Differences and similarities of music in the renaissance and the reformation Essay

Differences and similarities of music in the renaissance and the reformation


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            The time from 14th to the 16th century is characterized in the history of Europe as a time of upheaval in society, religion, sciences and the arts - Differences and similarities of music in the renaissance and the reformation Essay introduction. During this time frame, two notable movements arose, the renaissance and the reformation. The renaissance started in Italy, with a rise of courtly and papal power. This resulted in a revitalization of the arts that both supported and opposed the authority of the church and the nobles. The reformation on the other hand was started by Martin Luther in  1517,by publishing his 95 Theses On the Power of Indulgences, which criticized Church practices and was a drive for reforms. However, the result became a separation from the Church with the formation of separate protestant churches in various countries. In this paper, we aim to examine the music in eras, their difference and similarities as well as the factors that shaped them.


The use of instruments for music has been used since the early beginnings of man. However, during the renaissance, the music of the times concentrated more on the sound of the human voice. Although musical instruments were widespread, there primary role was simply that of accompaniment. (Arkenberg, 2000)

The elevated role of vocal music can be credited to the influence of the Catholic Church. The Church was the single powerful entity during the renaissance and controlled most if not all aspects of life. The Church believed that the human voice was God’s gift to people and therefore most suitable to music. This is evident with the rise of the Gregorian chant from traditional plainsong. Due to this, purely instrumental music was regarded as pagan music and therefore suffered a decline in popularity.(Ardley, 1989)

 Although separating himself from the Catholic Church, Luther believed in the importance of preserving tradition and therefore retained parts of the Catholic mass. He also utilizes the Gregorian chant, but substituting the use of hymns instead. Like the church, Luther believed the divine role of voice in worship; however, he inserted his brand of secularism which led to the chorale.(Coulton, 1953)

The music of the reformation was characterized by the chorale. The chorale style involved not just the choir in music but also the whole congregation. The new Protestants had songs that took into account the participation of the masses. The chorale style was primarily composed to cater to multiple voices, unifying them into hymns. The chorale evolved from Luther’s idea of secularism. Luther believed that man himself can take part in God’s plans, not simply the clergy. His empowerment of the people in religious matters extended itself to music where in catholic tradition; it is simply the choir that engages in musical worship. (Coulton, 1953)

            The forms behind the chorale consisted of secular as well as none secular works. Some were original compositions, e.g., “Ein Feste Burg” (“A Might Fortress is Our God”) And others were adaptations from chant: “Veni Sancte Spiritus” transformed into “Komm, Heileger Geist” . The chorale alos contained some elements obtaine from non-liturgical sacred songs as well as secular songs with new texts (contrafecta). Although made for human voices, the chorale style was applied by Bach in his organ pieces two hundred years later. (Grout/Palisca)

The role of instruments as an accompaniment evolved as means of incorporating them onto a vocal environment. Instruments accompanied almost all aspects of music. It served as accompaniment for ceremonial music, dances, choirs and chants. It was only during the later years of the renaissance that instrumental music evolved to stand on its own with the advent of musicians like Beethoven and Mozart.

Monophony was the prevalent form during the early renaissance. Gradually, several instruments played together, first by taking turns and then eventually incorporating octaves and unisons. The advent of polyphony also ushered in the rise of the musical ensemble. These were groups of instruments chosen to play together due to their blending. They consisted of two kinds, loud (haut) and soft (bas). The basi loud instruments were composed of the shawms, dulcians, sackbuts, tabor pipes, and trumpets. Loud instruments were utilized outside and the general exception was when playing in a large hall  Soft instruments consisting of recorders, crumhorns, and racketts, were the popular indoor instruments. Both loud and soft ensembles could make use of the cornettos, flutes, and serpents.

The  Lutheran chorale also gave rise to a new set of settings. It follwed the renaissance transition from mono- to polyphony and built upon it. One of which was the 1524 “Wittenberg Sacred Song Book,” published by Johann Walther, musical advisor to Martin Luther. It contained the “Polyphonic Chorale Settings”. It consisted of 38 polyphonic settings and 5 latin motets.  In 1544, a new set was made specifically for school use published by Georg Rhau. Entitled “New German Sacred Songs”, the collection contained works by leading German and Swiss composers: Senfl, Stoltzer, Dietrich, Hellinck . It set chorale melodies using the German lied, the Netherlands motet and simple chordal style. (Coulton, 1953)

In England, the Anglican Church was greatly influenced by the monarchy. It was Edward VI who encouraged simple, homophonic settings using clear words. The Anglican Church also gave rise to the anthem. Two types of which evolved; the full anthem and the verse anthem. The full anthem uses contrapuntal style for chorus while the verse anthem involves soloists and organ or ensemble accompaniment as well as chorus. The verse anthem gave rise to composers like Tye, Tallis, Weelkes, Tomkins, Gibbons, and Byrd.  (Wisse, 2000)

During the late 16th century, a knowledge of music was considered an accomplishment for persons of high rank, especially royalty and military officers. During the Queen Elizabeth’s long reign, music was held in almost universal esteem. King Henry VIII was an extremely devoted musician, even extending to compositions. Court music enjoyed a rise as entertainment in the royal courts for functions, meetings and other public gatherings. They generally followed styles of the renaissance. Although England has been a key part of the reformation, the restriction of reformation music to the church made court music largely of renaissance influence. The musicians would play their instruments or sing until they were told to stop. The performers did not have wages, instead they played for board, lodging, and clothing. In time the court musicians gathered around music houses situated near the middle of the cities, and form music guilds. Here they performed concerts, consisting of both vocal and instrumental music, for the entertainment of the general public. (Strutt, 1970)

Music was a very important aspect of the culture between the 14th and 16th century. The heavy influence of religion brought upon a separation in forms of vocal music, between the chant and the chorale. However, the emphasis on the voice as the primary means of worship was retained. The influence of monarchs on the other hand ushered in music free from religious influences. The court musicians prospered utilizing instruments with or without vocals for entertaining their patrons. The music of the times was a product of the changes happening, the influence of the authorities and the rise of opposition and secularism.


Ardley, N. (1989). Music. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Arkenberg, R. (2000). Music in the Renaissance [Electronic Version]. In Timeline of Art History. Retrieved March 7 2007 from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/renm/hd_renm.htm.

Coulton, G. G. (1953). Art and the Reformation. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grout/Palisca. A History of Western Music 4th Ed.

Strutt, J. (1970). The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. New York: Augustus M. Kelly Publishing.

Wisse, J. (2000). The Reformation. Retrieved March 7 2007, from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/refo/hd_refo.htm.

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