Golden Age Of Catholic Church Music

As shown in the foregoing, the most striking and effective result of the movement begun by the Renaissance was its bringing to the world’s knowledge the fact that, ages before, there had existed a civilization more refined, more complex, more artistic, than any known during the middle ages. I refer, of course, to the civilization of the Greeks, the general knowledge of which was lost for many centuries, but which, after the fall of Constantinople, when the hermits and monks were driven out of their shelter by the Turks, was disseminated throughout Europe. The monks took their manuscripts with them, and brought before the eyes of Europe evidences of the culture that had existed long before the Christian era. It was this knowledge that caused the new birth of intellectual and artistic life, the change which came over the whole world of letters, science and art, which is called the Renaissance. This change amounted almost to a revolution, in which old established dogmas, which had been taken for granted for centuries, were questioned, and when men fearlessly investigated the very foundations of religion, society, science and art.

This new intellectual birth, this Renaissance, affected music in some respects much later than it did the other arts. One reason for this was the close association of music with the Church in those days. The Church is always conservative, for the merit of any change ought to be well established before it is sanctioned by religion. Another reason, perhaps, is the fact that music acts upon the senses through the ear, and in spite of its wide influence is more than the other arts a mystery to the uninitiated. It is not easily affected by physical environment, and draws no inspiration from external objects except through the sensations excited by them.

When Catholic Church music was finally affected by the Renaissance, it began to blossom and bear such fruit as it never has surpassed; the period of this fruitage is usually called “the Golden Age of Catholic Church Music.”

It has been asserted that the Renaissance was irreligious, but this cannot be true, for the times when men were led by St. Bernard, Savonarola, Huss, Luther and Calvin were certainly not times of irreligion. The Renaissance was op-posed to ceremonies and outward forms, but not to religion itself; and the changes to come were favorable to the expression of true religious feeling. At the same time there could hardly be a better proof of opposition to tradition, and to the conservatism arising from a too strict adherence to these forms, than the final abandonment of the church modes and the general adoption of the modern scale which had long been in use among the people in their secular songs, and later in many hymns of the Reformation, but which was called by the Church the modo lascivo, the vulgar mode.

All art has three periods of development: (r) The period of thought-conception; (2) the period of drawing, outlining — form; and (3) the period of coloring, filling up this form, making it alive. The labors of Hucbald, the Francos and the early French school show the thought, the conceptive period of musical art. The age of the Netherlanders may be considered as the drawing, outline, or structure-period; then the world was ready for the color-period, which could never have had its subsequent success had it not been for the pre-ceding efforts.

Many a so-called student of the art of painting comes to his instructor, or to the art-academy, bringing specimens of his work. The master will say, “You have a fine eye for color, but you do not know anything about drawing “; or, “You have a good idea of color and drawing, but you do not know form, structure “; so, according to his lack in any of these branches of the art, he is made to study them. The art-student who has a fine sense of color, but an undeveloped sense of form, is made to draw all kinds of simple outlines — a skeleton, a head, a geometrical design — anything to learn structure; another studies originality of design; one whose color-sense is deficient must study that part of it, for art depends on these three elements.

Because of her high commercial standing, and the wealth of her citizens, Venice was the art-paradise of the world during the sixteenth century. The Venetians loved rich coloring in everything; within their houses, in the stucco on the outer walls, in their mosaic pavements, in their pictures, and in their dress.

They also wanted color in their music, whether practised at home for pleasure and as a pastime, or employed to en-liven and magnify the pageants of the republic, or to heighten the effects of the solemn religious services at San Marco. It was, therefore, but natural that Venetian musicians should seek for color and that the Venetian school should be the pioneer in this new trend of musical art. The founder of the New Venetian school was Adrian Willaert, already mentioned as one of the very best of the Netherland school, who emigrated to Venice in 1556. Within a year after his arrival he was made director of the music at the church of San Marco; and he founded the first of the great music schools of Northern Italy.

Choruses for eight and even more voices in true polyphonic style had for many years been used in San Marco as well as various other churches, but their harmony was the result of a rigid adherence to the established academic rules of part-writing and imitation, resulting in many repetitions of the same phrases. Alternate or antiphonal chanting had also been practised for centuries. The presence of two organs in the church of San Marco is presumed to have suggested to Willaert the use of two distinct choirs for the antiphonal singing of the Psalms, and this led to his discovery of the fact that the effect thus produced was one of harmony rather than polyphony. In consequence, he began the practice and study of harmony for harmony’s sake, rather than as the result of an intertwining of the voice-parts.

It was this scion of the North who began to expound in his works the true and natural dependence of the melody on harmony and who thus created a new style of part-writing in which the individual voice-parts bore no melodic relation to each other, but combined to form one effect. In doing this he passed at one step from the vocal progression of the church melodies to a new system in which the use of triads was the predominant idea.

While his contemporaries Brumel and Arcadelt had shown in their works an original feeling for chords as chords, they had never made harmony a basis for contrapuntal writing. For purposes of comparison there follow the Kyrie eleison from a Mass by the English composer Wm. Byrd, written in strict polyphonic style; and a “Dialogue for Seven Voices” by Willaert, in the new style. Both compositions were written in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Willaert was also the creator (in its present form) of the Madrigal, which originated as a love-song, or a song on a pastoral theme, in Provence, thence to be transplanted into Italy, where it had been in use for many years. As developed by him, and enlarged by Monteverde and Cavalli in later years by the addition of recitatives and cantilenas, this musical form became a part of the Dramma per musica, or opera, of the early seventeenth century.

Willaert died in 1562, honored and beloved by all the citizens of the great Italian republic. He was succeeded as chapel-master of the church of San Marco by his contemporary and pupil Cyprian de Rore, whose tenure of office was very brief.

The most talented among the many Venetian musicians who had the advantage of instruction under Willaert was Andrea Gabrieli (1510-1586). Following in his master’s footsteps he still further enriched the tonal art by compositions for three choirs, which are very striking, marked by noble and elevated expression, and in which he occasionally uses instruments other than the organ for accompanying the singers.

His nephew and pupil, Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1613), who succeeded de Rore as first organist at San Marco, was equally gifted, and attracted the attention of many German musical admirers and students by his compositions and his superb organ-playing. While Willaert had written Madrigals for some few instruments, the younger Gabrieli increased their number, and wrote them in the form of canzonetti for from eight to sixteen instruments. The elder Gabrieli (Andrea) had occasionally used instruments in his church compositions, and the younger (Giovanni) added still others. As the organ of his day was not capable of a crescendo, he used wood-wind instruments and trombones, as well as violins, to lend additional color, creating another new era in church music. Through the efforts of the Gabrielis, instrumental music thus gradually began an entirely independent existence.

The favorite pupil of the younger Gabrieli was Heinrich Schütz (of whom we shall learn more later),, who speaks of his teacher in words which bear witness that he is living in the Renaissance period and has absorbed many of its teachings. It is Greek learning that illumines his language, for his statement could not have been made by any one unacquainted with Greek mythology. This is what he says: “I served my first years of apprenticeship under the great Gabrieli. Ye immortal gods, what a man was that ! If the ancients had been acquainted with his powers, they would have praised him above Amphion, and if Melpomene had been a lady inclined to marry, he would have made an ideal husband for her.”

Willaert and the Gabrielis in Venice were then, as colorists, the beginners of the great change in music. But the culmination of Catholic Church music was reached in Rome by Palestrina, whose work we are now to consider.

We know that toward the end of the middle ages the musicians of Rome, like those of Europe in general, were the pupils of the Netherland musical missionaries Dufay, Josquin de Près, Arcadelt, Goudimel, and many others, all of whom labored for church music in the Holy City, and followed each other in almost uninterrupted succession. From the beginning of the sixteenth century German musicians, instead of going to Belgium for instruction, went to Venice, Florence and Rome, the masters of these cities gradually becoming the leaders in musical thought.

Among the many contrapuntal masters at Rome, in the first half of the sixteenth century, may be mentioned the Italians Constanzo Festa and Animuccia, as well as the Spaniards Morales and Ortiz, all pupils of Goudimel in 1539; but the greatest of that time, and one of the greatest of all times, was Palestrina.

To understand the improvements made by this master, it will be advisable for us to review the condition of Catholic Church music at the time of the Reformation.

As we know, the Renaissance embodied the opposition to conventionality, which, being only the acceptance of the evidence of other people’s senses, sooner or later degenerates into symbolism, into signs, in which the substance is lost.

The Liturgy, and even the interpretation of the Scriptures by the Fathers of the Church, was variable, changing from century to century, new doctrines being added and old doctrines abandoned. Not so with the music; it remained conventional, the plain-song book of the Mass being chained to the altar in token of its unchangeableness. But the progress of art cannot be checked even by iron chains, and the rule of the plain-song and the Church modes was finally broken. Their use in original composition has become practically a lost art, for although they may occasionally crop out in the works of some of the great composers of later years, the facility with which a Josquin de Près handled them is, at least, very uncommon at the present day.

The Church ordinance forbidding any alteration of the Liturgic music in the Mass restricted the earlier musicians in their efforts at ennobling this service, and so they were compelled to make additions thereto, the first being a hymn, called Motet, having the same words as a preceding portion of the Mass, but free in form and not always in strict style.

About the year 1250, this ordinance having become a dead-letter, musicians began to set the text of the Mass to new music not in the style of plain-song. In doing this, they feared a lack of sympathy and understanding on the part of the people and therefore (as explained before) used the melody of some popular song for the foundation (the cantus firmus) upon which to embroider their beautiful counter-point.

This was so contrary to their avowed object of increasing the impressiveness and solemnity of the service, that we can hardly imagine how it came to be so popular, and how the Church itself could sanction it. It may have been on account of the proselyting zeal then so active, which permitted the use of almost any means to gain its end of conquering the world.

It may seem to us as if that kind of thing was unnecessary after the Church had been so firmly established, but it is only another example of how, by following conventional usages, all proper perception of the use of things may be lost, and one thus led into ludicrous, though unconscious, inconsistencies. The evil did not stop at the adoption of melodies from popular songs, but, as we have seen in Dufay’s Mass “l’Omme armé,” the secular words were often sung in the services. When the serious effect of this custom was at last recognized, the Church took prompt action. That remarkable gathering of the learned men of the Church and Catholic monarchs, the Council of Trent, which was convoked in 1543 to consider the heresies of the Reformation, did not confine itself to these alone, but likewise discussed means of purifying its own Church practices and methods, including the music. The Church recognized the fact that the protest against certain usages which caused the Reformation was a just one, and a reform in the Catholic Church was inaugurated which was as sweeping in some of its declarations as the Reformation itself.

The latent energy of the Church awoke, and she purified herself, while at the same time she waged war against all heretics, succeeding finally in reclaiming for Catholicism France and southern Germany, which countries are still largely true to the faith.

In this famous council, at its twenty-third session, was offered the following resolution: “All music which, either in the organ-parts or in the voice-parts, contains anything that is impure [notice that word impure — the modo lascivo] shall be banished from the Church.” The resolution would probably have passed had it not been for the influence of Emperor Ferdinand of Germany, who, knowing the effect of popular melodies in the Protestant hymns, persuaded the Council to retard the adoption of the resolution.

A committee consisting of eight cardinals was then appointed and eight singers from the Papal Chapel were asked to cooperate with them. They met after the adjournment of the Council and finally decided as follows: “That the Mass which contained popular airs should not be tolerated, that the insertion of an unauthorized text should be forbidden; that motets with authorized words might be used, but that the text must at all times be intelligible.” —But how was this ideal to be realized? They asked advice of the Pope, and he suggested that they consult Palestrina, who had al-ready made himself famous by a well-known Mass whose opening phrase consists of the first six tones of the major scale (the “Hexachord Mass”), and also by his “Reproaches” for Holy Week. And so a Pope, several cardinals and singers, an emperor and a musician, all had a hand in the musical regeneration which followed.

Palestrina was a devoutly religious man. Feeling that upon his shoulders rested the responsibility for the future of Catholic Church music, he was unwilling to allow the decision to be made on one work, and therefore wrote three great Masses which in 1565 were sung in private before the committee of Cardinals by the very best singers available. The three Masses were written for six voices (soprano, alto, two tenors and two basses), and while the first two excited a great deal of admiration, the third one, which is now called the Missa Pape Marcelli, evoked genuine enthusiasm, and has ever since been the admiration of all musicians. While the composer employed all the subtleties and ingenious artifices of musical science known to the Netherland school, of which he was a master, the devices of canon and fugue now fell into their true relationship to real art, but they were not the art itself. Palestrina breathed into the dry formule of music the breath and color of life, endowing it with wonderful beauty.

The Missa Pape Marcelli was declared the model of all future Catholic Church music, not only because of its faultless symmetry and beauty, and its superior religious character, but because art and the ingenuity of polyphony had become subservient to natural human expression.

Palestrina brought to his work qualities of heart and mind which are an absolute necessity to a composer of really sacred church music. He had earnestness and religious feeling, musical scholarship, a mastery of the contrapuntal art, besides artistic ideals which were too lofty to allow technical display to obscure them. His music is ethereal, free from earthly suggestions. It is not homophonic like our music, consisting largely of a melody with an accompaniment, but each voice is led in true contrapuntal style, a series of melodic waves in one harmonic mass. As we listen to Palestrina’s music, analytic spirit and effort disappear and the power of the music steals over us, producing a feeling of religious awe. It is not worldly music, dressed up in cassock and cowl, but it is religious, universally religious music. The harmonies are natural and spontaneous, not as if certain effects had been sought and then produced, but as if it could not have been otherwise. The style of composition in the Masses mentioned is known as the “Palestrina style.”

A word of explanation as to some characteristics of Palestrina’s music may be of value. The first is, that rhythm, as such, is absolutely absent. There is no accent, no meter. The music just seems to float in the air and never to reach the earth. It is always above the earth. The Catholic church desires it to-day, as then, to lift people’s thoughts from the earth, to lift them to a higher plane. If we do not like it, the trouble is with us and not with the music. Our modern ears are so attuned to other kinds of music that we cannot bear the strain of listening to compositions of this character very long. An audience of people who do not know music cannot be expected to enjoy a two hours’ recital of Bach’s works. This does not imply that Bach is not enjoyable or interesting, but that the audience cannot lift itself to his plane. It is thus with Palestrina’s music, it is above us. The musical laymen can hear a little of it — but not very much — and enjoy it. It is too mystical, too ethereal, or, shall we say, too mild, for our modern musical palates, which demand highly-spiced food.

The Palestrina style, while based upon the Gregorian chant in its utmost purity, is also colored by deep human feeling. Some of his predecessors of the Netherland school often departed from the canonic law when they wished to reach the human heart, but none of them raised his style to the perfection of that of Palestrina, who, in this deep expression of human feeling, reached the summit of Catholic Church music.

A few words about this great man should not prove amiss. His name was Giovanni Pierluigi Sante, and he was born in 1514 in the little town of Palestrina, near Rome, where he received his early instruction. Returning to his birthplace, he served as organist in the largest church in that little town. In 1551 he obtained a position as teacher of choir-boys at St. Peter’s Cathedral, and in 1554 was admitted as a singer to the Papal Chapel. But he fell in love, married, and was dismissed from his position in the church. After he wrote the Missa Pape Marcelli, and that had made him famous, the Church could not afford to let him be “out” even if he was married; so a position was made for him and he was called Composer to the Papal Chapel, a distinction that has been conferred upon only one other composer. At his death in 1594 he received the last sacrament at the hands of Filippo Neri, his musical colleague and admirer, of whom more later. Upon his remains was conferred the unusual honor of being placed in St. Peter’s, where upon his tomb-stone may be read the words, “Princeps Musicie” — the Prince of Music.

He founded his style, then, upon that of his predecessors and teachers, on the Gregorian chant in its truest meaning, its original idea of individual expression; and, as such, it was the source of his inspiration. No master studied it as he did, nor has any one used it with more variety and artistic success. In spite of musical progress in other directions, in spite of the musical current that demanded personal expression, he remained true to the music of the church and walked the streets of Rome oblivious to the life around him. Like Willaert and his disciples, he sought for color, for his beautiful harmonies are not accidental, but he would not alter his style to obtain them. He remained under the influence of the strict polyphonic school, but was responsible for the succeeding purity of that style in the music of the Catholic Church.

The music-school founded by Palestrina at Rome perpetuated his manner of writing a cappella, and several excellent masters were trained there, among whom must be mentioned Nanini and one of his pupils, Allegri, whose Miserere is still performed in the Sistine Chapel on Ash-Wednesday, and ranks with Palestrina’s Stabat Mater. The improvement in style for which Palestrina was noted was equalled if not ex-celled by one contemporary composer who died in the same year. This was the celebrated Netherlander Orlandus Lassus, most of whose creative life was spent in Bavaria and whom we have mentioned before. For comparison with the excerpt from Palestrina (Ex. 49) we submit an Adoramus te, Christe by Lassus (Ex. 50). Both compositions are fine miniature examples of the style of these two great masters, which was the direct fruit of the earnest and zealous work of the Netherlandish school, although each master shows his individuality in his work.

That he had a more universal mind than the gifted Italian composer is generally conceded; for while Palestrina wrote only for the Church, Lassus also wrote a great amount of secular music. Some of his madrigals, such as “Matona, lovely maiden,” are still sung by ambitious choral bodies. He also clung to the church modes, of which he was a great master.

If Palestrina may be likened to Raphael, Lassus may well be likened to Michael Angelo, for he was a cosmopolitan composer like Handel; as this great German composer united in himself the genius of German and English art, so Lassus combined the Italian and Netherlandish arts, influenced and colored by the genuinely deep, human emotion of the German character. His epitaph is a clever one: “Lassus, Lassum qui recreat orbem” or, in a free translation, “Here rests the weary one who refreshed the weary of the world.”

With these two great lights closes the Golden Age of purely sacred Catholic church music.