English composer Wiliam Byrd, who set to music poems and prayers about the Jesuit martyrs

Both in my book on Reformation music and in this series for MercatorNet my aim has been to focus on ecumenism and recovery of the Church’s lost unity. Nevertheless, it is my duty as a scholar (and as a Christian…) not to deny the truth, even when it is unpleasant; moreover, I believe that only those who are fully aware of what has happened in the past may truly work for reconciliation. Nobody can forgive what they don’t know.

So this tenth installment of my series on sacred music in the 16th century deals with the rather painful topic of music as an instrument of confessional opposition. At the time of the Reformation and for many decades after it, Christians of different denominations fought in words and deeds in order to establish their confession to the detriment of others; and, of course, the powers of politics and economy were quick to exploit religious rivalries and transform them into riots or warfare when they found it convenient to do so.

While music is possibly the perfect human embodiment of peace, coexistence and “harmony” (in my next article I will develop this more fully), it did take part in the confessional wars and oppositions of the early Reformation era. Some of these conflicts ended in bloodshed, and many believers of all confessions were martyred by members of other confessions. Indeed, the very first Lied penned by Martin Luther – and thus the seminal root of the vast repertoire of Lutheran chorales – is a “martyrdom song”, in the tradition of the songs of deeds in the Middle Ages.

Martyrdom songs

This song tells the story of two Augustinian monks of Brussels who had adhered to Luther’s movement very early, and were burnt at the stake for their refusal to recant. Song became the instrument through which their heroic resistance was praised, their story was told, and the sentiment of outrage and rebellion was kindled among the hearers. While the Protestant Reformations tended to downplay such themes as the intercession of saints and their veneration, it undeniably fostered admiration for the actions of heroic witnesses to the new faith.

Songs about martyrs are found in all other confessions. The English Catholic William Byrd set to music various poems and psalms which refer, more or less clearly and directly, to the fate of the Jesuit missionaries who were sent to England with the purpose of re-Catholicizing it. Among such works, one of the most touching, in my opinion, is Why do I use my paper, ink and pen, where the moving lyrics written by another Jesuit who would be martyred in turn are set to Byrd’s sweet and sorrowful music.

While works such as this song by Byrd were primarily destined for the private devotion of Catholic recusants, in order to strengthen their resistance and foster their piety, songs such as Luther’s Ein newes lied on the Brussels Martyrs had the purpose of spreading the new faith among the masses. This was the goal of many other polemical or propaganda songs of the era, penned by zealous apostles of all confessions. Such songs were disseminated as broadsides (or broadsheets), which peddlers brought to marketplaces and sold for modest sums.

These broadsides were frequently illustrated with woodcut engravings, which added to the impact of the words and music (particularly for those unable to read). If broadsides helped the dissemination of songs, the very act of singing them was even more efficacious as an instrument of propaganda. When a song was learnt by memory, it could not be seized or destroyed; it could travel virtually limitlessly, and its spread was not limited to those who were able to read its lyrics and music.

Conquering aural space

Moreover, to sing a song implies, somehow, to “conquer” an aural space, to plant a musical flag within a physical or human territory. Confessional songs were used as weapons in this context: for example, Catholics frequently used open-air devotions and processions with sung litanies as a means for appropriating a zone, but these same services could be disrupted and disturbed, in turn, by Protestant singing. The opponents could either sing the songs of their own denomination, or else create textual contrafacta (change the words of pre-existing religious songs) which could mock and ridicule the competing confession. Some Protestants warmly invited their Catholic counterparts to go home by chanting the corresponding German words to the melody of the ora pro nobis, the traditional response to Catholic litanies; in turn, Catholic polemicists penned parodies of the Te Deum and Victimae paschali with derogatory texts against Luther and Calvin.

Riots and unrests were frequently accompanied – if not encouraged – by religious singing; and some religious songs were so well-suited to the purpose of rousing the spirits that they quickly became the “war hymns” of the new confessions. Such was the fate of the well-known Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, the “Mighty fortress” which still constitutes the musical flag of Lutheranism; the Huguenots, in turn, had their own Psaume des batailles, the “psalm of wars”. It is very difficult for us to imagine the emotional power of these songs; none of today’s national anthems probably has the same force to move and excite which these religious songs possessed.

While it is saddening to contemplate how God’s praises were intermingled with horrible violence, it is thought-provoking to realize that the very fact of singing religious songs was a common feature of almost all Christians of the era. Religious singing was forced, so to say, to bend itself to the needs of confessional opposition and to turn itself into a weapon; but its true nature, as I hope to show in the next article, was that of an instrument of communion and unity. And this task it did fulfil, even in those harsh times of conflict and opposition.

All the more now, when the path of ecumenism is being steadily pursued by the different Christian denominations, it should become a formidable instrument for achieving unity.

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, was published earlier this year by De Gruyter. Visit her website.

Earlier articles: (1) Reforming music: harmony and discord in the 16th century (2) Pre-Reformation church music: plainchant, polyphony and popular songs (3) Polyphony? Or cacophany? Prelude to a reformation in church music (4) Reformation music: how the Word became words. (5) Lutheran songs: a musical gift for all Chistians (6) The Genevan Psalter: Calvin’s musical reformation (7) Musical chairs: monarchs and church music during the English Reformation. (8) ‘God has a good ear for music’: the Catholic response to Reformation music. (9)  Jesuits, founders and dukes in the shaping of post-Tridentine music  

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com