As we have seen in the preceding articles of this series on sixteenth-century church music, Renaissance music was a living contradiction. On the one hand, polyphonic works among the most beautiful of all time were written and sung in praise of the Almighty; on the other, people who cared about church matters found a number of problems in sacred music. In my previous article on this topic I discussed a few of the thorny issues concerning performance, spiritual aspects and practical features.

But what did the religious reformers think of sacred music? Diverse as their theological opinions might be, frequently their views on music were highly consonant with another.

Intelligibility and sobriety

Nearly all of them, for example, believed that church music should be in the service of the Word, although this often was translated as service of the words. There is a subtle but fundamental difference: music can serve the Word (of God, the divine Logos) even when it has no words, since music can transcend and sometimes transfigure human words. But for many, both Protestant and Catholic, the intelligibility of the sacred words was of primary importance.

Thus, among Christians of nearly all denominations, the 16th century saw the increasing use of so-called “syllabic styles” in church music, i.e. music without melismas (instead, one syllable, one note) and preferably without rich polyphony (all parts should sing to the same rhythm), favouring intelligibility.

While it is true that syllabic and homophonic (i.e. non-polyphonic) music is more understandable, it is also decidedly less joyful, enrapturing and awe-inspiring. Only a few denominations (among which were Catholics and Lutherans, and – partly – Anglicans) allowed the maintenance of the other, more luxuriant, styles, but all (except those Reformers who banned music outright) favoured a greater musical sobriety.

Indeed, music inspired little confidence in several religious reformers. Calvinists such as Théodore de Bèze or Pierre Viret were wary of its powers (for Viret, music frequently aimed only at “giving delight to the ears, and detaining them, and in the meanwhile distracting the hearts from feeling and understanding the sung words, which must be understood by all”).

Catholics such as the bishops gathered at the Provincial Council of Sens were supportive of a kind of music which “delights the ears of the hearers”, but prohibited that which “arouses and excites to lasciviousness, titillating heart or soul”. Zwingli was much more extreme, and maintained that the prophet Amos would have “cried out so that the whole world could not endure his word”, had he heard sixteenth-century church music. In fact, Zwingli was one of the (few) reformers who admitted no musical expression during the reformed worship of his church.

Attitudes to creation

Fascinatingly, it is possible to guess rather precisely the stance of a given reformer about music when one knows what they thought about Creation and the created word. Those confessions which had a positive approach to creation, and which believed that “finitum capax est infiniti” (“finite things are capable of the infinite”) were also inclined to believe that music is, in turn, “capable of the infinite”. Those who had a pessimistic view of the world and of its fallenness were also ill-at-ease with music. (And, fascinatingly again, nearly the same can be said of their views on visual art: fostered by Catholics, admitted by Lutherans, banned and sometimes destroyed by Christians of other denominations).

In spite of this, there was a widespread consensus, at least among the principal Reformers, about a series of propositions about music and its value for worship. For most of them, including Luther and Calvin, music was a gift of God and a valuable instrument for praising Him in worship. Music also served to create communion within the congregation, and for fostering the faithful’s piety and devotion. It was an indispensable resource for instructing the congregation and conveying God’s Word (particularly, but not exclusively, among children and the illiterate), but it could also foster ethical behaviours and move the hearts to a better life. Music comforted the hearers, and possessed a mystical power which could even dispel the evil forces (and sometimes heal physical or spiritual wounds); finally, music was a formidable instrument of propaganda, for spreading new confessions, countering heresy and demonstrating one’s faith in a context of confessional division. 


Fraw Musica, by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1544)

Luther’s enthusiasm for music

Of course, these propositions were more or less enthusiastically supported by the various reformers. Possibly the most enthused of all was Martin Luther. For him, music was “the best of the arts”; he wrote: “Music I have always loved”. For him, music was “next to theology”; the prophets had “held theology and music most tightly connected, and proclaimed truth through Psalms and songs”. Luther’s focus on Scripture was also mirrored by his words on music: he believed that “the notes bring the words to life”, and he fostered the composition of songs in the vernacular, “so that the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music”. For him, music pervaded the created world, since it “was impressed on or created with every single creature, one and all”.

His fellow Reformer Martin Bucer, in Strasbourg, was perhaps as supportive as Luther of church music, but considerably colder when secular music was at stake. In fact, Bucer’s goal was to replace all secular music with sacred music, not only in church but on all occasions of daily music-making. He wrote that “music, all singing and playing (which above all things are capable of mixing our spirits powerfully and ardently) should be used in no other way except for sacred praise, prayer, teaching and admonition […] so that absolutely no song and no instrumentalizing may be sung or used except by and for Christian spiritual activities”.

Calvin’s guarded approval

Calvin’s position evolved from a rather deep mistrust of music to the impressive spiritual (and musical) success of the Reformed Psalter. For him, music could be “an encouragement to believers, fostering their heartfelt desire for and praise to God”. He had a very clear type of music in mind, though, i.e. one characterised by modesty and sobriety: “Touching the melody”, he wrote for instance, “it has seemed best that it be moderated in the manner we have adopted to carry the weight and majesty appropriate to the subject”. He noted that “we experience that [music] has a secret and almost incredible power to arouse hearts in one way or another”; however, “unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God”.

Many of the statements and ideas quoted above found resonances and amplifications also among Anglican and Catholic reformers, as the following articles will demonstrate. Moreover, some reformers who did not gather, in the long run, as many followers as Luther or Calvin, did however contribute deeply to the major reformers’ understanding of music. Thus, as the next pieces will discuss, ideas about church music were very fluid and could undergo influences from unexpected quarters; what is clear, however, is that everybody cared very much about music and about its role in worship.

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 this month 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

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