Musical symbolism can be seen in The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein.
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
To speak of music is to speak of harmony, of “concord”; the vocabulary used in daily life to describe peace and unity shares many words with that specific for music. So, even though (as seen in the preceding article of this series) music played a role in the confessional oppositions of the Reformation, its true vocation and one of its main functions has always been to create and manifest harmony.
This happened even in the turmoil of sixteenth-century Christianity. Indeed, music is particularly and inherently suited to symbolize peace, that high-order peace which is communion. It has been said that polyphony is not a zero-sum game, whereby one gains in proportion to another’s losses; on the contrary, the most beautiful music frequently arises when there is true cooperation and concord among the voices. The beauty of a polyphonic work exceeds the sum of its single parts; the seemingly miraculous intertwining of the voices is an enchanted and enchanting symbol of the perfect and loving society.
Faithful to its call to be an instrument of unity, music in the 16th century wove an invisible thread of communion which held together the broken pieces of the Corpus christianum. This function of music is represented in a striking and fascinating fashion in a detail of an extremely famous painting by Hans Holbein, known as The Ambassadors. Here, the portraits of the two church diplomats are framed by a plethora of objects, each with one or more symbolic values. Among them we find musical instruments, like a lute and flutes, and a partbook with music notation. Observing the painting closely, we see that the middle string of the lute is broken: the harmony of the Church is interrupted, and just as a single broken string makes a lute unusable, so a schism in the Church undermines its very essence as the embodiment of a transcendent unity.
In spite of this, the open music book reveals two Lutheran chorales, one dedicated to the Holy Spirit and the other a song on the Ten Commandments. Holbein uses a musical metaphor to convey a fundamental truth: the Law represented by the Commandments is just “another leaf” in the book of salvation, which finds its perfection in the freedom of the Holy Spirit. However, to take the two in isolation from each other is to misinterpret their functions and their meaning; there is “harmony” between God-given laws (which help us to live in “harmony” with our neighbours) and the God-given Spirit, who creates bonds of love and communion.
A unifying heritage: psalmody, piety, mysticism
On the practical plane, many more elements of music and liturgy remained common to Christian believers of the various denomination than those which divided them. The most evident example of this was the use of psalmody, which was practised – in one way or another – by Christians of virtually all confessions. Catholic nuns and monks, priests and some laypeople prayed the Latin psalms in the liturgy of the Hours; Calvinists sang the Genevan psalter, in the various languages of its many translations; Lutherans intoned the Chorale paraphrases of the psalms, turned into simple and fascinating songs from the very beginning of the Reformation; Anglicans were experiencing the metrical psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins, along with many other early versions.
While these different forms somehow characterized the various confessions, it is also true that some versions created either for the official worship or the private devotion of believers of one confession were likely to be used by members of other churches. Piety was indeed a keyword of all the Christian Reformations of the era, and works intended for the purpose of fostering devotion and a prayerful mood were employed throughout the confessional spectrum. Thus, tunes typical for a particular faith migrated to the hymnbooks and private music collections of other faiths; and, after centuries of use, the tune of the “Old 100th” is felt to be no less “their own” by faithful Anglicans than by the Calvinists within whose repertoire it originated.
Even more strongly than piety, mysticism was likely to transcend confessional boundaries. Music fostered and expressed the experience of mystical love, and musical practices were encouraged by religious leaders of very different provenances in order to increase a heartfelt love for God among the members of their flocks. In particular, it is very touching to read the narratives of some saintly figures who lived their faith in the various confessional groups of the era, and who resorted to music in the last moments of their earthly life, as to a promise of eternity and a foretaste of heaven.
This happened to a Scottish Protestant woman, Elizabeth Adamson, who told her relatives that music had led her to experience and “taste of the mercy of my God”. Similarly, the Anglican bishop John Jewel allegedly wished Psalm 71  to be sung during his agony. Perhaps more surprisingly, crew members of a sinking ship in 1593 sang “with doleful tune and heavy hearts” Psalm 12 , just before being drowned by the strife of the elements. The sailors’ resorting to sung psalmody, their knowledge of the Psalter and their clinging to this religious practice in a moment of terrible distress all bear witness to how deeply it had pervaded the spirituality of the English by the end of the century.
Among Catholics, the episode is narrated of a Roman musician, one Sebastiano, who was terribly frightened by delirious visions of evil spirits as his death was approaching; when saint Filippo Neri came and visited him, those evil presences left him, and he was able to sing a spiritual lauda praising Jesus and then to rest in peace.
Music was also an integral component and a fundamental instrument of instruction and education, across the confessional divides. Children of practically all confessions were taught religious songs as part of their spiritual education; these songs were also frequently used to convey notions and knowledge about faith, as well as to foster devotion among the youngest. Reports abound of how music helped the children to retain the content of their creeds, and to have a repertoire of prayerful songs which could be used in the various occasions of life.
Musical dialogue: Bach and Händel
To cite one further example among the many possible, the fact that many musicians (who could be staunch members of their churches) could write religious, liturgical or devotional works to be employed by other churches, represented one further and crucial element of unity.
Exactly as a song, tune or motif extracted from the repertoire of a church and paraphrased or adapted to suit the needs of another could (and should) never be considered in isolation from its history, so the cultural implications and mind-sets of a composer’s confession could hybridise those of the church he or she was composing for.
Moreover, if the composers in question wished not to disgust, scandalise or outrage their patrons, they had to elaborate a musical language, choose lyrics and negotiate a result which would be acceptable to both the patrons and the composers themselves. Obviously, in many cases it could and should be argued that the stimulus for such compositions or their use by another church was not (primarily) an ecumenical concern, especially since ecumenical dialogue and wishes for unity are a relatively recent achievement of the Christian churches as a whole (and even today, this is felt with a different degree of urgency by some churches than by others).
However, by finding this musical language of dialogue, musicians were doing precisely what the ecumenical movement is striving to do now: not just to find an acceptable compromise, but rather to put into dialogue each church’s tradition, history, thought and practice with those of the others. In both music and ecumenism, the result cannot be convincing, true and satisfactory if only the intersection of traditions, history, thoughts and practices is sought: this would represent an impoverishment for all, who would have to renounce a huge part of their reality.
On the contrary, fullness and beauty are reached when a language is sought and found which allows each to communicate its true and deep identity to the other; and, sometimes, the greater and more historically significant one’s tradition had come to be, the greater its contribution to the other church could become. Though my discussion in this series is mainly limited to the sixteenth century, it is impossible to neglect what Bach’s Mass in B Minor has brought to the history of the Catholic Mass, or what the dialogue of Georg Friedrich Händel (1685–1759) with Lutheran, Catholic and Anglican traditions has given to each – to name but two of the greatest.
So, possibly, the attempts made by musicians who composed sacred music for members of another confession may become a paradigm and an actual model for the aims and methods of ecumenical dialogue. We will see, in the next and last article, how the specific viewpoint of womanhood can also contribute to this perspective.
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. (10) Conquering aural space: the musical wars of the Reformation.