 22nd session, performed for the Pope while reforms were being considered for the Sistine Choir.

    The Pope Marcellus Mass, in short, was not important in its own day and did not help save church polyphony. What is undeniable is that despite any solid evidence of his influence during or after the Council of Trent, no figure is more qualified to represent the cause of polyphony in the Mass than Palestrina. Pope Pius IV upon hearing Palestrina’s music would make Palestrina, by Papal Brief, the model for future generations of Catholic composers of sacred music.

    CC licensed content, Original
    CC licensed content, Shared previously
    • Was this article helpful?