A portrait of the Council of Trent in session from the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

For centuries, histories of religion in the sixteenth century have been strongly marked by confessional partisanship: either Luther’s Reformation was good and the Council of Trent a bigoted and reactionary (though belated) effort; or Protestantism was a religious catastrophe and Trent the fortress which stood firm against its menacing waves.

Fortunately, in our time, both historiography and theology have adopted more nuanced views, which allow us to see – from virtually any confessional standpoint – both the Protestant Reformations and the Council of Trent as stages of a journey, in which people of good will, on both sides, strove with passion and commitment for the Church and the Gospel.

Indeed, the very term “Counter-Reformation” is becoming inadequate and obsolete, for a number of reasons: first, it has a marked flavour of conflict; second, it characterizes the Catholic self-renewal merely as a reaction to Protestantism; third, it fails to distinguish between those Catholic initiatives which aimed at containing the spread of the Reformations, and those which addressed a need for inner purification, which was voiced by many Catholics at the time.

Obviously, music was not the primary concern of the Council Fathers when, after many years of uncertainty, they finally gathered in the north-Italian city of Trent, just at the borders of the German-speaking zones. There were more pressing issues, including the re-statement or the better definition of some crucial Catholic dogmas, which had been challenged by the Reformers.

Music in the context of eucharistic worship

It was not the Fathers’ aim to create a compendium of all Catholic theology; they discussed and deliberated on the most burning questions. Among them there was, of course, the nature and sacramental value of the Eucharist, which had been variously disputed by the Reformers, who came to adopt very dissimilar views of the Mass; it was within the framework of liturgy, therefore, that music was primarily discussed.

As was customary for church councils, the Fathers established a topic which needed discussion; then (and frequently even before this definition), opinions were gathered from a variety of sources: experiences of clergy or cultivated laity, thoughts of influential people from the academic or civic world, ideas from missionaries and theologians and so on. Several commissions were established, to work in parallel on the topics at stake and to evaluate the opinions which had been collected. These commissions then prepared a draft decree, which was heard and discussed by the plenary assembly. In most cases the Council Fathers would suggest revisions, and the draft was rewritten by the commission, proceeding from commission to assembly for as many times as was needed.

Historians have, therefore, an immense written heritage concerning the Council; however, one should always be very careful to evaluate each document within its own framework: a draft as a draft, a decree as a decree, a discussion as a discussion.

Polyphony was never in danger from the council fathers

This is particularly relevant to musical issues, since, for years, some collateral documents were discussed and considered as final decrees, while the precise purpose of this complex system was in fact to sift the crucial issues on which the Catholic Church was in agreement, from those which remained open to debate. Therefore, a musical “legend” took hold, stating that the Council of Trent was close to banning all polyphonic music from Catholic worship, when – almost miraculously – upon hearing the Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina (pictured, left), the Fathers changed their minds.

Beside the fact that the dating of that Mass by Palestrina is still debated, the point is that polyphony was never in serious danger among Catholics. It had been banned, indeed, from the official worship of other Christian confessions; and it was true that more sobriety and restraint were frequently advocated both at the Council and outside it. However, polyphonic music was part of the traditional liturgy, and most churchmen would have been horrified at its abolition.

In fact, this legend makes little sense also from a theological viewpoint. The concerns of many Evangelical reformers were directed toward a better religious education of the laity. Worship, for many of them, started to revolve around the sermon, or sometimes it came to be identified with it. Thus, the musical aspect of Sunday gatherings was subordinated to preaching: music had to become a preaching in sounds. Consequently, it was imperative that words be clearly heard by all the parishioners, and a tight polyphonic writing was very ill-suited for this purpose.

Trent aimed to purify the Catholic tradition in music, not replace it

In contrast, the Catholic view was that the celebration of the Eucharist was directed primarily toward God, as an act of thanksgiving – and it might be supposed that he had a good ear for music. In fact, music had to be as beautiful as possible in order to “adorn” the sacrifice of the Mass and to make it more pleasing to God. What mattered was not that music be clearly intelligible to all, but that it be properly articulated.The difference may seem a minor one – if a text is sung clearly, it will be understood clearly; however, it was crucial for the very concept of worship and of the role of music within it.

The wording of the final decree on music was therefore short, even laconic; in Craig Monson’s translation, it reads: “Let them keep away from the churches compositions in which there is an intermingling of the lascivious or impure, whether by instrument or voice.” In my opinion, this short sentence reveals a deeply-felt concern for the “purity” of God’s people, and particularly of the clergy. In the Catholic field, it was felt that a true reform of the Church had to start with a thorough renewal of the clerical class, to which – lest we forget – most Church singers effectively belonged.

From a “high” concept of the Mass and the Eucharist, the Fathers deduced a “high” concept of the priestly dignity: those who were in closest contact with the sacred mysteries had to be as pure and saintly as possible. Thus, their music had to be as pure and free from secular influences as possible in turn; it had both to mirror the purity of God and to encourage human performers and listeners to get closer to it.

Though the theological starting points were therefore very different from those of the Evangelical Reformers, the result was not so dissimilar: at Trent, as in Wittenberg, or in Strasburg, or in Geneva, music was seen as a formidable resource for embellishing worship, for touching the hearts, and for making human prayer as worthy of the divine as possible.

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.


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