IN spite of numerous internal doctrinal disputes, the church of Rome maintained its jurisdiction over all the nations of western and central Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
During the reign of Maximilian I, however, a religious movement was begun, which led finally to the division of all Christendom into two great denominations; and this movement is called the Reformation. From it sprang the Chorale, which had a potent influence upon the art of music.
In the early centuries of the Christian era, the Church, in its proselyting zeal, was in the habit of sending out small bands of missionary priests to convert the European pagans. These priests would select an open, favorable location, or, if necessary, would clear a place in the forest, and after building huts for themselves would erect a chapel where they held religious services. They would cultivate the ground after the improved manner of the Italians, and, if possible, secure some saint’s relic in order to add to the sanctity of their chapel and make it more attractive to their neighbors, and also in the hope of miraculous cures of the various ills to which mankind is heir.
Once the people were converted, they built homes as near as possible to the place of worship, so that every church or monastery became the center of a town. When, in the course of years, the congregation became too large for this church edifice, another was built, and people settled around it, so that a map of any old city of the Middle Ages presents a series of ever-widening circles in whose center stands a church or monastery.
The monastery of St. Gall, on the slope of the Alps near Lake Constance, was the center of such a town. Its library contains a Latin-German dictionary, dated A.D. 638 and ascribed to its founder. Towards the close of the ninth century two brothers, missionary priests, were on their way from Italy to France. One of them, Notker Balbulus, fell ill while crossing the Alps, was cared for at the monastery, and, with his brother, decided to remain there.
In the music of the Church, which, then as now, was sung in Latin, the congregation’s share was limited to the utterance of the responses “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison,” during the chanting of the hymns and psalms by the priest and choir. These were in the habit of singing on the last syllable or syllables of the Alleluia a great many tones, giving the character of an outburst of jubilant feeling. As these jubilant outpourings occurred after the Alleluia, they were called Sequences.
According to his own writings, Notker Balbulus had, in his novitiate, found it difficult to remember the melodies of these long-drawn-out Alleluias, and had therefore written sacred texts, one syllable to each tone, to fit them.
The psychological effect of a rhythmic utterance of words upon the memory, especially when sung, is now universally recognized. Every recruit in the army of this or any other nation, in order to learn the drum and bugle signals, is taught a series of word-jingles having a natural rhythm identical with that of the signals whose message they convey. On this same principle Notker wrote these Latin sequences, which he translated into German, and which thus became the basis of German hymnology. The people learned the sequences, these first German hymns, very gladly and readily, and took such delight in being able to participate in the services of the Church in their own tongue, that after a time they re-fused to sing in Latin.
After the popular success achieved by the sequences, the priests began to imitate the Kyrie in German, in order to furnish the people with intelligible words to replace their sometimes inarticulate explosive responses. Every strophe of the verses thus composed ended with the words “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison,” and the whole hymn, sung to the melody of the Kyrie, was termed by the Germans “Leisen.”
The following hymn to St. Peter, written originally in mediaeval German and here presented in a free translation, is an example of these mixed German and Latin hymns:
Our dear Lord of grace hath given To St. Peter power in heaven, That he may uphold alway All who hope in Him and say: “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison.”
A great number of Latin Hymns were thus translated into German by the monks, many of them retaining such Latin expressions as were familiar through frequent recurrence in the services. In the following stanza from a Christmas carol which was in use in the early Middle Ages, the mediaeval German has also been rendered freely into English and the Latin phrases retained in their original places:
In dulci jubilo (In sweet joy) Sing and shout, all below; He for whom we’re pining Lies in proesepio. (In a manger.) Like the sun is shining Matris in gremio, (In his mother’s lap) Qui est A et O. (Who is Alpha and Omega.)
Despite the Mother Church’s restriction of the practice of such hymns to feasts and pilgrimages, religious hymns in the vernacular grew into such popularity, that folk-poets began to compose them freely. More than fifteen hundred such hymns of the Middle Ages exist, written by eighty-five poets; most of them semi-religious, treating of the vanity of this world. The following stanza is a fair example:
O Rose, of the flowers I ween thou art fairest, But thorny and worthless the stem that thou bearest, Fleeting thy beauty, unlovely thy fruit. World! I would liken thee unto the roses, Sweet are thy flatteries, sad are their closes: Virtue and goodness in thee have no root.
Among the poets who wrote these hymns were a number of the best Minnesingers, who composed their own melodies, which were quite different from the church hymn-tunes.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, great social and political changes came over Europe. Even the physical aspect of the country changed, for instead of being a mere pasture for cattle, broad stretches of open lands were now covered with various crops, while some of the towns grew larger and larger until they became great cities. In addition to this, upon cliffs and mountains, commanding the fertile valleys beneath, were perched large castles, erected by returning crusaders or lords of the country, whose lawless retainers often carried off not only the fruits of the fields, but the very children of the laboring men and farmers.
Nevertheless, it was an era of rapid growth, socially and commercially, especially in the cities, which formed leagues of defence against the lawless elements, and soon organized as independent principalities, entitled to representation when the nobility met to choose a common ruler.
Considerable “politics” was shown in such selections, both in the Diet, which chose the Emperor, and in the College of Cardinals, which chose the Pope, often resulting in war. In 1314 Frederick of Austria and Ludwig of Bavaria were each declared Emperor by different factions of the Diet; this resulted in a bloody war between the armies of the rival emperors, which was ended in 1322 by their general acknowledgment of Ludwig as ruler. The Church then demanded that the new Emperor should become her dependent vassal, and when Ludwig refused, on the ground that the unanimous choice of the people was the true source of power, the Pope forbade all the ordinary ministrations of religion. During the interdict, which in some portions of Germany lasted twenty-six years, the churches were closed and only the first and last sacraments were administered. To add to the unhappy condition of the people during that period the country was visited with earthquakes, bad harvests, swarms of locusts and grasshoppers destroying all vegetation, and, to crown all, by that awful scourge known as “the black plague,” bringing lawlessness and despair in its train. Men and women became either indifferent to religion or possessed by a religious frenzy which spread like an epidemic and resulted in the formation of ghastly traveling processions of bands of men and women, calling themselves Flagellants and White Hoods, wandering from town to town, half-naked or clothed in white garments spotted with blood, the result of bodily flagellation, and singing hymns and sequences in German. There were many, however, especially among the clergy, who revolted against the interdict of the Church, encouraged the reading of a German version of the Bible, preached in German and wrote songs of faith and hope, urging the people to live rightly. They also wrote and acted “mystery-plays” based on stories from the Bible or from the lives of the saints, followed in later centuries by the art-form which we now call Oratorio.
The chivalric spirit of the Crusades also found an outlet in hymns of praise of the Virgin called “Marienlieder,” and later in songs to the Mother of Mary called “Annenlieder.” The spirit of unrest was quieted somewhat, during the early fifteenth century, because of the comparative stability of the German Empire, when there happened two great events the invention of printing, in 1446, and the fall of Constantinople, in 1453, both of which were to have a tremendous influence upon civilization and, as a result, upon all art-music.
The influence of the first of these events is well known; that of the second requires, perhaps, a word of explanation. By their conquest of Greece and Turkey, the Mohammedans drove from their monasteries many learned Christians who possessed a profound knowledge of ancient Greek literature and art. From them Central Europe learned of that ancient civilization which promptly became the foundation of education and thought. Literary art was the first to be affected by this new learning, but gradually painting, sculpture, architecture, and finally music, yielded to its influence, applied to more modern environment. As a result, the paintings of the Cinque-Cento (sixteenth century) by da Vinci, Titian and Correggio are full of a new expression, depicting the sublimity of the human suffering of Christ in His Passion. “Truth to Nature,” which became the watchword in art, finally superseded formalism and redeemed Europe from intellectual and scholastic thralldom, resulting in a new birth which we call “The Renaissance.”
The discovery of America broadened the scope of man’s physical activities in conformity with this novel intellectual and spiritual life, and helped in creating both eagerness for new conquests and confidence in the unbounded possibilities of the future.
This was especially the case in the thickly settled Nether-lands and Germany, whose people had long been filled with a spirit of unrest and intense dissatisfaction with existing conditions in society and the Church.
Their learned men, such as Erasmus and Reuchlin, now demanded that the universities teach truth, and not speculation. In Germany a popular leader, Baron von Mitten, called upon his countrymen to resent the domination of Italian priests and Spanish mercenaries in Church and State, and to assert their nationality, and thus helped pave the way for approaching revolt. Persecuted by the Church, he wrote a stirring song, “Ich hab’s gewagt,” which breathes the spirit of the coming Reformation, and of which we present one stanza:
I’ve ventured it of purpose free, Nor yet my deed I rue, I may not win, but man shall see My heart and life were true. ‘Tis not my own I seek alone, This they must know at least; ‘Tis good of all, though me they call A foe to Church and Priest.
The attitude of the Church towards any exhibition of national spirit was enough to embitter patriotic leaders; but, in addition to this, thinking men realized that religious worship had degenerated and become an aggregation of rules and ceremonies. They noted that the clergy, at one time the protectors of the people and the preservers of learning, had become not only ignorant, but also avaricious in their demands for offerings, by which they claimed to be able to mollify the harsh judgments of God. The spirit of antagonism to the clergy was expressed through a most important addition to literature in the shape of satirical works like the stories of “Reynard the Fox,” “Till Eulenspiegel” and “The Ship of Fools,” which were printed in German and Latin.
In addition to the hymns translated from Latin into German, and those written by folk-poets and Minnesingers, there had sprung up during the fourteenth century the German Volkslied (folk-song), of a more spontaneous character than the secular chanson of the Netherlands, and therefore artistically superior. Both in Germany and the Netherlands, during the period of the latter’s leadership in the art of music, most composers considered it a greater evidence of musicianship to be a symphoneta (a contrapuntist) than to be a phonascus (an original composer); that is, they preferred the adding of parts to an already existing melody to the invention of melodies of their own for contrapuntal purposes.
Heinrich Isaac (1450-1518) was such a German phonascus. He joined the group of Netherland musicians, consisting of Hobrecht, Agricola and Josquin de Près, at the Florentine court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and remained there from 1480 to 1492, when he took service under Maximilian I, in Vienna, where he died. To him we owe many fine German folk-songs, such as “Innspruck, I must leave thee,” “A peasant had a daughter,” “O world, I now must leave thee,” and “Now peace reigns in the forest.” In these he shows the spirit of nationality awakening in Germany, due to the influence of the Renaissance. His immediate successor was Ludwig Senfl, whose Motets are the best specimens of German music in the first half of the sixteenth century, and who also added to the treasury of folk-songs.
Another German master who wrote genuinely popular songs was Heinrich Fink, who published towards the. close of the fifteenth century a collection of “Fifty-five Original Songs, pleasing and well adapted for instrumental accompaniment.”
Isaac, Senfl and Fink had considerable influence upon the music of the Reformation, which is now to be considered.
During the early part of the sixteenth century the Dominicans, a popular monastic order, being in need of money, were granted by Papal edict the privilege of selling in Germany what were called “indulgences.” The leader in this traffic, Tetzel, traveled with his attendants from town to town and was received everywhere with pomp and ceremony, not only by the religiously inclined portion of the population, who sought salvation above all things, but by the clergy. His great red cross was set up in every church, and he exhorted the people to take advantage of this opportunity to secure entrance into heaven by buying his “wares.”
On his way he came to a village near Wittenberg, Luther’s home, where he was to begin his sales the next day, All-Saints’ Day of 1517. The night before his expected arrival, Luther, in protest against this usurpation of power by the Church government, nailed upon the door of his church ninety-five theses (resolutions, we might call them) against this practice of the sale of indulgences, the first open revolt of a monk against the assumption of the power of forgiveness by the Church. In giving his reasons for this revolt, he stated that he did not object to the one Holy Church, but that he did object to a temporal government by the Church, that is, to Church interference in local affairs and conditions. He also objected to the idea that the language of the Roman church (Latin) was better and more holy than others, which were to be considered as vulgar and unclean; he insisted that Christ alone had power to forgive sin, and that he believed in a national life for each people, untrammeled by Church government. In 1520, refusing to withdraw his objections, he was excommunicated, and his connection with the Church of Rome severed. Believing that people ought to worship in their own tongue, as they had already done a hundred years before under Huss, he began the writing and compiling of those grand chorales or hymns of the Protestant Church which did so much towards making the Germans a singing nation. While a great admirer of Josquin de Près, as well as of his own countrymen, Fink, Isaac and Senfl, and therefore an admirer of the polyphonic style, he did not believe that kind of music to be suitable for the masses, but better adapted to the use of singers selected from the congregation.
As an evidence of his love and admiration for the contrapuntal style, the art-music of his time, the following quotation from his writings is of interest: “Where natural music (the folk-melody) is improved and polished by art-contrivance, therein one may see the boundless love of God, who gave to man this power. Nothing is so strange and wonderful as a simple tune (tenor) accompanied by three, four and five other voices which gambol about and ornament it in many ways. I can but liken it to a heavenly roundelay in which the participants move hither and thither with marvelous skill. Those that listen and are touched by it cannot help thinking that there is nothing more marvelous in the world than the ornamenting of so simple a melody with so many voices.”
Luther himself loved to take part in practising the contrapuntal part-songs of his day. In 1524, the same year in which appeared his “First Popular Hymn-book of eight hymns and five melodies,” there was printed under his direction a “Sacred Song-book for three, four and five voices,” proving still more conclusively that he believed in polyphony as well as in unison song, as a means of praising God.
For the melodies of the Chorales, the congregational songs, Luther selected the grandest hymns of the Catholic Church, folk-songs, and some which he had himself composed. In making these selections he called to his aid Johann Walther (chorister to Frederick the Wise), to whom belongs the honor of being the first to harmonize the hymns after the manner of secular song, note against note, and Conrad Rupf, chorister to the Elector of Saxony; together they produced, in 1526, a complete German liturgy with a number of hymns for the congregation. These hymns, which spread over Germany like wild-fire, were full of dignity, and, while the melodies of many of them are taken over from the Catholic Church, and the prevailing harmony is that of the church modes, occasion-ally there peeps out at us the true folk-song spirit which was then so prevalent.
Luther’s desire that many of these chorales should be sung in four parts is seen from their publication in that form, although after his death they began to be sung more in unison, the organ furnishing the harmony.
The Protestant hymn-books and literature were placed in the hands of the people by student-peddlers, who in some places were made liable by the Church to death or imprisonment if such books were discovered upon them. It required some time for the people to get used to them, for they were not accustomed to taking such an important part in the services, but thousands of copies were distributed, and four printers of Erfurt were kept busy.
Now the spirit of these songs swept over Germany. A noted cardinal of that day said, “The whole people is singing itself into the Lutheran doctrine” a splendid tribute to the power of the chorale. The hymns were not like the English hymns which we find in our hymn-books with the name of some person or place as a heading, but were named according to the first line of their text, as may be seen from the examples submitted.
One of the masters of the Netherland school, Claude Goudimel, issued a setting of the Psalms which was published in France and adopted by the Huguenots. These psalms are in the style of the German chorale, and show the avidity with which this form of singing was received everywhere.
The Renaissance affected musical art much later than the other arts, because music had no prototype, nothing to follow, nothing even to imitate. The poet, the painter, the architect, everywhere found expression of ideals in nature and in the new culture, but music had none of these.
The Church Empire of the Middle Ages was backward in its sense of justice with respect to property and human life, but far in advance in its love of the beautiful and in purity of taste. The works of the masters da Vinci, Raphael and Michael Angelo owe their being to a prompt application of the new birth of intellectual and emotional life (the Renaissance), all art before its advent (1500) being almost wholly unexpressive of individual emotion. It is true that some Netherland composers of the period strove after greater musical expression in conformity with the new thought, but the influence of the Renaissance was not yet strong enough to affect musical art and to break through mediaeval restraint. An Italian traveler, who evidently had heard the hymns of Germany, is said to have criticised severely the Papal singers at Rome nearly a hundred years after the advent of the Renaissance, by saying: “They count it their whole joy and merit that one sings Sabaoth and another sings Gloria tua at one and the same time, and this jumble is accompanied by a bellowing and growling more resembling the cries of cats in January than the fragrant flowers of May.”
An even stronger impulse than the art-spirit was necessary to bring forth a new view of music, and it was the teachings and practices of the Augustinian monk of Wittenberg that broke down the bulwarks of mediaeval artistic tyranny, em-bodied in the plain-chant and in the ban of the Council of Laodicea against congregational singing. But although Luther selected only the rhythmical Gregorian chants, rejecting the unrhythmical ones as too difficult for the uneducated masses, we have seen that he favored polyphonic music for certain parts of the service.
That Luther himself had a strong, almost prophetic sense of the Renaissance spirit, “Truth to Nature,” and of the necessity for a faithful musical expression of the inner meaning of a text, may be seen in the first phrase of that splendid chorale which was the battle-hymn of the Reformation, “Lin’ feste Burg.” What an impression of immovableness and solidity is made by the simple repetition of the first tone, and what sublime confidence and faith are expressed in the ending of the phrase !
The Catholic Church recognized the powerful influence of the modern scale as introduced in the chorales of Luther; but, in its antagonism to heretics, refused to abandon the Church modes, and in 1543 called another council of the Church, the Council of Trent, which lasted until 1563, and whose deliberations were followed by the “Golden Age of Catholic Church Music,” with Palestrina as its head.