The Wedding at Cana (detail) by Paolo Veronese.

This is the first of an occasional series by Italian musician and theologian Chiara Bertoglio on the musical history of the Reformation which began with Martin Luther in 1517

This year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation. Half a millennium has elapsed since the theological and spiritual provocation of an Augustinian monk changed dramatically the social, political and, of course, the religious history of Europe and of the entire world.

The forces behind his stand were composite, encompassing deeply religious motivations, political considerations, events independent of human power, as well as broader historical and cultural movements. In turn, the Lutheran Reformation impacted heavily on the lives of innumerable people, on their faith, but also on the artistic and cultural output of the era and of the following centuries.

I have decided to study the century of the Reformations of the era (there was more than one) under the specific viewpoint of sacred music, in order to find out how music and faith intertwined, how they influenced each other, how they expressed one another and how they shaped the broader horizon of the known world.

A time of blossoming in the arts

The 16th century was a time of splendid blossoming in the arts. In Italy, the Cinquecento was the epoch when Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Giorgione and many of the greatest artists of all times were operating. It was also the century of Holbein, Dürer, Brueghel, Cranach and El Greco, to name but a few non-Italian greats. In literature it was the century of Cervantes, Lope de Vega and Shakespeare, of the Italian “Petrarchists” and of French poets such as Ronsard (but also of Rabelais).

There were great geographical explorations and daring economic adventures, with new geopolitical balances determined by the recent “discovery” of the New World, and impressive scientific advancement, with Copernicus’ studies paving the way for Galileo’s discoveries and his ground-breaking method.

At the same time many features of modern thought were starting to appear, laying the foundations of several of today’s phenomena. Indeed, it was the century when the harvest of humanism was reaped, its influence was strongest, and the deep consequences of its theories and studies were drawn.

Polyphony and poetry; song and dance

Secular music flourished in several forms. At the level of so-called “art-music” (music which has been transmitted in writing and which was practised by professional or high-level amateurs, normally in the upper social classes), polyphony was favoured in the wake and under the influence of the Franco-Flemish school, which had monopolised the European musical scene in the previous centuries and which still represented the highpoint of musical refinement and creativity.

Music encountered secular poetry in the Italian madrigals and frottole, in the French chansons and in the German Lieder; their lyrics encompassed a wide array of genres, from texts celebrating Platonic love in the style of Petrarch to the comic imitation of dialects and natural sounds or noises such as vendors’ cries or battlefield clamours. Although the very nature of polyphonic writing prevented a single voice from identifying with a particular character, musical forms such as the madrigale rappresentativo paved the way for opera, the great musical innovation of the seventeenth century.

But along with “art-music”, singing, dancing and instrumental music-making were ubiquitous in sixteenth-century society. Indeed, it is likely that the music which has been transmitted in writing represents only the tip of the iceberg with respect to the music which people actually sang, played and danced. Most music was either improvised (both at the level of court pastime and of spontaneous singing among manual workers) or reproduced from traditional models and patterns, frequently updated – in both text and music – according to the performer’s inspiration and to the context.

Divergent traditions, and strands of unity

It was unavoidable, therefore, that such a momentous historical and spiritual movement as that of the religious Reformations and such a pervasive form of artistic expression such as music should meet.

In subsequent articles I will discuss how this meeting took place, which forms it assumed, and how the dialogue of faith and music was lived and experienced by the people who lived in the sixteenth century. We will discuss the cultural framework of the era, and the theoretical stances on sacred music, its problematic issues and the resources it offered to the Reformers – Catholic and Protestant alike.

We will see which role the principal Reformers attributed to sacred music, discussing in turn the forms it took in the worship of Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Catholics – but also in Zwingli’s Zurich, in Bucer’s Strasbourg, and in many religious movements which represented a “reform” of Catholicism from within.

We will also see the role played by music in the process of confessionalisation – that is, when the new and old confessions started to face each other, sometimes in a very violent fashion — but we will not neglect the important role of music as an instrument for creating and maintaining unity and communion in the Church, even when outward appearances were far from peaceful.

Last but not least, we will study the role of women’s music in the context of the religious Reformations, and see how female poets and composers expressed their faith in music and took from it the force for facing persecution, martyrdom and suffering.

My hope is that this series of articles will help the ecumenical dialogue among the Christian Churches, and that the unity which music and prayer have perhaps never ceased to weave will find new forms in the third millennium. In fact, after centuries of confessional opposition, the picture is starting to appear of a “harmony”, a “polyphony” and a “symphony” whose different voices are all expressing faith in the Triune God and in Jesus Christ.

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, is due to be published in April by De Gruyter. Visit her website. 

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