Music Of The Protestant Church, The Passion And The Oratorio

IN a preceding chapter we followed the development of Catholic church music to its greatest height of artistic excellence at the hands of Lassus, Palestrina and some of their successors, an indirect result of the great Reformation. We have seen that the music of the Protestant Church, immediately after its stormy birth, consisted largely of the Chorales, composed and selected mostly by Luther and his assistants, Johann Walther and Conrad Rupf. We have also spoken of the great Reformer’s admiration for polyphonic music, of its publication under his direction, and of his recommendation of its employment in religious services, if sung by a choir selected especially for that purpose. The Chorale, however, was the nucleus of Protestant church music, and its popularity invited to simple harmonic settings, rather than to contrapuntal profundity. The hymns published by Luther and his helpers became the foundation of Protestant church music, as Plain-song had been of Catholic church music.

The Swiss Reformation, under the leadership of Zwingli (1518) and Calvin, contributed its share to the production of the “Metrical Psalter,” or versification of the Psalms, which were promptly translated into other languages and found a congenial home in England, a country whose contributions to Protestant church music we shall now consider.

We have already noted the development of the folk-song and popular music in the British Isles, and have spoken of the polyphonic efforts of early English composers (of which “Sumer is icumen in” is such a splendid example). An old manuscript of approximately the same date presents a dance-tune, of which we give one strophe.

Both compositions are especially interesting in that they are distinctly in the major key of F and not in one of the then prevalent church modes, proving still further that our modern tonality was well known and liked among the people, even though shunned by the Church.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries minstrelsy in England gradually declined, owing to the suppression of many lesser sovereignties at whose courts the bards had flourished. That the practice of music nevertheless formed a considerable portion of the social life of the time is proved by contemporaneous poetry, which is full of its praises.

The religious unrest which caused the Reformation in Germany, Switzerland and France, spread to England and, in 1534, resulted in the abandonment of religious obedience to the Papal See, Henry VIII becoming the head of a newly formed Anglican church.

During his reign and that of his successors, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, church music underwent a decided transformation, due in large measure to an imported religious sect called the Lollards, and their habit of singing metrical Psalms.

Henry VIII was well educated in music, some of his compositions showing decided originality; his influence was strongly exerted in the encouragement of musical art.

The Bible having been translated into English, there was published in 1549 “The Book of Common Prayer,” calling for three varieties of new musical settings differing from those of the Catholic Church; first, the chants for the Priests, with responses for the congregation; secondly, canticles (fixed anthems) such as the Te Deum, the Jubilate and the Magnificat, for the choir; and thirdly, Hymns and Anthems other than those prescribed.

As a result, in 1550, John Merbecke published the first musical setting of this Book of Common Prayer, marking an epoch in the history of English Protestant church music. Its preface contains the following interesting explanation: “In this booke is conteyned so muche of the Order of Common Prayer as it is to be sung in Churches, wherein are used only these fill sortes of notes:

The first is a sterne note and is a breve. The second is a square note and is a semi-breve. The III is a prycke and is a mynyme. And when there is a prycke by the square note, that prycke is halfe as much as the note that goeth before it.

In the Matins and Evensong which follow, the priest’s part is very similar to that still in use in many Cathedrals and collegiate churches, as are also the responses, the Venite, Te Deum, Benedictus and Magnificat. In fact, all these canticles in use in the Episcopal church to-day are found in this book, the melodies alone being given. They are written in the various church modes and printed on the ecclesiastical four-line staff of the Roman Catholic Church. It was not long, however, before musicians began to harmonize these melodies in four and five parts, in contrapuntal style, note against note.

The principal church composer during the reign of Edward VI was Christopher Tye, one of the best musicians of the period. The University of Oxford, where King Alfred in 866 had established a chair of music, conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Music; and he was so esteemed by his countrymen, that in an old play of the early seventeenth century Prince Edward, who was one of his pupils, is made to say:

England one God, one Truth, one Doctor hath, For Musicke’s art, and that is Doctor Tye.

During the reign of Queen Mary, the Catholic Latin service was temporarily restored, but upon the accession of Elizabeth to the throne it was entirely abandoned, and thenceforth all Protestant church services were held in the English tongue.

The Virgin Queen was a patroness of all the arts, and while she held the scepter, secular as well as sacred music received every encouragement, and the Anglican Liturgy as published by Merbecke was firmly established. As he had noted only the melodies, English church composers now began to devote themselves to the application of harmony to these tunes. In their seriousness and devotional character the results of their efforts compare favorably with those of Palestrina, whose reforms were inaugurated about the same time in Italy.

Foremost among English church composers in the last half of the sixteenth century was Thomas Tallis (1515?-1585), who, strange to say, wrote for the Catholic Church as well as for the Anglican. His anthems, in spite of their somewhat antiquated style, bear witness to the high standards of the first English Protestant composers. His most stupendous work is a Motet for forty distinct voice-parts, which is de-scribed at length in Dr. Burney’s History of Music, Vol. III. The chief characteristics of his compositions are grandeur and devotional solemnity, and some of them are still used in the choral services on great national or religious festivals.

William Byrd (1543-1623), his best pupil, became almost as famous as Tallis, on whose style he founded his work, a specimen of which was presented in a previous chapter.

Another English master of the period mentioned was Thomas Morley (1557-1603), a pupil of Byrd. He was the first in some of whose anthems solo voices appear. His Madrigal “Now is the month of maying” is still sung quite frequently.

The taste for singing metrical versions of the Psalms, that had arisen in Germany, Switzerland and France, spread to England during the reign of Elizabeth, and to such a degree that a royal decree was invoked and obtained, confining its practice to periods anterior and posterior to the regular church services. The first complete edition of the versified Psalms in English had been published in 1562, accompanied by melodies called “the church tunes,” whose origin is uncertain. Shortly afterwards these reappeared, harmonized in four parts, under the title “The Whole Psalmes in foure parts, which may be song to al musicall instruments, set forth for the encrease of vertue, and abolishyng of other vayne and triflyng ballads.” This work was intended for private and not for church use, and was succeeded by several similar ones, the most important of which was brought out by Thomas Este in 1592. The title-page of this volume explains its purpose as follows: “The Whole Booke of Psalmes: with their wonted Tunes, as they are song in Churches, composed into foure parts: All which are so placed that foure may sing ech one a seueral part in this booke. Wherein the Church tunes are carefully corrected, and thereunto added other short tunes usually song in London and other places of this Realme. With a table in the end of the booke of such tunes as are newly added, with the number of ech Psalme placed to the said Tune. Compiled by sondry avthors, who haue so laboured herein, that the unskilfull with small practice may attayne to sing that part, which is fittest for their voyce.” In this work, hymn-tunes are first named after places, and the melody is again given to tenor instead of soprano voices.

During the first twenty-five years of the reign of James I, Elizabeth’s successor, English church music made small progress, although several new composers appeared upon the scene, among whom is especially to be noted that scion of an exceedingly talented, musical family, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). His church anthems exhibit such a style and excellence, that his countrymen called him the English Palestrina, a title which perhaps might have become universal had he lived longer. His anthem “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and his madrigal “The Silver Swan,” are excellent specimens of his work, the latter being easily obtain-able. One of his contemporaries, John Bull (1562-1628), added but little to the treasury of Protestant church music, although he was such a skilled contrapuntist and organist that he was called to Antwerp in 1617 to take charge of the music in that great city, where he remained until his death. He was one of the three English musicians who contributed to the first collection of compositions for the virginal called “Parthenia.”

During the reign of Charles I and the protectorate of Cromwell — in fact, after the death of Orlando Gibbons — Protestant church music in England gradually degenerated and was finally almost suppressed. Musical art, however, found a new avenue for development in the Masque (or Mask), a play with incidental music, of which Milton’s “Cornus” is an excellent example. On its native heath, France, the Masque was, as we have seen, the very plant whose blossom was the early French opera.

The results of Luther’s influence upon Protestant church music in Germany are seen in the numerous collections of hymns and versified Psalms which appeared in the years immediately following his death. Among the most important masters who wrote new church music in Germany, was Seth Kallwitz (Sethus Calvisius), a self-taught musician of striking individuality, the first of the great cantors of Leipzig’s celebrated St. Thomas’ church, made so famous by Bach. The fact that some of his collections ran through several editions, is the best evidence of their popularity. A number of other German musicians enriched the Protestant services by similar settings of the Psalms and Motets and sacred songs, but what particularly interests us are the musical interpretations of the Passion of Christ as set forth in the Gospels, a direct outgrowth of Luther’s efforts and a splendid addition to the music of the Protestant Church.

We have already described the rise of the Oratorio as a form of religious service. The story of Christ’s death and sufferings, which we call “the Passion,” has always appealed to the dramatic instincts of mankind, and especially to Christians, of whose faith it is the very foundation. We have seen how the Passion, as well as the sufferings of the Virgin-Mother, were enacted in the Middle Ages, at first exclusively by the priesthood, and later with the assistance of the congregation, but always under the guidance of the Church. We shall now see how the same inherent dramaticoreligious demand of the people was gratified by Protestant composers in their musical settings of the Passion, the beginnings of German Oratorio, which was to find its greatest exponents in Handel and Bach.

Among the first of these is Joachim von Burck, who wrote five Passions, two according to St. Luke and one according to each of the other Evangelists. Another was Nikolaus Selnecker, whose Passion music is already distinctive and unique in that the words of the Apostles as well as those of the angry mob are set for four voices, sometimes in the form of a chant, at others in that of a chorale. The treatment of the text of the Passion varied with succeeding composers, according to their individuality; the one by Gesius, published at Wittenberg in 1583, being quite dramatic in character. Its opening five-part chorus consisted of an appeal to “pious Christians,” having for its text the words, “Lift ye your hearts to God and listen to the sufferings of your Lord, Jesus Christ, as described by St. John.” In this work the gospel is intoned throughout by a tenor voice, while the words of Christ are set for a four-part chorus. Peter and Pilate are each represented by a three-part chorus of women’s voices, and the shouts of the multitude by a five-part chorus. One of the last Evangelical composers whose works show the strong influence of Luther’s musical as well as religious doctrines, was Johannes Eccard (1553-1611), a pupil of Orlando di Lasso. His most important work is “A Collection of Fifty-five Sacred Melodies for Feast-days and Holy-days, including Psalms and other Hymn-tunes,” which is full of musical jewels in the melodic form of the Chorale, harmonized in so simple a manner, with so little motion in the accompanying voices, that they were easy of performance by the musical laity, and therefore a welcome addition to Protestant church music. He also composed a number of “Prussian Festival Songs for the whole year, for five, six, seven and eight voices,” whose form is new, as it lies between the Motet and the song.

The influence of the Passion form of musical service was so great, that even Catholic writers, such as Scandelius, began to write Passion music to German texts. In his setting the Gospel story, as told by the Evangelist, is given in a flowing recitative, and while Christ and the mob are represented by a four-part choir, the words of all the other person-ages are uttered by a three-part choir.

Most musical writings during the last half of the sixteenth century were in simple counterpoint, note against note; but towards its close polyphonic accompaniment seems to desert the melody of the chorale, and seeks a new field in the world of composition, a departure for which the many improvements in the Church organs, and the skill of the organists, were undoubtedly responsible.

We have spoken in a previous chapter of the gradual assumption of supremacy in the musical world by the Italians over the Netherlanders, and have mentioned the constant migration of musicians from Germany and even from the Netherlands to Italy for study under the masters of that country. This was in a measure due to a recognition of the superior beauty and euphony of the compositions of Palestrina, who united in his works the contrapuntal mastery of the Netherlanders with the melodic beauty of the Italians. A number of the younger German musicians went to Venice and studied under the Gabrielis, of whom we have spoken. Among them we should notice Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), whose contrapuntal compositions combine, in melody and tone-color, the highest and most beautiful that German and Italian art of that time could produce, and who later made his home in Nuremberg.

Other young musicians went to Rome, attracted by the fame of Carissimi and Frescobaldi. Prominent among them was Jacob Froberger, a superb organist and musician, the first to use the five-line staff, with the C, G, and F clefs.

The most notable German masters in the latter part of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century were Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz and Jacob Fux. These three, more than any others of that period, possessed the artistic comprehensiveness which enabled them to act as mediators between the musical culture of Germany and that of Italy, and to fuse the different art-styles and forms of these countries into one.

Praetorius (1571-1621) was a thoroughly equipped musician, a master of every style then known, and a distinguished writer on the history and theory of music. His “Syntagma Musicum” (in three volumes, published about 1615) is a complete encyclopedia of music and the musical instruments of his time, giving us an accurate idea of the various musical instruments of the day and their construction, as well as of the fusion of some instruments of similar character into one. In the third volume he mentions the “new style and manner of Italian music,” ” nuove musiche,” proving that he was acquainted with the inventions of Peri, Caccini, Monteverde and Carissimi. He even speaks of “figured bass” as “a new Italian scientific invention, of great value to chapel-masters, directors, cantors, organists and lutists, which is now coming into use in Germany.” In another place he confesses his “humble efforts to imitate the Italians” in his a cappella compositions for two and three choirs with an occasional orchestral accompaniment in the style of the Gabrielis. In his “songs in concert style” he employs the florid style of writing used by Caccini, and deliberately states that the songs ” are composed in the present Italian manner.” He devoted himself equally to compositions in the Italian style, and to the Evangelical music of the Protestant Church, of which he was a devout member.

Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) was also equally at home in the music of the Catholic and Protestant churches, and was an even greater musician than Praetorius, for his works stamp him as a direct precursor of Bach and Handel. His admiration for his teacher Giovanni Gabrieli, with whom he studied in Venice, at the time of Monteverde’s first opera, was mentioned in a previous chapter. After Gabrieli’s death, Schütz went to Dresden, where he remained several years as chapel-master to John George I, Elector of Saxony. We have already spoken of his work on what was really the first German opera, a translation of Peri’s Daphne, written at the order of his princely employer. Schütz, however, was essentially a church composer, who combined in his musical utterances the devotional simplicity of Palestrina, the tone-coloring of the Gabrielis, and the serious, pithy expression of the Protestant Church. He introduced into Germany the form of the Symphoniae sacrae” of his master, among which must be mentioned the one dealing with the conversion of Saul upon his way to Damascus, a vividly dramatic composition written for fourteen voices, accompanied by violini divisi and organ, which lend a mysterious coloring. In middle life he began to assert his individuality more strongly, in the combination of already existing forms of musical expression and the invention of new ones, as illustrated by his three greatest works, “The Story of the Resurrection,” “The Last Seven Words,” and “The Four Passions according to the four Evangelists.” In the first of these works, the various Biblical personages express themselves in an ensemble of two or three voices; the part of the Narrator, given to a solo voice, having the character of Psalmodic improvisation, with pauses during which there are evident attempts at musical description by the accompanying instruments. We present the angels’ questioning of the holy women at the tomb as a fine example of colorful expression by the composer.

In “The Seven Last Words,” the utterances of Christ are delivered by a single voice, a baritone, and not in recitative but in an aria, whose form was- adopted by Bach in the fol-lowing century. The organ accompanies the expressions of all the actors in the drama except those of Christ, which are supported by a quartet of strings in the higher register, furnishing a sort of divine halo, an effect also imitated by Bach. Here we find a prophecy of the future Passion text, the gospel history being in dramatic form and the Church’s reflection in the opening and closing choruses. The following quotation is from the introduction to this work, and has the character of a song of deepest sorrow, thus preparing for the great drama which is to follow.

His third great work, mentioned above, is a masterpiece in every respect. Although in these settings of the Passion he abandons solo work and returns to the earlier forms of ensemble utterance for individual expression, his incidental choruses are full of varied emotions, being sometimes vehement, at others passionate or emotional, and always dramatic. From these works it is evident that many of Bach’s finest choral effects were really invented by Schütz.

The third of the prominent German musicians who labored for a union of what was best in both Italian and German religious music, was Johann Joseph Fux (166o-1714), a learned theorist best known as the author of a treatise on counterpoint entitled ” Gradus ad Parnassum.” This work was written in excellent Latin, and is especially interesting in that it contains a clear and distinct exposition of the fugue in two or more parts, as distinguished from the older form of the canon.

When remarking on the degeneration of Italian opera during the latter part of the seventeenth century, we also mentioned the rise of exuberant, melodic ornamentation by composers and singers, regardless of the text. This same ornamentation now enters the Protestant church service, and gradually supersedes the simpler but more effective style, influenced, no doubt, by the predominance of Italian opera. The smaller German courts patronized only Italian music; so German musicians began to write in the decadent Italian style.

During the life of Schütz two church cantors, Vulpius of Weimar and Schultz of Delitsch, each wrote a “Passion,” of which we must take note on account of their highly dramatic choral handling. We cannot refrain from quoting a few excerpts which will show how fine were the effects of composers of the Passion, before the mighty genius of Bach clothed the musical settings with the greatest majesty.

The following is the frivolous declamatory utterance of the high priests and elders.

We notice also the naïvely interrogative question of the Sanhedrin.

The almost fanatically rhythmic utterance of the mob on the words “Crucify! crucify!” is another fine example which already foreshadows the choral dramatic action of Handers Oratorios.

This is also to be noted in the more cold-blooded “Away with him!” that follows.

Another noted German composer, by the form and character of whose works Bach undoubtedly profited, was Johann Sebastiani, whose “Matthew Passion” appeared in 1672, the year of Schütz’s death. In this work the form of Oratorio becomes at least as well suited to the concert-hall as to the church, with the preponderance in favor of the former style, for the church song is now used more like an aria in Italian Opera than like a congregational hymn, being written for a solo soprano and accompanied by strings and organ.

The part of Christ, written for a bass voice, in the style of earlier Italian opera, is suggestive of Schütz, and equally characteristic, being also accompanied by the strings, something that does not occur with the other solo voices.

The efforts of many subsequent Protestant church composers were, as remarked in a previous chapter, expressed in the direction of sacred opera, the sublime heights of the Oratorio being reached finally by Bach and Handel.