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 , 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 Switzerland 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
. 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. Trent
December 6, 2010