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Saturday morning quotes 5.47: Reformation

April 9, 2016


Since 2017 will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation,  we consider it’s impact on music. And having recently presented a lecture-recital on psalm settings as the soundtrack of the Reformation, we muse about the ubiquitous fashion of psalm arrangements for lute solo and for voice and lute, either published or hand-written in music manuscripts throughout the 16th– and into the 17th century.  But first we briefly characterize and contextualize the Reformation, a phenomenon that not only left a lasting impression on music but seems to have provided the spark that ignited the inferno that is our modern consumer culture.

Prior to the Reformation, “European” and “Catholic” were synonymous terms.  The constant inherent friction among city-states and the greedy expansionist tendencies of certain bloated representatives of distant kingdoms was a given.  But by the close of the 15th century, the sometimes justifiable but politically-motivated bile aimed at Rome as the central authority provided a spiritual dimension and justification to the idea of rebellion and revolution. Initially, the Church responded to rebellion with a revival of the Inquisition.  But it seems that an element of what we now call social justice contributed to a rising sense of indignation aimed at what was seen as an unjustly administered central authority.

“It is probably fair to say that medieval heresy persecutions were used at least as much in defence of the balance of wealth and power in civil society as in defence of individual souls or the integrity of the Church.”

– Felipe Fernandez-Armesto and Derek Wilson, Reformations – A Radical Interpretation of Christianity and the World 1500-2000, Scribner, New York, 1996, p. 227.

We know the Reformation gained momentum and prevailed, largely due to the efforts of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and Huldreich Zwingli (1484 – 1531), both of whom were known to be lutenists. Luther was more realistic and characteristically sanguine regarding the role of music as integral to a normal life experience:

“Here it must suffice to discuss the uses of this great thing called music. But even that transcends the greatest eloquence of the most eloquent, because of the infinite variety of its forms and benefits. We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions – to pass over the animals – which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found – at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage those full of hate–and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good? – what more effective means than music could you find?”

– Martin Luther, Symphoniae jucundae, 1538

Zwingli is considered by posterity to have indulged in a classic case of overcompensation.  The Swiss reformer was musically gifted but his reforms promoted an antagonistic approach towards music in public worship. Zwingli published a revision of the liturgy in his De canone missae epicheiresis, 1523, in which musical settings were severely pared down. A second revision, Aktion oder Brauch des Nachtmahls, 1525, was written entirely in the vernacular and the Catholic model for the mass was nearly obliterated, with music entirely absent.  Zwingli’s reputation as rabidly anti-musical is perhaps a bit misleading—he disapproved of music in the liturgy but encouraged private and personal music for recreational or devotional purposes.

From the earliest known appearance of the term “psalm”, it was defined as a poem of praise sung to the accompaniment of plucked strings.

“Psalm (from Gk. Psalmos; Lat. Psalmus). An ancient Greek term which, though originally meaning a ‘striking’ or ‘plucking’, especially of the strings of a musical instrument, was given to the poems of the Hebrew ‘Book of Praises’…”

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Inspired by Martin Luther’s examples, psalm singing in the vernacular was a hallmark of the 16th century Reformation, the same era that saw a dramatic rise in publication of music for the most popular instrument in domestic use—the lute.  Singing psalms in harmonized settings began to emerge as a domestic pastime and it was a natural progression to arrange harmonized settings for lute accompaniment or for lute solo.

Jean Calvin’s (1509 – 1564) Pseaumes de David (1562) was the first complete edition of all 150 versified psalms, with texts by Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze and tunes attributed to Loys Bourgeois, although other plain and polyphonic settings of selected psalms appeared earlier.  Adrian Le Roy’s Tiers livre de tabulature de luth, contenant vingt & un Pseaulmes, Le tout selon le subjet (1552) initiated what became a very popular trend of printed psalm settings for the lute, arranged as instrumental solos with variations or set for voice and lute and aimed at domestic audiences.  The trend continued well into the 17th century and reached a high level of refinement with the settings by Nicolas Vallet (c. 1583 – 1642).

Psalm settings for domestic use typically presented the psalm tunes in their unadorned glory or with minimal decoration, but instrumental composers for lute and keyboard created more elaborate settings that evidenced a reflection of musical style popular at the time.  A setting that is representative of French music from the mid-16th century is “Quand Israel” (In exitu) from Guillaume Morlaye’s intabulations for voice and lute of the psalms à 4 by Pierre Certon, Psaumes de Pierre Certon réduits pour chant et luth par Guillaume Morlaye (1554).

The four-voice psalm settings of Claude Goudimel (c. 1520 – 1572) were particularly influential, although these settings were typically performed in singing schools or at home rather than for liturgical purposes. Goudimel published separate collections with varying degrees of musical elaboration and his homophonic settings (Paris, 1564; Geneva, 1565) enjoyed wide distribution, probably due to their accessible style and limited demands upon the singers.  Goudimel’s setting of the 23rd Psalm “Mon Dieu me paist”, from Les Cent Cinqvante Pseavmes de David. nouuellement mis en Musique à quatre parties, par C. Goudimel (Paris, 1564), is one of the slightly more elaborate settings that places the psalm melody in the cantus part with the lower voices in closely-spaced imitative texture.  The lute plays these lower three parts in our arrangement to which we add Nicolas Vallet’s variations for solo lute.

Some see the Reformation as having made worship a more inclusive experience, others view it as having a deleterious effect on music generally, and still others view it as ultimately having initiated the eventual secularization of our western culture.  But what has passed is past and we look for the positives—for without the Reformation there never would have been a Church of the Quivering Brethren.

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