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Sacred Music: Definition, History & Composers

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  • 0:02 Sacred Music Defined
  • 0:32 Sacred Music Development
  • 2:36 Sacred Music Eras & Composers
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Without sacred music, there would be no European classical music. This lesson will explore the development of sacred music, how it influenced the development of secular music, and some important composers.

Sacred Music Defined

Sacred music is one of three expressions of European classical music, which also includes chamber music and theater music. Sacred music is, simply put, music written for church. While the audience and performance venue have changed throughout the eras, the Church's involvement is necessary when referring to sacred music. Of the three pillars of European classical music, sacred music may have been the most critical in the development of the entire genre. Let's take a look at why.

Sacred Music Development

Let's start with a question: who had money around the year 1500? Two groups: the Catholic Church and the aristocracy. Given that this lesson is about sacred music, we're less concerned with rich kings. Not only that, but the rich kings weren't interested in having their music written down. They just wanted it for their parties, which became known as chamber music.

The purpose of writing music down is to get it out to more people, something the Church had a keen eye to do. Perhaps they believed that the more uniformly music was performed, the more unified the voice of the Church would be. This is why the earliest written music tended to be sacred music.

It's also how we got our first universal notation system, neumes (the dot, shape and squiggle way of knowing which note to sing), from the Gregorian Monks in the ninth century, and the Guidonian Hand, developed by Guido d'Arezzo to help singers learn how to sing on sight. Guido d'Arezzo used a standard song, Ut queant laxis, and matched the pitches to locations on his hand. Each line in the song started with a subsequent pitch in the scale. This led to what we know now as solfege, or the naming of pitches, such as Do-Re-Mi. Thus, the Guidonian Hand gave you a fixed way of representing specific notes for the congregation to sing.

So now that we've established how sacred music contributed to the development of early notation, written music, and early solfege, the question remains: how did it help the development of European classical music? Well, the only other opportunity for stable employment was for a musician to be employed of the Church. Composition was then tailored to the needs of the Church, and performance styles were based on the capacity of the musicians. Through the musical eras, up until the Classical Era, musicians tended to be employed by the Church, writing music for (and influenced by) the Church.

Sacred Music Eras & Composers

Unlike the other two pillars of classical music, sacred music can be traced back to the Medieval era (about 500-1400 CE) in a style known as plainchant, which was largely monophonic (or having only one melody, no harmonic accompaniment), and consisted of little melodic variation and rhythmic complexity. Music stayed this way for about 500 years and it's not until the late Middle Ages that we see the developments of polyphony (or the use of multiple melodic lines).

The Renaissance Era (about 1400-1600 CE) saw a huge explosion in prolific sacred music composers, and the style sure did change! It was primarily polyphonic, with its simultaneous melodies. Dufay was well known for writing music with a great deal of simultaneous melodic content, often to the point where some believed he obscured the overall message. This led to some reactionary compositions, specifically Monteverdi and his Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, which was still polyphonic, but far more restrained, and which foretold the coming Baroque Era.

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