The Reformation: classical music’s punk moment

Martin Luther, pictured centre, thought music was the greatest gift from God.

It began 500 years ago, with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, and has never really ended. Not only has the Reformation had a profound influence on the diversity of Christian practice today, but it also affected many other aspects of our culture, not least the story of western classical music.

At first sight, however, the Reformation does not seem a very promising idea for the development of music. For many of the significant reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, anything beyond simple psalms and songs was viewed with suspicion since it obscured or – more insidiously – rivalled the purer music of scripture. The first reformer, Martin Luther, is often assumed to have shared such puritanical views, with his strong emphasis on scripture, faith and God’s freely given grace. Surely, all the paraphernalia of the Catholic church, including its complex and sumptuous music, was to be rejected outright?

In fact, Luther enthused about music as the greatest gift of God after religion itself, and – wherever possible – he preserved much of the glorious polyphony of Catholic practice. But he also inaugurated a sort of musical democratisation by which strong, simple melodies (the “chorales”) could be sung by the entire congregation.

Nevertheless, the repertory of music that is exclusively “Lutheran” is relatively small. The leading Lutheran composer of the 17th century, Heinrich Schütz, wrote music that was very much in the same idiom as Monteverdi and other Catholic composers active around 1600. The main difference lies in the use of the vernacular German text, set with a verve and skill that essentially launched German as a language for modern music.

The Lutheran tradition of course peaked in JS Bach, a composer who, like his most distinguished predecessors, capitalised on all the musical styles available to him – whether from Protestant or Catholic traditions. What makes his music Lutheran lies in the theological stance of the poetic textual commentary of his cantatas and Passions. The latter in particular dramatised the centre point of Luther’s theology: the freely given gift of Jesus’s sacrifice, by which salvation is achieved.

But, after Bach, there are only a few obvious flashes of musical Lutheranism (not least Mendelssohn and his “Reformation” symphony and a few significant church pieces by Brahms).

It would seem rather that the Catholic church has, literally, called the tunes in western music history. Virtually all notated repertories before the Reformation came from Catholic Europe and the church continued to produce many of the great glories of Renaissance music during the first century of reformation. Even William Byrd, arguably the greatest English composer of the age, wrote significant pieces for the Catholic liturgy.

From Monteverdi to Vivaldi, some of the greatest church music of the early modern era came from the Catholic side. The connection continues with figures as diverse as Liszt, Bruckner, Verdi, Puccini and Elgar (brought up a Catholic). Nor does its influence cease in the age of modernism, with composers such as Messiaen, Penderecki and James MacMillan all thoroughly influenced by the beliefs and aesthetic attitudes of Catholic practice. Of course, there are plenty of non-religious composers, too (such as the Lutheran-baptised Richard Wagner), but beyond figures such as Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn (all of whom in any case showed some ecumenical tendencies), it is difficult to name many who have shown any enthusiasm for Protestantism. Even Brahms is perhaps best described as a “cultural Lutheran”.

And so, you might ask, why are we celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in music? Why does it have any enduring significance for the culture of western music?

For a start, the Protestant imperative to attend more to text in general and scripture in particular, led to the Catholic church’s own Reformation, the Counter Reformation, in the mid-16th century. It was in this environment that Palestrina became the mythologised father of a new Catholic musical tradition that, like those of the Protestants, purported to present the text more clearly by avoiding the excesses of polyphonic elaboration.

The Catholic church’s increased interest in music as the medium for text also drew it closer to humanist concerns for expression and effect – something that lay behind the development of madrigalian and operatic styles. And the interest in expression and emotional content also directly paralleled the new sense of intimate spirituality that characterised both the Catholic and Protestant reformations.

The art of music, which used to be the analogue of the proportions of heaven and the harmony of the entire cosmos, was increasingly brought down to earth, with the focus more on the human spirit and body. It would be simplistic to claim that all this was caused by the Reformation, but it is unlikely to have happened without the debates about faith, devotional practice and personal responsibility that the Reformation inaugurated.

Musical styles too began to change and diversify in the decades following the Reformation. How was the music actually heard? We will never know for sure, but Roland Barthes may well have been on to something when he suggested that Lutheranism inaugurated a culture of listening. Luther certainly developed a practice in which music took on a more highly charged value, consolidating the drama and struggles of belief within the mind of the believer rather than in the multi-sensory panoply of traditional Catholic practice. It is perhaps no surprise that Bach once related the presence of God and his grace specifically to music – something that cannot be seen or touched, but which permeates the believer’s world and mind. Scripture and faith coalesce in the believer’s own mind through the practice of listening.

Perhaps something of modern music culture was inaugurated through this intensification of listening, by which music ultimately became the elevated, autonomous art of what is so often termed “classical music”.

When, towards the end of the 18th century, European music culture began to rebel against the primacy of text as the essence of musical sense and expression, it was in north European Lutheran and Reformed lands, particularly Germany, that music emerged as an art liberated from text, but preserving something of the intense listening and contemplation of religious practice.

Religion itself was not entirely abandoned: indeed the sacred oratorios of Bach and Handel provided the foundation of a rich amateur choral culture that spread across Europe in the 19th century, and this was emulated by many new composers in the oratorio tradition.

But if one thread from the Reformation (and Counter Reformation) led towards an intensification of the individual’s sense of self, it also provided the beginnings of community performance and listening. It was, after all, Luther who essentially inaugurated congregational singing in church and this trend soon became adapted towards the psalm singing of the Reformed traditions (and later in Anglicanism, reformed Catholicism and Methodism). These singing traditions lay behind the amateur choral societies of the late 18th century but they also perhaps enabled listeners to play a more active part in listening to the music sung by the specialists.

A listener immersed in Lutheran traditions participates in the chorales of a Bach Passion even if she is not actually singing at that moment. The notion of group identification is of course central to contemporary popular music – the audience might sing along or move to the songs that they have already intimately internalised. It is not difficult to trace a genealogy here that grafts existing Protestant singing practices on to the emerging African American traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

So, what indeed has the Reformation ever done for us? As far as the western musical cultures we inherit today are concerned, perhaps the answer is – almost everything.

Reformation Day is celebrated at the Proms with three concerts on Sunday 20 August, broadcast live and available online for 30 days. Find out more about Luther and the Reformation here.

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