Renaissance music is music from ca. 1425 to ca. 1600, according to the conventional periodization of Western music. In the earlier Renaissance (to ca. 1520), the Bible features primarily in the Latin texts of the principal genres of sacred music, mass and motet, which adopt biblical quotations and allusions as they had been used in the Catholic liturgy through the Middle Ages. Later in the era, direct setting of biblical texts, especially the Psalms, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and several prominent Gospel passages, became common, both within the Catholic tradition and within new Protestant musical traditions that emerged beginning in the early sixteenth century and translated biblical texts into the vernacular.

The Catholic Tradition.

Scholars have traditionally associated the beginning of the Renaissance in music with a stylistic shift from a harmony based on perfect intervals (octaves, fourths, and fifths) to one based on triadic harmonies that took place in the first years of the fifteenth century, a shift that was accompanied by increasing sensitivity to the text being set. Medieval music in England had long featured a more triadic harmony and clearer declamation, and this English sound spread to the Continent during the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), the protracted conflict between France and England that brought English nobles and their musicians to northern France in the first part of the fifteenth century. The best-known and most influential English musician of this time was John Dunstable (or Dunstaple, ca. 1390–1453), who influenced the first generation of continental Renaissance composers, including Guillaume Du Fay (1397–1474), active in Italy and his home city of Cambrai, and Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400–1460), musician at the Court of Burgundy.

The transition to the Renaissance was, therefore, one of compositional style rather than of approach to the Bible. The late-fourteenth-century compositional genres of mass and isorhythmic motet continued to flourish in the early fifteenth century, eventually evolving into relatively stable genres that would endure for the remainder of the Renaissance, continuing to define the Catholic musical tradition even after the emergence of separate Protestant traditions. By the mid-fifteenth century a mass can be defined as a choral setting of all five items of the Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), whereas a motet is a setting of a sacred Latin text not drawn from the Mass Ordinary. All Catholic music of the Renaissance was meant to be used in and around the liturgy that had been established in the late Middle Ages. The Gregorian chant sung in this liturgy was an important source of compositional building blocks for Renaissance music.

From the generation of Du Fay and Binchois through the mid-sixteenth century, virtually all composers in the Catholic tradition working throughout western Europe were from northern France and Flanders, where there was a strong tradition of choir schools that taught boys to sing the liturgy and read the mensural (i.e., rhythmic) notation necessary for musical composition. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the members of this so-called Franco-Flemish school of composers began to be joined, and then displaced, by prominent Italian and Spanish composers.


The text of the Mass Ordinary itself makes limited use of the Bible in the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Further biblical quotation and allusion were possible through the processes of composition in the various types of mass described below. Masses were usually composed for four to six voice parts.

Cyclic mass.

The single defining element of the Renaissance mass is that it became cyclic, that is, all five movements of the Ordinary were musically unified and quoted the same preexistent compositional building block, from which the mass would take its title. Thus the early English Missa Alma redemptoris mater by Leonel Power (d. 1445) is a mass in which all movements quote the chant Alma redemptoris mater. Since the texts of the mass are unchanging, the musical model could give a composition devotional specificity, making it appropriate for a particular feast day or saint. In the fifteenth century, cyclic masses were usually cantus firmus masses, in which each movement quoted the same borrowed melody (“cantus firmus” or “fixed song”), usually in long note values in the tenor voice. In the early sixteenth century two new types of cyclic mass emerged that would dominate mass composition through the entire century: the paraphrase mass and the parody mass. Like the cantus firmus mass, the paraphrase mass quotes a melody, usually from chant, but it does so in all voices, constructing imitative counterpoint out of the melody rather than quoting it in a single voice. The parody mass, rather than quoting a single melody, quotes an entire musical composition, usually a motet. The sound of the model was therefore much more readily audible in paraphrase and parody masses than in cantus firmus masses.

All of these types of mass invoke the Bible in the same way. When the preexistent musical model, be it a chant or a motet, sets text from the Bible, that text is taken up into the mass composition. Though the text of the borrowed music is usually not sung within the mass, it is understood by composer, singer, and educated audience members to be superimposed on the text of the Mass Ordinary, bringing the particularized meaning of the borrowed text to the generalized and oft-repeated texts of the mass. The anonymous English Missa Caput from ca. 1440, for instance, quotes the setting of the single word “caput” (head) from the antiphon Venit ad Petrum from the mandatum or Washing of the Feet ceremony on Maundy Thursday, which draws its text from the account of the Last Supper in John 13:6–9. Here Peter asks Jesus to wash not only his feet but also his hands and his head. Performance of the Missa Caput, therefore, while actually presenting only the melody of the word “head,” thereby invokes the entire antiphon Venit ad Petrum, the Washing of the Feet ceremony, and the text of John 13:6–9 within a mass ceremony. Robertson (2006) argues that the word “head” further resonates with Genesis 3:14–15, in which God says to the serpent that its head shall be crushed. The Latin text of the passage leaves ambiguity as to whether it is the woman (Eve) or her seed that will crush the serpent’s head. The serpent clearly represents the devil and sin, which is crushed by virtue, but the mass can be understood to resonate either with Christ (conqueror of sin) or the Virgin Mary (the new Eve, who conquers sin by being free of it). Kirkman (2010) argues that the biblical word “caput” further refers to Christ as “head” of the church and to bishops and kings as “heads” of ecclesiastical and earthly establishments, the one being anointed on the head by the other.

Such biblical quotations could be elaborated by compositional traditions in which numerous masses set the same cantus firmus. The anonymous English Missa Caput, for example, was highly influential on the Continent, where the leading composers Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410–1497) and Jacob Obrecht (1457/8–1505) both wrote Missae Caput that elaborate upon the biblical symbolism of the original Mass. Other traditions include the three Missae Ecce ancilla Domini by Du Fay, Ockeghem, and Johannes Regis (ca. 1425–ca. 1496), each of which quotes a different chant on Mary’s words “Ecce ancilla Domini” (Behold the handmaid of the Lord) from Luke 1:38, part of the Annunciation story.

Composition was generally more rhetorical in the sixteenth century than in the fifteenth, with increasing attention paid to clear declamation of text. The Vatican composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–1594) was the best-known sixteenth-century Catholic composer and wrote numerous paraphrase and parody masses. His Missa Tu es Petrus, a parody mass, is based upon his motet Tu es Petrus (You are Peter), which sets Matthew 16:18–19 (“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”). Palestrina’s six-voice motet sets the words “claves regni caelorum” (keys of the kingdom of heaven) strikingly, with full choral texture. When the music for this passage is quoted within the movements of the Mass Ordinary, it invokes the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the iconographic symbol of St. Peter.

Mass Proper settings and plenary masses.

Though settings of the Mass Ordinary are by far the most common Renaissance Mass compositions, Mass Proper settings are also important. The Mass Proper is the part of the mass ceremony with texts that change from day to day, including the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Sequence, Offertory, and Communion. These were the movements most commonly given choral settings. Their texts are often biblical, most commonly but by no means exclusively drawn from the Psalms. For a choral setting of a full mass service, including both Proper and Ordinary items, the term “plenary mass” is used. Guillaume Du Fay is the most prolific named composer of fifteenth-century Mass Proper compositions, and there are also many anonymous compositions within the tradition. Most settings include motet-like compositions, usually for three voice parts, incorporating the chant of the Proper items usually into the highest-sounding voice. Du Fay’s Missa Sancti Jacobi is a plenary mass that combines this manner of Mass Proper composition with settings of the five Ordinary movements, resulting in a nearly complete choral service.

The tradition of Mass Proper composition was next cultivated around the turn of the sixteenth century in Germany, where Heinrich Isaac (ca. 1450/55–1517), court composer to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519), produced the largest number of compositions in the genre. Isaac’s Proper settings are generally for four voices, though some are for five or six, and incorporate the original chant melody into the highest-sounding voice or into the tenor voice. The largest collection of Isaac’s works can be found in the Choralis Constantinus (Chant of Constance), a publication in three volumes printed in Nuremberg 1550–1555, which had been completed and edited by Isaac’s younger colleague Ludwig Senfl (ca. 1486–1542/3). Isaac’s Propers continued to be sung throughout the sixteenth century, and the tradition of Mass Proper compositions by lesser-known German composers continued throughout the century (see Burn and Gasch, 2011).

One final prominent collection of Mass Proper settings is the Gradualia (1605/7), published in two volumes by the English composer William Byrd (ca. 1540–1623). Byrd, a recusant Catholic in Protestant England, composed these works for liturgies celebrated in secret by relatively small gatherings of Catholics. Byrd follows the text and liturgical forms of the Mass Proper items but eschews the chant melodies, using music instead as a vehicle for expressive setting of the texts (see McCarthy, 2007).

Marian votive masses.

The Marian votive mass or Missa de beata Virgine was a subgenre of mass devoted to the Virgin Mary that became common in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It set the Mass Ordinary text, but instead of having all movements based on the same musical model, each movement is based on the liturgical melody it replaces in the plainchant mass for the Virgin. There is also an important textual variant in the Gloria, where the Spiritus et alme tropes are included, adding explicitly Marian words (“Spirit and gracious protector of orphans … First-born of Mary, the virgin mother”) to the usual Gloria in excelsis text. The most famous Missa de beata Virgine is that for four to five voices by Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450/55–1521).

Requiem masses.

The Requiem mass is a plenary mass setting items of the Ordinary and Proper from the Missa Pro Defunctis or Mass for the Dead. The genre gets its name from the first movement of the mass, the Introit Requiem aeternam (Eternal rest). Musical settings emerged in the late fifteenth century and grew in popularity through the Renaissance. The earliest extant Requiem is by Ockeghem, and prominent later settings include those by the Habsburg-Burgundian composer Pierre de la Rue (ca. 1452–1518) and the Late Renaissance Spanish master Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611).


Motets in the Renaissance are choral settings of sacred Latin texts not drawn from the Mass Ordinary. Usually for three to six voice parts, they set texts from a wide variety of biblical and nonbiblical sources, sometimes taking versions of these texts from the liturgy, sometimes taking them directly from the Bible or other sources.

The Early Renaissance: Isorhythmic and Cantilena motets.

Early in the fifteenth century the medieval isorhythmic motet was still used for ceremonial occasions. These works, usually for three or four voice parts, set original texts that are sometimes devotional, sometimes political. What makes them “isorhythmic” is that their tenor voices quote a short snippet of Gregorian chant on a significant word, setting it to rigid rhythmic structures involving a repeating melodic pattern, called a color, and a repeating rhythmic pattern, called a talea, that interlock with one another following simple arithmetical proportions. Often the word(s) in the tenor and/or the numerical scheme of the isorhythm project sacred symbolism that can draw on biblical references. Wright (1994) famously showed that Du Fay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores, composed for the dedication of the Cathedral of Florence on 25 March 1436, uses its 6:4:2:3 isorhythmic scheme to represent the proportions of Solomon’s Temple as described in 1 Kings 6. The tenor voice, meanwhile, quotes the Introit for the dedication of a church, Terribilis est locus iste (based on Genesis 28:17), and the main text of the motet is a newly composed ode to the Virgin Mary, to whom the cathedral, with its newly completed dome designed by the famed Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), was dedicated with the name Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower). Isorhythmic motets remained common through the first half of the fifteenth century.

During the final decades of isorhythmic motet composition, a new type of motet emerged that combined the style of continental French song composition with late medieval English devotional genres that were brought to the continent during the Hundred Years War. This type of motet, often called the Cantilena motet, is for three voice parts with a song-like texture that is much simpler than that of the isorhythmic motet, lacking any preexisting music or rigid structural scheme. The most famous example is Dunstaple’s Quam pulchra es (ca. 1420), a setting of various noncontiguous verses of the Song of Songs that are declaimed simultaneously in all three voices, providing unprecedented textual clarity. The Cantilena motet was a votive genre, intended for modest daily liturgical and para-liturgical ceremonies. Most cantilena motets were, like Quam pulchra es, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who became an ever-more-prominent object of musical devotion in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

The High and Late Renaissance.

From about 1450 on, the isorhythmic and Cantilena motets merged into a single motet genre of the High and Late Renaissance, a flexible genre for four to six voice parts that set a wide variety of liturgical, biblical, and ceremonial texts. These motets sometimes quoted preexisting material from Gregorian chant, but sometimes they were freely composed in the manner of the Cantilena motet. Stylistically, motets of the High Renaissance resembled single movements of a cyclic mass, but they drew their texts from a much broader range of sources. The most common source of texts was the liturgy, in which chants from the Mass Proper or the Divine Office were themselves often drawn from the Bible, especially the Psalms. Yet unlike Mass Ordinary settings, motets were not generally substituted into the liturgy in the place where their source chant appeared. Rather, they were generally sung before and after mass (the service, not the musical composition), after Vespers or Compline, or at special votive services to the Virgin Mary or other saints. Motets were chosen for specific occasions based on the devotional appropriateness of their text to the liturgical or devotional occasion (see Cummings, 1981).

The first group to produce this type of composition in large quantities was the generation of Franco-Flemish composers who followed Du Fay and Ockeghem, which included Josquin des Prez, Heinrich Isaac, Jacob Obrecht, Loyset Compère (ca. 1445–1518), Jean Mouton (before 1459–1522), and Antoine Brumel (ca. 1460–?1512/13). This was the first generation whose compositions were published in print, largely by the pioneering Venetian music printer Ottaviano Petrucci (1466–1539), who published his first volume of polyphonic music in 1501 and produced a steady stream of publications over the next two decades. The next generation of composers, the last to be dominated by Franco-Flemings, continued to produce motets in large numbers, characterized by ever-increasing use of imitative polyphony. Prominent members included Nicolas Gombert (ca. 1495–1560), Jacobus Clemens non Papa (ca. 1510/15–1555/6), and Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490–1562), maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice, whose counterpoint was especially lucid and served as a model for all subsequent Renaissance composers. The final generation of Renaissance motet composers includes the Italian-born Palestrina, the Spaniard Victoria, the Englishman William Byrd, and the Franco-Fleming Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594), who, though born in Hainaut, was trained in Italy and spent most of his career in Germany.

Marian devotion.

Devotion to the Virgin Mary was perhaps the single most important driving force behind motet (and also mass) composition in the Renaissance (see Rothenberg, 2011). Whereas most saints had a single feast day celebrated in their honor, the Virgin Mary had at least four (Purification on 2 February, Annunciation on 25 March, Assumption on 15 August, Nativity of the Virgin on 8 September) and in many places six (the remaining two are Conception on 8 December and Visitation on 2 July). Beyond these festal celebrations, votive masses to the Virgin were celebrated widely on Saturday, and sometimes daily, and the Office of the Virgin became widespread in Books of Hours, private devotional books from which laypeople—and clergy as well—could recite the hours of the Virgin each day in private. The nightly office of Compline, moreover, always ended with the chanting of a Marian antiphon. The four great Marian antiphons, sung nightly in a seasonal distribution, were the Salve regina (ordinary time), Alma redemptoris mater (Advent to Purification), Ave regina caelorum (Purification to Easter), and Regina caeli laetare (Eastertide). In many urban churches the nightly singing of the Marian antiphon became a public event in the nave of the church, with motets being sung in place of the Marian antiphon.

The stories of the Annunciation, Purification, and Visitation are all told in Luke 1 and 2, some verses of which found their way into motet texts, most prominently the Ave Maria (Luke 1:28, 42), which was set by numerous composers. The stories of Mary’s Nativity and Assumption are nonbiblical and were most widely disseminated in the Renaissance in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), which had been written in the thirteenth century and by the fifteenth was a common handbook of saints’ lives. The liturgies of the nonbiblical feasts (Assumption, Nativity, Conception) made allegorical use of scripture, most notably the Song of Songs and Psalm 45 (44 in Catholic numbering). Liturgical chants drawn from these texts too became the frequent basis for motets.

The Stabat mater, a rhymed devotional text venerating the Virgin’s sorrow at the foot of the cross, was likely composed in the fourteenth century and became widespread in the fifteenth. Its highly vivid and emotive text proved especially popular for musical settings in the High and Late Renaissance, when composers like Josquin, Palestrina, and Lasso all provided examples.

Though Marian motet texts were often drawn from particular liturgical or devotional sources, the pieces were not necessarily performed only on those occasions. Since Marian votive masses and other devotions to the Virgin were celebrated daily, compositions in her honor could be sung almost any time and were likely chosen for specific occasions based on which particular attribute of Mary’s sanctity they celebrated. Even after the onset of the Reformation, which sought to reduce the overall prominence of the cult of the Virgin, the Catholic choral tradition retained a strong Marian emphasis, with the Marian antiphons and other texts remaining as popular as they had been earlier.

Biblical texts.

Though motets of the High and Late Renaissance continued to draw their texts from liturgical chants, motet composers increasingly looked directly to the Bible. Psalms always figured prominently in the texts of motets, but in the Early Renaissance they were mediated through liturgical chants, which often set only a verse or two. Full psalm recitation was still the purview of the Divine Office, where psalms were chanted to recitation formulas called Psalm Tones. In the High Renaissance, however, composers began to set complete psalm texts, often incorporating the Psalm Tone melodic formulas into their compositions in subtle ways. This newfound interest in the complete biblical texts of the Psalms is a reflection of the Renaissance humanistic interest in philology and textual accuracy. The most important composer in the early history of complete psalm settings was Josquin, who set several complete psalms, most notably Psalm 51 (50 in the Latin numbering), one of the seven Penitential Psalms, which was sung, among other places, at the conclusion of the Holy Week Tenebrae services. Indeed, the Penitential Psalms continued to be among the most commonly set psalms for the remainder of the Renaissance. Lasso composed a complete seven-motet cycle on the Penitential Psalms that was copied into an extremely lavish presentation manuscript for Lasso’s patron, Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria (r. 1550–1579), now held in the Bavarian State Library in Munich.

In addition to complete psalms, composers of the early sixteenth century began to set lesson texts—that is, Epistle and Gospel readings from the Mass service—as motets. Again the most prominent figure in the emergence of this tradition is Josquin, who set, among other texts, the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1:1–16, which served as a lesson during Matins on Christmas day and as the Gospel reading at Mass on the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, in his motet Liber generationis Jesu Christi, and Acts 2:1–11, the Epistle reading for the Pentecost mass, in his motet Lectio actuum Apostolorum.

In a similar manner, composers began to seek out biblical sources of texts that had been quoted in the liturgy. One of the most striking examples is Palestrina’s cycle of motets on the Song of Songs, published as his fourth book of five-voice motets in 1584, in which the composer included a preface professing shame at having set worldly texts in his earlier madrigal publications (see Owens, in Pesce 1994). This may be a thinly veiled attempt by the composer to set the sort of eroticism found in Italian texts of the era under cover of biblical authority.

Special liturgical genres: Magnificats and Lamentations.

Several specialized genres of Renaissance Catholic music set texts from the Bible that were used in specific liturgical situations. Most of these had been chanted to special recitation formulas that were taken up in choral settings starting in the fifteenth century.

The most prominent such genre is the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), also known as the Canticle of the Virgin, which is the song sung by the Virgin Mary when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth in the Visitation story. The Magnificat, chanted nightly at the office of Vespers to a recitation tone in the manner of a psalm, was one of three Canticles (New Testament songs) sung daily. The other two were the Benedictus (Luke 1:68–79), sung at Lauds, also known as the Canticle of Zechariah, and the Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29–32), sung at Compline, also known as the Canticle of Simeon. Each of these had eight tones or formulas to which they could be sung, one for each of the eight modes. Though the texts of the Benedictus and Nunc dimittis were set as motets throughout the Renaissance, the Magnificat became a special choral genre with settings of it meant to replace its monophonic chanting at Vespers. Magnificat settings follow the form of liturgical recitation, with sectional breaks between each biblical verse and the recitation tone often featured prominently within the choral texture. In the 1450s, Binchois composed several Magnificat settings. In the Late Renaissance, Lasso composed many for the court of Munich, often incorporating musical material from madrigals and other secular genres alongside the recitation formula (see Crook, 1994). Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there were numerous settings by other composers and anonymous settings as well.

The Lamentations provided another special liturgical genre starting in the late fifteenth century (see Kendrick, 2014). Selected verses of the book of Lamentations were chanted during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week, special Matins services sung on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Readings from all five chapters of Lamentations served as the lessons during the first nocturn of each of these three services, chanted to a special recitation formula in the sixth mode (there are other formulas from earlier eras, but they are not often featured in polyphonic settings). Though various texts from Lamentations had been used in motets during the earlier fifteenth century, it was late in the century that compositions for the Holy Week liturgy emerged. These settings vary somewhat in their musical style, but almost all incorporate the special recitation formula into their polyphonic texture, dividing the music into sections so that there is a break between each verse. In the Latin, the Hebrew acrostics of the original text are maintained by simply saying the name of the Hebrew letter at the beginning of each verse; the name of each letter is usually given a distinct musical section. The first major collections of Lamentations, published by Petrucci in 1506, includes settings by composers who had been active in the later fifteenth century, including Alexander Agricola (?1445/6–1506), Gaspar van Weerbeke (ca. 1445–after 1516), and the composer and influential music theorist Johannes Tinctoris (ca. 1430/35–1511). The tradition proliferated in the sixteenth century, with settings by La Rue, Isaac, the Roman composer Costanzo Festa (ca. 1485/90–1545), the Parisian Claudin de Sermisy (ca. 1490–1562), and the Englishman Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585), as well as Lasso, Paletrina, and Victoria.

Vernacular genres: Chanson, lauda, Leise.

The tradition of Renaissance Catholic music was, by and large, a Latin tradition. There were, however, a few significant vernacular genres. The French chanson tradition, though essentially secular, found its way into sacred music as cantus firmi in sacred compositions (see Bloxam, 2004, Rothenberg, 2011). That is, French love songs might be quoted symbolically in Latin masses or motets, usually in order to align the female beloved of the courtly poetry in chansons with the Virgin Mary. One prominent example is the motet Omnium bonorum plena (Full of All Goodness) by Compère, from the 1470s, which calls on several well-known singers and composers of the day by name to praise the Virgin as the archangel Gabriel had done in the Annunciation scene from Luke, while the tenor voice simultaneously quotes the French chanson De tous biens plaine (Full of All Goodness) by the Burgundian composer Hayne van Ghizeghem (ca. 1445–d. before 1497).

Italy had the longest-standing tradition of vernacular sacred song. The lauda or lauda spirituale was an Italian-texted sacred song that had been sung in central Italian city-states since the thirteenth century by confraternities and so-called laudesi societies, laypeople who gathered for devotional purposes and sang sacred songs in their native tongue. The tradition continued through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with polyphonic laude being sung and composed in the fifteenth century, often as contrafacta (new words for preexisting music) of popular Italian secular songs (see Wilson, 1992).

The German Leise, a rhymed song sung in German by the entire congregation in paraliturgical contexts on high feasts, had existed since the Middle Ages. Perhaps deriving its name from a compression of the words “Kyrie eleison,” this type of song continued to be sung during the Renaissance. Well-known examples such as the Christ ist erstanden (Christ is Risen), a vernacular adaptation of the eleventh-century Easter sequence Victimae paschali laude (Praises to the Paschal Victim), were incorporated into the liturgies of German churches and set to polyphony around the turn of the sixteenth century by Isaac and others.

Protestant Traditions.

Though the Protestant Reformation did not displace the Catholic tradition in Italy or Spain, it did lead to musical reforms, often drastic, in the places where Protestantism took hold. The most influential continental reformers Martin Luther (1483–1546), Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), and Jean Calvin (1509–1564) all advocated musical reform, though they had broadly divergent views on what shape it should take. All believed that the vernacular language should be used in worship, that biblical texts must be central to worship, and that the congregation should participate much more directly in worship than had been the Catholic practice. Luther was a great music lover and believed that music in both Latin and German should be used as a vehicle for congregational worship and the education of children. Zwingli advocated the complete elimination of music from worship because he believed it was a distraction from the Word of God. Calvin advocated very limited use of music in worship, allowing only the monophonic singing of psalms in the vernacular. In England, the Reformation and the emergence of the Anglican Church led to the introduction of the vernacular into sacred music as Catholic practices were modified to suit the emerging Anglican liturgy.

Music in Lutheran Germany.

Luther’s towering contribution to the history of sacred music is his introduction of the chorale, a devotional song sung by the entire congregation, not just a trained choir as in the Catholic tradition. The Lutheran chorale is the foundation of modern congregational singing in Christian worship.

Luther’s break with Catholic religious and musical practices was gradual, but already by the 1520s he had proposed a revision of the Latin mass and an entirely new German mass, celebrated entirely in the vernacular. By the time Luther published his Deutsche Messe und Ordnung Gottesdiensts (German Mass and Order of Worship) in 1526, he had collected dozens of chorales, which circulated among his followers. These chorales were all monophonic, with simple strophic texts and melodies that were easy to remember. The music was usually in bar form (AAB), which had dominated German secular song since the Minnesang of the thirteenth century. Some chorales were sacred contrafacta of well-known secular songs, such as O Welt, ich muss dich lassen (O World, I Must Leave You), an adaptation of Isaac’s Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen (Innsbruck, I Must Leave You); some were adaptations of Gregorian chant or Leisen, such as Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death), an adaptation of the Leis tune Christ ist erstanden, itself an adaptation of the chant Victimae paschali laudes; and some were newly composed by Luther and others. Luther’s most famous chorale composition is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), an adaptation of Psalm 46. All three of these chorale melodies endure to the present day in Lutheran worship and are well known from their use in the cantatas and passions of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750).

Already in the 1520s, chorales began to be set polyphonically. The first publication of chorale settings was the Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn (1524) by Johann Walter (1496–1570), a singer in the chapel of Duke Frederick the Wise of Saxony. The settings range from simple to florid, with the chorale melody usually in the tenor voice in the manner of the Tenorlied, the principal genre of German secular music at the time. The preface to Walter’s collection makes clear that the main goal of these settings was pedagogical—to teach music and devotion to choirboys. But they may have been used in worship as well. The Wittenberg music printer and composer Georg Rhau (1488–1548) published numerous collections that mixed Protestant and Catholic music for use within Protestant churches. By the end of the sixteenth century there were countless settings of Lutheran chorales, often with the chorale melody in the highest-sounding voice, intended for use by the then large community of practicing Lutherans.

Metrical Psalters in France and the Low Countries, and England.

In the French-speaking areas where Calvin’s reforms were influential, the Geneva Psalter was the single most influential musical publication. Consisting of rhymed, strophic translations of all 150 psalms by the French poet Clément Marot (1496–1544) and the Protestant theologian Théodore de Bèze (1519–1605), set to simple melodies composed mostly by the Genevan musician Loys Bourgeois (ca. 1510–1559), the Psalter was published in a series of partial editions starting in 1539 and culminating in a complete edition in 1562. The most famous piece in the Geneva Psalter is Or sus, serviteurs du Seigneur (Arise, Servants of the Lord), a rendering of Psalm 134, the melody of which was taken up in the Sternhold and Hopkins English Psalter (see Anglican Church Music below) to set Psalm 100, becoming known thereafter as “Old Hundredth.”

Although Calvin allowed only monophonic singing of psalms in worship, he permitted the singing of polyphonic music in social gatherings outside the church. The largest repertoire of settings of psalms from the Geneva Psalter is by the Parisian composer Claude Goudimel (1514/20–1572), who set the entire repertoire of Genevan melodies in simple note-against-note style and then again in more florid imitative style.

In the Low Countries, where Protestantism existed in a region nominally ruled by the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a metrical Psalter in Dutch known as the Souterliedekens (Little Psalter Songs) was published by the Antwerp printer Symon Cock (1489–1562) in 1540 and disseminated widely. Though the translations are original, many of the melodies in the Souterliedekens were borrowed from popular Dutch songs. Of the composers who set the Souterliedekens to polyphony, the best known is Clemens non Papa, also a prolific composer of Catholic music, who set the entire set of Souterliedekens for three voice parts in varying combinations.

Anglican church music.

From the late fifteenth century to the Reformation, church music in England was a distinct dialect of the Catholic tradition described above, somewhat more florid and less text-expressive but essentially the same in form and function. The Reformation in England began when King Henry, having defied the pope and married Anne Boleyn in 1533, passed the Act of Supremacy (1534), which declared the King of England the supreme head of the Church of England. It was not until the first and Second Acts of Uniformity in 1549 and 1552 that a uniform English service began to take shape. Under the direction of Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), Archbishop of Canterbury, the Book of Common Prayer was published in several versions between 1549 and 1559. The final version standardized a daily liturgy that consolidated what had previously been eight Offices and Mass in the Latin tradition into three daily services: Morning Prayer, Communion, and Evensong. In 1550 John Merbecke (ca. 1510–1585) published the Booke of Common Praier Noted, which included melodies for the parts of the liturgy that were to be sung. The Anglican Church called for much less music than Catholic worship, all of it in English.

Some was provided by psalm settings in English similar to the French settings in the Geneva Psalter. The most enduring collection was the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, published in several textual editions by Thomas Sternhold (1500–1549) and completed after his death by John Hopkins (d. 1570). The first edition with music, all anonymous, was published in 1556 in Geneva, where many prominent English theologians had fled during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I (r. 1553–1558). The full edition, consisting of 48 psalms and 18 hymns, was published by John Day in London in 1562, Anglican worship having been reinstituted by Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603). A handful of polyphonic settings survive of psalms from the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, both in simple note-against-note style and in more florid motet style.

Major service music for the Anglican Church emerged during Elizabeth’s reign. Though most official guidelines called for modest music in the Anglican service, some of it, especially by the composers of the Chapel Royal—the most famous among them Thomas Tallis (1505–1585) and Byrd—became quite lavish indeed. The major genre was the anthem, essentially a motet in English, but with a few distinctive features. Anthems, like motets, frequently set biblical texts but could also set newly composed texts. There were two types of anthem, the full anthem and the verse anthem. Full anthems were composed for voices alone and often featured an ABB form, in which repetition of the B section was optional. In verse anthems, a soloist accompanied by instruments (usually organ and viols) alternated with the full choir, doubled by the same instruments. The final significant genre of Anglican Church music is the service, a composition setting part or all of the Morning Prayer, Communion, and Evensong for a particular day. In this genre too, Tallis and Byrd produced the largest and finest examples.

The Anglican Church continued to incorporate a limited amount of Latin music, which resembled the Catholic music sung on the Continent at the time. Tallis and Byrd jointly published the Cantionae sacrae (1575), dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and printed with her permission, indicating that the Queen approved of Latin music as long as it was not doctrinally controversial. England thus ended the Renaissance not only by cultivating its own traditions of biblical music but also by incorporating elements of the international Catholic style.

[See also MASS and REQUIEM.]


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David J. Rothenberg