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Counter Catholic Reformation: Definition, Music & Timeline

Instructor: Sarah Porwoll-Lee
Discover how Protestantism changed the course of music in the 16th Century. Learn about music's move away from the rules within the Catholic Church, the leaders of this movement, and new traditions.

Counter Catholic Reformation

Most people who have been to any type of Christian church have participated in music during the service - especially singing hymns together with the congregation. Have you ever wondered how this and other church music traditions came to be? The answer can be found as we explore the history of the Counter Catholic Reformation in music!

For centuries, the Catholic Church maintained much control over the way music was made. Texts were strictly liturgical and sung in Latin, and very specific musical forms were used to communicate these texts - namely, plainsong and polyphony.

Plainsong is a single melodic line sung in unison, utilizing biblical text and a free rhythmic structure. These melodies were typically sung only by the clergy. Polyphony is a musical style in which multiple melodies are harmonized and sung together, which, at this time, was still reserved exclusively for church authorities and professional musicians working for the church.

The Reformation Begins

Catholic musical traditions were greatly changed along with larger social and religious views with the beginning of the Counter Catholic Reformation in 1517. Initiated by German theologist Martin Luther, the reformation symbolized an uprising against the Catholic Church's authority and spiritual leadership across the European nations.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

Other important leaders in this movement were John Calvin, who had followers in France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and Henry VIII in England. Changes in the liturgy and religious belief systems brought about evolution in all areas of the arts, including music. These changes varied within the three subsections of Protestantism: Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism. As we progress through this lesson, we will discuss the changes these different groups made to music in worship.

Lutheranism: The Introduction of Chorales and Congregational Participation

The biggest changes to church music were made in Lutheranism. While the Lutheran Church initially retained many aspects of Catholic music and the Catholic Mass, including the use of Latin text, over time, more and more developments were seen. Texts were translated to German to make them easier for the congregation to understand. Can you imagine trying to decipher Latin words throughout the entire service before this change was made? This alteration made worship services and the music within them more accessible to regular people.

One of the most important new ideas brought about by this revolutionary time in music was the creation of a new musical form: the chorale. The chorale encouraged congregational participation in the church service, which had been nonexistent in the traditional Catholic Mass.

The chorale is a melodic hymn to be sung in unison by the congregation, typically accompanied by harmony lines in the organ. Chorales stretched the boundaries of the traditional Catholic hymn, incorporating newly composed melodies, melodic lines borrowed from secular tunes, and newly written religious texts (not necessarily from the Bible).

Second Edition Hymnal by Martin Luther
Martin Luther Hymnal

Calvinism: Restrictions and Distrust

John Calvin
John Calvin

Calvinism took a very different approach to the reformation of music and worship. John Calvin and his followers held a general distrust for the distraction of music, especially instrumental music, in the church. Calvinists strongly believed in expressing worship with purity and authenticity and that only those things in the Bible could be allowed. Worship was to be done respectfully and quietly, in contrast to the new excitement and community participation in the evolving Lutheran service.

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