Arts, Media, and Entertainment

The Reformation and Music


Glenn Sunshine

We’ve looked at the impact of Protestantism on society, economics, politics, and education. This movement also influenced the arts. Nowhere is this more evident than in music.

Religious Music in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages featured a variety of approaches to sacred music. Religious songs based on troubadour music became popular in the 13th century. For example, Alfonso X “the Wise” of Castile compiled 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, entitled the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

Other songs of this epoch were associated with pilgrimage. Pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela staying at the abbey of Montserrat sang secular songs—often rather bawdy ones—and danced to pass the time in the evenings. Their songs disturbed the monks, who rewrote the words to the popular tunes to reflect Christian themes. These are recorded in the 14th-century Llibre Vermell de Montserrat.

Liturgical music was a different matter, however. Congregational singing disappeared, and only clergy or professional choirs sang. Early in the Middle Ages, church music was mostly plainchant, but over time, music became increasingly polyphonic in the cathedrals and churches of the high nobility that could afford to pay choirs. Although composers used a variety of approaches, the music grew highly complex, with intricate counterpoint and sophisticated harmonies.

Luther and Music

Martin Luther deeply respected this music. He was particularly fond of the music of Josquin des Prez, whom he described as “the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will.”

But Luther was not content to leave the music in the hands of professionals. He believed the entire congregation should join its members’ voices together in song.

Arguably, Luther’s biggest contribution to both music and the liturgy was his promoting congregational singing and the accompanying growth of Protestant hymnody. At first, Luther used Catholic hymns, sung either in Latin or translated into German. Then new hymns were written, either to existing melodies or to newly composed tunes. He wrote hymns himself, including most famously “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” his setting of Psalm 46.

Luther loved music and was an accomplished lutenist with a fine tenor voice. For him, music provided an almost mystical experience of the presence of God and a comfort in times of trouble and in his frequent bouts of depression. When times became difficult or discouraging, Luther would turn to his protégé Philipp Melanchthon and say, “Philipp, let us sing the 46th.”

Luther saw music as connected to the doctrine of Creation. In the Creation, God brought order out of chaos; music, with its intrinsic order requiring proper placement of pitches and rhythms, is itself a joyful celebration of order. But it is more than just order: it requires a balance between freedom and order that parallels the nature of the Christian life.

Luther argued that suppressing human creativity was a violation of the image of God and thus believed that anything not prohibited in Scripture could rightfully be used in worship. This idea found expression in the tradition of Lutheran composers, from Praetorius to Bach, who explored hymnody, used hymns in larger choral works, and created instrumental music that celebrated the order of Creation and the mathematical implications of Christian theology.

Music in the Reformed Tradition

From its inception, the Reformed tradition took a different view of church music.

Reformed Protestantism began in Zurich under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli. It was an urban-based religion at a time when the literacy rate in cities was rising. As a result, urbanites (including Zwingli) wanted a more word-centered approach to religion. For Zwingli, this meant that anything that could distract from the preached word had to be removed from the churches. This included artwork, stained glass, windows, and organs. Zwingli also introduced a stripped-down liturgy far simpler than Luther’s adaptation of the Catholic Mass.

Even though Zwingli was the most accomplished musician among the early Reformers, in keeping with his focus on the centrality of the Word, he only allowed metrical translations of the Psalms to be sung (a capella) in his services.

John Calvin followed Zwingli’s example and only allowed unison singing of metrical versions of the Psalms or other Scriptures in church. Some composers, such as Claude Goudimel, arranged the Psalms in four- or more-part harmony for singing at home. Some of these polyphonic settings were simple, hymn-like arrangements, while others were far more complex.

The more austere approach to liturgy and art in the Reformed tradition was largely due to a reaction against the multisensory liturgical drama of the Catholic Mass in keeping with the growing word-centered focus of urban life. But it was also supported by a theological concept known as the regulative principle: The only things that are permitted in public worship are those things explicitly commanded in Scripture. (In their interpretation of this, however, they continued to be influenced by their culture: they sang Psalm 150, which describes all kinds of musical instruments being used in worship, a capella, demonstrating that their cultural bias toward liturgical austerity colored their application of the regulative principle.)

Psalm singing was a characteristic devotional exercise of Calvinists. In France, for example, Huguenots were known for singing Psalms, and their armies even marched into battle during the Wars of Religion singing Psalms. The French Psalter was translated into other languages, and some of its melodies even made their way into Lutheran hymnals.

Music in the English Reformation

Although the Anglican Church is heavily influenced by Reformed Protestantism, this was not always the case. When Henry VIII broke with the Pope, in most respects he remained very Catholic in his thinking. Thus, Latin Masses continued to be composed during his reign and through the reigns of all his children.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, the last of Henry’s children to take the throne, many Protestant leaders returned from exile in Geneva and brought with them Calvinist theology and a preference for liturgical austerity. Elizabeth, who did not like Calvinism and loved pomp and ceremony, could not afford to alienate the leadership of English Protestantism. The result was a compromise known as the Elizabethan Settlement, which combined a moderate Calvinist theology with Catholic-style ceremony. Many Calvinists were dissatisfied with this solution and argued that the Church of England needed to be “purified” of its “papist superstitions”—hence their nickname, the Puritans. Elizabeth was so well-loved that the Puritans did not cause much controversy during her reign, though they would of course cause immense problems for the monarchy in the 17th century.

During Elizabeth’s reign, polyphonic church music continued to be composed, not simply in Latin but now also in English. Composers such as Thomas Tallis created beautiful settings built around the natural rhythms and inflections of the English language. As a result, English sacred music took a different direction from the Calvinist churches of the continent, far less austere but not as freewheeling as the Lutherans, possibly due to the influence of the Calvinists. For example, the greatest piece of English sacred music—Handel’s “Messiah”—has a text entirely drawn from Scripture (cf. the Reformed tradition) but was composed by a German who learned music in the Lutheran city of Halle.

The Catholic Response

In the Catholic world, the reforming Council of Trent discussed problems in sacred music, including the use of secular melodies, poor pronunciation by the singers, polyphony so complex that it obscured the words, irreverent musicians, and the appropriate use of instruments. The council made no definitive decisions on any of these, however, so the regulation of music was left to bishops.

That said, the complex polyphonies of late medieval music were adapted by composers such as Palestrina in such a way that words could be clearly understood. These works reflected a Catholic aesthetic that focused on beauty, intricacy, and emotional connection to the church that distinguished it from much of what was happening in the Protestant world.

This aesthetic difference is even more evident in the visual arts, the topic of the next article in this series.


Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Image courtesy of David Carlson.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


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