Monday, December 6, 2010

Music and the Counter-Reformation

The early decades of the 16th century were fateful ones for the Roman Catholic Church. With the threat of Lutheranism in Germany and Sweden, the success of Calvinism in Switzerland, and the formation of in independent Church of England with King Henry VIII as its head, Catholic officials realized that a reform of their church was timely and necessary. After much delay, the council which aimed at a “cleansing” of the Catholic Church finally met in December, 1545, at Trent, an imperial city beyond the Italian frontier in the Tyrol. Among the many reforms which resulted from the decrees of the Council of Trent were concerned with the use of music in worship.

Although discussions on church music made up only a small portion of the work of the Council of Trent, the fact that it dealt with music at all demonstrates its importance in church life. Some of the complaints directed towards music included a neglect of the text, a disrespectful attitude of the singers, an overabundance of secular spirit, and the overuse of musical instruments in service. In actuality, even before the Council of Trent had been called, a number of conciliar and synodal decrees had already addressed some of these concerns.

Without specifying how music was to be used in worship, the final pronouncements of the Council of Trent on music recommended, in general terms, an avoidance of everything that was inconsistent with the dignity of the religious service. One of the factors that reportedly interfered with worship was the organists’ lack of “liturgical sensibility”, and too much of an eagerness in displaying their virtuosity on the instrument, so much so that the length of the playing was extended to improper duration. Contrary to myth, the Council did not prohibit the use of instruments in worship, but suggested temperance in their use.

Another problem addressed by the Council of Trent was the inappropriate manner in which some of the cathedral Canons chanted the Divine Office. The problem must have been a serious one, because the Council reached a decision that future seminarians must add to their curriculum the study of literature, chant, and fine arts. The Council also admonished the Canons that they must sing the hymns and psalms with clearness and devotion.

Two composers who were associated with church music at the time of the Council of Trent were Jacobus de Kerle and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Their roles in the deliberations of the Council can be the subject of another article.

Despite its eventual and long-term significance in changing the use of music in the Catholic Church, the decrees of the Council of Trent did not have an immediate impact throughout the European continent. In order to carry out the reforms envisioned by the Council, Pope Pius IV formed a congregation of eight cardinals in 1564 to be in charge of implementing the decrees of the Council. Even so, not all church communities at the time reacted with equal enthusiasm toward the reforms of Trent. Many church communities at the time carried on their practice of music in worship as if the Counter-Reformation never occurred. Nevertheless, the Council of Trent did have a profound influence upon church music in succeeding generations. Decisions made by the Council gave the use of music in religious worship a new meaning and a spiritual infusion, as well as marking out a path for future development of church music.

Patrick May
December 6, 2010


  1. Hi Patrick. I was just assigned an essay on reforms recommended for art and music. Your post gave me some information I had not found elsewhere and will help me in doing my research later. Thank you for a great post.

  2. Yes, thank you for your wonderful information. I also cited some of your material in a masters paper on the Council of Trent.

  3. Hello Patrick, My middle school religion class (Go St. Bernard Bears!) is studying the Council of Trent. I will definitely share this post with them

  4. The Council prompted the development of the genre we call Oratorio - a term that originates from the word "Oratory" which is a small chapel for prayer. The beginnings of oratorio began with Fillipe Neri in Rome who formed a prayer group who sang Lauda as entertainment in between their prayer and discussion of spiritual matters. It became increasingly popular and grew greatly! Pope Gregory XIII recognized the spiritual exercises Neri was doing in his oratory, how popular it became, so he named them "Congregazione dell'Oratorio" and gave them their own church!! The church was first named S Maria Vallicella, which is now called today Chiesa Nuova in Rome (it still stands today!)


  5. Hello Patrick, I hope you will see this post considering you posted this information 8 years ago but I wonder if you can post a citations blurb from where you got this information. Thanks.