Music in the Protestant Churches

Music of Yesterday

The Renaissance

This was a general thought awakening under the stimulus of the Crusades. Its chief effect was the assertion of the individual in social relations, and the rupture of the bonds of convention and authority which had discouranged personal investigation. Beginning about 1300, this movement developed inventions, discoveries, and new ideals in religion and art. Music was late in feeling its effects, and did not com efully under its domination till the latter part of the sixteenth century. Then, however, musical compositions became disseminated, through the invention of printing by movable types, which had come into practical use by 1500, and new styles developed, the most important of which were in connection with the Protestant movements.

The Reformation

This revolution is religion started when Martin Luther, in 1517, posted the celebrated ninety-five theses in Wittenberg, defying the Pope; and when, three years later, he publicly burned the Pope’s Bul of Excommunication, the rupture with the Roman Church became complete. Since Luther’s intention, however, was not so much to subvert as to reform the old church service, he merely modified the form of worship to meet the new demands upon it, retaining many of its chief features. He asserted the inalienable right of the individual to communicate directly with God; hence he caused much of the liturgy to be put into the vernacular, and arranged for the congregation to renew the custom which had prevailed in the early church, of singing hymns in the service. The tendency of the Church had been against this custom for many centuries; hence it became necessary to provide adequate music. For this purpose Luther sought the cooperation of leading musicians, and with them adapted the tunes of old German religious and secular folk songs, together with some Gregorian melodies, to the new Protestant hymns, of which a supply rapidly appeared. A simple and dignified strophic form was thus elaborated, to whcih the name of Chorale was given, and this came to assume a place in the Lutheran Church similar to that of the Gregorian Chant in the Roman.

Rendition of Music

At first these chorales were sung in unaccompanied unison by the whole congregation; but soon extra parts were written in the old contrapuntal style, which were rendered by the choir, while the congregation sang the cantus in the tenor. The added parts, however, tended toward simplicity, so that plain chords became prominent, and, for convenience in harmonizing, the principal part was transferred to the soprano. The organ also acquired constantly greater prominence, and, after 1600, replaced the choir in rendering the additional choral parts, while instrumental interludes were often played between the verses.

The mass, adapted to the new service, was at first still sung in Latin, though a “People’s Mass” was later translated by Luther. Choir anthems were also in motet form, in which, as cantus, chorale melodies were introduced. The chorale was also made the theme of separate organ selections, which were used as prelude or postlude.

Reformation Composers

Luther was himself a musician of no mean ability, although it is probably that the settings of hymns formerly accredited to him were adaptations rather than original compositions; yet he thoroughly recognized the power of music in religion, and encouraged musicians to write for the church. As a result, a multitude of composers appeared in Northern Germany who strove to adapt contrapuntal treatment to the demands of the new protestant style. Some of these wrote music for the story of the Passion.

Luther’s close friend and chief musical adviser was Johann Walther (1496-1570). Having won a high reputation as a musician, he was called to Wittenberg by Luther, and there, in 1524, he edited and published the first Portestant hymn-book. He afterwards wrote motets and sacred part-songs.


The Swiss Reformation movement, begun by Zwingli about 1518, and completed at Geneva by Calvin (1509-1564), adopted a style of music similar to that of the Lutherans, but laid special stress upon the singing of metrical psalms. The first metrical psalter, by the Huguenots Marot and Beza, was finished after 1550.

Early English Music

There is evidence of considerable activity in England in the development of counterpoint, closely associated with the work of the early Continental schools. Walter Odington (d. after 1330) wrote a treatise. John Dunstable (d. 1453) attained wide renown as theorist and composer. He has been cited as the model for Dufay and Binchois.

Musical progress was furthered in the fifteenth century by the building or organs and the founding of choirs in cathedrals and monasteries, by wide spread interest in singing, and by the conferring of musical degrees at Oxford and Cambridge from 1463.

Protestantism in England

The break with the Roman Church occurred here in 1534, when King Henry VIII was formally declared the head of the Church. Succeeding this, the Bible was translated into English, and the liturgy was translated and adapted, appearing in the authoritative form in the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549, under Edward VI.

This liturgy called for three varieties of musical setting, namely, that for the portions intoned by the priests alone or in the form of responses; that for the chanting of the psalms; and that for the fixed anthems, or canticles, like the Te Deum, prescribed for the various services. Outside the liturgy were occasional anthems with words from Scripture or the Prayer Book, and congregational hymns. Gregorian melodies were at first pressed into use; later, however, distinct styles arose, based on the harmonic forms.

Early Church Composers

Henry VIII (d. 1547) was himself a musician and composer; and with him the Chapel Royal, established in the fifteenth century, was conducted on a lavish scale. With it were connected many distinguished composers, during this and succeeding epochs. The united efforts of a number of musicians were required to furnish music for the liturgy. Stone wrote a setting for a Litany in 1544, and J. Marbecke (1523 – c. 1585) adapted the intoning and chanting to Gregorina melodies in 1550. Christopher Tye (d. 1572) and Thomas Tallis (d. 1585) both wrote dignified settings for the choral portions of the service, in contrapuntal style. Tallis, the greatest of this group, was organist at the Chapel Royal, as was his pupil, William Byrd, (1543?-1623), another celebrated composer; and together they received from Queen Elizabeth the exclusive right to print music. Dr. John Bull (1563-1628), organist at the Chapel Royal, and later at the Antwerp Cathedral, was renowned as player and composer; while Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was the last member of this old contrpuntal school, which relied chiefly upon vocal effects.

Secular Music

Folk songs and dances were numerous throughout the British Isles, the former often taking the ballad form, which recounted some deed or episode. Queen Elizabeth set the fashion of cultivating secular music, and herself posed as performer on the virginal. Madrigals were popular, many of which were written by Thomas Morely (d. 1604), pupil of Byrd and gentleman at the Chapel Royal, and the writer of a treatise used for two hundred years as text-book. John Dowland (1563-1626) was noted as madrigalist and lute-p;ayer. The six stringed lute was especially popular in fashionable society, and concerted music in madrigal style was written for it, to which the name “Francis” was given. The virginal was especialy a young ladies’ instrument, and a volume of manuscript compositions known as “The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is still preserved at Cambridge. This includes short pieces by most of the composers of the day, either in dance form or in that of variations upon popular airs, all of which are in contrapuntal style, differing little from organ works.


The Puritans in England, true to the principles of Calvanism, abjured all but the most austere unison and unaccompanied metrical psalm singing. Their influence was felt during Elizabeth’s reign, but did not ahcieve its full results till the time of the Commonwealth (1649-1660), when all churches were despoiled, and the progress of the art of music was effectually stemmed. Complete metrical versions of the Psalter appeared in 1549 and 1562. In 1592 a psalm-book published by Thomas Este contained tunes called by the names of places. Such tunes were plain in rhythm and cold in melody, which was severely diatonic, with no decoration. Not till nearly the eighteenth century did hymns take on more warmth and color, andthe modern cheerfulness of tone.

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